Class Disrupted Podcast: Why Is This Teacher Shortage Different — And How Did We Get Here?

Class Disrupted Podcast: Why Is This Teacher Shortage Different — and How Did We Get Here?

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Class Disrupted is an educational podcast that airs every two weeks. It features conversations between author Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit Public Schools. Together, they engage with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities to explore the challenges faced by the education system during the current pandemic and discuss potential solutions. You can find all episodes by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

In this episode, Diane Tavenner and Michael Horn delve into the issue of teachers resigning from schools in large numbers. They discuss the current situation in schools, highlighting how it differs from previous teacher shortages. They also raise important questions about the role of a teacher and the system of teacher preparation and development. Despite the struggles and shortages faced by schools, they propose a hopeful path forward.

Listen to the episode below, and a full transcript is provided.

Michael Horn: Hello, Diane. We’re entering the final stretch of the fall season, and it definitely feels like it. I’m personally excited about the approval of vaccines for children aged 5 to 11. How are you doing?

Diane Tavenner: Well, Michael, I’m really looking forward to taking some time to rest and reconnect with family over the next six weeks. I’m thrilled about the availability of vaccines for younger children. It gives me hope for the coming year, knowing that almost everyone is now eligible for vaccination. This is why we continue to do this podcast. We never imagined we would be in season three, let alone experiencing the third year of schooling impacted by the pandemic. But here we are, and amidst all the challenges, there may be incredible opportunities to transform education.

Michael Horn: Absolutely. This year, we’ve taken a new approach to our podcast by focusing on curiosity and seeking answers to the fundamental questions about schooling: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Today, we’re diving into the question of "who," specifically who our teachers are and why it’s important.

Diane, this is a topic I’ve been looking forward to discussing with you for a while. Back in August, when we were still meeting in person at the GSV Summit, it feels like ages ago now, you mentioned that you had never seen such challenges in hiring and retaining teachers as you did at the start of this school year. We both noted that this story wasn’t receiving much media attention at the time. However, now it’s a major headline in national newspapers and news broadcasts across the country. We constantly hear about teacher shortages, with central staff in New York City filling in at schools, people driving buses, and the difficulty of finding substitute teachers. It’s clearly a significant issue, and I think it would be enlightening to help people understand more about our teachers and why this matters.

Diane: I completely agree, Michael. It’s an incredibly important topic, and it’s helpful to examine the evidence. This current moment has been dubbed the "Great Resignation" or the "Big Quit," which is evident from the media coverage. But back in August, when I was experiencing it firsthand, it was difficult to step back and gain perspective because I was so deeply involved. And in many ways, we’re still in the midst of it. However, I believe that today we can make sense of our experiences and align them with the national landscape.

Diane: Excellent. Let’s begin with my personal experience and expand from there. I hope this discussion doesn’t turn into a therapy session, but I believe it will be helpful. So, let me explain what I have observed and how it differs significantly from anything I have encountered before. The story actually starts last year, Michael. Our schools in California and Washington state primarily operated virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike in other parts of the country, this transition was not controversial in our communities. One possible reason for this is that state and local health authorities mandated school closures. Additionally, our schools successfully adapted to virtual learning. I mention this because it provides crucial context for what happened next.

We gradually began reopening school buildings in March, with both students and teachers voluntarily returning. No one was required to return. It’s important to note this because when we concluded the school year in June, we had an exceptionally high retention rate among school leaders and teachers. All our school principals, or as we refer to them, "executive directors," planned to return, and approximately 90% of our teachers intended to come back. This outcome was fantastic. Therefore, it was clear for all of us that we would commence the new school year in person, starting in mid-August.

However, an unexpected turn of events disrupted these plans. Starting in July, teachers began resigning. Initially, it was just one or two, but as the return date drew nearer and our pre-school professional development days approached, we experienced an average of one resignation per day. This was unprecedented for us, Michael. For the first time in our organization’s history, we started the school year understaffed due to these late resignations. Moreover, we discovered that there were no qualified applicants available to hire. Hiring staff late in the summer is never ideal, but in our case, it seemed impossible as there were literally no candidates in our recruitment pipeline.

