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What One Record-Setting Teacher Shortage Can Tell Us About the Profession

In a field house on a balmy mid-November evening, principals and district leaders here were waiting for prospective teachers to stop by so they could make their pitch: Come work for us. We need you.

The Mid-Del school system didn’t used to focus on recruitment in the middle of the school year, but the strategy has become increasingly common in the state as more teachers quit midyear, and as other vacancies remain unfilled for months.

The 12,500-student district was hiring for multiple teaching positions—elementary, secondary, and special education, the toughest shortage area in the state—as well as for paraprofessionals, tutors, and speech pathologists.

And school nurses. And office workers, cafeteria staff, and maintenance workers.

In other words, if you wanted to work in education, you could probably get a job here—and fast. The problem, of course, is finding enough people who are interested.

Alexander Fraboulet, an English education major at the University of Oklahoma, attended the job fair to network. But the senior said in an interview that he’s still not sure if he wants to teach in Oklahoma after he graduates this spring. Most people in his cohort at school aren’t planning to stick around the state, either, he added—they’re planning on getting jobs in Texas or Colorado, where the pay is higher.

“It would almost be financially irresponsible for the long term to go teach in Oklahoma,” he said.

In a sense, Oklahoma amplifies many of the issues now facing the American teaching profession. People are reluctant to go into teaching, in large part because they can make more money in other fields.

Often, they’re discouraged by their loved ones, including those who are teachers themselves, as new EdWeek Research Center data confirms. Many are deterred by reports of unfavorable working conditions and what they feel is a lack of public respect toward the profession.

It all leads to a vicious cycle of sorts: Low pay, coupled with the heavy scrutiny of teachers and their teaching practices, causes the teacher pipeline to contract. There’s a scramble to fill vacant positions. Certification standards are lowered to get more bodies into classrooms. As the new teachers come in, many others leave.

Such trends have played out differently across states—but they have buffeted the Sooner State intensely, and serve as a microcosm for understanding the tensions in the field.

Over the past few years there have been “continued challenges, left and right, to teacher autonomy, to curriculum, to just every aspect of teaching,” said Shelbie Witte, the senior director of teacher education at Oklahoma State University, the largest teacher-preparation program in the state.

“The struggle we have is everyone thinks that they’re an expert in education because they went to school,” she continued. “There is an art and craft to teaching … that takes skill to know how to do and how to do it well. … I would never treat a professional the way that professionals in education are treated across the country. But you only need to look to Oklahoma recently to see that playing out.”

Pay is increasing, but turnover remains high

Districts nationwide have struggled with finding enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms, but Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is particularly severe. Enrollment in the state’s teacher-preparation programs plummeted by 80 percent from 2001 to 2018.

Since then, enrollment has started to slowly rebound, although schools are still struggling to find and keep teachers. In the 2022-23 school year, Oklahoma schools reported more than 1,000 teaching vacancies.

To fill the gaps, the state has repeatedly set new records for the number of emergency teacher certifications it has issued for people who hold a bachelor’s degree but haven’t met the state’s teaching qualifications—more than 4,600 this school year alone. (In contrast, the state issued 32 such certifications in the 2011-12 school year.)

There are hundreds more so-called adjunct teachers, who have relevant work experience but not necessarily a teaching certificate or college degree, in Oklahoma classrooms. State legislators changed the rules to let adjuncts teach full-time, pending local school board approval, in 2022.

“We need to really figure out where to find people who want to give teaching a try,” said Rick Cobb, the superintendent of the Mid-Del schools.

Pay is a significant factor. It reached a boiling point in 2018, when teachers across the state walked out en masse for nine days to protest stagnant salaries and what they called inadequate funding for public schools. The walkout resulted in the largest teacher pay raise in the history of the state at the time, and the first in a decade.

By the 2022-23 school year, Oklahoma teachers were making an average of $55,541—a 23 percent increase from six years earlier, but still below the average salary in many neighboring states. (In Texas, teachers made an average of $60,716; in Colorado, the average teacher salary was $61,907; and in New Mexico, it’s $63,580, all according to an analysis by the National Education Association. The national average teacher salary was $68,469.)

That same school year, Oklahoma’s teacher turnover rate was 24 percent, the highest in a decade. The figure includes both teachers who changed schools or who moved to a non-teaching job within the same school, as well as those who left the profession entirely.

