Graves: Teacher shortages will be real, painful

During a "normal year," our vacancies run between 5% and 10%, which equates, roughly to 10 to 20 teachers — so far this spring, we have had 18 teacher vacancies for next year.

Joe Graves.jpg

“Will There Really Be a Mass Exodus of Teachers?” ran the bold-faced headline in Education Week, a reputable periodical covering the realities of public schooling in America. Madeline Will, the author, wrote a balanced piece on teacher retention mid- and, hopefully, post-pandemic.

Still, the National Education Association reported on a survey of 3,600 of its members which indicated that 55% intended to leave teaching sooner than planned because of the pandemic. So, while one should always take alarmist exclamations with a grain of salt, it is also true that schools need to prepare for teacher shortages, at least short-term ones.

As I speak with my colleagues in other schools, it seems pretty clear that teacher shortages are going to be real and painful this spring going into next fall.

But "real" is a far cry from 55%. Remember, too, that the NEA has an incentive for reporting the most dire predictions possible because part of their mission is to improve compensation and working conditions for American teachers. In this, they are being neither misguided nor deceptive. They are not misguided because they are doing their job. They are not being deceptive because they are reporting their findings, including what surveyed teachers were really asked. They didn’t ask how many teachers will be leaving the profession this year. They asked how many would be leaving sooner than planned because of the profession. That could mean this year or next year or five years from now.

Additionally, they are reporting on surveyed intentions not actual behavior. How things look mid-pandemic can be very different from how they look post-pandemic and in how one actually reacts to that perspective.


Which is a long way of saying that 55% isn’t probably very meaningful as it includes an awful lot of ifs and buts. (And I could go for some candy and nuts just now, come to think of it.)

Still, when I speak with a superintendent from a very rural area or any superintendent with a vacancy in a particularly hard-to-fill area, and hear that they have zero applicants, that is a crisis no matter the reality of 55%.

What I know best is the reality in Mitchell. So far this spring, we have had 18 teacher vacancies for next year. Fourteen of these we have already filled and, by the time this article, I suspect that number will have increased to 15 or 16. During a "normal year" our vacancies run between 5 and 10%, which equates, roughly to 10 to 20 teachers. The season is still early so having reached 9% already suggests our attrition will likely be a little higher than normal. But not a lot higher. That we are having good luck filling our vacancies with excellent candidates is promising as well.

Here’s a number that is known. In any given year, nationally, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession. That doesn’t mean an 8% vacancy rate as that percentage is much higher, including teachers who leave the profession and teachers who ‘churn,’ i.e. move to other school districts or to other teaching jobs, as well as teachers whose contracts are terminated, become professors in college education departments, etc.

Our latest number for teachers leaving the profession is 2.5%, less than one-third the national average. These include teachers who are retiring and those who have decided either that teaching is not for them or that they just need a pandemic-induced break from it.

There is also the issue of employee retention in general. In my father’s generation, people frequently stayed in the same profession, even the same job, their whole working lives. Today, three, five or even seven different careers are not unheard of. We are a much more mobile society today, in so many ways.

There are always some reasons to be optimistic. (And not just because that is a good way to live your life in general.) South Dakota provided schools a 6% increase in funding this year and schools are using those dollars, pretty consistently, to improve employee compensation. The Governor and the legislature took steps to address personnel shortages.

Leaving me in my usual stance: look skeptically at the alarmists but prepare, nevertheless, for the worst.

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