We have an exceptional group of school leaders, which includes both principals and deans. Among this group, only one leader did not return. I must emphasize, Michael, that without this dedicated group of individuals, I’m uncertain where our schools would be today. Many of them started the year teaching full-time while also managing school administration, which became significantly more challenging due to the additional COVID-related responsibilities and a larger-than-usual group of students who require extra support to actively engage in their education. Unfortunately, as the fall progressed, we continued to face teacher resignations, indicating that the problem persists.

What I find most intriguing is why these teachers are resigning and what their future plans entail. There seems to be a connection to some of the national trends you mentioned earlier. Although it’s generally unwise to make broad generalizations, certain patterns are emerging. Specifically, some individuals are making major life changes. The pandemic has prompted them to leave their jobs and relocate to distant places, often without new employment prospects or clear career paths. Many of our teachers are departing to work for companies or organizations where they can continue to be involved in educational work, but with more flexibility and less responsibility than they currently experience as teachers.

Michael: Wow. That sounds like an enormous shift. However, I’d like to delve deeper into this because it seems quite distinct for your school. But I’m curious, is it possible that your school is merely aligning with the national trends we have always observed? We know the often-cited statistic that nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within five years. However, I did some research prior to our discussion and found conflicting reports on this matter. A federal study conducted a few years ago suggested that the percentage was closer to 17%. By the way, such a significant discrepancy makes it challenging to fully comprehend the extent of this problem. We are also aware that teacher shortages have historically occurred in the country, but these shortages have not been consistent throughout different regions.

Diane: Michael, it’s undeniable that we are facing intense competition in the education sector, particularly in middle and high schools where staffing is a challenge, as you mentioned. Our struggle to hire special education, math, science, and Spanish teachers is evident. We align with the concerns you raised. However, we also collaborate with schools nationwide, and this issue is prevalent in many places. For instance, this year we’ve witnessed a complete turnover of the site leadership team and half of the teachers are either new or still attempting to fill staffing gaps. This is an unprecedented situation. In my 25 years of teaching and leadership, even in demanding schools, I’ve never encountered anything like this.

The question I constantly ask myself is, "Where are the teachers going?" Although we touched on this briefly, personally, I have never been able to quit my job and not work. The same applies to most educators I know. So, I’ve been trying to understand what career paths teachers are taking. Are they completely abandoning the profession? After conversing with numerous individuals, my hypothesis is that the COVID relief funds have inadvertently influenced this outcome. Schools across the country have received an unprecedented influx of funding, which has not been witnessed previously. While it is true that implementing COVID mitigation measures is costly, there are still substantial funds available. These funds are primarily allocated for student supports and are intended to be used in innovative ways, rather than simply hiring more teachers. The focus is on creating tutoring programs, after-school activities, summer programs, and fostering partnerships with community organizations.

Furthermore, the extensive use of technology products during school closures has exposed teachers to new possibilities they may not have considered before. As a result, numerous existing companies and organizations have expanded their operations to meet this new demand, while many new entities have entered the market. In each case, they are actively seeking to hire educators. This encompasses scenarios such as teachers transitioning to become pod leaders, working with small groups or families, becoming full-time tutors, or joining staffing agencies that provide teachers to schools facing difficulties in hiring. The latter is particularly intriguing and deserves further exploration. One may wonder why a teacher would leave the benefits and security of a school job to become a contractor, even within the same school they left.

Interestingly, it turns out that many individuals are earning more as contractors because these agencies can currently charge a premium. Although it’s uncertain whether this situation will endure, it is even more significant that these teachers value flexibility and autonomy. The current intensity of working in schools full-time has become overwhelming for some. Being a contractor offers them reduced responsibilities and more options to move on if necessary. Additionally, I’ve observed teachers leaving to join educational technology companies where they can still contribute to education but in a completely different environment.

Michael: Your insights are incredibly valuable. Personally, I understand the appeal of working in the gig economy. I find that arrangement quite appealing. Moreover, it’s interesting to consider the desired flexibility among teachers and whether this unintentionally benefits schools in the long run. Until now, the U.S. has not conducted a comprehensive study like the one conducted in Korea a few years ago, highlighting the success of millionaire teachers. However, the dynamics have fundamentally changed, and perhaps it would be beneficial, Diane, to take a step back and explore more overarching questions. Let me start with one: "Who are America’s teachers today?" Although I understand your aversion to generalizing, it would be helpful to get a broader understanding of the teaching force, how people enter the profession, and what implications this has for our education system.

