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A broken pipeline: The issues contributing to the U.S. teacher shortage

Ahead of an Aug. 18 panel discussion, Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, discusses the challenges American teachers face and strategies and solutions for the profession

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In Arizona, degrees are no longer required for teachers to head a classroom. Some U.S. school districts, including Stanly, North Carolina, are luring new teachers with a $10,000 signing bonus. Florida is exploring recruiting veterans. In rural Texas, districts have switched to a four-day school week.

As the nation faces widespread teacher shortages at the start of the 2022-23 school year, states and school districts have been forced to come up with unorthodox and stopgap solutions in order to function.

This problem hasn't materialized out of thin air, says Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

"This a pipeline issue. There's been a trend of dwindling enrollment for teacher education programs for 10-plus years, and then two years of COVID pushed a lot of teachers out of the field," he says. "Now it's being labeled as a crisis and people are paying attention."

On top of pandemic burnout and a corresponding cascade of early retirements, many teachers have reached breaking points with inadequate salaries and slashed funding, a rise of school violence, and ongoing culture wars over pedagogy. A recent survey by the National Education Association found that 55% of educators plan to drop out of the profession earlier than expected.

To combat this problem locally, the School of Education is developing a new program to train and support new teachers for long-term careers in Baltimore City, where teacher attrition rates are the highest of the state of Maryland. Planned for 2023, the new Master of Education program would offer ongoing professional support and development—along with loan repayment assistance—for graduates who commit to teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools for four years.

On Thursday, Aug. 18, the School of Education will convene five education experts, including Morphew, for a virtual discussion exploring the factors behind the national teacher shortage, as well as strategies to get more qualified professionals into schools.

The Hub reached out to Morphew in advance to learn more about his views on these issues and how he's leading the school's effort to recruit and retain teachers in Baltimore.

What strike you as the biggest pain points right now for teachers?

A lot of teachers are not being prepared to monitor and mediate their own mental health. That's paired with an increasing number of students coming to schools with their own mental health issues, and challenges from home. As a teacher, you're having to counsel, to provide therapy, to be a nurse, to fill so many roles because schools have cut back so much. And, your teaching role is as difficult as ever. So you're put in an impossible situation.

The increasing politicization of the field has also become dangerous. If you teach sex-ed in some states, you may be putting yourself at great risk. If you talk about diversity issues—slavery, racism, race theory—these are all risks. If you respect a student's wishes by using the pronoun they prefer, you may be putting yourself at great risk. So we're asking teachers to put themselves potentially in harm's way in the middle of our country's ideological divides without properly equipping them or paying them adequately.

"The increasing politicization of the field has also become dangerous. ... We're asking teachers to put themselves potentially in harm's way in the middle of our country's ideological divides without properly equipping them or paying them adequately."
Christopher Morphew
Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Education

My parents and sister were teachers for 30 years in public schools. I have three children and the reality is if they came to me today and said, we want to become teachers, I'd sit them down and have the same serious conversation I would if they wanted to join the military. We need great people in both institutions, but do I want my kids doing it? In this climate with these working conditions, I'm not sure. We need change.

Are there any promising solutions for addressing the teacher shortage?

Unfortunately, in some places it's now a race to the bottom with emergency measures that do away with credentials and professionalism. A lot of states or districts are going to be putting people who are completely unqualified into the teaching profession. In Arizona, you don't need a degree. New Mexico has recently been allowing National Guard members to substitute teach, some states are looking to veterans with no degree requirement.

But this situation is also prompting some states, like Maryland and Massachusetts, to look at the big picture and focus on stronger credentials, stronger pay, improved working conditions, and overall, upping the professionalism of the career of teaching. That's clearly the right direction.

What role should schools of education be playing?

At this point it's imperative to attract and educate the best talent, and a big part of that is lowering the financial burden for entering the profession. Can we reduce that barrier to entry? Can we make it free or close to free for teachers to start careers? I don't think you can ask people to take out $50,000 in loans and then teach for $40,000 a year.

Historically we've accepted this fallacy of "They'll do this out of the goodness of their hearts because they love the kids so much," but that thinking doesn't cut it anymore. We have to come up with approaches where school districts treat teacher recruitment like major corporations treat talent acquisition, and schools of education should be partners in rethinking that process.

"Historically we've accepted this fallacy of 'They'll do this out of the goodness of their hearts because they love the kids so much,' but that thinking doesn't cut it anymore."

There's a reason one of the most popular security questions is, "Who is your favorite teacher?" Everyone remembers the teacher who had an impact on them, and we should want all students to have that experience. The only way that's happening in 2022 is if we lower barriers to entry and create opportunities for teachers to become true respected professionals—like doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals, or so many other professions that people want to pursue.

A lot of these are long-term solutions, when there's an immediate need right now. How can that be reconciled?

I'd love to tell you there are some solutions that could fill all our schools with highly qualified teachers by September. But until the pipeline is filled back up, we're going to see patchwork approaches like larger classes, or teachers teaching outside of their areas of certification. In some cases, we're going to see shorter work weeks or students attending shorter school days.

I don't see a lot of good news on the frontier of the next six months and I don't know anyone who does. We've known about this problem for years, but we haven't turned the corner with real long-term solutions.

Can you tell us more about the new program Johns Hopkins envisions to support Baltimore City Public Schools?

It's exciting. Our program—we're calling it TeachingWell—will aim to reduce financial barriers for teachers entering the profession and it will specifically support their longevity working in Baltimore City.

We are working on a loan repayment assistance plan that will help our graduates pay part of their federal loans until they complete the required years of service to become eligible for federal loan forgiveness programs. We believe this is one of the criticial ways we will be able to rebuild and replenish the teacher pipeline.

We'd like to connect this with the state of Maryland's new policy that grants a significant pay bump for some teachers who become nationally board certified. We'd like to get our teachers there by their fourth or fifth year teaching in Baltimore City, which means they could become eligible for a big salary increase in a relatively short amount of time.

From day one, our program will focus on well-being and life design to address teacher burnout and mental health. We want to prepare teachers who have staying power—not only in their effectiveness as educators but also through their own financial stability and personal well-being.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified the U.S. county offering $10,000 signing bonuses. The Hub regrets the error.