“It’s very difficult to be a teacher in this day and age,” said Michele Augustin, the Director of Teacher Education and Academic Services at Washington University. States and school districts have been sounding the alarm about nationwide teacher shortages for years, but the number of unfilled teaching positions across the country has skyrocketed in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Augustin entered the field of education forty years ago, with certifications in special and elementary education. She described an “overabundance” of teachers, particularly in elementary education, where unfilled teaching positions were rare. Now, school districts are struggling to fill open positions and the number of people obtaining teacher certifications are dismal. Augustin is in charge of the teacher certification program at Washington University and has only had nearly 75 post-baccalaureate students interested in her program over the past five years, with just five students completing coursework to become certified teachers.
Teachers face a variety of challenges. “There’s pressure from the legislature, from the government. This profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the community, because people take teachers for granted,” said Augustin.
Teachers are also chronically underpaid. According to the World Population Review, the average teacher salary in the US is $64,500, and $52,500 in Missouri. Low salaries become an even larger deterrent to potential teachers when they are compared to salaries for other certified professionals.
The pay is just so abysmal.
— Michele Augustin
“The pay is just so abysmal compared to other professions such as medicine or law,” said Augustin.
Low pay is a huge deterrent to people entering the profession, as well as lowering retention rates as teachers leave the profession for more lucrative or fulfilling work. This leads to alarming headlines proclaiming large numbers of unfilled teaching positions in schools across the country.
Clayton is no stranger to the effects of the teacher shortage. With the issue worsening post-pandemic, the Clayton school district has faced troubles with shrinking pools of applicants and decreasing retention rates.
While the applicant pool may be getting smaller, the need for qualified teachers is greater than ever, making changes in the interview process necessary.
Tony Arnold, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources in the School District of Clayton said, “Our district has a really rigorous interviewing process. We want to ensure that we are considering the very highest quality candidates to serve our students in our community.”
Through the implementation of the platform SmartHire, Arnold and the rest of the Human Resources Department can ensure that only the most qualified and passionate candidates are up for consideration. In addition, the district holds a Diversity, Recruitment and Networking fair in conjunction with Ladue, to attract diverse teacher candidates.
“The hiring process sets the tone for the culture of the district. It’s important for our candidates to truly understand that we are collaborative, provide a great deal of feedback, model a growth mindset. We understand that even though you may be an expert in your craft, there’s always room for continuous improvement,” said Arnold.
Instituting a more rigorous and efficient hiring process has worked for Clayton pre-pandemic, though considering the increasing nationwide shortage of teachers over the past few years, Clayton has seen a drop in potential candidates, with numbers never before recorded.
“Our number of applicants that are applying for positions has decreased significantly over the past few years. We have about a fourth of the pool we had five years ago,” said Arnold.
This problem is not limited to Clayton. Augustin said, “Over time, teachers have retired and we don’t have as much interest in people seeking teaching degrees to be able to fill those vacancies.”
Paul Katnik, Assistant Commissioner of Educator Quality for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, has seen firsthand how the applicant and hiring issue has been handled in other states.
Katnik said, “Other states are taking people who are not qualified, who are not ready to be a teacher, handing them a certificate and saying, ‘Go ahead, you can be a teacher.’ They’re not even requiring a college degree to be a teacher.”
So, while retirement is still the biggest reason that teachers leave Clayton, poor working conditions and low pay are increasingly important factors pushing teachers to leave Clayton, or education altogether.
In terms of teacher compensation, Clayton still faces the limitations of state and local tax bases, reducing the district’s ability to be in full control of their budget. 80 percent of the district’s budget goes to teacher compensation.
Arnold said, “I think salary is a part of it, but a solution includes total compensation which includes salary, insurance, leave benefits, and paid short-term disability. We want to create a district and workplace environment that is positive and productive so our teachers feel fulfilled working here.”
Clayton has come face to face with this nationwide issue, yet, compared with our market districts, it appears that Clayton has not seen the worst of it. Arnold said, “Clayton has historically utilized seven market districts for comparison. When we compare ourselves for compensation, Brentwood, Webster Groves, Pattonville, Kirkwood, Parkway, Rockwood and Ladue fall under consideration.”
While Clayton’s experience is mild compared to many other Missouri school districts, especially those in urban and rural areas, the problem of shrinking applicant pools and teachers leaving education, is prevalent statewide.
In order to fill teacher vacancies, school districts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), as well as local colleges are collaborating to increase the number of applicants for teaching positions, by training and certifying more teachers.
In response to the statewide teacher shortages. DESE loosened certification requirements for teachers. Only requiring that they have a GPA of 3.0 or higher in their coursework for education and the content areas which they will be teaching, not for other classes taken during their college career.
DESE also funds Grow Your Own programs, which partner school districts with nearby higher education institutions to encourage high-achieving high school students to become certified and return to teach in their home districts.
In the summer of 2022, DESE spent 11 million dollars on Grow Your Own programs throughout the state. “After we did those grants last summer, it grew to 470, where 85% of school districts in our state now have some type of Grow Your Own program,” said Katnik. These programs feature high school teachers and administrators encouraging students to consider teaching as a career, as well as succession planning, which helps school districts to plan and find new teachers to fill future vacancies created by retirements.
DESE also hosts the recruiting website, teachmo.org, which provides resources and an information hub for people interested in the profession. “We set targets for how many diverse candidates we can recruit through that site, and we exceeded all of them,” said Katnik.
School districts have a large part to play in the teacher recruitment process as well. Schools encourage high school students to consider working in their own communities, where they may have family ties and a desire to make things better for the next generation. Districts can also decrease their short-term needs by allowing people obtaining their certifications to teach under emergency authorizations.
Colleges also have a part to play. By offering flexible, sometimes online coursework at affordable rates as well as through their own outreach campaigns, colleges can recruit potential teachers, both from their own pool of students as well as professionals looking to change careers.
Another Missouri specific issue is border crossers, people who live in Missouri but choose to teach in one of eight neighboring states. “When it comes to starting teacher pay for brand new teachers, not only are we below all of our border states, but we ranked 50th in the country. We’re below all of our border states in both overall average and average starting teacher pay. And so that becomes a real temptation for folks to live here but teach right across the border,” said Katnik.
Districts have tried a variety of other solutions to increase retention, including four-day school weeks. “The districts that I think haven’t made that move are probably saying, we want to see some clear data that [four day school weeks] are safe to do for our kids. But I think that it’s a recruiting tool,” Katnik.
Does it make it look like something people would immediately want to be signing up to do?
— Paul Katnik
Despite all of these recruiting tools and stopgap measures, the problem of teacher shortages, in Clayton, Missouri and nationally is continuing to grow. “Right now we have more vacancies than candidates to fill those vacancies,” said Augustin, “until we can develop plans for encouraging young people to consider teaching as a career, that gap is probably going to continue to increase.”
Yet despite all of these efforts, until teacher pay increases significantly, teacher positions will continue to remain unfilled, as intelligent, compassionate people choose more lucrative professions.
“Upwards of 20 percent [of teachers] have some kind of second job. So you’re already doing a tough job with long hours and now you have to have a second job on top of it to pay bills,” said Katnik. “Does it make it look like something people would immediately want to be signing up to do?”
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