Equally significant is the fact that in the same year, 23 percent of teachers in America identified as male. This once again confirms that the teaching profession is predominantly female nationwide. Regarding your previous point about the high percentage of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years, it is commonly stated that this figure stands at 50 percent. I appreciate your skepticism towards this statistic, and I am eager to explore the study you mentioned. Allow me to share a few more statistics that may pique your interest. In the 2017-2018 academic year, only 9 percent of teachers in America had less than three years of experience. This information is quite intriguing, wouldn’t you agree?

Michael: Yes, it is quite shocking, isn’t it?

Diane: Absolutely. Additionally, 28 percent of teachers had three to nine years of experience, 40 percent had 10 to 20 years of experience, and 23 percent had more than 20 years of experience. This suggests that the teaching workforce in America is predominantly composed of white women who remain in the profession for a significant amount of time.

Michael: So all these data points indicate that the current situation is becoming increasingly uncommon. I wonder how individuals end up becoming teachers in the first place. How did people like you end up in this profession, and what does it take to be a teacher?

Diane: Technically speaking, to become a teacher, one must obtain the necessary credentials in their respective state. This requirement is universal, although each state has its own specific criteria, as you might expect. Unfortunately, the acceptance of credentials from other states is not always straightforward. One unintended consequence of this is that teachers tend to remain in the same state for most of their lives and careers. This adds another layer to the demographics of the teaching profession. Additionally, by definition, a teaching credential necessitates at least a bachelor’s degree, which is a universally recognized requirement. In the past, it was more common for individuals to major in teaching as undergraduates, but this is becoming less prevalent. Most states now mandate additional coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree in order to become a credentialed teacher. They also often require prospective teachers to engage in practice teaching at a school and pass certain exams to obtain the necessary credential.

Nationally, approximately 90 percent of teachers possess full credentials, while the remaining 10 percent hold specialty permits that allow them to teach while pursuing their full credential. Hence, the majority of teachers are fully credentialed, which aligns with the earlier data indicating that a significant number of teachers have been in the profession for an extended period of time. As a result, America’s teachers constitute a highly educated group, with 58 percent holding a master’s degree or higher. This proportion has been increasing in recent years. However, the requirements for entry into teacher credentialing programs are generally modest. In most cases, these programs do not thoroughly assess an individual’s traits, mindsets, or the meaningful skills necessary to excel as a teacher. There are exceptions, such as certain elite programs, but this is the prevailing situation.

Michael: It’s interesting to note as a side point that more education, such as master’s degrees, doesn’t always correlate with better teaching, in many instances. I believe you hit the nail on the head by highlighting the lack of emphasis on dispositions, mindsets, and meaningful skills during the initial training of teachers. Furthermore, the vast range of responsibilities that teachers have in the current education system is often overlooked. Teachers are expected to fulfill roles as tutors, mentors, facilitators, curators of learning experiences, designers, evaluators, counselors, and content experts. And that’s not even an exhaustive list. It’s an exhausting array of tasks.

With all that being said, I’m curious about the discussions surrounding alternative licensure and alternative forms of teacher education. A few years ago, Thomas Arnett of the Christensen Institute wrote about this topic, showcasing the efforts of Match Charter Schools to establish a new graduate school of education. Other examples include High Tech High in California and the Relay Graduate School of Education. Of course, Summit has also gone through a similar process. So, is there hope for innovative pathways into the teaching profession?

The individuals responsible for approving new programs are the same individuals who manage the competitive programs for students. This is a common occurrence in both the charter and teacher credentialing sectors. These circumstances highlight two major themes: a lack of incentives for innovation and the need to replicate existing programs in order to prove their worthiness. Unfortunately, this lengthy process discourages innovation and limits opportunities for new, innovative teaching credential programs to emerge. Furthermore, obtaining a teaching credential is a complex, time-consuming, and expensive process, particularly when considering the earning potential in the profession. Consequently, individuals from low-income backgrounds face significant barriers to entering the teaching profession, which is detrimental to our students.

Michael: It’s an important point you made. It’s all somewhat nonsensical, to be honest. Nonetheless, let’s continue discussing this issue. So, what about the professional development of teachers throughout their careers?

