Across the country, kids are getting ready to wave goodbye to summer and hello to the start of a new school year. But in some states, officials are scrambling to make sure there are enough teachers to welcome students. Headline after headline has put a spotlight on states’ demand for teachers. From New Jersey and Illinois to Texas and Arizona. It’s causing school systems to do everything from having four-day school weeks to letting people without teaching degrees get in the classroom.
But why’s this happening? Will this issue ever get resolved? And what does this mean for students’ educations? Here’s what experts have to say about the problem.
How bad is the situation in schools?
It depends on who you ask and where you are. There’s reportedly no national database to tally up the number of unfilled teaching jobs. But individual states are keeping track. See: Nevada, where there are nearly 3,000 ‘help wanted’ calls out for educators. And in Illinois, that number sits at over 2,000. But this isn’t exactly a new problem.
“Some schools had dire shortages even before the pandemic,” Jill Barshay from The Hechinger Report told our “Skimm This” podcast. And pointed to how rural and low-income schools in cities have always struggled with recruiting and keeping teachers. There are many reasons for that like urban and suburban districts offering better resources or lifestyle opportunities. “It's in very specific localized areas and specialties, but overall it's no worse now than in a regular strong job market.”
Barshay said some schools also have more funding that’s allowed them to boost their staff — increasing demand for teachers. That’s thanks to pandemic aid. In 2020 and 2021, Congress approved a total of $190 billion for American schools. “When you're hiring more teachers, that also makes it harder to hire [them] because there's only so many teachers to spread around,” Barshay said.
As the issue of hiring continues, the bottom line is that many teachers are also fed up with their working conditions. And they’re willing to switch jobs to get out of it. Take the case of an Ohio man who quit his teaching job to become a manager at Walmart because it pays more. He’s not the only person to consider making such a move. As many as 55% of teachers are thinking about bouncing early, according to a National Education Association (NEA) survey of its members. And that brings us to…
The ‘perfect storm’ that’s shaking up classrooms
Randi Weingarten is the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president — a union that represents 1.7 million educators. And said teachers are balancing a lot right now — all of which is creating “a perfect storm” that’s keeping people from entering or even staying in the field.
“Teachers wanna teach [but] they need to have the conditions to do so,” Weingarten said. “That's what I hear from teachers all the time. They wanna be safe [and] respected. They wanna be paid a decent wage and they really want the conditions they need to make a difference in the lives of kids.”
Policy experts have warned for years that the US is facing a teacher shortage. The pandemic exacerbated the problem. And put a spotlight on the issues teachers have been dealing with for decades. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in the education system:
Poor compensation: It’s no secret that teachers deserve to be paid more. According to the National Education Association, the average salary for a public school teacher was $65,293 for the 2020-2021 school year. It’s an increase from the previous year. But when you adjust for inflation, that salary has actually declined by nearly 4% in the past 10 years. One survey found that teachers spent an average of $750 of their own money for their students during the 2020-2021 school year.
The COVID-19 pandemic: One survey found that 19% of undergrad-level and 11% of grad-level teaching programs saw major drops in enrollment last year. It came as classrooms transitioned to Zoom and schools got caught up in the center of lockdown and mask debates.
Rate of retirement: “About 300,000 teachers leave the profession each year, two-thirds of them before retirement,” Weingarten said. And that’s a problem that’s been made worse because of…
The drop in aspiring teachers: According to Education Week, the number of people who finished a teacher-education program has declined by nearly a third over a 10-year span.
Concerns about safety: We’re talking about school shootings here. It’s not a new issue and the lack of policy changes to address it have many teachers frustrated. The nationwide debate over gun control has put teachers in the middle — adding things like training for active shooters or carrying a gun to their responsibilities.
Culture wars are brewing: Over the past two years, teachers have faced challenges from parents over what they're teaching. Primarily when it comes to race and racism in the US. With some being accused of teaching critical race theory and having to go on leave. There are also anti-LGBTQ+ bills and laws limiting what teachers can and can't teach on this topic. And creating a sense of fear that they could unknowingly violate the law.
If teaching doesn’t sound like a very appealing job, you’re not alone. And Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, knows that. She said it’s challenging for people to enter the field when teachers have a lot on their plates. And are being blamed for anything and everything.
“If your child doesn't do well, it's the teacher's fault,” she said. “If there's a fight at school, it's the teacher's fault. If the education that you are told to teach from your school districts — decided by your school board — is something parents don't like, it's the teacher's fault. We need to start changing the narrative about the profession of teaching.”
What the current challenges mean for kids
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Amid the need for teachers, state officials have come up with creative ideas to address the issue. Arizona and Florida have lowered the criteria for becoming a teacher. From hiring college students to veterans — all of whom may not have the training or education to teach. Not everyone's on board with that, given that it could hurt kids' educations.
“You wouldn't see anyone attempt to water down standards for pilots, doctors or engineers,” Weingarten said. “So, why would you water down standards for teaching? Why don't we just actually do the things we need to do?”
And after two difficult years of schooling, education and experienced teachers may be more important than ever. Especially as some kids may be playing catch-up.
“Some kids barely missed any school and they didn't suffer too much,” Barshay said. “But some kids were in schools that shut down for months. Many kids were having remote instruction where it was impossible for them to log in or have a quiet place to study and so they're far further behind.”
She said data shows that third graders are back to their rate of learning before the pandemic. But it could take years for them to catch-up on things like reading. And the same can be said for older students.
“If middle schoolers missed a lot of instruction in sixth and seventh grade, that means they might have missed some key instruction with fractions, percentages, ratios, [and] rates,” she said. “And it's really hard if schools are just jumping ahead to pre-algebra to make that stuff up, there [are] holes in their knowledge.”
What needs to be done to address the problem?
Larger paychecks for one. That’s what people like Griffin and Weingarten are hearing from teachers. But aside from pay, there’s plenty else that can be done. In a July report, the American Federation of Teachers analyzed the solutions that could help combat the need for teachers. Like…
Diversifying the workforce: The AFT said 79% of US public school teachers are white. Boosting diversity by hiring more teachers of color could help students feel represented in their schools. Creating a "Diverse Teacher Corps" to help students of color train to become teachers is one way to promote recruitment.
A boost in benefits: Including relieving student loan debt. Providing a living wage. And expanding access to paid family leave.
Smaller class sizes: Meaning, capping pre-K through third grade at 20 students a classroom. And 23 in grades 4-8. High school classes would be no larger than 25 students.
Focusing less on standardized testing: It's become an "obsession," where teachers and schools prioritize testing over project-based learning. Weingarten said teachers want to be able to focus on things like college and career and tech education. And want to have “some discretion, agency, and latitude in their classroom.”
“The statistics tell us that if you can have somebody stay for five years, they're more likely to stay in the profession,” Griffin said.
Griffin added it’s also the little things at home that can make the biggest difference and help a teacher out. “For the primary kids, that might be helping with spelling and math and reading with your child in the evening,” she said. “If it’s a middle or high school student, have a routine when they come home, they get a snack or they're able to play a little bit. But then they have a set routine and a good place to study.”
Sometimes just a show of empathy and care can go a long way. “I would just thank my teacher and say hello,” Barshay said.
For decades, teachers have been the unsung heroes in kids' (and parents') lives. Now amid a pandemic, the reality of the country’s strained education system is becoming increasingly apparent. And for officials, major changes are needed in order to show teachers that they matter.
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