State lawmakers are responding. To curb the shortage, they have funneled more money into schools and salaries. Last spring, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a record education funding package, which included $625 million for public schools, teacher pay raises of $3,000 to $6,000 depending on experience, and six weeks of paid maternity leave for teachers.

Lawmakers also established a scholarship and employment incentive program for teachers who are trained in an Oklahoma teacher-preparation program that grants a $20,000 bonus for staying in the job for five years. Some state legislators are proposing an additional teacher pay raise this year.

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters also allocated $16 million for a teacher signing bonus program: Certified teachers who committed to teaching special education or grades preK-3 for at least five years could receive up to $50,000.

Dan Isett, the director of communications of the state education department, said more than 500 teachers are now in Oklahoma classrooms as a direct result of the bonuses. (Funding for the program has been exhausted, but the department is leaving the application open for the possibility of additional funding in the future.)

“Introducing free market principles like this into our education system is absolutely essential in rewarding our best teachers and driving positive change for our students,” Isett wrote in an email.

Even so, educators in the state say there’s still a long way to go before teaching in the state is considered a sustainable and attractive profession. The negative rhetoric about teachers isn’t helping either, they add.

Walters has become one of the loudest critics of public school teachers in the country as he seeks to root out what he sees as a toxic “woke ideology.” Walters, a former high school history teacher, has called teachers’ unions “terrorist organizations,” claimed that districts make pornographic books available to students, and has called for individual educators to lose their licenses or jobs.

“The radical teachers’ unions have fought against parental involvement and choice in schools, have pushed porn into the classroom and libraries, and have been the guardians of the failed status quo in education for generations,” Isett said. “Oklahomans are right to be fed up, and Superintendent Walters is their voice to bring sanity back to education.”

The state restricted how teachers can discuss race and racism in the classroom, and Walters has pursued additional prohibitions on the books available in schools to weed out what he says is “sexualized content.”

“We have rules, regulations, laws that say that you’re not going to go and indoctrinate kids, and you still have left-wing activists who do it,” Walters told the Wall Street Journal.

The accusation is offensive to some teachers.

“I don’t let my 7th graders make a claim without evidence, yet we let this elected official do it, and our state by and large believes what he has to say,” said Heather Davis, an English teacher at Central Middle School in Bartlesville.

The negative comments are draining, educators said, even though they largely feel respected by members in their own communities.

“While the few [voices] that may be very disrespectful are just a few, they’re very loud,” said Katherine Bishop, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “It hurts at your core.”

Young people have a poor perception of teaching as a career

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that teaching in Oklahoma has a real public relations problem.

Jacob Pleasants, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma’s college of education, surveyed first-year college students in a variety of majors in the falls of 2022 and 2023 about their views about teaching. He shared some preliminary findings with Education Week.

Of the more than 900 respondents, 50 people said they were already planning to become a teacher, and 490 said they would not consider teaching. The rest were somewhere in the middle—27 said they were strongly considering going into teaching, but it wasn’t their first choice, and 376 said they weren’t planning on becoming a teacher, but they would consider it.

Those two categories represent the people who teacher-educators and policymakers should try to convince to give teaching a shot, Pleasants said. But it’s an uphill battle.

It’s not convincing them of the job’s power to change lives that’s the problem. It’s countering the bad storylines floating around.

“Everyone agrees that teachers make a huge difference,” Pleasants said. “But people have this perception that teaching is a grindingly difficult job—almost like a joyless profession.”

Respondents had picked up on the rhetoric about the profession, as well as a sense that it involved low pay, long hours, and little autonomy. “A lot of people said, ‘I wouldn’t want to be a teacher because teachers are not respected by parents, respected by politicians, respected by students,’” Pleasants said.

And respondents indicated that they’re not getting much encouragement to go into teaching, either, from close, trusted sources.

“The number of people who said that, ‘My teachers have actively discouraged me from going into teaching,’ was like, holy cow,” Pleasants said. “A lot of them also said that a family member [who is a teacher] also told [them], ‘Don’t go into teaching, it’s terrible.’ That was one of those mind-blowing things here—the sheer number of people who are reporting that the people discouraging them from teaching are the teachers in their life.”

That trend is not unique to Oklahoma: Nearly 80 percent of teachers across the United States said they were not likely to advise their own child or a child of a loved one to pursue a career in teaching, according to a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center.

