Commentary

How to confront Tennessee’s teacher shortage

August 15, 2022 7:01 am
Retired and current educators protest outside a recent public meeting to discuss a new Tennessee education funding formula. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Retired and current educators protest outside a recent public meeting to discuss a new Tennessee education funding formula. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Research shows educator shortages disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and students from rural communities. The U.S. Department of Education points out that areas like special education, bilingual education, science, technology, engineering, math, career and technical education and early childhood education positions are hard to fill. That’s hardly news to those who work in public education. 

Still, some want to dispute the need. I would invite those critics to crawl out from under the rock. Educators have many transferable skills that are valued across many industries and many are taking advantage of their skills to move to higher-paying, less stressful jobs. 

Some policymakers and stakeholders merely view teachers as highly paid babysitters, and their jobs interchangeable as widgets in a factory. That point was hit home when Gov. Bill Lee shared a stage with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who demeaned teachers and colleges of education. Former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos famously dismissed public education in a 2015 speech as a dead end. 

Lack of respect, inadequate administrative support, and the need for student discipline are frequently cited as reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession, often as frequently as low salaries and poor working conditions.

Then you have a former educator and author Peter Greene, refusing to call it a teacher shortage. He argues, “Call it an exodus, a slow-motion strike, or a wave of teachers responding to the old. If you don’t like it, then get out.” 

Regardless of what you want to call it, the teacher pipeline is broken. Greene does point out that “Every teacher knows a teacher who left the profession ahead of schedule or a promising prospective teacher who chose not to enter the field at all,” and I must be point out that Tennessee is hiring underqualified candidates to fill some of these vacancies.

Lack of respect, inadequate administrative support, and the need for student discipline are frequently cited as reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession, often as frequently as low salaries and poor working conditions. To turn this around in Tennessee we need more education decisions that are parent, educator and student-driven, not forced by political action committees that are funded by out-of-state interests — with money nobody seems to be clear about the source of. 

I had an opportunity to discuss the challenges facing school systems as the new year begins with Tennessee Reps. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, and Mark White, R-Memphis, on WGNS Radio. Our state can only address this daunting challenge if policymakers at every level of government will support our public schools and stakeholders will support and engage in the ongoing work in our classrooms and colleges of education. 

Policymakers often fail to connect the lack of parental engagement with a lack of resources in a school, along with mediocre school leadership or  frequent changing of administration. Those factors adds to teachers’ stress levels. 

During our radio forum, we all agreed these factors must be addressed. 

Other stressors include frivolous and unnecessary staff meetings, increased paperwork, state regulations, unclear board policies, augmented workload with special needs students and students who do not speak English, class size, multiplied discipline problems, lack of classroom materials, and, in some cases, 12–14-hour days seven days a week. You can understand why educators burn out.

For my part, I wanted to stress that our work in education creates a sense of purpose and meaning, unlike many other occupations. When society fails to recognize this effort and hard work with comments like “anybody can do it” it destroys the value and pride educators take in their profession. We must be honest that the loss of recognition and support of schools in the community leads to anxiety, anger and burnout in the profession. It only takes so much criticism before educators abandon the profession, and others will not even consider it as a career choice. We have reached that tipping point. 

How do you address these challenges? In our dialogue, we discussed several issues and solutions. Both Sparks andWhite serve on the education committee in the Tennessee General Assembly and White is the Chair of the Education Administration Committee

We concluded that bringing teachers into the discussion of both long-term issues and short-term fixes would be extremely beneficial, but teachers are reluctant to speak out for fear of retribution. 

We also need administrators at colleges of education to speak up on issues that impact them and undergraduate recruitment. Salary, benefits, work conditions, and respect for our educators must also be part of the discussion. 

White  discussed the idea of free education degrees and debt forgiveness, much like the Peace Corps, so that bright young men and women would enter teaching in public schools. He called this idea “Teaching Corps.”  We all agreed that this is an idea we must pursue, along with the Grow Your Own Program. 

I also included a Troops to Teachers type program to assist veterans in becoming certified and employed as teachers in K-12 schools, as well as making better use of retired educators. We should allow retired educators to continue to teach for up to five years and draw their retirement and salary. This keeps excellent teachers in our schools longer, while our colleges of education build a stronger pipeline of future educators. 

We need to keep our most effective educators in the classroom and public education. Our federal, state and district policymakers must take this issue seriously. We are losing too many good educators, and it is time we address the issue.



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J.C. Bowman
J.C. Bowman

JC Bowman is the Executive Director & CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee. He began his career in education in Tennessee public schools, where he taught high school social sciences and special education for thirteen years. He has been the executive director of Professional Educators since 2011.

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