How Did COVID Impact the Teacher Shortage?
We are only a little over two years removed from the beginning of the COVID-19 virus outbreak in the United States. Thus, it is impossible to diagnose what the long-term implications will be in education when measuring the pandemic’s impact. We can now look at the short-term effect has had over the last two and a half years and project the possible long-term effects.
According to Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, teacher shortages were becoming a significant issue prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. A 2018 estimate completed by the LPI showed that the nation was short of teachers by at least 100,000. This was especially true in content areas already hard to staff: math, science, special education and ESL.
“Because of these long-standing conditions, even small changes in teacher supply and demand during the pandemic have resulted in serious disruption for schools that had already been struggling to fill teacher vacancies,” Carver-Thomas stated.
Now what happened once the pandemic was in full effect? According to all the research I have read, there were some premature retirements and resignations as a result of the pandemic. The Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds reported seeing a 14 percent increase in retirement in 2020.
However, educators explain that the shortage began years before the pandemic and continues to this day. It was also pointed out that this was not a consistent nationwide trend. Some districts and states across the country saw relatively little increase in retirements.
How Teacher Shortages Affect Educators
A teacher shortage, whether brought on by the pandemic or not, affects educators. From my personal experience as an elementary principal, I have not witnessed any shortages in our local workforce. However, there was a significant shortage of substitutes. Some of this was seemingly due to fears about COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also because some neighboring districts instituted very high and abnormal pay increases for their substitute teachers.
So for a limited amount of time, my school and district had to utilize their teachers to cover classes, resulting in a loss of prep time. I can attest that this does significantly affect teacher morale, at least for the teachers who have to use time to cover classes.
The significant effect in morale I witnessed was most related to the time that school had to move to virtual instruction. This wasn’t because our teachers didn’t like being home. It was simply because our teachers knew they could not give the students what was educationally needed. They fretted and continued to fret over the lost in-person instructional time.
High Demands in Education
Why is the education job market currently facing a shortage post-COVID? The same question can be asked why it faced a shortage pre-pandemic. An article from The Hill points out that burnout, low pay, and a significant decline in graduates with teaching degrees are the major trends and reasons why the U.S. is experiencing a teacher shortage. COVID merely highlighted and accelerated these trends.
I believe it is safe to conclude that the pandemic temporarily exacerbated and accelerated the trends already in place in education but will not stand as a significant lone reason for teacher shortages. Burnout, low pay, and a sharp decline in undergraduate education degrees are what are driving teacher shortages. These need to be addressed by policymakers if we expect to see an increase in the amount of teachers.
Specifically, teachers are desperately needed in rural areas, low-income urban areas, and across certain subjects. No matter if you are a college student just beginning your education or if you are a veteran educator seeking new ways to set yourself apart in your district, the right credentials can vastly improve your job opportunities.
If you have an interest in any of these subjects, or if you have a desire to serve students through these subjects, you can find yourself in high-demand positions across the state and country. On the other hand, if you are a leader within a school district that cannot seem to adequately staff certain subjects, you are not alone. You can use information about national and regional teacher shortages to better understand the issues facing professionals throughout your district so that you can make better decisions to enhance your recruitment efforts.
Special education teachers are needed in districts nearly everywhere, but perhaps California’s situation shows us just how much. The state reports that nearly 800,000 students are being taught by teachers who do not have proper special education credentialing. While this number is staggering, it is, unfortunately, becoming the norm throughout the country and can cause serious consequences for the students, their families, and the staff members who are unprepared to teach this special population.
Special education teachers often have a heart for serving a challenging population and are more likely to understand the impact of medical diagnoses and past trauma has on students. However, they are also more likely to burn out without the proper resources and support from their team and from their supervisors.
Aside from special education teachers, paraprofessionals are also in high demand. These key members of the student’s team assist with more than just daily care; they also offer verbal or physical cuing that can help students stay on task and meet their IEP goals.
In contrast, special education teachers currently have a median pay of $61,820 (2021) and typically enjoy full-time benefits from the district. However, the salary and benefits are not always enough to keep special education teachers with the district long-term. They must also feel empowered and encouraged within the district.
English as a Second Language (ESL)
ESL educators are also in high demand throughout rural, suburban, and urban school districts. While the number of ESL educators currently pursuing the degree is increasing in many colleges and universities, there simply are not enough in the workforce right now to meet the growing needs of students. More and more K-12 students are not native language speakers, with educational research pointing to more than 12 million bilingual children across the country (a 1.2 million increase over the previous ten years.)
It’s a classic case of supply and demand, with the demand for specialized language education far outweighing the supply of educators. Even with the increased number of ESL teachers in programs today, there simply isn’t enough to serve the students now or in the future.
Administrators are working hard to entice ESL teachers to their districts. Perhaps the answer is to also look at current educators within the district who have a desire to serve students in this capacity and offering tuition reimbursement and bonuses to increase the opportunities for current students.
ESL teachers in elementary and secondary settings have a salary that is typically around $65,000.
The coronavirus pandemic radically changed education, shifting students and teachers to take a virtual approach focused even more on technology. Many administrators and leaders saw immediately the need for additional educational technology support throughout their districts, highlighting the shortage that was already there. For districts that already had team members with a technology specialist endorsement, they were reminded why these positions are crucial to a well-rounded district.
Educational technology has never been more important, and there simply are not enough experts to serve school districts in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Further, educational technology roles are not just for K-12 districts. The demand in university settings is only increasing as well, making the shortage feel even more acute. The average salary hovers around $52,000 and most districts offer management-level benefits to enhance their recruitment strategy.
Reading and Literacy
Teachers seeking a reading specialist credential are on the rise, which is good news. Many schools and districts are lacking these specialists in their schools. Reading or literacy specialists are tasked with providing intervention for students, consultations for teachers, and support in the classroom, as well as ensuring that their school provides high-quality reading instruction to all students.
Educators with this credential also have the opportunity to move into other positions grounded in leadership such as district literacy coaches, instructional coordinators, or curriculum developers.
Reading and literacy specialists have a salary that is typically around $53,000, while a position like instructional coordinator will get you a salary around $64,000.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that foreign language is historically fourth on the list of subjects experiencing a national shortage. Recent reports note that 58% of states experience a foreign language teacher shortage over the last 20 years (Pg. 23, Figure 5). While the foreign language teacher shortage is nuanced, perhaps the beginning of the problem lies within the K-12 curriculum.
Less than one-quarter of K-12 students are exposed to a foreign language before they graduate from high school. Once in college, that number drops to less than 10%. It can be impossible to inspire future foreign language teachers when students are simply not exposed to another language in a school environment.
Why is there a lesser focus on foreign language in the K-12 curriculum? One reason is the teacher shortage. While it is impossible to know which came first — the teacher shortage or the decreased exposure to foreign language built into K-12 curriculum — it is certain to continue for the foreseeable future.
Foreign language teachers make around the same amount as high school teachers of other subjects with similar experience, which is around $61,000 per year.
The important takeaways here? Teacher shortages are nuanced and vary from subject to subject, district to district, and state to state. However, if you have a passion to serve students in any of these capacities, now is the time to work for that extra endorsement or credential. Leaders in school districts, now is also the time for you to take a hard look at your recruitment plans to determine if there are ways to enhance your benefits or school culture that could bring more of these specialists to your schools.
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