Where are the teachers?

Ryan Brown taught high school in Rowan and Montgomery County for three years before leaving the teaching profession in May because he thought the current climate “was very troublesome.” While Brown had school administrators who offered as much support as possible, he said the administration “was pushing us to sacrifice what teachers felt was true education for our students to get our (statewide ) test scores up. It took the joy out of teaching.”

Kentucky faces a teacher shortage prompting a new recruiting campaign by the state commissioner of education and an upcoming major state study for lawmakers. The problem is a top priority for a state superintendent group and Kentucky’s postsecondary officials. Pensions, politics, pay, and the pursuit of test scores are frequently mentioned as leading reasons for the teacher exodus in Kentucky.

The fear for this fall and the future is that public school students will have to make do with substitutes or job candidates hired only because there are no more qualified applicants. The open educator positions from the 2014-15 year to the 2016-17 year in Kentucky showed a “drastic increase” of 6,247 to 8,855 over two years, said Jessica Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department for Education. With school starting mid-August in most districts, more than 4,900 open positions were listed on the Kentucky Educator Placement Service since the beginning of 2019, with more than 1,000 posted in the last 30 days.


It’s not just teachers leaving the workforce. Fewer college students are studying to be educators. In Kentucky, at the baccalaureate level, education degrees did not grow over the one year in 2017-18 while posing the largest five-year decline at 13.2 percent, a new report from the state Council on Post Secondary Education said. The area of college study with the largest growth was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), with a one-year increase of 9.2 percent at the undergraduate level and 55.1 percent at the graduate level.

Allison Slone, a special education teacher in Rowan County and the administrator for the Facebook page “Kentucky Teachers in The Know,” which has 19,000 members, said the push to teach for statewide tests which do” not accurately evaluate the success of a student or a teacher” is just one of the reasons that Kentucky currently faces a teacher shortage. Slone said there is fear of losing the pension system Kentucky teachers now have since teachers do not receive Social Security benefits.

And she thinks there has been fallout from the negative attacks on public education by elected officials at the state and national levels: “What once was a highly respected career has become the butt of many people’s jokes, even though educators are truly some of the most important people in society,” Slone said. “Kentucky has a good ‘ole boy system that hinders the growth and experience of highly qualified individuals from gaining and maintaining employment, and teachers fear retribution for speaking their mind.”

She was referring, in part, to statements made in 2018 by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who admonished teachers for causing school closings when they descended in mass on the state capitol to demonstrate public education issues. Bevin said publicly that because schools were closed and some children were left home alone, students could have been sexually abused or otherwise harmed. He later said he apologized if his statements hurt people. This year, after some school districts canceled classes when teachers went to Frankfort during the General Assembly, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet subpoenaed teacher absence records. If labor law violations are found, it could result in $1,000 fines for individual teachers.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who a state board appointed by Bevin hired, said he did not think that the political climate in Kentucky had led to the teacher shortage because the declines in enrollment in teacher preparation programs and the critical shortage areas are not any different than what is occurring across the nation. Another teacher who recently left his job, Brison Harvey, said he left his social studies teaching position at Lexington’s Lafayette High School because he thought he could impact education policy and improve the state’s classrooms by going to work for the Lexington-based Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Harvey said, while not a primary factor, “It was kind of exhausting to hear continually and to listen to the political discussions that were happening with teachers being pulled at the center. “It did have me re-examine what I wanted to do,” said Harvey. “It colored what my thought process was in terms of leaving the classroom.” He said he liked Lafayette and did not want to transfer to another school, but he didn’t see an immediate growth path if he stayed in teaching. Brown, meanwhile, is currently looking for a job outside the classroom but still in education.

In explaining why he is launching a new campaign to recruit teachers to the profession called “Go Teach Kentucky,” Lewis said the state and the nation are facing teacher shortages “like we never have before.” Superintendents tell Lewis they either get no applicants or receive one application and that an applicant is “not at all who they would like to hire for the position, lots of times they are forced to have to hire people for these positions” that they do not believe can improve student learning. When school districts struggle to get high-quality teachers in the classroom, that “threatens the absolute core of what we do in schools,” he has said.

“There are too many kids across Kentucky getting instruction from a substitute teacher who has not been prepared and is not appropriately qualified to serve kids or is being taught by a teacher that was not the ideal choice of the superintendent who says ‘If I had other options I would not have hired that person.’ That’s not what I want for my kid; that’s not what I want for any kid in this Commonwealth,” said Lewis.

The United States Department of Education designated several teacher shortage areas in Kentucky during the 2018-19 school year. Critical shortage areas in the Bluegrass and Eastern Kentucky regions included early childhood education. The Bluegrass region additionally had shortages in English as a Second Language, Health & Physical Education, Social Studies, and Speech & Language Pathology. In Eastern Kentucky, deficits were found in Career and Technical Education, English & Communication, Exceptional Children, Foreign Language, and Math and Science.

Lewis said that what is different now than in years past is that superintendents tell him they have post-elementary school teacher vacancies and get no applications. Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which includes several Southeastern Kentucky counties, confirmed that districts are having trouble filling elementary school teaching positions. He said there were 52 unfilled positions in the service area in November 2018, up from years past.

According to Hawkins, ten years ago, southeastern Kentucky school districts might have 15, 20, or 50 applicants for an elementary school job. He said communities are lucky if they only have one or two applicants. Five years ago, Hawkins said, there might not have been any openings or just a few because of retirements or resignations. “Being able to attract and retain high-quality teachers is always a challenge,” he said, “the pool of eligible applicants continues to decline.” With fewer people entering the profession, the shortages will worsen as people retire, said Aaron Thompson, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education president.

“We have shortages in the area of science and technology, we have shortages of people of color going into the field, and I think we have a shortage of knowledge about the value of being a teacher,” Thompson said. “The conversation about whether we have a teacher shortage or not, I think, is the wrong conversation. I think it’s way more nuanced and more severe than that,” Thompson said. “I’m more anxious about building the pipeline with the kind of students we need, with the kind of teachers we need.”

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