Diane: Yes, this is a broad topic, but to start off, there are numerous misaligned incentives. Many schools limit the number of years of experience that can be transferred, resulting in significant financial consequences if a teacher decides to switch schools after having accumulated seven to ten years of experience. This discourages mobility among educators. Additionally, since pay increases are capped and identical for all teachers, the incentives lie in reducing workloads and simplifying tasks, rather than encouraging experienced teachers to take on more challenging assignments and tackle difficult problems. This is why you often see experienced teachers gravitating towards teaching easier courses or repetitively teaching the same content, in order to minimize the amount of planning and preparation required. Teachers also arrange their schedules in a way that allows for shorter school days. While these decisions are logical from an individual perspective, they ultimately hinder professional growth and commitment to the profession.

I don’t want to dismiss the countless teachers who dedicate their lives to their work, but the system itself does not incentivize or support such dedication. Teachers must actively resist these incentives if they want to make a meaningful impact. One of the biggest challenges in this field is that regardless of experience, every teacher is expected to perform the same job. As you mentioned earlier, teaching is a complex, multifaceted role. It is no wonder that many new teachers struggle to adapt. This is a problem that deeply concerns me. Moreover, teachers are provided with a minimal amount of time for professional development, which was the original question, I believe. It varies greatly, but generally a teacher might have only a few days, and on the rare occasion, up to six days, to improve their practice. This is insufficient given the complexity of the profession. In other cultures, we see a greater emphasis on continuous professional development, as I’m sure you’ve observed in your studies. Most events that occur are one-time workshops or guest speaker appearances, which do not contribute significantly to improving teaching practice. I apologize for not offering a more encouraging perspective.

The article that has been downloaded the most on Harvard Business Review, in my opinion, was written by Frederick Hertzberg. In his research, he revealed that job satisfaction is not the opposite of dissatisfaction, but rather the absence of satisfaction in one’s job. On the other hand, dissatisfaction is not the opposite of satisfaction, but rather the lack of dissatisfaction. Hertzberg identified hygiene factors that can eliminate job dissatisfaction, such as better pay, improved work hours, and better relationships at work. However, these factors do not result in genuine excitement and motivation. True motivation comes from factors such as the actual work itself, opportunities for growth, responsibility, recognition, and a sense of control. Unfortunately, the teaching profession seems to lack many of these motivating factors, which need to be addressed and transformed.

Diane acknowledges the inherent challenges and systemic issues faced by the teaching profession when it comes to transforming and changing it. However, she still holds some hope for the potential disruption that is happening within the teaching field. The shift to virtual learning has sparked imagination and opened new possibilities for different roles and ways of teaching. Even though the transition was not ideal, the experience has encouraged educators to visualize and reimagine teaching and learning. Diane believes that if more teachers explore alternative roles and organizations, it can lead to a conversation about redesigning the role of teachers and the school system itself. This ongoing exploration and opening up to new ideas may present opportunities for improvement.

Michael agrees that the pressures and challenges within the system create opportunities for creative solutions and redefining the teaching profession. He quotes his mentor, Clay Christensen, who believed that questions create space for solutions to emerge. By asking the right questions and addressing the current pressures, innovative solutions can be developed to redefine the teaching profession. Before ending the discussion, Michael asks Diane about her personal learning and exploration outside of the topic of reinventing the teaching profession.

Michael: It seems like I may have to consider renewing my subscription to Netflix. As Ted Lasso is available on the platform, I feel a certain obligation to watch it, especially since it has gained popularity in my household. However, I would like to raise the stakes when it comes to our discussion on pop culture. Perhaps everyone else in America feels the same way, but I’m not sure about you.

Diane: Welcome to the club. I even got around to watching it myself.

Michael: So you did watch it too! It seems like I’m always the last one to catch on to these trends. Nevertheless, it has provided a great escape for me. I even caught myself waking up in the morning and speaking in a southern accent, using cheesy lines to cheer up my daughters before school. With that being said, I want to encourage all of our listeners to stay positive as we approach the end of fall. We’ll see you next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn has authored several books on the future of education, including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He collaborates with various organizations to bring about transformation in education, creating opportunities for individuals to pursue their passions and reach their full potential.

Diane Tavenner serves as the CEO of Summit Public Schools and is a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She has dedicated her life to education and innovation, and she is also the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.


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