Help Wanted

Help Wanted

Distribution, demographics have some districts struggling to fill teacher positions
Kentucky School Advocate
September 2016
By Matt McCarty
Staff writer
Nearly a quarter of all Kentucky public school teachers – almost 15,000 total – are currently eligible to retire, a staggering number that has educators noticing fewer applicants for job openings.

Kem Cothran, a retired principal who works for the Teacher Quality Institute at Murray State University, said about 600 teachers and principals were at a recent professional development on MSU’s campus.

“Every time I walked the hall I had a principal or superintendent say, ‘Oh, hey, if you hear of anybody I need a so-and-so,’” she said. “It’s just like every time you turn around, that’s what you’re hearing. I even heard it more this year than the year before.”

One district she heard from was Crittenden County. Vince Clark, Crittenden’s superintendent, said the challenge of finding new teachers “has become greater. It’s becoming greater every year.”

Jimmy Adams, the executive director of the Educational Professional Standards Board, says the number of teachers, many of them baby boomers, eligible to retire is a “huge number” and “that’s part of what we try to overcome.”

But Adams said he doesn’t think Kentucky has a teacher shortage problem – yet. Instead, he said the state has a teacher distribution problem, which is leading to fewer applicants in some geographical areas and in some subjects.

“The data show that we’ve got enough teachers being produced but they’re not being produced in a geographical region where they’re needed or they want to live,” Adams said.

“Just because the data doesn’t show a teacher shortage right now,” he added, “doesn’t mean we don’t have one coming.”

But whether or not it’s labeled a shortage, it’s a growing concern for many.

“Someone’s going to have to tell me how to get someone with high school math certification from Ashland, Ky., to move to Marion, Ky.,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of opportunities between here and there.

“Unless there’s some family here,” Clark added, “most folks aren’t going to come this way unless they really like to turkey hunt or deer hunt. … I think it’s time Kentucky takes a great big look at this.”
Daviess County Public Schools Superintendent Owens Saylor talks to the district’s new teachers during orientation. Daviess County has 84 new teachers this year. (Photo courtesy of Daviess County Public Schools)
Location, location, location
In a March 2016 EPSB memo, Adams noted that calling the situation a distribution problem instead of a shortage problem “by no means takes away the concern that a superintendent may have in filling open positions.”

The memo pointed out that about 27 percent of educators employed within Kentucky are employed in their home district, and about 64 percent find jobs in the same geographic region as their educator prep program.

“People can see it’s a geography problem,” Clark said. “There’s plenty of math-certified teachers in the Lexington and Covington area – you’ve just got to figure out how to get them to Crittenden County. Well, how’s that working? I mean it’s not working, so what do we do?”

Mark Owens, who retired this summer as personnel director for Daviess County Schools, said while there’s a lot of truth to it being a distribution problem, “I think the applicant pool is still dwindling. There’s less and less. It’s going to be tougher and tougher to find really good, quality people.”

Daviess County hired 84 new teachers for the new school year. Owens said a few years ago the district had about 300 people in its applicant pool for elementary positions. At one point this spring the number was fewer than 100. “It’s the same applicant pool all the surrounding districts are going out of, too,” he said.

Middlesboro Independent Superintendent Steve Martin said his district has been “real lucky” in filling vacancies “but it has been more difficult, I think, in recent years.

“I think overall we have fewer candidates for the positions that are available.”

Martin said it can be difficult to get teacher candidates from a more urban area to want to work in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, just as it is in rural western Kentucky.

“I think sometimes it’s such a striking difference,” he said. “But so many people that I’ve spent time with and new teachers, once you can get them in our mountains and get them in these regions, they just love it. There’s so many outdoor opportunities for them here. … Folks want to stay, usually, if I can get them to come look.”

Dr. Laurie Henry, associate dean for the University of Kentucky College of Education, said the college is working on an alternative spring break for its students to visit districts across the state to give them “an opportunity to spend some more time in those regions, to spend some time in the schools there so the students understand there’s more to Kentucky than Louisville and Lexington.”
Elementary surplus
In addition to the geographical imbalance, the areas of certification for teachers is a concern. Administrators who are both educating future teachers and making hires note there are far more teachers graduating with their certification in elementary education than for middle school or high school.

