The opening of school is only a couple of weeks away, and while we have many issues to be concerned about, at the very top of the list is the shortage of qualified teachers to instruct our children.
There is nothing more stressful to school leadership during this time of the year than having multiple teacher positions unfilled, especially in core subject areas like math, English, or special education.
Fox News reported last week that there were over four hundred teacher vacancies on the Memphis-Shelby County Schools website.
I’m sure that the number shrinks daily, but having so many vacancies so close to the start of the school year is troubling.
But MSCS is not alone in its struggles to fill teacher positions. The teacher shortage across the nation is large and growing worse each year. The teacher pipeline continues to shrink, and burned-out educators are leaving the profession in ever-increasing numbers.
When indicators of teacher quality (certification, relevant training, experience, for example) are considered, the shortage is even more acute than was estimated, with high-poverty schools (of course) suffering the most from the shortage of certified, credentialed teachers.
But according to the Economic Policy Institute, two of the most serious factors contributing to the shortage include lower pay and teachers feeling disrespected and unsupported.
However, leaders in Memphis-Shelby County Schools appear confident that the vacant positions eventually will be filled.
But MSCS might be on the right track in its efforts to contain this issue, at least regarding low pay or teacher compensation. The latest MSCS board-approved budget prioritizes teacher pay, school environment, and expanding academic opportunities for students.
The district is investing an additional $27.3 million in teacher salaries and has approved a 2.9 percent pay increase for all non-instructional employees.
In the new budget, teachers could receive a retention bonus between $10,000 and $15,000 and performance-based bonuses based on state testing data.
Incentives like these are geared toward retaining current teachers and attracting new ones.
But the one thing teachers value the most outside of their salaries is “support.” Support comes in the form of both compensation and a good school environment to work in each day.
Teachers appreciate being paid a respectable wage along with good benefits, but they love order, discipline, and professional support, which makes for a great work environment.
Administrative support is the one factor most consistently associated with teachers’ decisions to stay in or leave a particular school.
Studies consistently show that teachers who find their administrators to be unsupportive are more than twice as likely to leave their schools.
When either of these three elements is missing (money, support, order), teachers will not be happy, and they may eventually leave the profession in frustration.
It happens far too often.
On a national level, the teacher shortage has been persistently growing since 2015. Today, more than three-quarters of U.S. states are experiencing significant shortages in certified teachers.
The Learning Policy Institute, in a report conducted in 2016 (A Coming Crisis in Teaching?), estimated a growth of about 64,000 vacancies in 2015 and 300,000 by 2020. By 2025, that number is projected to reach 316,000 vacancies.
In June 2022, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on pandemic learning estimated that between 2019 and 2021, public education lost about 7 percent of its total teaching population (233,000 instructors).
These educators cited the pandemic, strict time demands, persistent behavioral issues, and lack of administrative support as top issues leading to their departure.
The source of the teacher shortage and who is responsible is a complex issue, but the situation remains dire regardless of who or what is at fault.
School leaders across the nation, as well as in Memphis and Shelby County, are struggling to fill both teaching and non-teaching positions.
Human resource officials say their biggest challenge has been finding enough candidates to apply, much less fully qualified ones.
But I’m an eternal optimist. While the teacher shortage is a severe problem, it is not insurmountable.
With the right strategies, MSCS and other school systems across the nation can attract and retain qualified teachers and ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education.
There is enough information in the public sphere about strategies that work in making schools and school systems enjoyable and fulfilling places to work.
The empirical data is abundant. The key to successfully addressing the problem is adopting and applying strategies that work.
But again, the teacher shortage is real, and our communities are experiencing a mass exodus of teachers leaving the classroom, never to return.
There will be far-reaching consequences for our children and our communities if this trend continues.
(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)