On the first day of August, just two weeks before most Kentucky schools start class, there were hundreds of vacancies posted for public school educators across the state.* (See note below.) Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis says that’s a serious problem.
“We see more districts, that begin the academic year — where kids are showing up in classrooms — and they have not filled positions,” Lewis said.
And in some cases, he says students may even finish the school year with a long term substitute or a teacher who is not fully certified.
“They may have an adult who’s well-meaning and loves them, and is doing the absolute best that they can,” Lewis said. “But they have an adult in the classroom who has not been prepared and appropriately credentialed to teach that student the way that student deserves to be taught.”
Kentucky is facing an ongoing teacher shortage. It’s a problem that plagues certain subject areas, certain geographic areas, and certain schools across the country.
The number of positions posted for educators each year in Kentucky has gone up every year in the past five, from about 6,000 positions in 2014 to more than 11,000 this past year. The Kentucky Department of Education has flagged critical shortage areas in specialties like English as a Second Language, special education, math and science, career and technical education and early childhood education.
Commissioner Lewis says there are two sides to this problem: recruitment and retention.
Recruitment Requires Fighting Perceptions
Rowan Claypool founded Teach Kentucky in 2003, and he knows teacher recruitment well. The nonprofit actively recruits college graduates from around the country who have a degree in a teachable subject to serve in Jefferson County Public Schools.
Claypool says watching college students come to the profession late in their academic career has taught him about the perceptions and misperceptions that exist about teaching.
“One of the interesting phenomena we discover in the interview process is so many of our candidates are coming from families where education was literally the family business,” Claypool said. “And yet they were told ‘don’t pursue it — too hard, you don’t make enough money, it’s a profession that breaks your heart.’”
But Claypool says, these young people realize that teaching is their calling. He adds that he thinks the perception that teachers do not earn a good living is overstated. When Teach Kentucky brings in prospective recruits, they spend one evening gathering at the house of a local teacher just a few years older than most of the recruits, who owns their own home. Claypool himself was formerly in real estate, and that touch shows.
Teach Kentucky leads these candidates through a labyrinth of steps to get an alternative certification. Claypool says that’s another issue with teacher recruitment — the process for becoming a teacher for someone who didn’t initially major in education is difficult to navigate. Teach Kentucky is designed to walk candidates through that process and then give them a supportive community of alums who continue to teach at JCPS.
Claypool says alternative certification isn’t the only solution to a teacher shortage, but it’s one way to respond while enrollment is steadily dropping at Kentucky’s colleges of education. Teach Kentucky especially tries to fill gaps by recruiting teachers of color and candidates qualified to teach math. Claypool gives an example, using the program’s most recent cohort.
“We had 17 people that were eligible to teach math content. They were all hired in June, which was a record pace,” Claypool said. “And the day that the last one was hired we looked, and there were 19 [math] vacancies posted [at JCPS].”
Many, if not all of those vacancies may be filled, as the district continues to hire through the final days of the summer. On August 2, JCPS data obtained through an open records request showed 183 open teaching jobs. JCPS Chief Communications Officer Renee Murphy said it would be difficult for her staff to confirm that number, as the district is still finalizing offers and removing vacancies from that database.
The Kentucky Department of Education has unveiled a plan called the Go Teach KY initiative to combat the teacher shortage, which will lead targeted recruitment of high school students, incoming college students and career changers.
Retention, From The Perspective Of A Veteran
At the beginning of August, Emilie Blanton was setting up her language arts classroom at Southern High School in Louisville, ready to begin her 12th year of teaching there.
“I realized I was a veteran probably in my fifth year, which is staggering to me,” Blanton said.
Many of the teachers who started with her, or a few years ahead of her, have left. Researchers using federal data have found that between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave in their first five years. Blanton says, in her experience, many teachers leave after their first three years.
“I have a lot of friends that have left in less than five years. A lot of the times they’ll tell me, it was too much work,” Blanton said.
Blanton says many beginning teachers hold high expectations for themselves, coming in at 6 a.m. and staying until late in the evening, carefully grading every sheet of homework, and taking on additional leadership like coaching a sport. Blanton says, that’s only natural; because teachers often started out as good students, they want to excel.
“You have these teachers that are burning so bright that they burn out before their third year is up,” Blanton said.
Studies show that another cause of teacher turnover is a lack of support from mentors and administrators. And in Southern High School’s case, Blanton says teachers left the school after it was labeled low-performing and the Kentucky Department of Education removed its principal in 2011.
“We rolled over almost 30 teachers,” Blanton remembers, about a third of the school’s teaching staff.
But that’s a rare example. Retention is better at JCPS than at many other districts. But of all the vacancies across Kentucky last school year, a third occurred because someone resigned.
A Multi-Faceted Problem
“At the end of the day, there is a cause, and it’s multiple causes,” Emilie Blanton said. “It’s multi-faceted.”
Some say the political climate is aggravating the teacher shortage. In Kentucky, some point to Governor Matt Bevin’s negative comments about teachers, or uncertainty about teachers’ pensions. Others point to state or federal education policies that, in an effort to hold schools accountable for students’ learning, can be seen as blaming schools for the poor test scores of disadvantaged students.
“I think if we want to make the profession more attractive to prospective teachers, we need to move away from blaming and shaming schools,” said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers’ Association, the local union representing teachers.
Blanton says it may feel satisfying to point fingers at politicians or state policies she doesn’t agree with, but it’s important to remember that the teacher shortage extends beyond Kentucky.
“The reality is, this has been slowly brewing for so long across the entire country. And it’s [an] issue with the entire American education system,” Blanton said.
The teacher shortage, with its many causes, will call for many solutions.
*This story has been updated. The original version of this story stated there were 2,974 vacancies posted for public school educators across the state as of August 1, 2019. This was based on data from the Kentucky Educator Placement Service, which is hosted by the Kentucky Department of Education. In a subsequent phone call on August 12, 2019, KDE spokeswoman Jessica Fletcher said that data may have been unreliable, and KDE was unaware of the fact when the records were provided. The actual, up-to-date number of teacher vacancies in Kentucky is unknown, but is likely lower than that initial number.