for prospective teachers and school district recruiters at Missouri Southern State University’s educational career fair on Wednesday, Missouri’s teacher shortage was a central concern. Both had their own ideas on how to deal with the shortage, but all had hope for the future.
Data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that 40.5 percent of Missouri teachers leave their school districts after three years. The Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that half of all public schools in the country had an average of three vacancies for teachers in the 2020-21 school year.
Additionally, Missouri ranks 50th in the nation in median starting salary for teachers, paying new educators an average of $33,234, according to the National Education Association.
The fair is hosted annually by MSSU Career Services, in partnership with the Academic Department of Teacher Education. This was one of the busiest recruiting events this year with 46 school districts, said Alex Gandy, director of career services at MSSU. Districts in places like Parsons, Wichita, Fayetteville, Jefferson City, and most area school districts have set up round tables to recruit students and recent graduates.
LaDonna McClain, director of curriculum for the McDonald County School District, was at the job fair recruiting in a competitive environment. She said the district had recruited the fair before COVID-19, but it’s been a while since they’ve been back. She was excited to return to the arena and actively speak to students in her district about her.
“There are some struggles in different areas trying to fill positions,” McClain said. “These things are important to that because we can go out and see the students that are coming, talk to them and try to fill some of these positions.”
COVID-19 and online learning have been challenging for students and teachers, McClain said, and have led to some of the district’s shortcomings. They also struggled to find teachers in some areas such as special education, math and science.
Teacher salaries have always been a hot topic across the country, McClain said. He knows that teachers work hard to go further, using their own funds and time for their work. His school board is committed to raising salaries, up 9% over the past three years.
McClain said new teachers are key to alleviating the teacher shortage. It’s also important to support those teachers once they join a district through things like mentorship programs.
“We love new teachers,” McClain said. “We like that they bring new ideas and new thoughts. I think it’s important for our profession.”
Across the MSSU ballroom, Zach Staples, principal of Sarcoxie Middle High School, which serves students in grades seven through twelfth, was also recruiting new teachers. He said his district was lucky to be able to fill the positions. But he’s had to get creative in some of his ways of doing that, like sometimes looking for alternative paths to certification.
“We’re definitely seeing not as many students hanging out at job fairs,” Staples said. “We have to work harder and be more creative to find teachers.”
Sarcoxie recently implemented a four-day school week, which allows teachers to spend more time with their families and gives teachers who live further away less travel time.
As a small school, it is not always able to pay as much as larger districts. The shorter week offers a distinct advantage in finding quality teachers, Staples said. He expressed concern over discussions in the state legislature about requiring a five-day school week.
Staples also recognizes that new teachers are key to solving the shortage. Another creative recruiting tool is the Future Teachers Association, which identifies and encourages high school students interested in teaching. Additionally, Sarcoxie has a Come Back Kids Scholarship which offers scholarships to students who agree to return to Sarcoxie to teach. It is critical to targeting students who have a connection to the community early in their careers.
“These kids love our school and want to be a teacher there,” Staples said. “This is something we want to focus on. We’ve had a number of returning alumni who are excellent teachers, who are great for our kids and understand our community.”
Among the students laden with information folders, cups, pens and stress balls was Bridgett Dillingham, an MSSU senior. She graduates in May and is trying to teach high school English.
Dillingham said she is focused on student success in her career and is very enthusiastic about building a relationship with her students.
As a new teacher, Dillingham said salary doesn’t play a big role in her decision. She entered teaching to give back to her students, rather than for the money. A bigger issue for her is strong parental and community support, a common concern cited by shortage teachers.
“I think the more positive the community support, the better,” Dillingham said. “It helps me feel comfortable, with students feeling comfortable, and with us working together to help students achieve their goals.”
Emily Garcia is also a senior at MSSU and will be graduating in May. Currently a student teacher at Carl Junction, she recently took a job at the Joplin School District. She attended the job fair to support her friends and talked about her job search.
During his research, Garcia looked for a family atmosphere in a supportive neighborhood and administration. The teacher’s salary did not play a large role in her decision, since she expects support from her boyfriend once they get married. At the same time, she learns from her friends that salary is a concern and that a pay raise would definitely help with the shortage.
“You’re dedicating yourself to this profession,” Garcia said. “If you start teaching, it’s because you care about children, you want to inspire the younger generations. You end up giving so much of yourself to this profession. If you don’t get paid enough, sometimes it’s just not worth it.”
Garcia said another key is to give teachers more time during the day for their curriculum, development and classroom assignments. At Carl Junction, things like block schedules give teachers opportunities throughout the school day for those homework so they aren’t using their own time.
“I think it’s really important, give teachers that time in the day,” Garcia said. “If they don’t have it and they do stuff at night during their free time, I think that’s why a lot of teachers burn out.”
With districts trying to find obvious and creative solutions to the shortage, such as pay raises and local hiring, recruiters and students alike have expressed hope for the future of the teaching profession.
“I think you’re seeing us walking out of that arena with a breath of fresh air, trying to get back on our feet,” McClain said. “Hopefully, by doing some of these things, we’ll be able to bring more students into the districts that we have.”