‘Hungry’ for teachers

In the meantime, districts in Oklahoma are trying every avenue they can to fill their classrooms.

Some principals have urged their student-teachers to quit school before graduating so they can hire them as adjunct teachers full-time, teacher-educators have said.

And the competition is fierce.

Fraboulet, the senior education major at the University of Oklahoma, said at one job fair, recruiters were literally trying to grab hold of teachers.

“Districts were pulling me to the side, taking my arm, which you never see at a job fair for any [other field like] accounting. You usually approach them if you’re interested,” he said. “They were hungry.”

There was no such arm-pulling at the Mid-Del school district job fair, but administrators there were hoping to make a good impression. School leaders decorated tables with jars of candy, pictures of school sports teams, and mascot memorabilia, like a stuffed tiger head and a blue jay. About 20 prospective applicants came by over the course of an hour, shaking hands and hearing sales pitches.

Recruiting teachers these days “is a challenge,” said Charita Hunt, the principal of Midwest City Elementary School. “You just look everywhere. You’re just constantly looking.”

Hunt was recruiting for a paraprofessional at the job fair. Those positions have had the highest amount of turnover lately, she said, because she’s been tapping her current paraprofessionals to become adjunct teachers. Such a cycle is common in Oklahoma; school leaders say they’d rather have their paraprofessionals fill in, since they know the school community and have experience working with students. That’s not always an option, though.

“We’ve had emergency certified teachers who don’t have education experience but [do have] a college degree that have turned into great teachers,” said Cobb, the Mid-Del superintendent. He’s now hoping his adjunct teachers will pursue their college degrees and become fully certified teachers.

Even so, educators say that the high volume of emergency certified and adjunct teachers in the state has shifted the culture and climate in schools. Principals are overwhelmed with getting those teachers up to speed and providing more intensive support, which can pull them away from their other responsibilities.

Certified teachers are also asked to do more to support their untrained colleagues, who often don’t understand things like individualized education programs or high-stakes assessments, said Davis, the teacher in Bartlesville.

“It does put an additional stress onto the teachers who have been here and who are traditionally certified,” she said. “As the experienced teachers, we didn’t sign up to be your teacher as well. We’re happy to help, but it does take a toll.”

Even first-year teachers are often asked to mentor emergency certified teachers, teacher-educators and union leaders say.

Some teachers are “just saying, ‘I can’t continue to do this,’” said Bishop, the state teachers’ union president.

In other words, “every time they reduce the requirements, the shortage gets worse,” said Kim Pennington, the director of educator preparation and assistant dean of the University of Central Oklahoma’s college of education. “It’s having an inverse effect.”

Early signs of recovery

There are some signs of hope on the horizon, as the declines in teacher-preparation enrollment in the state have started to reverse.

The University of Central Oklahoma, for instance, is expecting to welcome its largest incoming class this fall in at least the past six years. By Feb. 15, the college had admitted 347 education majors for the fall—a 260 percent increase compared to this time in 2022 and a 180 percent increase from this time in 2023. The school admits students on a rolling basis throughout the spring.

“It’s showing me that there’s an uptick in students who are raising their hand saying, yes, I want to be a teacher,” said Jennifer Burris, the project manager of teacher recruitment and retention there. She’s hopeful that the state’s new pay raises, scholarships, and incentive program will encourage them to teach in Oklahoma after they graduate.

Still, teachers in the state are waiting for more to change.

“The disrespect and the unfunded mandates just keep coming,” Davis said. Some veteran teachers have said of the 2018 walkout: “Are we going to have to keep doing this every five to six years just to keep their attention?” she noted.

After all, it was the second one in Davis’ career—teachers in the state walked off the job in 1990, too, for similar reasons.

“It’s like home ownership—it’s constant maintenance,” Davis said of teacher advocacy. “We can’t just say we’re done and call it finished. I’m just so exhausted by it all.”

Even so, she said, she can’t imagine doing anything else. The love for the job keeps her—and so many peers in Oklahoma and elsewhere—in the classroom, despite all the frustrations.

“I don’t know of any other profession anywhere that gets to see a kid’s brain in action and see the learning happen and see the synapses firing off in their brains—and I get to see that, on a good day, multiple times a day,” Davis said. “It’s very, very hard, [but] what we do is important, and it’s worth it.”

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