Terri Lynn Weaver Commentary:

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Yes, Tennessee There is a Teacher Shortage JC Bowman & Terri Lynn Weaver

Because of living conditions, as well as starvation, numerous Irish fled Ireland to come to the United States. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic Ocean as a “bowl of bitter tears” and an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going and we cannot bid them stay.”

Today in Tennessee over 7,000 teachers are already eligible to retire and by 2024 that number will add another 3,300 teachers. We already had a teacher shortage in special education. We had a teacher shortage in math and science. We are seeing other teachers walking away, some in elementary and other key subject areas, as well.

School is opening this month in Tennessee, and many classrooms will likely be missing teachers to start the school year. In February, Marta Aldrich reported inChalkbeat that Assistant Education Commissioner, Charlie Bufalino, put the estimate at “about 2,200 teacher vacancies, although other estimates put the count significantly higher.” We believe the number could be higher as well. We know that Channel 5 Reporter, Emily West, reported that there are over 1,000 projected vacancies in Middle Tennessee to start the 2022-2023 school year.

Vacant teaching positions lead to increased class sizes, student behavioral problems, and lower standards for hiring both permanent and substitute teachers. There are also huge shortages of bus drivers and substitute teachers. If you throw that all on the heels of a global pandemic, maternity leaves, and natural disasters, our schools are stretched waybeyond the classroom walls of any school. Educators simply do not feel respected for the amazing job they do.

Our Colleges of Education are amazing. However, they cannot do it alone. The number of applicants to become teachers is inadequate. Fewer students are choosing to go into the education field while schools across America are seeing an increased need for new teachers. In policy, we better start paying attention to the quality and quantity of those leaving the field of education. The teacher shortage is not looming, the teacher shortage is here. Grow Your Own is a good program but will never be the major method for teacher recruitment to address this problem.

The existing teacher shortage—especially in special education, math, and science, and in schools serving students of color, low-income students, and English learners—will only increase, based on the predicted increase in the school-going population in the future.
Colleges of Education must also address how to serve Career & Technical Education (CTE).

Areas such as business, agriculture, health, automotive, and mechatronics programs need high-quality teachers. We should also consider how to better build the skills of paraprofessionals who collaborate with teachers in classrooms in critical roles. Teachers are the number one in-school influence on student achievement. Data indicates that in the last 20 years, teacher attrition has nearly doubled. Sixteen to 30% of teachers leave the teaching profession each year. It is estimated that school districts now spend $1B to $2.2B per year nationally replacing teachers. The average cost to replace a teacher is about $20,000 each in many districts.
Education degrees can take many years to complete and incur student debt. Alternative certifications routes often take much less time. 

We need flexible programs designed to have qualified adults teaching quickly and affordably. We need to consider these options if we are going to expand the teacher pipeline to get more applicants for schools and districts. It is time to expand the alternative certification choices in our state. We should give our Colleges of Education more flexibility to create innovative programs.

We know there are many issues facing public education. However, with challenges come opportunities. We need to keep our most effective educators in the classroom and in public education. Our federal, state, and district policymakers must take this issue seriously. We are losing too many good educators, and it is time we address the issue. We must modernize teacher licensure procedures to meet the demand and address the teacher shortage.

Not all news is gloom and doom. Despite the working conditions and negative comments by some, many educators are staying in their profession. This is due to strong leadership by Directors of Schools and Principals, as well as peer support. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Teachers who have felt supported by their school administration want to stay. Teachers are also staying if they feel they have a voice and are being heard in the decision-making process.”

However, there are still educators who are leaving the profession. Just like the Irish a century and a half ago, they are moving away permanently. They are going, going, going and we cannot bid them stay. We must reverse this trend as soon as possible, not just for us today but for those who come after us.

Terri Lynn Weaver is the state representative for the 40th District in Tennessee. JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.