The teacher shortage crisis: A cautionary tale

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For years, the warning alarms raised by teachers across the nation were ignored. Now waking up from a pandemic-induced frenzy, we have to face the consequences.

The pandemic forced millions of students and teachers to suddenly pivot to online instruction, disrupting the already fractured American education system. Young children lost the opportunity to develop key social skills and effectively learn foundational subjects, while teachers were spread thin, struggling to convey information and maintain engagement in a virtual setting.

Now that schools are mostly back in person, the gaps are very evident. According to a July report by NWEA — a nonprofit organization that evaluates schools — elementary school students may need at least three years to catch up to where they would have been had the pandemic not happened, and middle school students may need five years or more.

Right now, more than ever, we need quality teachers to help children recover from months of education. Yet, reports of alarming staffing gaps have emerged across the country.

We are experiencing the worst teacher shortage in years. In January, the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents found that 88 percent of school districts statewide were having “problems with teacher shortages,” with 77 percent of school districts reporting that the shortages were getting worse. The Nevada State Education Association estimated about 2,700 vacant teaching positions across the state. Texas’ largest five districts each reported vacancies, ranging from 200 - 800 positions each.

This teacher shortage couldn’t have happened at a worse time for students. But, why is this shortage happening? Teachers cite burnout from teaching during the pandemic, low pay, little respect from politicians and parents, as well as increasing restrictions on what they are allowed to say about history, race, gender, and other topics. When you pile on expanding class sizes and a general lack of supplies and support, the cracks in the education system are apparent.

In an attempt to remedy the situation, the federal government has budgeted $122 billion to help students recover, the largest single investment in American schools. Schools accepting this money must designate at least 20 percent of the funds to academic catch-up. While this is a step in the right direction, this cannot be the sole solution to the circumstances. Given the difficulty that some schools are facing in hiring teachers, it seems unlikely that the money is all we need to close the gap.

In effect, schools are trying everything. Wealthier districts offer wage increases and relocation bonuses, while those that can’t afford to do so are incentivizing teachers with a four-day school week and lower credential requirements. In doing so, schools that cannot compete with the lucrative packages of wealthier, suburban schools face the brunt of the shortages. Thus, unsurprisingly, the schools which serve students from low-income families suffer even more, worsening the drastic inequities that are already too-present in America.

However, this isn’t new. Lower socioeconomic communities often face the worst of teacher shortages. Increased supplies, staff, and salaries have consistently been requested by teacher unions over the past several years. Teacher burnout isn’t new either.

The most frustrating part of this shortage is that most of this seems like it could have been prevented. States are coming up with funding and school districts are doing everything in their power to incentivize teachers. Imagine if they started putting in place support structures to help teachers decades ago. If they did, perhaps the structural integrity of the education system wouldn’t have been as disrupted when the pandemic hit.

When professionals in essential industries in our country warn us of problems, we need to listen. How many times have we seen this happen during the pandemic? The medical system has always had staffing, supply, and insurance problems. Despite them being brought up via nurse strikes and warnings from experts, nothing was proactively done until the pandemic brought it down.

We need to stop treating the vital parts of our society like assignments that we can procrastinate on till the last minute. This cautionary tale only shows us that it is crucial to unite and be proactive about handling problems when warning signs appear, rather than when it’s already too late.