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Throughout the pandemic, America’s educators have shouldered challenges once thought unimaginable — from public health crises to the unprecedented shift to remote learning.

Not surprisingly, a concerning number of educators have grown dissatisfied with their jobs and are eyeing exits.

In 2020, 24 percent of teachers were considering leaving their current state or the profession within five years; a year later, that number had grown to 30 percent, a Brookings Institution report found. Teachers who were considering leaving cited job-related stress; the trend was more pronounced among Black educators — nearly half said they might depart.

Fortunately, mass teacher resignations and retirements largely haven’t come to pass, even as the pandemic nears the end of its third year. Yet there is a shrinking pool of new and returning teachers. Even before Covid, in 2019, enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the nation had dropped by more than a third from a decade earlier. If left unaddressed, these related issues will have ramifications for generations of K-12 students.

Teacher turnover and scarcity doesn’t happen the same way in every school, in every school district — or even in every subject. What’s perceived by the public and often described by the media as a nationwide teacher shortage is really more of a distribution problem. We have an oversupply of highly qualified educators in some communities and extreme shortfalls in others — often those that have been hollowed out by decades of policy stagnation, economic disinvestment and white flight.

Teacher shortages are traditionally more pronounced in the South, where salaries are among the lowest in the country, and in rural communities that lack housing and other amenities that young teachers want. This is especially true in lower-income urban districts, where academic challenges are the greatest and most persistent.

Regardless of geography, nearly all school districts face chronic challenges finding teachers for math, science, special education, foreign languages and bilingual education.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Researchers say cries of teacher shortages are overblown

But there are some things institutions of higher education can do to address this issue.

For a start, schools of education can partner with districts — especially those in under-resourced communities — to build parallel pipelines into the teaching profession. The goal should be to supply school districts with new teachers, based on their current vacancies as well as expected needs and potential growth in future years. This approach ensures that prospective teachers are trained where they are needed and likely to be hired — an important detail that impacts teacher retention. Conversely, training new teachers out of context exacerbates the distribution challenge: When a teacher is trained in a more affluent district, for example, and is unable to secure a job there, they often land in a district to which they are not well matched. In such situations, the new teacher can quickly spiral downward, feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and disillusioned, which can lead to job dissatisfaction and turnover.

One approach is to embed each student teacher in one school throughout their college years — not just toward the end. Multi-year experiences enable the student teacher not only to learn about the school and its community’s culture and history, but also to develop important relationships with other educators, parents and community members.

Just as we would not expect a freshly minted medical doctor to perform open heart surgery by themselves, or a new attorney to try a capital case without any support from a partner, we should not give new teachers the most challenging assignments in their first years.

This increases prospective teachers’ comfort and lowers teacher attrition by ensuring that new teachers are acculturated into the school community. It also allows districts to cultivate teacher candidates over a longer period of time, developing the candidates’ sense of what it means to be a teacher there while increasing the districts’ short-term teaching capacity.

Another approach to expanding the teacher pipeline is the grow-your-own model. It creates workforce pathways for people already living in a community — and can be especially helpful where teacher turnover is high, or where the school district struggles to recruit teachers. Teacher assistants, paraprofessionals, other district employees and parents have talent, energy and a commitment to their communities and can be trained to become teachers. And since they already live in the neighborhood or are engaged with the school, once they get a credential, theyare likely to remain for the long haul.

Teacher preparation programs can help build the teacher pipeline by sparking an interest in a teaching career among high school students by offering dual-credit-bearing courses in education and supporting clubs that help students understand the value of becoming a teacher and what it means to be a mentor for young children and a role model in their own community.

Steering students toward credentials and careers in teaching can also help address historical inequities in educational opportunities for Black and Latino students, while growing the pool of teachers of color in our nation’s increasingly diverse schools.

Related: Can apprenticeships help alleviate teacher shortages?

Chronic turnover harms school progress and student learning. When schools are desperate to fill vacant teaching jobs, they too often turn to inexperienced educators or those with lesser qualifications and then give them too little support.

Just as we would not expect a freshly minted medical doctor to perform open heart surgery by themselves, or a new attorney to try a capital case without any support from a partner, we should not expect new teachers to take on the most challenging assignments in their first years. Instead, let us nurture new teachers and support their development under the guidance of a school-based mentor so that they can continue their learning and growth within the profession.

If districts, even in the most under-resourced areas, can successfully plug the leaky bucket by retaining existing teachers and helping develop new ones, they can help solve the shortage problems that bedevil so many schools.

Bringing highly qualified teachers to districts that need them, preparing more people to become teachers in the communities in which they already reside and providing professional learning spaces for new teachers to develop are crucial for supporting K-12 children across the country, because the single most important factor to their learning success is a caring, committed and qualified teacher.  

Robert Lee is the dean of National University’s Sanford College of Education, one of the largest colleges of education in the United States and the largest provider of teaching credentials in California.

This story about the teacher shortage was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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