Are teacher shortages the actual problem?

As a young teacher in the urban core of Kansas City, I was passionate about giving each of my students the opportunities they deserved by being a high quality teacher. Although I was both traditionally trained and a Teach for America corps member, I faced a steep learning curve my first year in my classroom. Through the investment of peers, veteran teachers, and my own learning pursuits, I somehow made it through that first year. But as the next couple of years passed, it was clear one major piece was missing: coaching and development. Despite my own pursuits, I desperately needed an outside perspective that could give me tangible action steps and solutions. As I watched other new teachers around me, trajectories varied. Some stayed a couple of years and then left. Others quit after a semester, leaving a class of eager learners to be met with a revolving door of substitutes.

Herein lies a major issue facing the world of education today: teacher shortages. Many theories exist as to why (or even if) this is occurring. But before we can even begin to suggest solutions, it is critical that we follow Einstein’s mindset: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Throwing solutions at the problem without truly understanding it will result in zero progress.

So let’s ask the question. Are teacher shortages the actual problem?  To begin, let’s disaggregate the data to gain clarification. A 1998 study by the National Association of State Boards of Education and again in 2003, found that if we merely took the numbers of teachers being prepared each year, every vacancy could be filled. The problem actually lies in the distribution of teachers. Well-qualified teachers are less likely to be willing to teach in urban and rural schools, especially those serving students of color or low-income students. The shortage is also exacerbated by region, and subject area (STEM fields, special education, and bilingual education to name a few).

Fast forward 18 years, and the story hasn’t changed. In a white paper by the Center for Public Education in 2016, they outlined the same issues. So is there a shortage? The net effect seems to suggest that if you argue merely numbers, no. But if you look below the surface, you will see that, like many issues that face our country, it disproportionately and dramatically affects certain groups. Not surprisingly one of the most affected areas is within urban schools, which disproportionately affects students of color and low income students.  That doesn’t even begin to account for compounding factors such as students of color being overrepresented in special education.

Teachers in these settings not only operate in short-staffed settings, but they have little power to affect the necessary changes. I made the choice to pursue school leadership to increase my influence over the challenges facing our students in Kansas City. Now, as an assistant principal helping lead a school and city full of brilliant and talented scholars, I do not have the time to wait for this long-existing shortage to be solved at a national or policy level. We cannot wait. Our students, who have been and continue to be underserved, cannot wait. So what can we do?

First and foremost, the goal currently is not having a plethora of applicants, but rather finding and retaining the right teachers. If we hire great teachers, but do not create the environment to retain them, we will continue to fight a losing battle. TNTP’s Irreplaceables study provides valuable insight. Irreplaceable educators are those that consistently achieve strong results with students, in this case an average of 1.6 years of growth in 1 year! Schools too often operate with negligent retention–making no more efforts to retain high quality teachers than low quality teachers.

Additionally, the study suggests that some of the most effective strategies to retain these irreplaceable teachers up to 6 years longer have little or no cost. The types of strategies? Providing both positive and critical feedback, identifying areas of development, recognizing accomplishments publicly, and putting the teacher in charge of something important. By practicing smart retention, it’s possible not only to retain more of the teachers that are hard to find, especially in urban contexts, but also to change the ratio of more effective to less effective teachers as measured by student results.

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” -Einstein.

Time to ask some different questions. The principal of Ranson IB in Charlotte NC, Erica Jordan-Thomas, is doing just that. In her TEDx Charlotte talk, she discusses the idea of “Beyoncé educators”, or rather individuals who achieve mind blowing academic results with students year after year. She has flipped a critical question, “Rather than asking the question, how can we place a Beyoncé educator in every single classroom… How can we rethink our venues and place every single child in front of a Beyoncé educator?” One way Ranson IB has done this is through Multi Classroom Leaders, who lead small groups of teacher teams. This leader creates lesson plans for that team, coaches each of the teachers on the team, and teaches small groups of students who need the most support based on data. As a result, the master educator impacts the instruction every student on that team receives in a way that could not have happened in a traditional classroom.

This is an invaluable approach as time is of the essence for our students, and teacher shortages appear to be a part of larger systemic issues that are not going away any time soon.  As leaders of schools, how can we creatively reimagine structures to ensure that every student in our building is impacted by one of our Irreplaceable teachers, rather than fighting the nearly impossible battle of hiring a truly Irreplaceable educator for every classroom?

As school leaders, our responsibility is to act, and to act now. Our future, the brilliant, talented, resilient, and driven students of color in my school, city, and around our country deserve more. Let’s start with developing and retaining high quality teachers, and reimagining how to put every student in front of an Irreplaceable.


Karis’ post is part of a roundtable blogging discussion sharing educators’ stories on our nation’s teacher shortage. We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation by commenting on and sharing this blog and by reading the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the discussion on social media.