Teacher shortage: Union president details what’s behind the 'foreseeable' problem

·5 min read

Teachers are leaving the profession like never before, leaving many school districts in dire need of educators to fill those roles.

While the ongoing teacher shortage has been happening since the start of COVID, the president of the second-largest teachers' union in the U.S. is warning that parents and students will particularly feel the impact in the upcoming school year.

"You have a perfect storm going on right now," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). "And we have been warning about this for a long time."

Even before COVID, nearly 300,000 teachers were leaving the profession every year, according to AFT. A July 2022 report from the AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force found that one-third of teachers and principals indicated they were likely to leave their current job by the end of the 2021-22 school year.

A March 2022 survey of AFT members found that 90% believe the shortage is a serious problem for them and their co-workers, and 92% said these staffing shortages should be a high priority for the AFT.

According to Weingarten, there are four main factors at play: fewer people becoming teachers, a hot labor market where current teachers can get paid better in different roles, the lasting effects of the pandemic, and politics.

"You add all of that together and you have a perfect storm," Weingarten said. "It was foreseeable and it is fixable. But we have to actually have the will to fix it."

The four factors

71% of teachers have seriously considered leaving their job over the past few years, according to AFT's report. Of those planning on leaving the profession in the near future, only about 20% are planning on doing so for normal retirement.

"You have higher number of retirements this year, which everyone predicted because it was a really, really hard year," Weingarten said. "You have fewer people going into the profession."

According to a report from Universities.com, the states struggling to find teachers the most are mainly near the West Coast, with the top five being California, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, and Hawaii.

A hot labor market doesn't help — in fact, many underpaid teachers have found they can get much higher pay by entering other professions.

The average teacher salary in the U.S. was roughly $66,397 for the 2021-22 school year, which is more than $2,000 less than a decade ago when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Education Association (NEA).

Even for teachers receiving adequate pay, it may not be enough to draw them back to environments disrupted by COVID.

During the height of the pandemic, some schools took little, if any, precautions to protect students and teachers from exposure to the virus. This included no mask requirements.

"You have all of the pandemic stress and strain, particularly that kids are coming in with greater needs because of two years of disruption," Weingarten said. "And not only have the conditions not really changed, but school districts and the federal government and others just pretend as if there was no pandemic."

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford, FL, 6/30/22. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to discuss Florida's civics education initiative of unbiased history teachings at Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford, FL, 6/30/22. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To make matters worse, the COVID pandemic became highly politicized, with trickle-down effects falling on school districts in the forms of vaccination and masking policies. That wasn't the only part of the classroom politicized, however.

"You have all of the politics, the culture wars, the shaming and blaming, the banning of books, the censoring of curriculum," Weingarten said. "So many teachers said to me, if a kid asked them a question after the Buffalo mass shooting, if they were in Florida or Texas, they didn't know whether they could answer the question that the shooter was a white supremacist because of the new rules that had passed."

Weingarten is referring to critical race theory, which has become a hot-button issue across the country.

According to the Brookings Institution, critical race theory states that “U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.”

Some governors or local leaders have outright banned it from being taught in schools. But because their own definitions of it have been so vague, it's left teachers confused over what can and cannot be taught in the classroom.

'Obvious remedies'

Weingarten admitted that firmly addressing the ongoing teacher shortage is "not a simple solution" but stated that there are "obvious remedies," some that wouldn't even cost money.

One of those ideas is lowering class sizes, she said. Data has shown that larger class sizes correlate with lower levels of student achievement and fewer educational opportunities for students.

"That's one of the ways you meet the needs of kids, particularly post-pandemic, if we want to accelerate learning," Weingarten said.

National Guard Specialist Austin Alt fills in as a substitute due to a teacher shortage caused by COVID and other non-illness related absences in Pojoaque, New Mexico, January 28, 2022. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm
National Guard Specialist Austin Alt fills in as a substitute due to a teacher shortage caused by COVID and other non-illness related absences in Pojoaque, New Mexico, January 28, 2022. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

Paperwork is another huge issue for teachers, she added, as many of them "spend more time actually answering the data demands of states and localities and the federal government instead of actually focusing on teaching. Let's align our accountability system with what we know we need to do."

The big course of action is increasing teachers' salaries, though, which range widely across the country. Weingarten argued that in order to not only retain current teachers but also attract new talent, higher wages are necessary, along with adequate benefits.

"Some districts are doing them," she said. "And the places that are not doing them, like in Florida where the governor is just demonizing teachers, that's where you have the largest shortages."

Editor's note: A previous version of this post stated that the American Federation of Teachers is the largest teachers' union in the U.S. It is the second-largest.

Ethan is a writer for Yahoo Finance.

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