Teacher wellbeing is always top of mind for education leaders. And right now, their wellbeing needs attention. Educators are leaving the profession in large percentages for many reasons, and at the same time, the pipeline of new teachers is drying up, creating a two-fold problem of teacher shortage and teacher recruitment.
While there is no single solution, there are many ways leaders, educators, and EdTech partners can work together to improve teacher wellbeing, retain their educators, and bring joy back to the classroom. Because joyful teachers want to teach, and joyful students want to learn.
To address the teacher shortage and recruitment issue, states and districts should focus their efforts on solutions that address the biggest pain points for teachers: solutions like increasing teacher compensation, implementing stress management programs, providing time-saving resources for educators, and developing creative recruitment strategies.
Let’s dive into teacher shortage and teacher recruitment to better understand the root of the problem. Then look at concrete actions any education leader at any level can take to address these challenges.
It’s no surprise that low pay and high stress are driving teachers to quit in droves, to the point that it’s becoming a pandemic in and of itself. According to RAND Corporation’s recent study on public school teacher attrition, stress topped the reasons why they leave the profession, and is almost twice as common as low pay. This is corroborated by the fact that “a majority of early leavers went on to take jobs with either less or around equal pay.” Those who stayed in education but switched jobs were attracted to positions that provided more flexibility.
The underlying question is what is driving their stress? We can’t ignore the upheaval caused by the pandemic and the lingering stress it has caused. But now that it’s in the rearview mirror, we can focus on other stress factors that have come to light as a result, starting with understaffed schools.
Understaffed schools are a challenge for all involved, as it drives many of the causes of teachers’ stress. This issue is only exacerbated by vacancies, where current staff must help fill the gaps. For example, many teachers are asked to work in unfamiliar roles or manage a team with a rotation of teachers filling an empty slot. School leaders are left trying to figure out how best to allocate their team’s efforts most efficiently. Another example is teachers who manage vacant positions must help prepare whoever is covering the role, and therefore miss the chance to work with a full, established team. But there are ways to promote a collaborative work environment for educators, despite the pitfalls of understaffed schools. For example, Pebblebrook High School’s collaborative community helps their teams of educators work smarter and more efficiently.
The most common stress factor for teachers is time. When they are asked to do more with less, the stress is palpable. Imagine all that goes into a typical day for most teachers—classroom setup, planning, teaching, meetings, parents, and student discipline—it’s no wonder there’s teacher burnout! Their days are long and can feel overwhelming. In fact, a national survey by EdWeek found that a typical teacher works a median of 54 hours a week as teacher dissatisfaction nears an all-time high.
If the root cause of teachers’ stress is identified, the next steps are to develop solutions and an action plan that address these factors to achieve two results:
While teacher shortage is a major concern, teacher retention must also be a top priority. If leaders focus on meaningful support that targets job satisfaction, they can solidify the long-term commitment of their faculty. Leaders can start by addressing the main cause of teacher burnout—stress—and explore a few avenues of how to manage it. Avenues like providing SEL resources, team-building events, and self-care tips to improve teacher wellness, or asking parent groups to show their appreciation. Here are a few other actions that can help with stress management:
Survey faculty about the quality of work life to learn their perspective on the state of things. The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health’s Quality of Worklife Questionnaire is a great example for measuring changes in work life. Leaders can then reflect on the feedback, both positive and negative, to strengthen your leadership and relationships.
Provide teachers with high-quality curriculum and resources that are easy to use, quick to implement, and save teachers planning time, even when designing personalized learning experiences.
Teachers put a lot of energy into creating a welcoming, safe environment for their students. Create a similar environment for faculty and become the standard that other districts and schools will want to emulate.
Involve teachers in the decision-making process. The biggest hurdle to implementing a new tool or curriculum can be teacher buy-in. By involving them early in the process of selecting and implementing an innovative new idea, they feel heard and are more likely to embrace the new idea.
Involve the local community so that parents, families, and local officials feel personally invested in the success of the district, schools, teachers, and students.
There are many creative ways to retain teachers, as outlined above. It takes an effective leader to clearly identify what it’s going to take to keep teachers in their district. Dr. Andrew Houlihan, Superintendent of Union County Public Schools in North Carolina, believes that “teachers like to stay in a district for the same reasons today as they did 20 years ago. They want . . . a highly effective leader . . . professional development opportunities . . . leadership opportunities . . . and fair compensation.”
Learn how a fresh take on professional learning can reach more educators in innovative ways, give teachers more choice, and foster a real collaboration among teams.
What drives a teacher to stay beyond the first 5 years? Consider how to build a pipeline of future educators, starting locally. Partner with local community colleges to build interest in the teaching profession and the innovative technology it uses, and create an accelerated pathway for those interested. In fact, Union County Public Schools in North Carolina is doing just that, and doing it well.
There are other creative ways to increase recruitment, like an alternative certification program, helping paraprofessionals and aides transition to teacher roles, or student loan forgiveness. When education leaders prioritize teacher recruitment, it can take time to increase their numbers, but it pays off in the end with much less vacancies.
At the district or state levels, change can be implemented by building interest in the teaching profession and making it easier to obtain a teaching license and get hired. Also, investing in infrastructure of all kinds, from buildings and playgrounds to salaries and benefits to edtech tools, can help make recruiting competitive.
While choosing to leave any career is a personal decision, there are many common reasons why teachers are leaving education. Organizations such as Chalkbeat have researched why teachers have quit, and a lack of support/respect, low pay, and stress are frequently cited as concerns for teachers. Teacher burnout is also a common issue, as teachers are exhausted and under new heightened levels of stress. If these problems are not addressed, teachers will continue to leave the profession, with very few new teachers entering the field to replace them.
The term “teacher burnout” refers to the exhaustion that has resulted from high levels of stress and responsibilities that teachers balance. Teachers have been sharing that they feel burned out as they deal with an increased workload and limited resources, but there are numerous factors that have contributed to teacher burnout. It has become a prevalent issue in schools, and teacher burnout must be addressed when attempting to improve the teacher shortage.
Every state across the US currently has vacant teaching positions, but the teacher shortage is heavier in some areas over others. It is tough to quantify how “bad” the teacher shortage is, as it has been difficult to gather a complete report of unfilled teaching positions. While the definitive answer of exactly what the teacher shortage looks like in each state or city, the major concern should be how students are being impacted by any school dealing with a staffing shortage.