Learning to teach at 40: Raytown Middle School’s Donnell Fletcher on the national teacher shortage
As the new school year gets underway, a critical shortage of teachers has districts taking some desperate measures to fill vacancies.
They’ve been rehiring retired teachers, training counselors and coaches to teach and even putting unqualified teachers in classrooms.
Mark Tallman, an associate executive director with the Kansas Association of School Boards, hears about it all the time as he travels around Kansas talking to school board members.
“The No. 1 concern we hear is the staffing shortage,” he said. “Some districts literally can’t find anyone for a position. Others are seeing the candidate pool is much smaller.”
In Kansas last October, the state’s Department of Education reported 612 teaching vacancies across school districts, a 19% increase from the year before.
In Missouri, every year on average, schools “have to deal with trying to fill about 11% of their slots,” said Paul Katnik, an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Education.
For some districts, the immediate answer is filling slots with teachers who may be certified — but not to teach the subject they’ve been assigned.
“In special education, for example, school districts can’t find teachers, so they may have to hire paraprofessionals who don’t have full qualifications,” said Tallman.
The state has been issuing more “restricted licenses,” allowing more unqualified teachers into the classroom. Last year, the education department reported issuing 333 such licenses, a jump from 266 in 2017 and 162 in 2014.
Missouri’s Raymore-Peculiar school district has had to use a state provision that allows districts with a “critical need” to fill vacancies by hiring back teachers who have retired.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time that we needed to utilize this option,” said Lisa R. Hatfield, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
Education leaders report a new phenomenon: In some regions of the country, superintendents post vacancies for elementary school teachers and get one or no applicants.
“When I was looking for teachers six, seven years ago I had so many applicants that we were even able to put certified teachers in instructional assistant positions so there were actually more applicants than we actually needed,” Hatfield said. And today? “We have applicants now, but not nearly as many as we used to have.”
The challenge to find teachers is particularly daunting in certain subject areas: special education is No. 1, followed by speech, math, science and music.
And the shortage is most severe in urban and rural districts.
A 2016 Kansas teacher vacancy report shows nearly half of school districts reporting vacancies are in the southwest part of the state, serving more low-income and English-as-a-second-language students. Those districts have smaller populations to draw from, “and there are fewer amenities for college educated people,” Tallman said.
Some urban areas, like Kansas City Public Schools, serving many minority and low-income students, struggle every year to fill vacancies.
But some suburban schools are feeling the pinch too, said Marlene DeVilbiss, assistant superintendent of human resources for Raytown schools.
“We have had to get more creative about recruiting and hiring teachers,” she said.
Raytown school leaders have started handpicking students from their high schools, steering them into teaching and helping them pay for college with hopes they will eventually come back to work for the district.
Each year, two high school students with a qualifying grade point average are given a $10,000 grant — $2,500 a year for four years — on the condition that they will pursue a career as an educator, do their student teaching in Raytown and then commit to teaching in the district for four years after they graduate.
“If they don’t teach for us they have to pay back the $10,000,” DeVillbiss said. “What we are hoping is that they come and become great teachers for us and they stay with us.”
The district is banking on statistics that say teachers generally work near or in the same district they grew up in. “So we have a great pool of candidates that we are trying to tap into so that we can get more great teachers,” DeVillbiss said.
There are roughly 30 grow-your-own-teachers programs in Missouri, but officials are calling on every one of the state’s 518 districts to start a program.
“All of our future teachers are sitting in our schools right now,” Katnik of the Missouri education department said.
Consider sixth-grade teacher Donnell Fletcher, 42. He’s a perfect example of the creative ways schools put teachers in classrooms and help them meet quality standards.
Fletcher had been at Raytown Middle School as a coach and behavior interventionist for five years when the school principal approached him about becoming a teacher just over a year ago.
Students had pegged Fletcher as their go-to person when they needed a listener.
“I loved working with the kids,” said Fletcher, who inherited his helper heart from his father, a coach and counselor at a Kansas City home for boys, and his grandfather, who for years worked as a drug and alcohol counselor.
Adults at church and at Central High School in Kansas City, where Fletcher played basketball and football, had for years said he should be a teacher.
“I blew it off because I thought teachers didn’t make enough money,” he said.
After getting his bachelor’s degree in social work, Fletcher worked in bill collections until he landed at Raytown Middle and got tapped by the principal to replace a teacher who had moved to fill another teaching vacancy in the building. Fletcher needed a teaching certificate. “I had to go back to school,” he said. He went part time, and worked at the school part time.
He’s finished two summer sessions at Rockhurst University and has two semesters left. In the meantime, on a provisional certification, he’s teaching ancient civilizations, a job he says he’s pretty proud of.
