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Understanding the Teacher Shortage Crisis and the Solutions to Fix it

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By Keith Lockwood

According to numerous sources, America is experiencing a nationwide teacher shortage that will undoubtedly escalate to a crisis within the next two years. Recent reports state that there are currently over 30,000 teacher vacancies this year that will increase to 70,000 over the next two years—a sobering thought indeed. The reasons for the decline in the number of teachers are correlated to teacher evaluation systems blended with high stakes standardized testing implemented over the past ten years, a shrinking student base in teacher education programs, a lack of respect for the teaching profession, and low salaries and benefits. These variables lead to challenging circumstances for urban, suburban and rural school districts across the country.

Currently, the teacher shortage nationwide presents complications as it pertains to the daily functioning of a school district. However, there are several potential solutions in addressing how to resolve the teacher shortfall including increasing funding in a volatile revenue scenario for districts, recruiting and training teachers for a long-term commitment to the school district, long-term teacher substitutes, classroom size increases, or creative solutions utilizing technology to support teaching and learning.

Challenges are abundant in addressing the teacher shortfall across the United States. Moreover, the demonization of the teaching profession by many politicians and community leaders has led to a wholesale exodus of senior teachers retiring, and potential teachers are choosing not to join the profession. These variables contribute to an increase of teacher vacancies across the country and a lack of students entering colleges of education.     

Predictably, school districts turn to recruiting teachers for long-term commitments by providing funding for their studies, a common practice nationwide.  Teachers are locked into a two to a three-year contract after they complete their teaching or graduate degree. Research shows that teachers enlisted in this manner fulfill their commitment and then seek a new job in a higher paying more affluent district.  This creates a negative investment by a district using this method which tends to be the lower, middle class or urban districts that need these teachers the most. The fiscal and educational viability of these recruitment practices is a profound question mark. 

Adding another layer to the teacher retention puzzle is the driving charge of teachers departing the field who have five years or less in the profession. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the teaching profession has fallen prey to partisan politics. Teachers have had their sacred mission questioned, their motives undermined which has resulted in low teacher morale and a reduced sense of value in the community. This lack of empowerment, opportunity, and instructional prowess, coupled with low salaries, cause more than 50% of teachers to leave the profession within their first five years. 

Long term substitute teaching provides little additional relief to these difficult circumstances. Substitutes tend not to be highly trained or even hold teaching experience; they are well paid in containment practice. With each student learning at a different pace, a substitute may not understand how to utilize differentiated instructional methodology for a highly complex process of teaching and learning, which compromises the entire instructional environment. An underqualified individual leading classroom instruction has limited chance to succeed. Students who are particularly vulnerable to these institutional stress fractures are those in protected classes such as Special Education, 504, ELL's, Low SES and any student who might be an outlier in the education system.

However, schools are slowly beginning to leverage technology to place teachers in their empty classrooms. One of the ten fastest growing school districts in the country, Frisco ISD in Texas, has been successfully experimenting with K-12 virtual staffing over the past three years to meet their increasing demand for teachers as they open more than two new schools a year. After crippling flooding throughout the summer in St. Helena, Louisiana the Parish was compelled to start the school year short teachers who tragically lost their homes.

Instead of placing long-term substitutes into the classrooms, they decided to adopt K-12 virtual staffing to ensure their students had the best chance to succeed. Currently, Michigan is facing the largest shortage of Spanish teachers in the state's history. To combat the teacher shortage, local MI school district, Ecorse Public Schools, invested in K-12 virtual staffing to ensure their students always have a certified teacher leading instruction as they continue their search for a local Spanish teacher.

Unique teaching methodologies such as K-12 virtual staffing have the potential to fill the growing teacher vacancies within the school districts who are hardest hit by the teacher shortage. This type of cultivated problem-solving creativity is precisely the answer for many districts experiencing teacher recruitment challenges. The future is here - now it is up to our nation's districts' leadership to grasp this new opportunity by utilizing K-12 virtual teachers to build the schools of the 21st century.

Keith S. Lockwood, Ph.D. is recognized as an expert in the field of special education and American Sign Language. Keith holds a Ph.D. from New York University in Special Education, Deaf Education, and Linguistics.  Over the past 20 years, Dr. Lockwood has held leadership positions at the New Jersey Department of Education and the New York City Department of Education.  He is now working with Proximity Learning Inc., to ensure teacher quality. 

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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