Teachers are a critical resource. But there simply aren’t enough of them

Hollywood couldn’t script a more dire situation than the one now facing schools across the country. Teachers are dropping out of the profession at record rates, and a dwindling supply of new teachers to hire can’t keep up with demand. As a former teacher who works with schools to find talent every day, I can tell you first-hand of the tremendous strain this is putting on administrators, HR professionals and most importantly, students.

Continuity of learning — as well as learning itself — suffers as schools everywhere face these teacher shortages, which leads to chronic absenteeism, larger classroom sizes, and gaping holes where experienced, confident educators previously taught. Teachers are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether, either out of frustration or for other career opportunities. Worse still, fewer students are pursuing careers in education, something that should have us all concerned.

In fact, recent research by Gallup shows that almost half of US teachers (48%) are actively looking for a different job now or watching for opportunities. And at the beginning of the current school year, there were teacher shortages in major subject areas in nearly every US state. And according to a recent report from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute, the teacher shortage crisis only stands to get worse — and is especially painful in certain geographies and areas of specialization, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

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The significant gap in the ability of many school districts to further STEM studies isn’t a surprise, considering corporations face the same talent shortages. This raises a concern for the productivity and success of our economy at large, though, especially when good paying jobs go unfilled — and the work goes undone — because of a shortage in the talent who are schooled and qualified to do the work. Demographic trends also point to a greater need for teachers of ESL, yet a relatively low percentage of education degree students are fluent in key languages. There’s also a chronic shortage of teachers with certification in special education.

Studies show that between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years of their teaching career. Dissatisfaction with compensation is only one of the drivers of this attrition. Other key drivers revolve around a combination of inadequate preparation, lack of support for new teachers, challenging working conditions and long work days.

The attrition we’re seeing is exacerbated by the fact that teachers now earn, on average, 17% less compared to other similarly educated professionals. According to an article in U.S. News & World Report Linda Darling-Hammond, professor at Stanford University, and president and CEO of a nonpartisan education organization, said, “Teaching conditions have hit a low point in the United States in terms of salaries, working conditions, and access to strong preparation and mentoring — all of which would attract and keep a stronger, more sustainable teaching pool.”

Experience tells us an effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes. It is therefore crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers. But how, when teachers face low wages and increasingly tight school budgets that force them to use their own money to buy supplies, the fatigue of standardized testing and the siren calls of better career opportunities elsewhere?

So, did I say “dire?” Try “catastrophic.” The Learning Policy Institute found that between 2009 and 2014, teacher education enrollment dropped to 451,000 from 691,000 — a 35% reduction. In addition, nearly eight percent of the teaching workforce is leaving every year, the majority before retirement age. This simply isn’t sustainable.

It’s clear whatever our old approaches to finding and retaining quality teachers were in the past, they simply aren’t going to cut it today. So how do we turn this metaphorical school bus around and get back on the road to a sustainable teaching profession future?

Schools, districts, and states must look to innovative solutions — often taking notes from the way large corporations attract and retain talent — to address this shortage and the negative impact on student achievement. In my next blog, I’ll include a review of various ways we’re seeing schools tackle this problem across the nation. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with me via LinkedIn. Working together, we may just be able to thwart market forces and better enable qualified educators to be in front of every classroom.

Nicola Soares

Nicola Soares
Nicola (Nikki) Soares is vice president and managing director of Kelly Educational Staffing (KES®). She is responsible for managing operations and driving strategic growth for KES and for Teachers On Call, a Kelly Services company with operations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and for Substitutes Any Time, a Kelly Services company in Arizona.

Nicola Soares

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