Because of living conditions, as well as starvation, numerous Irish fled Ireland to come to the United States. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic Ocean as a “bowl of bitter tears” and an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going and we cannot bid them stay.”
Today in Tennessee over 7,000 teachers are already eligible to retire and by 2024 that number will add another 3,300 teachers. We already had a teacher shortage in special education. We had a teacher shortage in math and science. We are seeing other teachers walking away, some in elementary and other key subject areas, as well.
Vacant teaching positions lead to increased class sizes, student behavioral problems, and lower standards for hiring both permanent and substitute teachers. There are also huge shortages of bus drivers and substitute teachers. If you throw that all on top of a global pandemic, maternity leaves, and natural disasters, our schools are stretched way beyond the classroom walls of any school.
Our Colleges of Education simply cannot meet this demand as the number of applicants to become teachers is inadequate. Fewer students are choosing to go into the education field while schools across America are seeing an increased need for new teachers. As stakeholders, we are concerned about the quality and quantity of applicants entering the field of education. In policy, we better start paying attention to the quality and quantity of those leaving the field of education. The teacher shortage is not looming, the teacher shortage is here.
The existing teacher shortage—especially in special education, math, and science, and in schools serving students of color, low-income students, and English learners—will likely only increase, based on the predicted increase in the school-going population in the future. Colleges of Education must also address how to serve Career & Technical Education (CTE). Areas such as business, agriculture, health, automotive, and mechatronics programs need high-quality teachers. We should also consider how to better build the skills of paraprofessionals who work alongside teachers in classrooms in critical roles.
Teachers are the number one in-school influence on student achievement. Data indicates that in the last 20 years, teacher attrition has nearly doubled. 16–30% of teachers leave the teaching profession each year. It is estimated by some that school districts now spend $1B to $2.2B per year nationally replacing teachers. The average cost to replace a teacher is about $20,000 each in many districts.
Education degrees can take many years to complete and incur student debt. Alternative certifications routes often take much less time. We need flexible programs designed to have qualified adults teaching quickly and affordably. We need to consider these options if we are going to expand the teacher pipeline to get more applicants for schools and districts. It is time to expand the alternative certification choices in our state.
We know there are many issues facing public education. However, with challenges come opportunities. We need to keep our most effective educators in the classroom and in public education. Our federal, state, and district policymakers must take this issue seriously. We are losing too many good educators, and it is time we address the issue. We must modernize teacher licensure procedures to meet the demand and address the teacher shortage.
Teachers are leaving the profession. Just like the Irish, a century and a half ago, they are moving away permanently. They are going, going, going and we cannot bid them stay. We must reverse this trend as soon as possible, not just for today but for those who come after us.
J.C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.