Picture of Commissioner of Education Jason Glass

Commissioner Jason E. Glass

Every day we hear stories in our communities and see media reports about teacher shortages – and shortages of numerous other positions in school districts – in Kentucky and across the country. 

The staff in our schools are stretched to the point of breaking due to disruptions related to COVID-19, quarantines and illness. We have seen school district leaders take steps ranging from the on-the-fly reassignment of adults in buildings just to have coverage in classrooms to large scale building or district shut downs and transitions to remote learning when there just aren’t enough employees to keep buildings open safely.

The daily staffing scrambles and shutdowns are just the most recent symptoms of the problem our schools and districts are experiencing. At the prime time of hiring this past spring and summer, school districts struggled to find people to interview.

This was certainly true for teaching areas that have historically had a shortage – such as special education or math and science – and it was true in rural communities. But now things have become so severe that districts are having a hard time finding elementary educators and people to fill open positions in subjects such as physical education and social studies, which historically have a glut of applicants.

Not Enough People Entering the Profession
While many in the public are now fully awakening to this human capital crisis taking place in our schools, this problem didn’t appear unexpectedly. Like so many catastrophes we are now enduring, this has been like a slow-moving train, churning toward derailment. We could see all the signs this was coming and could predict the outcome, but no meaningful efforts were taken to avoid the inevitable crash.

For more than a decade, our teacher education programs – where most educators receive their initial training – have been telling us about significant decreases in the number of students entering their programs. Here in Kentucky, the number of program completers (those completing teacher training through either a traditional or alternative route) dropped by 37% between 2008 and 2018, which was slightly worse than what we have seen nationally. The University of Kentucky, which operates the state’s largest teacher education program, has about 300 fewer students than it did in 2015.

State legislatures across the country have responded to this crisis by lowering standards for who can become a teacher to try and entice more people to enter the profession. Some states – including Kentucky – also have tried relying on programs to get former military personnel to become teachers or Peace-Corps style approaches (such as Teach for America) to fill the need.

To be clear, I’m not being critical of these efforts and I welcome all the veterans and bright college graduates in other fields out there to consider teaching. The problem is that such programs are not producing quality teachers at the scale that we need. There also are real problems with such programs turning out teachers who only work for a couple of years before moving on instead of producing professionals who are willing to commit the years it takes to master the art and science of teaching.

Too Many Teachers are Leaving

Compounding the issue of not enough people entering the profession is the problem of more educators leaving. Kentucky has about 42,000 teachers and each year, more than 6,300 of them leave the profession for one reason or another. Now, still living with and through all of the challenges that have come with schooling in the era of COVID-19, some 25% of teachers are considering leaving the profession.

The most recent Impact Kentucky Working Conditions Survey – which was taken by more than 38,000 certified school personnel late last year – clearly showed the stress our public school staff are under. A total of 75% of respondents said they were, to some degree, concerned with the emotional well-being of their colleagues as a result of their work. Forty percent of respondents didn’t feel effective at their job right now and 64% said they were concerned about their own emotional well-being as a result of their work.

On top of the relatively recent challenges and stresses brought on by the pandemic, decisions made by state legislatures (including Kentucky’s) when it comes to education funding and total compensation also have had a significant impact on the willingness of people to either enter or stay in the teaching profession.

Kentucky, which now ranks 42nd in educator starting pay, has failed to keep up inflation while class loads and job responsibilities outside the school day have increased. This systemic under-funding has been coupled simultaneously with efforts to solve Kentucky’s pension crisis, resulting in lower health and pension benefits for new teachers.

For all their power when it comes to making state policy decisions, legislators cannot repeal the law of supply and demand. While the primary drive of most educators is altruistic – to help students, their community and to be of service – educators are also human beings who respond rationally to economic incentives or opportunities. The increasing educator flight we are seeing in Kentucky and nationally is the result of past policy decisions coming home to roost.

Political Divisiveness
We should not overlook the exhausting effect of the increased angry political rhetoric when it comes to the morale and decisions of our current educators and those considering education as a career choice.

For someone who just wants to teach and to support young people, finding yourself and your profession at the center of angry social media eruptions or hyperpartisan news media reports is debilitating and demoralizing. If only we could get the public as excited about literacy or engaging students in meaningful learning experiences as much as they are excited about COVID-19 mitigation procedures or banning classroom discussions on some concept they don’t like.

Seeing Teachers Thrive
A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to hear National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey speak at a meeting of state education chiefs (people across the country serving in similar roles to mine here in Kentucky). She spoke about this present teacher workforce crisis and had a devastatingly straightforward solution: young people need to see their teachers thrive.

We now have abundant evidence to show that efforts to underpay, disrespect, underappreciate and overstress our educators are having an impact – and the students in our schools can see it as well.

For many young people, the decision to become a teacher begins with inspiration from great professional educators in their lives – teachers who have positive relationships with them, who support them, who inspire them. Our current students can project and imagine their future as a teacher based on what they are seeing with their own teachers now.

Back to Urtubey’s point – are our young people seeing their own teachers thrive right now? If we are honest, we all know the answer to this question is no.

So what might it look like if Kentucky advanced education policies that were aimed at making sure all our teachers were thriving?

Seeing teachers thrive would mean that they have a professional and livable wage, where they can support their families and build toward a stable middle-class life. They would have access to the health care and mental health support they need, and where they can retire with dignity and stability.

Seeing teachers thrive also would mean that they have the support they need professionally, including quality curricular materials they don’t have to buy out of their own paychecks, manageable class sizes and a dependable and quality network of other education professionals around them.

Creating an environment where teachers would thrive also would be a world where educators were intentionally appreciated and celebrated for their contributions in their community – and in political discussions – across this country.

The first step in getting out of any hole is to stop digging. Toward that end, we need everyone across the Commonwealth to commit now to stop efforts aimed at blaming, harming and de-professionalizing teachers. And once we’ve stopped making things worse, we should work together to craft a path forward (including supportive legislation) aimed at seeing our teachers thrive.

Wouldn’t that be something?