Despite national teacher shortage, Hamilton County Schools will start year with few vacancies

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Esmeralda Rivera, a third grade teacher at Ooltewah Elementary School, puts up a poster Thursday to help students communicate their feelings in her classroom.

School starts in less than a week, and while other districts across the state and country are reporting massive teacher vacancies, Hamilton County seems to be in good shape with only 37 positions to fill before Aug. 10.

Of those, 18 are core teaching positions, Chief Talent Officer Penny Murray said in a phone call. Core teachers teach essential subjects like math, social studies and English language arts.

If the positions aren't filled, Murray said the district is working on a plan to ensure students aren't sitting in classrooms unsupervised.

"We'll redo the class schedules or have students Zoom into other classrooms," she said, adding that administrators are making plans for multiple scenarios.

This year, the district reported 90 retirements and 410 resignations, a total of 500 vacancies. It's a significant increase from previous years.

For the 2020-21 school year, there were 67 retirements and 242 resignations. The two prior years, 2019 and 2018, showed similar numbers.

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Murray said teachers are leaving because they no longer feel respected.

"COVID wore everyone down," she said. "And there was a short time where teachers were celebrated during COVID And then now, it seems like the reverse is kind of turned on. It's such a negative inference, and the pressures on the teachers and the negativity on it. And not really elevating and raising the profession and appreciating what they do as professionals."

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But despite the challenges, almost 95% of the available positions for the fall have been filled, with 351 new-to-Hamilton-County-teachers from more than 30 different states. Of those, 219 are first-year teachers. The remaining positions were filled by internal transfers.

"We do feel very fortunate in that we have been able to staff that, whereas I know most school districts around us, Metro (Nashville) and Shelby and others, have not," Murray said.

On July 20, Chalkbeat Tennesee reported that Memphis-Shelby County Schools had 220 unfilled teaching positions. In Nashville, the district still has nearly 200 positions to fill before Aug. 8, according to WPLN, Nashville's NPR station.

Part of Hamilton County's success is due to the district's yearlong recruitment efforts, Murray said. Also new this year is an effort to recruit retirees, who will receive full pay and 70% of their benefits, Murray said.

"We also have for Hamilton County Schools a very robust differentiated pay plan for our high need and priority schools," Murray said. "For example, if you're a math teacher and you work at Brainerd High School, you can make upwards of 20% more. And that is a significant incentive."

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Hamilton County Schools has also created a unique teacher induction program - a comprehensive initiation that provides inexperienced teachers with the training and tools - that has increased teacher retention by 90%, Murray said.

"We provide a lot of leadership opportunities for candidates, whether that be teacher leadership, administration, curriculum and instruction. Just lots of other opportunities for them," she said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.