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Virginia Journal of Education

Vanishing Act

Some school divisions are scrambling to find teachers. Are policymakers waking up to the crisis?

By Tom Allen

Steven Staples, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, recently told an audience during a panel discussion that “the one thing that keeps me up at night” is the state’s teacher shortage.

Perhaps more educators, policymakers, and the rest of us would do well with some similar tossing and turning, because if current trends continue, the teaching shortage could well become a nightmare for everyone.

“We know, and research shows, that the factor with the single greatest effect on student learning is the classroom teacher,” says Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “And we now have a shortage of our most important resource.”

The commonwealth’s public schools went into this school year with over 1,000 vacant teaching positions, leaving large numbers of our students to learn in classrooms run by long-term substitutes, teachers with provisional licenses, or teachers who are teaching outside their area of expertise.

That kind of a situation is considerably more than an inconvenience, says Billy Cannady, former state superintendent and one-time member of the Virginia Board of Education. “Why is it important to have a highly-qualified teacher who cares in every classroom?” he asked during an October conference in Charlottesville about the teacher shortage. “Because our democracy is at stake. This is our community; these are our children.” 

They’re also our teachers, and we don’t have enough of them. One of the biggest reasons that we don’t it that many teachers, both rookies and veterans, feel they don’t get the professional backing they need and deserve. “They don’t feel supported,” says VEA President Jim Livingston, “in their practice, in their classroom management, and even in their communities. We must address this.”

New teachers often have a bumpy transition from college programs into having their own classrooms. “In a perfect world, new teachers would have a year-long internship, working with a master teacher—obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world,” says Livingston. “But we need to take a hard look at our mentoring programs. Many of them are not effective.”

Thin Wallets

And, while it’s not always listed as the top reason teachers leave the classroom, money is always part of the conversation. It’s no secret that teachers simply don’t get paid what they’re worth.

“Money is not all of the answer, but money is part of the answer,” Anne Holton, a former Virginia Secretary of Education, said recently. “Our teachers deserve not to be on food stamps. They deserve not to have second jobs so that they can support a family. We need them to be able to be fully focused on helping educate the next generation.”

Salaries are a particular stumbling block to fresh-out-of-college educators who often have the additional burden of small mountains of student debt. New teachers “are often looking at salaries that are far less than their debt,” says Cannady, “let alone enough to cover the price of renting an apartment and other living expenses.” So, many choose to take their skills to more lucrative fields. Others who may have been thinking about a teaching career opt out even earlier—enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down a full 35 percent nationwide. Sadly, this is happening at a time when student populations are growing.

One more particularly disturbing aspect of our teacher shortage: Minority and low-income communities are often the most hard-hit. Petersburg, for instance, began the 2017 school year with 142 unfilled teaching positions—over one-third of the city’s teaching slots.

“We have a migration away from our neediest students, which hinders our ability to serve them,” says Staples.

The Road Ahead

So, how can we reverse the momentum of this migration and encourage more of our best young minds to enter our public school classrooms? 

It’s not going to happen overnight, warns Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent. “There is no one strategy to fix this,” she says. “We’re going to need a variety of different solutions over a number of years.” In its preliminary report, issued in October, the Advisory Committee on Teacher Shortages, appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, offers some recommendations.

A good starting point, says Cannady, who is co-chair, is to get students interested in the profession early. “Early is not in 11th grade,” he says. “We need to reach very young students, when they first begin to understand the connection between what they see in their teachers and their own natural desire to help others.”

Outreach to prospective teachers can also include offering experiences tutoring younger students, starting and supporting chapters of organizations like Teachers for Tomorrow in high schools, and “Grow Your Own” programs, in which local school divisions encourage teaching careers and, sometimes, offer financial incentives for participating students to return to the division to teach after earning college degrees.

Livingston, who served on the Advisory Committee and was a middle school math teacher in Prince William County before his election as VEA President, is an avid Grow Your Own supporter. “It really works,” he says. “I had two high school students who worked in my classroom, both very bright young people, and they both ended up back in the county as full-time teachers.”

