Teacher Shortage is Here

Sep 22, 2016

Lindsey Kealey with some of her kindergartners at Bend's Silver Rail school.
Credit Jacob Lewin

Oregon's economy has been on the upswing and that's having unforeseen effects.  For some Oregon school districts, it's contributing to a serious shortage of teachers.

For the rest, that shortage is likely to be just around the corner.  It is one of the major challenges facing public schools today.

Michele Oakes helps Bend-La Pine and other central Oregon school districts with teacher recruitment and retention:

"The teacher shortage is here. What we're finding is we have fewer teachers attending job fairs. We have fewer teachers applying for some of the positions."

Oakes says that a a statewide teacher job fair last spring, attendance was down and recruiters from Alaska and Hawaii had come to Oregon offering jobs and moving expenses.  Would-be teachers are finding other kinds of jobs that pay a lot better. Bend-La Pine has traditionally had no problems filling vacancies.  The message from its visitors bureau has gotten through:

"When some people think of Bend, they dream about..."

But even here schools are scrambling to find physics, English-as-a-second-language, and music teachers. While there is no general teachers shortage in Bend yet, the district is trying to get out in front of the issue with a new compensation program.  Starting salaries were raised to 40-thousand dollars. Salaries top out at over 70-thousand.  Traditionally it took 17 years to get there.  Now Superintendent Shay Mikalson says teachers can skip rungs on the ladder by getting performance-based raises:

"We're not using performance in the notion of a single test score.  We don't think that measures the full complexity of the art and science of teaching.  We use multiple dimensions to look at that, so it's a paneled review process similar to the national board where we're looking at student work samples, we're looking at video evidence of a teacher's instruction."

By skipping steps on the salary scale, a teacher in Bend can get a one-time raise of up to ten-thousand-dollars. Lindsey Kealey is a second-year kindergarten teacher in Bend:

"When I say are you ready for a great day, you're gonna say, oh yeah!  Are you ready for a great day?"  ""Yeah!"

When Kealey heard about having to demonstrate her skills in a  rigorous peer review process, she said bring it on:

"I like that this component allows you to become really reflective, and so not only are you being evaluated, but you're evaluating yourself and so you're able to think how can I get better as an educator?  This isn't, did I get it right or not."

Nationally 50-percent of all educators leave the classroom in the first three years. Bend's Mikalson was worried about retaining staff, so the district is providing mentors to all first and second-year teachers:

"The real heart behind this new change is this notion of no longer should you just get a key to your classroom and start teaching. What can we do  to continue the work that they've done in their master's program, and they  move forward to really have that mentoring and that coaching support."

Other districts are using mentors--Springfield has a program similar to Bend's--but Oregon Education Association President Hanna Vaandering says lack of support, a statewide average salary that starts at 38-thousand, and public criticism combine to lower morale among teachers:

"The attacks on public education have had a huge impact on individuals who really have a passion and want to be educators.  Unfortunately some of our own members are discouraging their own children from going into public education."

There is a statewide shortage of special education, E-S-L, and substitute teachers. Several rural districts in southern and eastern Oregon report finding no applicants for some positions, including elementary school teachers.  Meanwhile, enrollment in teacher education programs is down. The writing is on the blackboard. Here is a starting statistic: One-third of all school district employees in Oregon are eligible for retirement benefits right now:

"There's definitely a shortage looming."

Randy Hitz is Dean of the School of Education at Portland State University:

"A lot of people held off retirements because the economy was not particularly good. Their private investments weren't good.  But the stock market is recovering and the economy is looking pretty good and I think the boomers are going to see the possibility of retiring and they're gonna do it."

Hitz says school districts have to continue to come up with new ways to recruit young people to teaching:

"What I hope they don't do is I hope they don't lower the standards.  That's historically what we've tended to do in education and I think it doesn't serve children very well."

Despite all the problems, the teaching profession does have a card up its sleeve. As kindergarten teacher Lindsey Kealey sees it, it's the idealism card:

"If someone wants to impact future generations, teaching is a perfect career to get into. You have to have a huge heart. You have to have lots of patience, and just knowing that everyday you are in the classroom, you are making a big difference, and you're changing our world."

For an idealist looking to teach, to quote the Oregon Confederation of School Administrators, you're in a buyer's market."