With a nationwideshortage of tens of thousands of teachers, school districts are scrambling to find new ways to recruit and retain talent. But there’s one underutilized solution: federal stimulus money from the national COVID crisis.
Though money can’t solve all staffing problems, it certainly can help, especially during a time of soaring teacher burnout and disillusionment. Let there be no doubt: It’s a really hard time to be a teacher.
Because of the pandemic, large numbers of students have fallen behind academically. The country’s politically charged atmosphere is spilling into the classroom, leaving teachers to walk a tightrope. And horrific incidents like the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, have only reinforced the fact that safety is an urgent issue and that teachers are being asked to be more than just academic instructors.
In this challenging environment, schools need to do something extra both to attract effective new teachers and to persuade the existing ones to stay.
Fortunately, the $190 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund represents a lifeline for schools looking to tackle this issue in creative ways. Part of a larger stimulus package rolled out by the federal government in 2021, ESSER has few official guidelines on how the funds should be spent, but they need to be tapped no later than September 2024.
Given the ticking clock, schools should leverage those ESSER funds to make teaching a more attractive profession. Here are some options and a few cautions:
1. Stipends. Teacher retention bonuses would be an excellent place to start. The Houston school district, for example, is giving a$2,500 stipend to their teachers if they commit to this school year and next.
While these spot bonuses can be helpful in terms of recruitment and retention, they should be approached in a thoughtful manner. For starters, schools should make clear that this is a one-time incentive tied to ESSER funds and not a payment that will continue in perpetuity. Schools should provide the strongest enticements for the schools that are hardest to staff—often in high-poverty areas—and for the jobs with perennial staff shortages, such as special education, math, and science.
Using ESSER funds to pay for career coaching could work some magic when it comes to retaining teachers for the long haul.
2. Strategically timed bonuses. If you want teachers to stay around for the whole year, issuing that incentive bonus at the end of the year rather than, say, the holiday season is advisable. A district could even issue four surprise checks throughout the year to boost morale at key calendar points.
3. Classroom supplies. It’s estimated that teachers on average spend between$500 and $1,000 of their own money on school supplies. Granting a chunk of money earmarked specifically for these necessities would go a long way toward teachers feeling like professionals and not like they’re being treated as an ATM by their own school district.
4. Tuition and certification benefits. Employee tuition subsidies are almost an expected benefit for large private employers, but school districts generally don’t pay for teachers to pursue a graduate degree or even cover the cost of taking the initial certification exam. Between the certification exam itself and the courses required to actually pass the test,this expense can reach $5,000, which isn’t chump change.
Some school districts are already making moves on this front. To expand and strengthen their teacher workforce, Oklahoma is using federal funds to cover $5,000 worth of certification-exam costs per teacher over the next three years, and the Georgia Department of Education is investing in comprehensive reward packages that are inclusive of certification exams.
5. Coaching and career development. Using ESSER funds to pay for career coaching could also work some magic when it comes to retaining teachers for the long haul. Why? Because today’s workforce wants to know what type of career pathway is available to them. This is especially the case with the Gen Z population that isseeking a clear career progression and increased responsibility every 12 to 18 months. Using ESSER funds to pay for instructional coaching is another promising strategy when it comes to retaining teachers. Coaching helps teachers to feel more confident, supported, and effective in the classroom. In fact, early-career teachers who receive instructional coaching aremore likely to stay in their jobs longer. These types of small-group or one-on-one programs can also better equip teachers to combat pandemic-related learning loss.
6. Housing support. A final sticking point around retaining teachers is the lack of affordable housing, which is increasingly a nationwide problem. If teachers can’t afford to live anywhere within a reasonable commute of the schools they serve, they can’t be expected to stick around very long.
A high school outside of San Francisco found a creative solution to this problem by creating low rent apartmentsfor teachers on school property. That might be outside of the scope of most school districts, but a housing subsidy voucher that takes the sting out of soaring rents and home prices wouldn’t be.
With careful application of ESSER funds, school districts can ensure that they are attracting and keeping the best talent and developing those teachers who need the most support. In the end, this investment in retention will pay dividends for the academic performance of students.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Federal Stimulus Dollars Can Help Ease The Teacher Shortage