Teacher Shortage and No End in Sight

by Matt Hurt

Twenty years ago in Southwest Virginia, PreK-6-endorsed teachers would apply at a rate of 5 to 10 applicants for each posted position. Fully endorsed teachers would sometimes spend years in hourly teachers’ aides positions waiting for their turn to get their own classroom and a full-time teaching contract. Then, a little more than ten years ago, the supply began to dry up. Now the flood of teachers produced by our colleges has dwindled to a trickle. As it turns out, all of this occurred prior to the current political unpleasantness.

During the pandemic, teachers really began to burn out. JMU soon is expected to publish a paper which describes this phenomenon. My understanding is that researchers found that during COIVD teachers felt like they were not able to help their students be successful. They got into the field not to make millions of dollars annually, but to help kids. The pandemic and school closures made this much more difficult. Now that so many kids are so far behind, many teachers find it difficult to believe they’ll ever be able to help them get caught up.

This year, I have listened to a disturbing number of administrators talk about teachers leaving in the middle of the year. This certainly happened prior to this year, but it was a very uncommon event. Now, it is all too common.

The amazing thing is that this is even happening in places that have not been subjected to all of the political unpleasantness. It is possible that the pandemic jolted teachers into reconsidering their priorities. When they compared their priorities to the relatively little money they bring home each month (relative to the stresses and strains associated with the job), they decided there must be a better way.

While salary is not the major reason individuals go into the teaching field, it certainly can serve as an incentive. In Virginia, that incentive is not as lucrative as it is in many states, either in overall dollar amounts or in relative terms. Virginia ranks approximately 8th in average household income, and 32nd in average teacher salaries. According to this metric, Virginia offers the worst pay relative to average income in the country. New York and Virginia are the major outliers in this comparison. New York’s average household income was $199 more per year than Virginia, yet the average New York teacher brings home $32,622 dollars more per year than the average colleague in Virginia.

At a time when the inflation rate is at 8.5% and continues to rise with no end in sight, our legislators are arguing about whether to provide teachers with a 4% or a 5% raise. At today’s inflation rate, they’re really arguing whether to give them a 3.5% or a 4.5% pay cut in real terms.

While teachers do not primarily go into the field for the money, we must improve teacher salaries. We need to entice more candidates into the field, and to incentivize more teachers to remain in the field. If we don’t, we will be forced to significantly lower our teacher licensure standards to staff our classrooms, stack 40 students in each class, or force many kids into online instruction. This problem has been brewing for years, and it seems that Covid has caused it to boil over.

Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program based in Wise.