Teacher Vacancies: Understanding the Problem
By Clare McGuire
The Evening Education Committee recently reviewed and discussed the persistent problem of teacher vacancies in Illinois, Chicago and the rest of the country. Committee Chair Clare McGuire reports on efforts to address the issue and a factor that may be overlooked: school culture.
Regular consumers of news about education, local and national, will likely have noticed that the issue of teacher vacancies is coming up more and more. School districts across the country are experiencing teacher shortages, particularly in certain content areas—foreign languages and special education are particularly difficult to staff.
Rural districts face unique challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers, particularly in those areas that are farther away from major cities. These vacancies, which can be temporary or last for weeks or even months, may mean that students see a different substitute teacher every day or, in extreme cases, do not get sufficient instruction in a given subject.
Vacancies in Chicago
Research on teacher vacancies in Chicago Public Schools by local news organizations indicate that vacancies are especially likely in special education positions and in schools that serve majority African American and Hispanic students.
While the district has active programs to increase the pipeline of teacher candidates, especially black and Latinx candidates, and to provide opportunities for veteran teachers to mentor and coach new teachers in the system, the issue of vacancies remains pressing.
What’s Being Done about Them?
Efforts to combat this issue, which impacted 85% of Illinois districts in 2018, according to a survey of school superintendents, generally focus either on increasing the pipeline of eligible teachers and/or increasing pay or support to those already in the profession. Few strategies address issues of the day-to-day teaching experience, either at a micro or a macro level, that also impact an individual teacher’s decision to either exit the profession or not join it altogether.
In Illinois, the issue of teacher vacancies attracted the attention of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office. In August 2019, Governor Pritzker signed a law that will increase the minimum salary for all teachers statewide to $40,000 by 2023. These salary-related proposals, along with proposals to change or eliminate basic skills tests required to teach in Illinois classrooms, loosening salary caps, and providing payment to student teachers, aim to help attract more talented teachers into the profession.
Will the New CTU Contract Help?
Local Chicago observers have noted that, although the new contract signed by the Chicago Teachers Union will increase staffing in many if not all schools, those new positions will not actually benefit students if the district is unable to attract and retain candidates to provide instruction and student support. The experience of other states, including California and Hawaii, suggests that higher salaries may encourage teachers in neighboring districts to move to other schools, but it will not solve the overall issue for the larger region.
The Importance of School Culture
When we discussed this issue at our Education Committee meeting, the purely anecdotal response from the members supported this research but also pointed to an issue that is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to solve at a local level—culture. The culture at a given school may encourage or discourage teachers from staying in the profession, and the overall respect given to teachers in our national culture can do the same thing. Mentorship and social and emotional support may offer a school or district-level way to work on these issues, but they will be difficult to solve without the participation of many people who are not standing in front of classrooms or serving as superintendents.