Spotlight on the K-12 Teacher Shortage

For many years, we’ve heard about shortages of qualified teachers and big numbers leaving the profession, particularly in some states and school districts. And like so many things, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic increased the frustrations for many teachers by magnifying the problems that have plagued them for years, including low wages, long hours, student and parent behaviors, and lack of administrative support.

In fact, a November 2022 study by WeAreTeachers revealed that 80 percent of teachers plan to or are considering leaving the profession in the next one to two years. And of those planning to leave, 40 percent said they will leave the profession completely.

To truly understand what’s happening with the teacher workforce, we’ll take a look at some of the challenges facing today’s educators and potential solutions in March and April blog posts on “School of Thought.”

Why are teachers leaving? Holly and Joan’s stories

The reasons for teachers’ planning to leave their careers vary. Consider Holly O’Connell. She loved teaching and during her first six years her fifth and sixth grade students were eager to learn and participate in class discussions. But after COVID everything seem changed. After a year of online learning, many students struggled when they returned to the classroom, and others needed more support and, at times, more discipline.

In a move O’Connell thought might help alleviate her stress, she switched schools and began teaching second grade at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. “I was hoping changing schools would help with the burnout I was feeling,” she said.

Instead, her stress level increased. Her new school’s administration put pressure on its elementary teachers to tutor before or after school three times a week for at least 30 minutes without paying teachers for their extra work. She was also required by the state of Texas to take a 50-hour yearlong college-level course during the school year to keep her certification up-to-date. “I just didn’t have time in my day to do all this extra work,” she said.

At the end of November 2022, O’Connell left teaching to take a job as a customer service representative. “It wasn’t because of the kids,” she said. “For me, anyway, it was the system.”

“I do not see a current successful path for public school teachers as it stands,” said Joan Patterson, who left her position as a middle school science teacher in Illinois at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. “The whole system needs to be revamped and refocused on what the goal of school is, which in my opinion is to prepare students to know how to learn and discover what they’re passionate about.”

The frustration that Patterson and O’Connell experienced as teachers isn’t unique. Even prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that, on average, more than 270,000 teachers would leave the occupation each year, from 2016 to 2026, according to projections.1 These departures might be for other careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

However, there are questions about whether this is a national crisis. A 2022 study by researchers at Kansas State University took a deep dive into teacher shortages by state and concluded that it may be an overstatement to call the situation a “nationwide teacher shortage” since the numbers vary widely across regions and states. For example, according to the research, the vacancy rate per 10,000 students is more than 159 times as high in Mississippi as it is in Missouri.2

Low wages contribute to the problem

If you were looking for a high-paying career after college, you probably crossed “teacher” off the list. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, with a recent NEA survey showing the average starting salary at just over $40,000—significantly below what most individuals with a four-year degree earn just after graduation.3

There are several movements afoot in Congress to try to overcome this challenge. Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced the Pay Teachers Act, which sets a national minimum salary for public school teachers at $60,000 using federal funds. Another bill introduced in 2022—the American Teacher Act—would incentivize states to bring teacher salaries up to a minimum $60,000 using grant money from the U.S. Department of Education.4

No big surprise: teaching is stressful

As O’Connell and Patterson shared, teacher stress is rampant and was exacerbated by the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents in the WeAreTeachers survey said they wanted to leave the profession because of stress with many citing student behaviors and concerns about their mental health as fueling their motivation to flee. And time remains a top challenge for teachers. A recent survey showed that the typical teacher works a median of 54 hours a week.5

Feelings of frustration are even more prominent among teachers of color. A disproportionate percentage of Black (62 percent) and Hispanic/Latino (59 percent) educators, who are already underrepresented in the teaching profession, are considering leaving, according to 2022 nationwide poll of National Education Association members.6

Some districts are exploring options such as a four-day school week, increased teacher PTO, and possibly sabbaticals to help combat teacher stress. Other states, such as Connecticut, are exploring teacher preparation incentives and programs to improve teacher retention by elevating the profession.7

How do we support the teaching profession?

There is no doubt that our nation’s K-12 education system faces challenges when it comes to adequately staffing its schools, but it is also obvious that the intensity of the shortages varies from region to state to district. The good news is that the current spotlight on the problem is generating creative solutions at the district, state, and federal levels that will hopefully help teachers overcome some of the challenges they face and elevate the profession.

Come back in April  to learn about ways that the education industry can support the teaching profession and help schools, districts, and states tackle the teacher staffing challenges that they are facing.

1Projections for teachers: How many are leaving the occupation?

2Is there a national teacher shortage? A systematic examination of reports of teacher shortages in the United States

3Teacher Salary Benchmarks

4NEWS: Sanders Introduces Legislation to Address Teacher Pay Crisis in America

5A Profession in Crisis: Findings From a National Teacher Survey

6Poll Results: Stress And Burnout Pose Threat Of Educator Shortages

7Landmark Legislation Could End State Teacher Shortage, Draw New Talent to Connecticut’s Schools