The U.S. education system has suffered from a lack of teachers for decades, but the insurmountable difficulties presented by the recent COVID pandemic has exacerbated this shortage by driving many educators out of classrooms for good. The result is an even worse ratio of students to teachers, who are already overburdened with work responsibilities and underpaid for their time and effort. Even worse, teachers around the country are once again engaging in strikes, leaving school districts scrambling for substitute teachers to keep kids engaged and on track to reach education milestones.
We need immediate solutions to the teacher shortage to reduce the pressure on existing educators and ensure that today’s students receive the education they deserve. However, short-term solutions are unlikely to solve the systemic issues that created the teacher shortage in the first place. Here are a few ideas for fixing the ongoing teacher shortage, now and forever.
Right now, the teacher shortage is having an impact on the academic success of students. Though the American education system needs large-scale changes to overcome the issues causing the teacher shortage, students in the present need immediate solutions that provide the attention and instruction they deserve.
Short-term solutions like the following should not be considered resolutions or ultimate answers to the problem of the teacher shortage, which has systemic causes that can only be addressed through concerted change of the education system. Still, the following solutions will improve the chances of success for schools full of current students.
Incentivize current and new teachers
An important first step in stemming the effects of the teacher shortage is preventing the shortage from getting any worse. Schools need to convince current teachers to remain in their positions despite more difficult responsibilities by offering high-quality, targeted incentives. State and district leaders should divert resources to the schools most adversely affected by the pandemic and the shortage — primarily schools with higher percentages of students of color and students with low-income backgrounds — to ensure that current staff and any teachers new to the field feel compelled to stay.
Identify long-term substitutes
Placing a new short-term substitute in a classroom every day or week will not allow for a continuity of instruction that students need to thrive. Schools and districts need to identify substitutes who can function in a long-term capacity, over the course of an entire semester or school year. Retired educators might be the best option, as they have valuable classroom experience as well as ample available time. School districts might also source substitutes from community-based organizations focused on connecting the unemployed with job opportunities, assuming those organizations can properly train candidates for working in schools.
Alter licensure policies
Already, some school districts around the country are altering their requirements for teacher certification and licensure. These changes make it easier for anyone with an interest in teaching to join the profession and contribute to ending the widespread shortage of educators. For now, teachers who are not traditionally licensed can immediately begin working in classrooms, and ideally, districts will invest in programs to support their proper licensure journey in the future, like helping teachers pursue a BA in Education Studies.
Invest in support staff
The burden on remaining teaching staff can be lightened somewhat through greater investment in support staff, particularly classroom aides and tutors. Aides can alleviate some of the pressure on teachers during class times by assisting with class supervision and basic instruction. Tutors can provide additional instruction outside the classroom, clarifying concepts and processes when teachers are busy with other extracurricular responsibilities. Support staff tend to command lower wages and enjoy more flexible scheduling than typical educators, so support staff will be easier to find and recruit immediately.
The short-term solutions listed above may help mitigate the effects of the teacher shortage, but they will do nothing to address the underlying causes of the shortage. Many short-term solutions tend to be more expensive in the long run than fixing the initial problems — though fixing the problems causing the teacher shortage will require more significant change from schools, districts and the education system at large. Change can be frightening, but it is necessary for the sake of current and future students. Some of the best and most pressing changes required to end the teacher shortage include:
Collect data on teacher turnover
Studies show that roughly half of all teachers quit the profession before their fifth anniversary on the job — but why? Likely, teachers in different schools and districts will have different reasons for wanting a new career. Thus, local state and district leaders need to invest in data collection to better understand the unique causes behind their turnover and vacancies. Research should reveal characteristics about teachers and schools, such as teacher demographics and classroom experiences. With this information, leaders will be better equipped to formulate solutions that keep turnover rates low.
Create a safe working environment
The teacher shortage is currently at such a worrying height because schools did little to protect the health and wellbeing of teachers during the COVID pandemic. Unavailable pediatric vaccines combined with low mask mandates in schools put teachers at remarkable risk for serious disease for years, and rather than risk death or disability, many teachers opted to resign and search for safer (and more financially rewarding) work. Districts need to do more to protect educator wellness, which also includes offering programs to address burnout and other mental illnesses that can result in high turnover rates.
Invest in professional development programs
Teaching is notorious for being a dead-end job, and few teachers relish the career path’s limited opportunities for professional development and advancement. Worse, academic theories and practices continue to advance, but teachers may have limited or no access to the latest information, which means their students receive outdated instruction. Education leaders need to develop programs dedicated to the professional development of teaching staff, who will feel more engaged with their careers as they continuously work to improve their professional knowledge and skill.
Improve compensation packages
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, teachers need to be paid more. Research has found that the typical teacher works over 50 hours per week, but the average teaching salary in America continues to decline and is currently around $58,000. Considering the importance of teachers to social stability and success, teachers at every level deserve much higher compensation. Legislators need to commit to improving school funding, and school administrators need to dedicate more of their budget to teacher salary.
Teachers have one of the most important roles in modern society, but that role is famously thankless, with little pay and even less gratitude from students, parents, lawmakers and more — so it is hardly a surprise that the education system continues to suffer from a shortage of high-quality, enthusiastic educators. Now that the problem is receiving widespread attention, teachers, administrators, school board members, lawmakers and more can take steps to address the issue with short- and long-term solutions that make schools better for everyone.