Tennessee’s public school systems look for creative solutions to teacher shortages

John Partipilo / Tennessee Lookout / Tanya Coats, president of the Tennessee Education Association, at right, at a July rally of educators speaking out about a new state public education funding formula. State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, are in the background.


Tennessee's public schools are finding creative solutions to solve teacher shortages, a problem not limited to Tennessee, but experienced nationwide.

The pandemic exacerbated existing teacher shortages, as school districts across the country struggled to attract and retain staff, especially in critical areas such as special education, bilingual education, science, technology, engineering, math, career and technical education, and early childhood education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, educators found that remote learning during the pandemic gave more challenges than in-person instruction and needed more support to help meet the nonacademic needs of students and family, such as dealing with pandemic-related trauma.

In a 2021 survey conducted by the advocacy-group Professional Educators of Tennessee, 83% of teachers surveyed said they were concerned about morale, and 22% of respondents said they did not plan to stay in education.

"We're driving people out of the profession faster than we can replace them. 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 much as low salaries and poor working conditions," said JC Bowman, the executive director and CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

"It does not help when some policymakers clearly view teachers as highly paid babysitters and their jobs interchangeable as widgets in a factory," Bowman added. "The teacher shortage is not looming, the teacher shortage is here. In high-turnover schools, the inexperienced and underqualified teachers often hired to fill empty spots also have a negative impact on student learning."

(READ MORE: How Hamilton County Schools is combating racial disparities in literacy)

Tennessee began collecting teacher vacancy data in 2020 and reported that in the school year 2021-22, there were 1,024 vacancies throughout the state. The southwest part of the state, including Memphis, accounts for 34% of all vacancies, according to the Department of Education. Vacancies were roughly distributed evenly among elementary, middle and high schools, with cities accounting for 46% of all vacancies. The exception to the trend is in the suburbs.The current salary for first year teachers is $40,000, although some districts are offering additional supplements.

Tennessee does not collect demographics on teacher shortages.

The state is also experiencing a decrease in college students choosing education as a major, and nearly 30% of Tennessee educators are eligible for retirement within the next five years, according to the 2021 survey.

And because school districts are unable to find instructors willing to work at a beginning teacher salary, school officials are considering cutting vocational and technical classes.

In Wilson County, school officials nearly cut physics courses until they were able to find an instructor, Bowman said.

"I had suggested rather than cut the program that they hire a noncertified teacher and partner with a higher education institution," he said.

"So, we need to consider life experience into their pay scale," he added.

The lack of certified teachers is pushing some school districts to hire noncertified teachers who have degrees in similar topics.

"That is not always as bad as it seems. For example, someone may have a degree -- even an advanced degree in many cases -- in some areas such as history, science, math and are now teaching while working on classes to get certified," Bowman said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools' assessment scores best since 2017 for some subjects)

To deal with shortages, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill allowing retired teachers to return without losing their retirement benefits. Some schools are also participating in the Grow Your Own program, a statewide initiative launched in 2019 that allows potential teacher candidates to learn from experienced educators through an apprenticeship, creating an educator pipeline.

"One obstacle is it does create more work for the mentor teacher, who is also teaching," Bowman said.

Despite teacher shortages, school districts across the state are finding creative solutions to hire and retain teachers, relieve teacher burnout and provide benefits.

The following is a look at how Davidson County, Shelby County, Hamilton County and Knox County are combating teacher shortages.

METRO NASHVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

In Davidson County, there were 105 full-time teaching vacancies out of the 4,900 needed positions to fully staff schools across the district. Principals are interviewing and hiring additional teachers, but "in a district our size, there will always be some number of vacancies at all times due to the normal attrition you'd see in any industry," Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesman Sean Braisted said.

Vacancies are spread throughout the district and existed before the pandemic, and the school system is raising teacher salaries to $48,000 to deal with shortages.

Another solution is offering teachers the highest substitute rate available to voluntarily use their planning periods to cover classes instead if a substitute was not available.

This option is still available for teachers, who could use the additional compensation at the cost of their time.

"The educator would have a choice if they want to do that during their planning period, but then it's a vicious cycle," said Tanya Coats, president Tennessee Education Association. "Then they're taken away from their families, their personal time, and it seems like you're always working if you do that. But again, it's a choice an educator makes."

(READ MORE: New Hamilton County school board policy only allows parents, guardians to make book complaints)

Metro Nashville schools are also participating in the Grow Your Own program and working to recruit retirees while offering 120-day positions for those who do not want to commit to a full year.

The system combats vacancies by using general assistants -- or permanent substitute teachers -- along with regular substitute teachers to fill vacancies. Administrators can be assigned as well to support classes when necessary.

Principals may also adjust schedules to balance class sizes, as long as they fall within state requirements for average and maximum class sizes.

Tennessee requires classes for grades K-three to have an average of 20 students, with 25 maximum; grades four-six to have an average of 25, with 30 maximum; grades seven-12 to have an average of 30, with 35 maximum; and career and technical education classes to have an average of 20, with 25 maximum.

MEMPHIS-SHELBY COUNTY SCHOOLS

In Shelby County, educator positions are 97% full for the upcoming school year, a fact aided by recent state law allowing retired teachers to return to work without losing their retirement benefits.

"We're encouraged that (Memphis-Shelby County Schools) is actually bucking the national trend of year-over-year growing teacher vacancies," a spokesman for Memphis-Shelby County Schools said in a statement.

The district also credits its success to the implementation of the Open Interviews for Teachers program, which is a recurring hiring event facilitated by school officials to ensure candidates are supported in navigating licensure pathways and getting connected to open positions. Through this strategy, the district received 478 teacher recommendations for hire since May; and most K-five classrooms, middle schools and non-end-of-course high school vacancies have been filled.

The district has also implemented competitive pay and is offering returning teachers a $1,500 retention bonus along with opportunities to earn more bonuses and stipends.

HAMILTON COUNTY SCHOOLS

In Hamilton County, 96% of certified teaching positions are filled, despite an increased trend of retirements and resignations over the past year, Hamilton County Schools spokesman Steve Doremus said.

Since 2018, the number of teachers leaving the district has increased, from 330 for the 2018-19 school year to 500 for the 2021-22 academic year.

Despite this, district recruitment teams were able to travel to regional universities and screen potential candidates; meet candidates virtually; and post job positions on recruitment websites Indeed.com and Top School Jobs. Through these efforts, the district was able to hire teachers from 30 different states.

Hamilton County Schools also participated in the Grow Your Own program, allowing them to train classified employees to become certified teachers, and hired retirees.

"Retirees have the ability to earn their full pay and still receive 70% of their (Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System) benefits," Doremus said.

KNOX COUNTY SCHOOLS

The Knox County school district has taken a different approach to navigating teacher shortages.

Since before the pandemic, Knox County has had both a teacher and a substitute shortage, according to Coats, the Tennessee Education Association president, who taught in the county.

For the 2022-23 school year, Knox County Schools will release students early one Wednesday each month to allow school staff time to prepare lessons and collaborate to increase students' academic performance.

While students will be dismissed between 11:15 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., teachers will work a normal schedule, and the district will be working with after-care providers to minimize disruptions to parents and guardians in need.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.