A head-and-shoulders picture of Robin Kinney.

Interim Commissioner of Education Robin Fields Kinney

For years now, you have heard education leaders from across the United States talk about the shortage of people wanting to go into the teaching profession. I know we all tend to tune out challenging news, especially when it does not improve much from year to year, but we need continue to focus on the importance of recruiting – and retaining – high-quality educators.

While all of the people employed in Kentucky’s 171 school districts have an important role to play in the smooth functioning of our schools, teachers are the linchpin in our education system. High-quality educators set the tone in the classroom, encourage curiosity, know the way their students learn best and provide support when their students struggle.

According to data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics in August 2023, 45% of public schools nationally felt they were understaffed. A full two-thirds of public schools reported that their biggest challenge to hiring is a lack of qualified candidates.

Kentucky is not immune from these pressures. According to data from the Kentucky School Report Card, teacher turnover rose from 20.4% in 2021-2022 to 24.9% in the most recent release of data for the 2022-2023 school year. While teacher turnover can include educators who leave one position in a district for a new position in the same district, any time a classroom teacher leaves, it means disruption for their students.

Another sobering statistic to think about is during the 2021-2022 school year, almost 23% of the educator workforce had three years or less of experience. Those first five years are critical for new teachers, as they are the steepest learning curve and the time when it is most likely for them to leave the profession. While we do have a teacher mentoring program in statute that can help keep our young educators in the workforce and encourage high-quality practices from the beginning, it has not been funded by the state in recent years.

From personal experience, I know we at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) have heard from many districts that teaching positions that once would have had many applicants, now have just a few applicants in recent years. As a state, we continue to face critical shortages in English learner, mathematics, science, social studies, special education and world languages.

Occasionally, someone will ask me why KDE continues to focus on teacher recruitment, retention and development. I like to think of it this way. All of us have that one teacher as we went through school that made a lasting impression and probably even changed the way we think about ourselves and the kind of life we wanted to have after high school. Maybe they helped you uncover the talent that became your profession. Maybe they helped you through a turbulent time at school or home, never giving up on you or never allowing you to give up on yourself. Maybe they helped you finally figure out geometry, how to write an essay, how to weld or how to take a person’s blood pressure.

We all encountered someone who invested in us along our educational journey, and we remain grateful for that. Every Kentucky student deserves that same opportunity.