Clark says he receives an average of about 30 applicants for elementary positions in Crittenden County. But he averages only about three applicants for a middle school position and just one or two applicants for a high school opening.

He said colleges and universities need to counsel students about the disparity in numbers and let them know that “not everybody can be an elementary teacher.”

Henry says UK is doing just that. She noted that the college’s elementary education program had expanded to 90 students per cohort, but has scaled back the number to 60.

“Some institutes of higher ed are making the intentional decision to make certain you’re not flooding the job market,” she said. “So you have fewer students coming in, but I think the programs are becoming more competitive as well. And then recruitment into the middle school and secondary education areas is something that we focus on heavily for those pipelines.”

Henry said if students apply for the elementary program and aren’t accepted, the college of education will talk to them about going into middle school or high school education. Sometimes students choose to do that, but sometimes their heart is set on elementary so they will reapply for the next semester.

Murray State’s Cothran taught middle school and was a principal in both middle and elementary schools. She said part of the problem is perception.

“I think they’re scared of the older high school student or … they had a bad experience in middle school or high school so want to teach elementary. If they can see firsthand that there are some fantastic middle schools out there, that it’s fun, it’s rewarding and that you can do it; so I think you’ve got to show them first what it looks like.”

She said Murray State tells students the numbers and that there’s more need in the middle and high school grade levels. “They learn real quick the jobs are in that area.”

Alternative certification

As districts scrounge for more applicants, some are looking at professionals who want to transition into teaching.

Middlesboro’s Martin said he would like to see it become easier for them to get into the classroom.

“I hope sometime we can look more into how we utilize people from different careers and industry,” he said. “An example might be a retired engineer in your community that would be willing to teach math courses, and I’ve got to send that person back to college to maybe help teach some classes. They have such potential and wealth of knowledge that they could share if we could look at a way to utilize that. And I know people need maybe some technique and things, but maybe it’s something we could also work out in the district level.”

Cindy Thresher, at Murray State’s Teacher Quality Institute, works with people seeking their alternative certification. She said it’s usually initiated by the school district, which will send someone to her to help get certified.

“We start the process to see if they have the correct background and credentials,” she said. “If they do and a school district hires them, then I’m in their classroom trying to help them be successful. I’m in there observing them, I have class on Saturdays with them to try to bring them up to speed because they’re on the line. They are the teacher. They need a lot of help.”

Where are would-be teachers going?
The concern over teacher shortages is not just in Kentucky.

“I think it’s with everything with the financial crunch that it’s not just education students but students in higher ed,” UK’s Henry said. “Students going to college has decreased a little bit.”

According to an ACT national survey of high school graduates who took ACT exams, fewer are interested in majoring in education.

Only 5 percent of Class of 2015 graduates who took the ACT said they planned to pursue education majors, down from 6 percent in 2011, which equates to 16,279 fewer students. The report said 6 percent of Kentucky high school graduates plan to major in education.

Nationally, the percentage of aspiring educators who met the ACT College and Career Readiness Benchmarks was lower than the national average in every subject area except English.

“In short, not only are fewer students interested in becoming educators, but those who are interested have lower-than-average achievement levels in three of the four subject areas,” the ACT said in its report. “In addition, 30 percent of these students missed the benchmark in all four subject areas.”
(View the ACT’s “The Condition of Future Educators 2015” report at

Administrators in Kentucky point to less pay compared with other jobs, increased accountability and concern over the teachers’ retirement system as some of the reasons fewer students are pursuing teaching.

“I think kids are a lot more careful now about getting into education,” Clark said. “I think when you add all those factors up and you top it off with increased accountability, high-stakes testing. I think folks that were once excited about getting into education, I think they take a second look at it based on those things.”

Adams said those factors make it a difficult balancing act to recruit not just more teachers but more quality teachers.

“We want to be very selective of those going into education because we want our students to have the best teachers, but it’s also very difficult to recruit somebody into a field where they may have 140 hours to complete an undergraduate program and be not paid at the same level as somebody who may go into an engineering program and they complete 125 hours and they come out making more and have less debt,” Adams said.

“I don’t know how much that plays into it,” he said, “but I think that does play into it and I think it’s a matter to make sure that we maintain the attractiveness and the integrity of this profession.”
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