By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

About a decade ago, I had the privilege of sharing an office for three years with my department chairman—we’ll call him Gus—who was possibly the most dedicated teacher I’ve ever worked with. He was brilliant, he was funny, and he had a cult following among the kids despite being rather demanding. Of all the teachers I ever encountered professionally, he was the one who seemed most likely to be a lifer. 

We got together recently, having not seen each other in several years. Gus has quit the biz and recently joined the State Department, which is now subjecting him to total immersion in a highly challenging Asian language. A few weeks ago, his teacher took the class through the vocabulary of woe and calamity, starting with minor illness and progressing through natural disaster, crime, war, and terrorism. The next time a conversation drill rolled around, the teacher asked Gus whether he would return to teaching if he couldn’t work for the Foreign Service. 

“I would commit suicide first,” Gus told her. 

The teacher smiled gently.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s what you meant to say,” she sweetly replied. “I think you probably meant—”

“I know what I said,” Gus assured her. 

A great many former teachers feel like Gus does. A great many current teachers are well along toward feeling like Gus does. A great many young adults want to be sure they never feel like Gus does.   

We have a teacher shortage, and it’s getting worse.  

One teacher in twenty is a rookie.

According to a recent report by Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss of the Economic Policy Institute, the American school system has gone from having no teacher shortage in 2013 to a shortage of 110,000 by 2017-18. Between 2008-09 and 2015-16, the number of education degrees awarded nationwide fell by 15.4 percent, and the number of people completing teaching preparation programs fell by 27.4 percent. Nearly 5 percent of teachers now are newly hired and in their first year on the job, and the percentage is growing. CNN reports that about 8 percent of teachers leave the profession each year and that two-thirds quit before reaching retirement age.

Money is a factor, of course. The average starting salary for teachers nationwide is $38,617, while the average salary for teachers as a whole is $58,950. Garcia and Weiss report that teachers’ salaries relative to the salaries of non-teachers are declining rapidly: As of 2018, teachers were making 21.4 percent less than other workers with comparable levels of education, a steep decline from the 6.3 percent gap prevailing as recently as 1996. Nearly 60 percent of teachers perform additional paid work, either outside the school system or within it as coaches, activity sponsors, and mentors. Nearly a fifth of teachers who leave the profession are moonlighters. 

“Money answereth all things”? Not quite.

The salary problem, though worsening, is of course nothing new. The school system has always depended on a steady supply of people who were willing to accept some financial disappointment in exchange for the satisfaction of teaching. One of the leading causes of the teacher shortage is that the satisfaction is on the wane because of what the EPI study calls “school climate.”

Garcia and Weiss report that 22 percent of teachers say they have been threatened and that one teacher in eight reports having been physically attacked by a student in the school where he or she is currently employed. Seventy-one percent of teachers complain of having insufficient influence over what they teach, and nearly 75 percent complain of insufficient influence over what instructional materials they use, “which suggests low respect for their knowledge and judgment.” 

How uncomfortable are today’s teachers with today’s school climate? Enough that 58 percent are not sure they would do it all again if they could live their lives over. 

“God” and “dog” are formed from the same components.

Our own dialogue with current educators and former colleagues sheds additional light on factors promoting the teacher shortage. Teachers increasingly feel that they are expected to compensate for everything that is amiss in the life of every child, playing roles formerly associated with parents, clergy, social workers, and mental health professionals. At the same time, they live under the constant threat of complaints from demanding parents, many of whom no longer go through formal channels with their grievances but who instead air their dissatisfaction on social media or in the news media, often to the point of outright defamation.

Nearly anything a teacher says or does can be interpreted as sexist or racist by someone, and teachers complain of working in an inquisitorial Big Brother culture in which a misquote by a spiteful adolescent carries more weight than the word and the track record of a responsible professional, and in which administrators sacrifice teachers in order to placate difficult parents.

Many teachers believe that administrators and politicians make extravagant promises about student outcomes and then leave teachers to take the heat when students fall short of those results for reasons utterly outside the control of the teacher. One of the most debilitatingly stressful situations any person can experience is the simultaneous increase in responsibility and reduction in authority, and many teachers report this as a chronic year-to-year or even day-to-day phenomenon. 

Jessica Gentry went viral last month with a Facebook post explaining why she left her teaching job in Virginia, where 22 percent of teachers leave after their first year and half leave their first school after four years. “It’s not about pay, it never was and never will be. It’s just about respect.”

teacher shortage

Word games won’t resolve the teacher shortage.

Nathan J. Robinson argued last year in Current Affairs that there is no teacher shortage, but merely an insufficient number of applicants because pay and conditions are poor. Offer larger salaries and a more pleasant experience (Robinson dwells mostly on the salaries) and presto, the teachers will appear. He maintains that “if you increased the pay sufficiently, you’d find qualified people even if the job was terrible.” He overlooks the sharp decrease in the number of people pursuing training as educators, and in any case seems to be confusing potential teachers with actual teachers. Even if we ignore the decline in teacher education and accept for the sake of argument Robinson’s assertion that the pool of qualified people is still sufficient, those people are nonetheless not becoming teachers. Therefor we do not have enough teachers. We have a teacher shortage. 

There are still opportunities to do good and do well.

Historically the teaching profession has been populated with people who enjoy learning and helping other people learn. Today the teaching profession is mostly about other things much of the time. Combine a feeling of disillusionment and frustration with a feeling of being poor, and you have a teacher shortage that Garcia and Weiss call a “perfect storm in the teacher labor market.”

Amid the gloom, on the other hand, there are opportunities for young adults with the right outlook and skills and for people in mid-career whose experience would make them vital contributors to the learning process of children and teenagers. Teaching is still just the thing for some people, but a good plan is necessary for avoiding heartache. Those who drift into the teaching profession or who prepare for it without a definite strategy are the ones most likely to end up being thrown under the school bus. 

If you love learning and love helping other people, what are you supposed to do? 

The school system isn’t Purgatory for everyone in it. Here at The Coaching Educator, we number among our greatest successes our work with student/clients who assembled a combination of skills and interests—a talent for both STEM and foreign languages, to name one example—and positioned themselves to receive generous financial aid in high-quality teacher training programs that prepared them for happier situations than many teachers have come to expect. With our own training and experience in education, we feel keenly the pain of teachers and counselors, and we also are concerned about the future of elementary and secondary education. American schools are looking for more than a few good men and women, and we’d like to help match talent and demand. 

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Recommended Reading About Higher Education

Culp, Paul. “Decline in College Enrollment Continues,” The Coaching Educator, 3 June 2019, http://tce.local/2019/06/03/decline-in-college-enrollment-continues/

Culp, Paul. “Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us,” The Coaching Educator, 16 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/16/scams-scandals-school-counselors-and-us/

Culp, Paul. “Sustained! The Surplus of Law School Graduates,” The Coaching Educator, 14 May 2019, http://tce.local/2019/05/14/sustained-the-surplus-of-law-school-graduates/

Culp, Paul. “Trade School or College? What to Consider,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2019, http://tce.local/2019/05/29/trade-school-or-college-what-to-consider/

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