In addition, members of the Committee recommended state funding for retention bonuses and to provide extra money for teachers in particularly challenging schools.

The Association Weighs In

VEA has also been at work on the teacher shortage issue and has developed recommendations for making progress on our shortage, based in part on information gathered at the Association’s Teachers of Color Summit earlier this year. Those recommendations include:

Increasing the use of teacher residency programs;

Creating smooth pathways to teaching for classroom paraprofessionals;

Reducing the number of new teachers assigned to hard-to-staff schools;

Raising teacher salaries;

Conducting a statewide survey of school climate, a major factor in teacher satisfaction;

Reforming student loan legislation and increasing loan forgiveness opportunities; and

Evaluating teacher preparation, with an eye toward moving from five-year to four-year degree programs.

The work of the state’s Advisory Committee will continue, examining other issues and creating further recommendations. Teacher mentoring programs and training for principals are two areas slated for extra study, both areas are research-backed boosts to both student success and teacher retention.

Gov. McAuliffe, appearing at the conference in Charlottesville, stressed the critical importance of solving the shortage problem, noting, “If we continue to have fewer teachers, we’re in a real crisis for being able to bring jobs here to the commonwealth. Our next governor has to make it a top priority.”

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


Where Are All the African-American Teachers?

By Sandra Pierce Mathis

I’ve taught in Virginia’s public schools for four decades, and also spent four years as a professor in a university teacher education program during that time. Here’s another statistic I’m far less proud of: For the past five years, I’ve been the only African-American teacher in my school.

We not only have a teacher shortage in general—we also have a serious shortage of minority teachers. The racial and ethnic makeup of our public education teaching corps has not kept pace with the expanding diversity of our students. Last year, according to the Virginia Department of Education, 49 percent of the students in our state’s public schools were minorities, but only 21 percent of teachers were. Where are the role models for our young people of color?

Such role models are important, for a number of reasons. African-American students need to see themselves reflected in the professional community. Teachers of color often bring similar cultural and linguistic experiences to the classroom as their students, which can be vitally important in establishing relationships and increasing young people’s motivation. Teachers of color may also inspire minority students to pursue higher education. And African-American teachers can provide awareness to non-black faculty and administrators about working with minority families. 

What can we do to increase our numbers of teachers of color? First, minority students need a strong academic preparation from kindergarten through high school. Many now come out of under-resourced schools unable to meet the demands of higher education. During my time as a professor at a Historically Black College and University here in Virginia, I saw that many of the African-American students in the teacher education program were unable to pass state assessments needed to become fully certified teachers. Although the university provided labs for practice, many of those same students were working full-time and had limited time and/or transportation to access this opportunity.

Next, organizations such as Future Teachers of America and Future Educators of America are needed in more of our high schools to attract top African-American students into teaching. We also need more programs similar to Call Me MISTER (Men Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models), which is currently in place at Longwood University.

Third, we should look at nontraditional and alternative routes to teaching, such as allowing men and women with bachelor’s degrees to enroll in teaching apprenticeship programs. There are various models of nontraditional routes to teaching. 

Finally, we need mentor teachers, retired or currently working, willing to follow the progress of minority students as they enter teacher education programs and then begin their careers.

So where are all the African-American teachers? Let’s find them. Let’s mentor them.  Let’s train them and make a concerted effort to place them back in our public schools. We’ll all benefit.

Mathis, EdD, ( is a Chesapeake Education Association member and elementary school teacher.


Don’t Overlook Teacher Turnover 

To alleviate our teacher shortage problem, many school divisions and policymakers are laser-focused on recruiting new teachers, but reducing turnover among current teachers is just as important and can’t be overlooked, says Steven Staples, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction: “Fifty percent of our shortage problem is a retention problem.”  

The rate at which teachers are leaving the classroom has jumped significantly in the past two decades according to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). In the 1990s, most teachers who left the profession did so because they were retiring; today, a full two-thirds of those who leave do so for other reasons. 

Teacher turnover not only adds to shortages, damages a school’s sense of community, and hurts student achievement—it also blows a hole in school budgets. LPI estimates that some school divisions must spend $20,000 or more to replace every teacher lost.



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