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Help Wanted: 800 Teachers

August 21, 2014

The most important news story this week relative to public schools in Oklahoma is the fact that as children have returned to classes, districts still have over 800 teaching vacancies. This is the count released by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association in a survey of districts this week. According to the Tulsa World, about 70 of those vacancies are in Tulsa Public Schools. According to the Oklahoman, 70 more are in Oklahoma City Public Schools. This is not just an urban schools problem. Across the state, all kinds of districts are struggling to find teachers. The OSSBA survey also found:

  • More than half of districts with vacancies said they have sought emergency certification for teachers who aren’t fully qualified to teach the subject and/or grade level for which they were hired.

  • About half of the districts also said they will use long- or short-term substitute teachers to fill vacancies.

  • Many districts that reported no vacancies said they have hired short- and long-term substitutes in place of full-time teachers.

  • The shortage is hitting districts of all sizes in every area of the state.

  • Special education is the most difficult teaching area to fill, followed by elementary education, high school science and high school math.

  • A handful of districts offer incentives to improve teacher recruitment and retention, but most districts do not, citing financial constraints.

  • Not only are local school officials deeply concerned about the scarcity of applicants, they are worried about the quality of educators who do apply.

This is a problem on many levels. Students deserve good teachers, whether it is at the foundational level, such as in first grade classes, or in specialized upper-level courses, such as chemistry and calculus. No principal wants to hire a teacher just because he was the only applicant. Yet sometimes that happens. The third point in the findings – that special education positions are hardest to fill – has always been true, just never to the magnitude that schools are experiencing this year.

When I posted the story to Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday, one reader had this comment:

Let me get this straight… Not many people want a job where they get to put up with undisciplined youth, unclear standards, and low pay? Plus completely inept leadership at the state and federal level? Hmmm….. One does wonder….

That’s a pretty good summary of what keeps people away, but I’d say the top three reasons go in this order:

  1. Pay
  2. Lack of respect
  3. Working conditions

Every story on the shortage circles back to pay, and that’s a big part of the problem. Oklahoma has not increased the salary scale for teachers since 2006. While districts have added incrementally when they are able to, there is no additional state funding to support this. In fact, state aid to schools is still below 2008 levels. The things that teachers have to buy for themselves and their families, however, are not below 2008 levels.

Teacher salaries in Oklahoma have always been below our neighboring states and most of the nation. When I started teaching, we used to always say, “Thank God for Mississippi!” Fortunately, we still have them, plus an occasional Dakota, to make us look good. Why is this impacting staffing now? In the past, teachers have had more job satisfaction. It’s a big deal to know you’re making a difference in children’s lives. You may be the only adult who is kind in their lives. Or you may be one of many. In any case, you know that you’re needed, and you stick with it – until you can’t.

Over the last 15 years, respect for the profession has eroded, pretty much as the influence of for-profit education has risen. The private sector thinks it can do a better job, and they’ve convinced enough politicians they’re right that they’re getting a turn at the wheel. Politicians (in both parties) bash the teachers unions. The problem I have with that is you can’t bash the union and say you support teachers. Who do you think populates the unions? And are the NEA and AFT so powerful that teachers are making states go broke? Hardly!

We hear all the time about using test scores to evaluate teachers, but in the corporate world, these models are being shelved. Even Microsoft has gone away from this kind of quantitative ranking of employees! Salaries are stagnant, but politicians would rather listen to the Fordham Foundation, Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Campbell Brown, and the Waltons talk about education than the teachers doing the job. Yes, pay matters, but respect is important too.

Over time, we’ve also seen schools become a harder place to teach. I should mention that after decades in the profession, I still love students. If you can’t go a day without lamenting that these kids today are different, you probably shouldn’t be a teacher. Yes, they’re different. And no, they’re not. They still want to feel safe and be accepted. They still have hopes and dreams. And just as when we were kids, they still think that the adults are out of touch. They don’t get that we were their age too – which is perfectly fine.

More than ever, though, teachers are burdened with tasks that have nothing to do with instruction. The paperwork demands with justifying their own employment are ridiculous. This has led to more and more veteran teachers taking retirement at the first possible opportunity. It would be different if the policy churn and regulatory climate of public education were meaningful. Instead, schools are increasingly houses of frustration. It’s hard to see the difference you are making when you constantly have to document minutiae. Budgets also impact class size, custodial services, and the availability of instructional resources. These things matter to teachers too.

Ours is a profession that fewer people want to enter. While this disappoints me, I completely understand. Just the same, if I could talk to the 20 year-old me who picked this career path, I would simply say, “go for it.” I still have positive relationships with my former students and their families. I enjoy meeting new teachers and working with veteran educators. I see the difference we make every day, and when we can find committed people who want to impact lives, I still have no problem advising them to enter the teaching profession.

Many of us are fortunate enough to live in communities that support education and help out where the state and federal governments merely interfere. Overall, though, the world will never truly grasp what we do or why we defend it so fiercely. Right now, the state needs about 800 more people who understand.

  1. joeddins
    August 21, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I suggest there several hundred teaching positions filled with first and second year Teach For America volunteers. While we appreciate them, they are a long way from career certified professionals. Add them to the 800; plus positions filled with substitute teachers throughout the year, and on a given day we may have 2,000 uncertified career teachers in our schools.


  2. Bec
    August 21, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Oklahoma government will not pay teachers a decent wage, but it will hire people with no education training and the Teach for America volunteers to teach. Then, the governor and legislators will complain about the job that educators are doing while blaming the “teachers’ unions” for all the problems. Wonder why we have a teacher shortage?


    • Teacher's Husband
      August 24, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      Don’t forget the perks, financial and additional educational opportunities in additional degrees (not in education necessarily) given TFAers if they complete their two years. Only goes to them.


  1. August 27, 2014 at 7:18 am
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