Teaching can often be a thankless job. Educators work late into the night to develop creative lesson plans and spend their own money collecting supplies. They answer parent calls and student emails throughout the weekend without overtime pay or a substantial salary. Despite this, many educators return to the classroom year after year and keep striving to inspire a love of learning in their students.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the plans for many teachers, pushing some out of the classroom for health reasons while forcing others to confront the future of their careers. It is likely that the American education system will feel the effects of this pandemic for years — with even bigger impacts than the Great Recession in 2008.
What can be done to mitigate this immense loss of talent? How can school systems bring teachers back to the classroom? The solutions aren’t easy; real systemic change needs to occur to reverse a decades-long trend of teacher attrition.
COVID-19 Pushed Thousands of Teachers to Early Retirement
When schools closed in March 2020, teachers across the country packed up and prepared for remote learning. When various state governments said in-person learning would resume in the fall — even as COVID-19 case numbers continued to climb — some educators questioned whether they could feel safe back in the classroom and whether their own families would be safe when they returned home each day from work. The answer for many was no.
To get an idea of the impact of teachers leaving because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hart Research conducted a survey of 816 teachers on behalf of AFT, AROS, LULAC and the NAACP in September 2020. They found 33% of teachers were more likely to leave teaching or retire earlier than planned because of the pandemic. About half (45%) of those teachers are over 50 and 44% have more than 20 years of experience in their field.
Schools are missing key employees needed to maintain classroom sizes while also losing decades of teaching experience and potential mentors for newer teachers who would eventually replace them.
Teachers aren’t just leaving because they don’t feel safe or can’t risk their health; some might actually be laid off. Governments across the nation are strapped budget-wise and schools will suffer if there is another recession.
Michael Griffith, senior researcher and policy analyst at Learning Policy Institute, documented the decrease in teachers due to layoffs from 2009 to 2010 — a drop of more than 110,000 which has not returned to normal levels one decade later. Griffith also theorizes that current cuts will be based on seniority. While some of the newest and lowest-paid teachers will be cut, districts will also ask older teachers to retire early and identify higher-paid teachers in order to save more.
The rise in unfilled teacher vacancies is a trend that many education organizations have closely followed for the past few years. The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA) releases an annual report on teacher shortages in the state. In 2020, 28 percent of teaching positions remain vacant and 50 percent of teaching positions were filled by people who did not meet standard teacher requirements. These are educators who can get temporary teaching certificates or have a degree but do not have an education background.
The ASPAA also reported 326 teachers resigned or retired because of COVID-19, which is 43 percent of all teachers that resigned or retired this year.
The decision to retire isn’t easy for educators, many of whom have dedicated their lives to their students and their school districts. “When I was trying to make the decision, I was in tears,” Kelley Poulos, a high school English teacher in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, tells WFAE. “It just kept coming back to the bottom line was the worst-case scenario was just something I couldn’t deal with — bringing it home and my mother or husband getting sick and dying or having health problems the rest of their life.”
The decision to retire early or leave the field has weighed heavily on many educators, who want to support their students and communities — but not at the expense of their lives or the lives of their family members.
Substitute Teachers are Also Harder to Find This Year
Full-time educators aren’t the only ones creating vacancies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states are reporting a shortage of substitute teachers (who are often retired teachers) to fill in if educators are exposed to the virus or fall ill.
“[Our] district anticipates a greater need for substitute teachers during the pandemic,” Laura Hart, director of communications for Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, tells CNBC. “Filling teacher and substitute positions is challenging under normal conditions,” she explains. “Recruitment for educators to work in brick-and-mortar classrooms has been made more challenging during the pandemic.”
Even staffing agencies are scrambling to meet the demand. Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, a recruiting firm that staffs substitute teachers, has seen a significant uptick in demand as schools look to fill vacancies.
“We’re being asked to double if not triple the size of our talent pool just so the openings can be covered,” Soares says.
A lack of substitute teachers can affect the whole school, even if only one or two classes are missing a fill-in for the necessary time period. Jing Liu, assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland College Park, looked into teacher absences and how districts respond. In a detailed paper spanning six school years of data, teachers were absent 11.8 days on average during the year and there were substitutes for 10.9 days.
Without a substitute teacher, students were either moved into other classrooms (37 percent of the time), or the classroom was covered by a teacher with a prep period (35 percent of the time). Less often (12 percent of the time) a member of support staff filled in.
Teachers and substitute teachers aren’t the only ones who aren’t returning to school and need fill-ins. Specialists, administrators and other staff members have also been increasingly hard to come by, a problem that will likely be exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’ve had a teacher shortage all along, but over the past few years, even before the pandemic, we’ve seen growing shortages with special education, with bus drivers, and we’re starting to see that with support staff,” says James Lane, Ed.D., superintendent of public instruction in Virginia.
