A cascading teacher shortage threatens Kansas and the nation. Here’s what’s happening

·3 min read

Everyone in every walk of life should be alarmed about a future in which the education system is hemorrhaging teachers and other school staff.

In Kansas, teacher vacancies rose 62% in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has plenty to do with that, but vacancies had already reached a peak of 815 in 2019. There were more than 1,200 this fall.

The problem is threefold: More teachers are retiring, more are leaving the profession and fewer are entering it.

Experts used to be able to pinpoint various academic disciplines seeing a shortage of teachers, such as math, science and special education.

“But now it’s in every area, and growing in all areas,” says Kansas National Education Association President Sherri Schwanz.

Twenty teachers just handed in their retirement paperwork in Lawrence, Schwanz says. “This is October. That’s a huge number.”

Good working conditions and relationships with administrators have led to stable teacher levels in Debra Hotujac’s district. But the Blue Valley Education Association president cites the profession’s overall “low pay in comparison to careers requiring similar levels of education,” as well as long hours, the growing needs of students, discipline problems, lack of input in decision-making, “and community members addressing Board of Education members/administration/teachers in disrespectful and aggressive ways.”

Quality schools the lifebood of a community

The teacher shortage has become so acute that a coalition of the Kansas National Education Association, Kansas Association of School Boards and United School Administrators-Kansas has partnered with an Emporia State University professor to drill deep into the root causes — first with an ongoing, comprehensive survey of educators and staff in every school district in the state.

“Quality schools and professional teachers are essential to the strength and growth of our communities and our state,” says Dr. Bret Church, the associate professor of school leadership at ESU who is leading the effort. “They not only influence the workforce but they also, in many towns in our state, are the lifeblood of that community — as well as, in some cases, the largest employer.”

Emporia State used to compile a teacher supply-and-demand report, Church says, but no longer does. He hopes the survey he has initiated, which goes much further than an inventory, will be performed every other year going forward. Regardless, he has contracted with an expert in industrial organizational psychology to make sure the data is turned into actionable steps to stem the education exodus.

“I think we’re very confident that we’re going to be able to get data that can actually contribute to changes in behaviors or strategies,” he says. “I know that this is not data that we have had, in the form that we’ll have it, in Kansas before.”

The unprecedented survey, which is open until Nov. 19, measures factors affecting teacher morale and satisfaction, including salary and benefits, the health of relationships inside and outside schools, access to technology and society’s view of the profession. It also will find out how many teachers are eyeing retiring, moving, entering administration or just leaving the profession in the next three years.

It’s no secret that teachers increasingly are unfairly under siege from parents and school board members and candidates on such thorny political issues as mask-wearing and how race and history are taught. It’s wearing teachers down — as has the back-and-forth between in-person and remote learning, the fluctuating COVID protocols, and fundamental distinctions in teaching techniques for in-class and remote learning.

Underlying the pandemic’s challenges is the preexisting dearth of students trickling into teaching. On that count, Church has already been working on nurturing partnerships between higher and secondary education in order to funnel more interested high schoolers into university and even community college education classes.

It’s imperative we all care about this, and get a handle on what’s happening to our education system. It will determine the kind of society we have.

This concerned coalition, and this survey, are a very good start.

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