“Transition in the classroom was pretty scary at first,” Fletcher said. “But what better way to affect young lives than to be a teacher?”
Pulling Fletcher into the classroom was a good get for Raytown. He fits a hard-to-find demographic — black and male. The overwhelming majority of teachers in this country still are white women.
The Shawnee Mission school district has stepped up efforts to reach applicants in new ways, emphasizing the need for more minority teachers, Doug Sumner, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources, told the school board at an April meeting. This past year, he said, he was out recruiting at colleges in Mississippi and Alabama, for example.
“We want our professional staff to reflect the kiddos we serve,” Sumner told the board. “We receive less than 2% of applications that reflect minority applicants. It’s a priority within our profession, and it’s a challenge experience by all Kansas school districts, and on the Missouri side as well.”
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education offers some loan forgiveness to certain teachers who take jobs in hard-to-fill areas.
Kansas has launched two pilot programs to fast-track the qualification process for teachers in areas that are harder to fill. The first is aimed at filling special education jobs by making it easier for paraprofessionals to become fully licensed with additional college coursework. The second allows people with degrees in a field other than education to teach.
So far, the two programs have resulted in 126 new licensed teachers over the past two years, according to the state education department.
“We are working to maintain the very high standard that we have in place,” said Mischel Miller, the department’s director of teacher licensure and accreditation. “Our primary focus is to make sure we place a well-prepared teacher in every classroom. So we’re doing everything we can to promote teaching as a profession.”
How did we get here?
Beefing up recruitment does no good without also doing the things needed to keep teachers on the job, Katnik said. Otherwise, “it’s like pouring water in a bucket with a hole at the bottom.”
He explains the shortage: Colleges haven’t been turning out as many teachers as they once did. Fewer students are pursuing the career. And the oft-heard problems of low pay and a lack of respect result in teachers leaving the classroom faster than they can be replaced.
Four years ago “enrollment in teacher education programs in Missouri dropped 22%,” he said. It dropped another 5% each of the next two years. That means that the number of students entering the field today is just two-thirds what it was only recently.
In the past five years, the number of new teacher licenses issued in Kansas has been flat. Last year, the number dropped slightly to 2,756 from the 2,900 reported the year before, according to the education department.
In Missouri 4,472 teaching certificates were issued in 2018, up by 6% for the first time in about six years. “We are in a hole that we have got to get out of,” said Katnik.
In Missouri, parts of Kansas and elsewhere, education officials say low salaries provide little to no incentive to lure people to the profession, much less keep them there.
Missouri ranks 49th nationally in average starting teacher salary, at $31,842, and 39th in average overall teacher salary at $48,293, according to the state education department. In Kansas the average starting salary is $34,883, ranking 38th. Its average overall teacher salary is $47,984.
“Teachers have varied skills that are in high demand,” said Ann Jarrett, director of teaching and learning for the Missouri National Education Association. “There is a lot of competition out there.” She said that if salaries are not enough for teachers to take care of their families doing the job they love, they easily leave for other fields where the pay is better.
In the tight labor market, Kansas schools have failed to offer competitive salaries, or salaries that keep up with inflation, Tallman of the Kansas school boards association said.
A report by the group shows that from 2008 to 2018, Kansas teacher salaries grew 11.7%, lower than the national average of 14.1%. “Teaching simply pays less than it used to,” Tallman said. “And that’s particularly true for women.
Citing low pay as one of the biggest barriers to teacher recruitment, the Kansas Legislature approved a plan to phase in a school funding increase over several years. Last year, lawmakers approved a $500 million increase in funding. The Kansas Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to adjust the plan for inflation. And earlier this year, a bill added another $90 million per year for the next four years.
“We believe we’ll be in a more competitive position with other states and employers,” Tallman said.
While pay is a prime factor, equally important is feeling the profession is valued, Katnik said.
A survey of 6,000 Missouri teachers found that a majority did not feel respected, he said.
In a national poll done sporadically over decades, parents were asked whether they wanted their child to become a teacher. Only 15% said no in 1969. But nearly 50 years later, in 2018, 54% said no.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, due to political climate and social issues, public education has experienced a negative reputation that has affected students entering the field,” said Delores Kitchin, a spokeswoman for Baker University, which trains many of the teachers who land in Kansas and Missouri classrooms.
Baker’s enrollment has been slowly growing since 2016, but across the country schools of education saw enrollment drop.
“What we all need to come to grips with is that a teacher shortage in Missouri or Kansas is a problem for all of us, “ Katnik said.
“The fact is that the teaching profession creates all other professions. So when that system is not creating high quality graduates, the whole system suffers for it.”