Tackling the Teacher Shortage by Investing in Teacher Leaders

August 18, 2022

Tackling the Teacher Shortage by Investing in Teacher Leaders

By: Dr. Joshua Barnett, Chief Executive Officer

The start of a new school year is filled with the sounds of kids on the playground, meeting new friends, and freshly sharpened Ticonderogas. While these exciting back-to-school moments are happening across the country, a sobering and urgent conversation is also taking place. Many districts have large numbers of open positions even as school is getting underway, and administrators are struggling to ensure that every classroom is led by a qualified, well-prepared teacher.

Understanding the nature of the shortage is critical as districts and states seek solutions. Let’s begin with what we know - teachers influence student outcomes more than any other educational factor. Having a strong classroom teacher is likely even more important this school year, as many students continue to face gaps in learning that expanded during the pandemic years. Yet districts are seeing high turnover and difficulty recruiting effective teachers for every classroom. 

In short, we know that not enough talented young people are choosing teaching as a career, as teacher prep enrollment has been declining for more than a decade. 

Second, we know the problem is not the same everywhere, shortages are more pronounced in key subject areas, in rural schools, in schools serving larger numbers of economically disadvantaged students, and in various parts of the country. 

Third, we know the pandemic increased the urgency of the problem just about everywhere. Forty percent of districts report a severe or very severe shortage issue in their schools with another 37 percent saying it is “moderately bad”. In all, 77 percent of respondents to a national survey indicated that the teacher shortage was “bad”. Further, the National Education Association representing teachers across the country conducted a survey which found that 55 percent of educators are ready to leave the profession earlier than they had originally planned. 

As the education community faces this challenge, it is also examining the data, creating and testing hypotheses, and finding solutions. Yes, the scientific method works and is on display in our school systems. And what we have seen are promising solutions to ensure our classrooms are filled with students who are more concerned about monkey-bars, the latest Wings of Fire book, or a new driving permit than whether their teacher will be in the classroom all year.

Based on the evidence of these promising solutions, we know school systems work best and students benefit the most when educators are given clear opportunities to grow as teacher leaders. Establishing teacher leadership roles that are focused squarely on instructional support enables districts and states to respond to the unique challenges raised by the pandemic while strengthening and diversifying the profession in the long term. 

Teacher Leadership Offers One Proven Solution

In our work across the nation with numerous state leaders, we have seen that formal teacher leader roles can alleviate many challenges that teachers face. Specifically, teacher leaders usher in improvements in student performance, teacher effectiveness, and teacher retention by providing multi-year mentoring support, leading induction programs, and ensuring the successful rollout of new technology, positive school environment programs, and materials across the school system. 

Second, we also see results in states, like Louisiana, setting and communicating clear, high expectations for strong classroom teaching as an essential foundation for growth and improvement. My organization works with multiple states and school system leaders to strengthen the capacity of educators to maximize the use of high-quality instructional materials. All of these improvements rely on a greater instructional leadership capacity at the school level. Teacher leadership roles can create a support structure to address immediate needs this school year, while at the same time making teaching a more attractive career in the long term.

Third, formal teacher leader roles allow dedicated mentoring programs for new teachers, rather than informal “buddy” systems that overtax and underreward existing educators. We have extensive evidence that strong onboarding - in every industry - helps new team members learn the culture of the organization, understand their role, work more cohesively, achieve greater results, and stay in the profession longer. We need to ensure this knowledge base is firmly established in our school systems to help assist new teachers. To be clear, these strategies are not successful when simply placed on top of existing demands, rather the role of mentor needs to be filled by highly skilled educators who know how to coach adults, model instruction, and support new educators coming into the career with a variety of preparation experiences and backgrounds. 

Finally, as we review our efforts to elevate and improve the teaching profession, teacher leadership roles offer a proven solution that supports all classroom teachers toward improvement today, while offering opportunities for career advancement and systemic improvement tomorrow. These improvements are essential in addressing the underlying causes of the teacher shortage in the short and long term. If we want talented young people from a diversity of backgrounds to choose education as a career, we need to create opportunities for that work to be as fulfilling and effective as possible.