There is No Easy Solution for the Existing Teacher Shortage
Schools were having a hard time staffing educators before the pandemic, but now have a dire need to fill even more positions and take on more work. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily a talent issue. There are many roadblocks preventing school districts from filling their ranks with qualified, experienced teachers.
Emma García, Ph.D. and Elaine Weiss, Ph.D. at the Economic Policy Institute published a paper addressing the teacher shortage along with proposed solutions. They sort their solutions into two categories: overarching recommendations and specific proposals.
One recommendation is to understand that the shortage has multiple sources and can’t be solved with one solution. However, the first specific proposal is to raise teacher pay to incentivize more people to enter the field and prevent further teacher loss.
There are a few common threads across the country that highlight why it is so hard to find and retain teachers.
Low Pay Drives Potential Educators Away
Simply put, it is hard to recruit teachers when their pay rates are low. A university student can pay off their loans faster and earn more by taking their math degree to an accounting firm or their writing degree to a copywriting firm than to a math or English classroom. This has led some people to decry the “teacher shortage” as a self-made problem by government agencies.
“If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage,” retired teacher Peter Greene wrote at Forbes in 2019. “If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.”
This is even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, as teachers are asked to return to the classroom and take on more work with hybrid teaching, while many of their peers in other career fields are still working remotely. The risk isn’t worth the reward.
High-Need Schools Are Doing Their Best to Recruit Teachers
Even if pay rates increased, however, some schools would still have a harder time increasing their teaching ranks over others. These are schools in rural areas, low-income neighborhoods and challenging districts.
For example, of 1,116 teachers who quit teaching in 2017-2018, 423 moved to the mainland where the cost of living is lower and there is less geographic isolation, reports Suevon Lee at the Honolulu Civil Beat. Even within the state, there are disparities. Hawaii’s average emergency hire rate was four percent of all teaching staff in 2018, Lee writes. However, that rate jumps to 20 percent and higher for rural schools, those in low-income areas and multi-level schools.
To respond to the low supply of teachers, school districts across the nation are getting creative.
Kevin Sandlin, executive director of the Missouri Association of Rural Education, says his state’s rural communities attract teachers by offering four-day weeks — a policy started well before the pandemic. Educators use the fifth day to develop lesson plans, grade papers and meet with other teachers to share ideas. Students also know to use that day to get help when they are struggling with certain subjects.
The program not only brings educators to the state, it creates an environment where they want to stay because of its promise of quality collaboration and work-life balance.
Fewer Teachers Puts More Pressure on Those Who Stay
Unfortunately, as teachers leave schools for other fields, there is a snowball effect where certain districts become harder to perform in, thus creating more burnout for educators.
“As the number of available teachers declines, class sizes have to increase to compensate,” Paul Boyce writes at the Foundation for Economic Education. “Having more kids in a class can also affect teacher performance—more books to mark, more children to monitor, more children’s behavior that needs managing. The pressure on teachers to obtain high test scores amps up stress further.”
This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight. School districts, local governments, state leaders and federal agencies all need to work together to create fair learning environments for students and sustainable classrooms for teachers.
Some Universities Are Pulling Out of Education Training
With fewer students entering the education field because of its high pressure and low pay, some universities are considering whether they should continue investing in their education programs — departments that are often viewed as less lucrative than other degrees. Recently, both the University of California, Davis and the University of South Florida announced plans to cut their education programs this year, only to backtrack after public outcry.
“Education programs have been at risk for a while, and COVID exacerbates the risk,” Francyne Huckaby, Ph.D., president of the Society of Professors of Education, tells Inside Higher Ed. “It’s another cut in a death by a thousand cuts.”
Many Teachers Continue Working Despite the Odds
It may seem like there are insurmountable problems facing educators and school districts — especially in a year where there is so much fear, risk and isolation in this country — but many educators are still fighting for their students and pushing to improve their career field in order to welcome others in.
“We’re not there just to have a place for your kids to go six to eight hours a day,” says Tanya Coats, president of the Knox County Education Association in Tennessee. “We’re there to actually help them be the next president, be the next doctor to come up with a vaccine, help them be the next scientist or the mathematician.”
This year will be rough on educators, and changes made to schools or budget cuts by districts will likely create problems for the future. However, the passion that teachers have for their work and their students will make a positive impact on the lives of millions of kids, some of whom might be inspired one day to step into the classroom as teachers themselves.
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