What Can Be Done About Teacher Shortages?

Wearing an effortless smile and a crisp, gray suit with a cloth lapel flower, Tommy Nalls Jr. projects confidence. Which is the point. In a ballroom full of job candidates, no one wants to dance with a desperate partner. And, as badly as his district needs teachers, Nalls doesn’t want just any teacher.

“They have to have this certain grit, that certain fight,” says Nalls, director of recruitment for Jackson Public Schools, in Mississippi’s capital city. “That dog in ’em, so to speak.” On this sun-kissed morning in March, he’s a couple hours north of Jackson, in a ballroom on the campus of Mississippi State University, at a job fair full of soon-to-graduate teachers and school district recruiters from all over the state, and even out-of-state, competing to hire them.

Many districts across the country are grappling with teacher shortages large and small. Limited federal data show, as of October 2022, 45% of public schools had at least one teacher vacancy; that’s after the school year had already begun. And schools that serve high-poverty neighborhoods and/or a “high-minority student body” were more likely to have vacancies.

For several months, NPR has been exploring the forces at work behind these local teacher shortages. Interviews with more than 70 experts and educators across the country, including teachers both aspiring and retiring, offer several explanations: For nearly a decade, fewer people have been going to school to become teachers; pay remains low in many places; and, with unemployment also low, some could-be teachers have chosen more lucrative work elsewhere. Researchers and educators also point to a cultural undertow pulling at the profession: a long decline in Americans’ esteem for teaching.

Educators shared stories of students learning Spanish from computers, and superintendents doing double duty as substitute teachers. But they also shared stories of creative, committed efforts – from San Antonio to Hooper Bay, Alaska – to grow a new generation of teachers, while doing more to make sure veteran teachers want to stay.

Jackson’s story is instructive, if not unique. On average, Nalls says, the district loses 1 in 5 teachers every year. Salaries there start at just $44,000, and, back at the job fair, Nalls has to compete with a suburban Texas district, a few tables over, advertising $58,000. Jackson’s shortage is also exacerbated by a years-long water crisis and poverty, which can follow students to school in the form of trauma, disruptive behavior and lower test scores. In Mississippi, districts are publicly rated on student performance – a rating novice educators are well aware of. Just a few years ago, Jackson was an F-rated district, and this job fair has plenty of districts with higher salaries and technicolor banners trumpeting their A ratings. It takes 20 minutes for the first teacher candidate to pause at Nalls’ table.

“I’m looking for a good work environment,” says Kierra Carr, who plans to become an elementary school teacher. “And I just want to have fun with the students, basically.”

“You hadn’t considered ever coming to work and teach in Jackson?” Nalls asks playfully, low-pressure. “Why not?! We’ve got some of the best elementary schools in the state!”

Carr leaves her name and email on Nalls’ interest list, while admitting she has reservations about teaching in Jackson: “It’s kind of scary. I think that’s why most people stray away from teaching there because of what’s been said on the news a lot.”

Nalls leans into these headwinds with patient optimism. Jackson is on the rise, he points out, earning a C rating from the state last year. And he’s proud to make that pitch to the eight candidates he interviews at the fair and the half dozen more who leave their contact information. “They’re not beating the table down trying to get to Jackson,” Nalls says toward the end of the fair. “But we’re working on that part of it.”

There is still plenty that states and districts can do to better support current teachers and invest in the next generation of educators. One option stems from a national movement around Grow Your Own (GYO) programs, in which teacher candidates are cultivated from the local community. The hope is that a community member will be more personally invested in the school system and more likely to stick around. Drawing teachers from the community also makes it easier for students to see themselves and their life experiences reflected in their teachers.

According to New America, at least 35 states have some sort of GYO policy on the books and/or fund a GYO program. Among those states is Mississippi, where Kimberly Pate now teaches first grade. Pate, 52, worked for nearly two decades in Jackson’s schools as a classroom assistant. The pay was “peanuts,” Pate says, “so I was working literally two full-time jobs to make ends meet.” With four children of her own, she couldn’t afford to go back to college, to become a fully-licensed teacher. That is, until she was offered a slot in the Mississippi Teacher Residency.

The pitch was hard to believe: In one year, she’d get a fully-paid-for master’s degree from nearby Jackson State University and a better salary. She’d be assigned an experienced mentor at the school where she works (in her case, the assistant principal) to support her. Plus, Pate could keep working full time while being a student – so she could support her family.

“If it wasn’t a full salary, I don’t think I would be able to do it,” says Pate, who will earn her master’s, plus dual certification in elementary and special education, later this spring. “It’s like, how could you pass that up?” In return for all of that, Jackson gets a few things. A fully licensed elementary and special education teacher, both in short supply there. Also, a promise from Pate that she will keep teaching in the city for at least three years. The Mississippi Department of Education is focusing its Grow Your Own efforts in 42 districts across the state that have had the hardest time finding and keeping staff. The Mississippi Teacher Residency stands out for its generosity.

“It’s really a no-cost pathway. It is a Cadillac package,” says Courtney Van Cleve, who heads teacher talent acquisition for the Mississippi Department of Education. “We cover everything: tuition, books, testing fees.” Originally paid for by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Residency is now funded with federal dollars, through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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