Opinion: Ideas for addressing teacher shortage

A friend and I were at a restaurant earlier this week having an end-of-summer-vacation celebration, when my friend mentioned to the waitress that she teaches high school in Wichita. “How great,” said the waitress. “Thank you for being a teacher.”

This small appreciation meant a lot to my friend, who’s facing another hard school year, partly because this fall teachers and substitute teachers will be in short supply.

In July, the Kansas State Department of Education said that around 4% of teaching positions, or about 1,400, were unfilled, and the vacancies are expected to grow as fall start dates come closer.

Teacher and staff shortages are a long-building national problem. In a study in July, EdWeek Research Center found almost 75% of the 535 principals and district leaders surveyed said the number of applicants this year for teacher, paraprofessional, bus driver, food service worker and custodian positions is not adequate.

Such shortages should not be surprising.

Teachers’ salaries have not kept pace with other careers that require university preparation. However, the current competitive job market offers teachers opportunities for better pay that helps them deal with record inflation and threats of recession.

Educators say recent shortages are compounded by demands on personnel brought about by COVID-induced school disruptions which also created student learning loss and problems with student social interactions.

In a Kahn Academy national study in July nearly 70% of 639 teachers surveyed chose “student behavioral issues” as a barrier to addressing unfinished learning, and 57% chose “student mental health.”

Educator burnout is aggravated by worries about school safety amid rising numbers of school shootings. There is also increased stress about what teachers feel is important to teach and what they feel is safe to teach amid increasing pressure from politicians and parents motivated by social media.

Despite the shortages, school will go on.

Short-term vacancy solutions include pushing upper-grade classrooms to as many as 38 students in larger schools; dropping elective courses to ensure that classes required for graduation can continue; asking current employees to take on additional duties; and hiring long-term substitute-teachers when they can be found.

State Board of Education members have authorized retired teachers who previously had a Kansas teaching license that has been expired for six months to receive a license for the 2022-2023 school year. The board also relaxed requirements for substitutes.

KSDE will be holding discussions this fall to go beyond stopgap measures and address the current education environment.

The challenge will be to attract a diverse population of dedicated teachers without lowering the criteria for rigorous teacher preparation and licensure. Ideas from my interviews include:

• Tuition support for education majors who commit to five-year teaching contracts in Kansas public schools.

• Tuition support for teachers who are teaching outside their licensure area to become licensed in their current teaching area.

• Repurposing funds for unfilled paraprofessional positions to create paid internships for education majors in their final semester of student teaching.

• Redirecting COVID relief funding and other federal and state resources to cover expanding teacher preparation costs.

• Reviewing current licensure requirements to eliminate waiting periods, fees and other requirements that are not based on skills or knowledge.

KSDE will consider a range of options to build back the full complement of highly qualified Kansas teachers.

In the meantime, if you encounter a teacher who is returning to students this fall, just say thanks.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.


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