Facing a Future Without Enough Teachers

Photo courtesy of Brookings Institution

Our nation faces a growing teacher shortage and we have failed to address the underlying causes. Attrition and retirement coupled with fewer students entering teacher training programs prompted regional shortages even before the Covid pandemic. The added stressors of the pandemic and often remote instruction plus parent attacks at school board meetings and the ever-increasing number of laws regulating what teachers may teach/do/say have created conditions that threaten the future of American public schools.

The American Psychological Association clarifies the importance of effective teachers and good student-teacher relationships: “Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers’ reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance” [apa.org]. They also assert that “students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning” [Ibid.]. The Economic Policy Institute warns of serious consequences of the teacher shortage: “A lack of sufficient, qualified teachers threatens students’ ability to learn. Instability in a school’s teacher workforce (i.e., high turnover and/or high attrition) negatively affects student achievement and diminishes teacher effectiveness and quality. And high teacher turnover consumes economic resources (i.e., through costs of recruiting and training new teachers) that could be better deployed elsewhere” [epi.org].

Yet educator Larry Ferlazzo reports that “There will be a big increase in teacher retirements in the spring/summer, leading to a teacher shortage that will make this school year look like a picnic. Then, in an advance prediction for 2023, the stress created by that staff shortage will result in an equal number of departures the following year” [WashPost.com]. Teachers are tired.  “Fears of catching Covid-19 and enforcing pandemic protocols are additions to the long list of challenges teachers face daily — from low pay and often little regard from their communities, to growing numbers of school shootings and legislative requirements about what and how to teach. Many educators have walked away in recent years and amid a dire shortage, few people want to fill their spots” [cnn.com]. The Learning Policy Institute lists largely stagnant salaries over the past decade, a 19% weekly wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals, a culture of teacher blame and punitive test-based evaluation as additional negative forces [learningpolicyinstitute.org]. The Rand Organization identifies increasing stress as the single largest factor causing teachers to leave the profession [rand.org]. Right now “Schools struggle to find and retain highly qualified individuals to teach, and this struggle is tougher in high-poverty schools” [epi.org].

Some teachers are hanging on until they reach retirement age. Even as cohorts begin to retire and the need for new teachers increases, the pipeline of new teachers is shrinking.  “In fall 2020 and 2021, about 20% of institutions surveyed by American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reported the pandemic resulted in a decline of new undergraduate enrollment of at least 11%. Roughly 13% of institutions reported ‘significant’ declines in the number of new graduate students. Regional state colleges and smaller private institutions — often found in rural communities — have seen the steepest declines” [cnn.com].

What do we do now? As a nation, we must reinvest in education. The Learning Policy Institute recommends supporting the existing workforce, hiring additional staff to make the workload more manageable, strong mentoring and induction programs, investing in mental health services, leveraging teacher training candidates by hiring them for residency and aide programs, and providing mental health support [learningpolicyinstitute.org]. The Economic Policy Institute supports involving teachers in developing district-wide approaches to reduce stress and building more flexible schedules[rand.org].

I would add several expensive but worthwhile initiatives:

  • Mentoring new teachers, a pivotal role in keeping them in the profession, too often gets done on top of all other responsibilities. Build a school system where new teachers have lighter loads their first two years, and they have a mentor with release time to help them. Get the cooperation of teachers’ unions for this – it will pay off.
  • Build a national program to pay tuition for teachers in training in exchange for a multi-year commitment to teach in an underserved area.
  • Hire more social service support for students so that teachers don’t have to function as social workers and counselors, instead focusing on their primary purpose.
  • Develop tutoring programs to help students who are struggling with the materials to support instruction in the classroom.
  • Provide a buffer for the political hysteria that wears educators and school board members down.
  • Develop programs and opportunities to build a positive climate for learning and for parent engagement. Couldn’t parent/teacher nights be designed to be more effective at team-building and community-building, for example?

I became a teacher because I loved teaching and learning, because I wanted to build relationships with students and impact them positively. I chose my profession as a fifth grader helping in a first-grade classroom during my recess period. I knew my path then. I don’t know if I would feel that same determination today. As a nation, we must figure out how to invite people into this very important profession, and then we must support them. The future of our nation and our ability to be an effective part of this complex world depend upon our doing that.