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AN EXPECTEd CRISIS

We saw the educator shortage looming. It’s here now. And WVU researchers have some ideas about how to fix it.


There are already schools that don’t have enough teachers, administrators or counselors.  

If recent projections prove true, by 2020, this country will be short approximately 300,000 educators — every year. West Virginia alone is projected to need about 1,000 annually by 2018. Admittedly, the shortage is difficult to imagine. Certainly there are thousands of teachers in classrooms right now, helping prepare the next generation for college and a rapidly changing, global society. Certainly our schools aren’t empty, silent spaces. But if the current trends continue, teaching in the United States, and by extension learning, will soon become a very different experience.

The Big Picture

The crisis has been expected for a long time. 

“We’ve seen this. We’ve known it was coming. And here we are,” says Gypsy Denzine, dean of the West Virginia University College of Education and Human Services. Since the 1990s, when the last teacher shortage loomed, the problem has been growing year over year. 

Part of the problem, Denzine says, is that it’s hard to put in context, which is essential for mobilizing public support. What exactly does a teacher shortage look like? Denzine says the picture is already stark in some very urban and very rural communities, including many in West Virginia. 

“In order to meet the needs of the school, they will often hire an emergency-certified substitute who may or may not even have a teaching background. In many cases, it may be a teacher asked to teach outside their field, such as a biology teacher teaching math.” 

Denzine

Gypsy Denzine (Photo by Brian Persinger)


Increasingly, Denzine says, job openings in some schools receive zero applicants. 

“In some cases, after giving up on filling the position, they may double a classroom overnight and a teacher may now have two classes-worth of students. In the extreme, there literally isn’t an adult in the room, or we may see everything from community members to parents who come in to provide supervision while the school figures it out,” she says.

The future looks even bleaker. Think bigger classrooms with more students and less individual attention, a revolving door of substitutes and underprepared new teachers and the possible loss of programs and subject areas. This potential has educators, policymakers and — increasingly — colleges and universities rushing to plug the cracks in our educational dam before it bursts. 

At WVU, a handful of researchers have been studying the problem as part of the launch of the Center for the Future of Land-Grant Education, the nation’s only higher education research institute dedicated to the study, preservation and advancement of land-grant colleges and universities for future generations. 

Matthew Campbell, assistant professor of secondary mathematics education, Erin McHenry-Sorber and Rodney Hughes, both assistant professors of higher education administration, have a goal to find the most effective ways for higher education institutions like WVU to address the problem. These include talking to stakeholders at every level, mapping the shortage, focusing on West Virginia’s unique challenges, and exploring what has been successful for other states in the hopes that some of those ideas might be translated into a working model here.

Nationally, the team finds, everyone seems to agree that the biggest cracks are in STEM, particularly math, as well as special education and literacy. But state-by-state, the problem is much more nuanced. In West Virginia, the state is short elementary school teachers, which is rarer in other parts of the country. And the shortages go deeper, including qualified principals, counselors, school psychologists, superintendents and speech/language pathologists; one reason Denzine prefers to call the issue an educator shortage rather than a teacher shortage. 

What’s causing the shortages? Baby boomer teacher retirement and an increasing student population have been two of the most popular explanations. There are other reasons in some places. 

“We don’t see increases in [K-12] student enrollment in West Virginia, other than the Eastern Panhandle. Our student enrollment is actually decreasing. We are also a very rural state in a very high-poverty area,” McHenry-Sorber says, which makes it much harder both to attract and keep good teachers.

McHenry-Sorber

Erin McHenry-Sorber (Photo by Brian Persinger)


Although their research is far from over, the team has already been able to draw some important conclusions by talking with policymakers and educators. Issues unique to the Mountain State include everything from problematic statewide hiring practices — that keep many communities from being able to offer good teachers paid positions at the most opportune times — to the lack of a centralized database for job seekers to look for openings at schools. Unstable policies at the state level around teaching standards is another problem, as is teacher pay. Nationally, the average elementary school teacher makes about $54,000 a year. In West Virginia, they make around $10,000 less.

For the researchers, their work is only just beginning. The next phase of research will be to step into the shoes of West Virginia’s teachers and to speak with the men and women on the ground. 

Two of the researcher’s biggest questions for these educators: Why are new teachers dropping out of the profession? And why aren’t more promising students entering the profession at all?

How WVU Helps Educators

  • Working with the WVU Reed College of Media, CEHS is seeking out ways to rebrand and re-message the profession of educaiton.
  • CEHS is transforming programs such as the five-year teacher preparation program into a four-year program that will better meet the needs of the state — and attract more students.
  • WVU is partnering with the West Virginia Department of Education and county governments (five so far, but more on the way) on Teacher-in-Residence programs that allow students to complete full-time teaching internships in schools with unfilled vacancies.
  • The college is looking at seamless transfer opportunities with community colleges, increasing online programs that allow teachers to add new certifications remotely and has developed a Master of Arts with Certification program that helps those with bachelor’s degrees get their teaching certification and graduate work done all at once.

The View From The Ground

Although the number of students entering teacher-preparation programs and gaining certification is declining nationally, in West Virginia the numbers are relatively stable. Yet, McHenry-Sorber cautions, “even if those numbers of folks graduating from West Virginia institutions with a teaching certificate are stable, that doesn’t mean they’re staying here.” 

And it doesn’t mean they’re staying in the profession. Toni Poling, West Virginia Teacher of the Year and English teacher at Fairmont Senior High School in Marion County, sees the struggle of new teachers every year. Most student teachers from WVU and Fairmont State University come through her classroom as part of their teaching experience. More than a few of those new teachers don’t make it past their fifth year.

Estimates differ, but between 17 percent and half of all new teachers leave their positions or transfer to new schools within the first five years, costing states roughly $2 billion. The reasons are fairly ubiquitous across the nation. Money is always a reason for turnover, and among schools in poorer states, like West Virginia, strapped for cash to pay even veteran teachers better salaries, offering generous packages to new teachers is often impossible. Geographic isolation, especially in rural West Virginia, is another issue. New teachers placed in schools far from everyone they know are more likely to leave. 

Toni Poling

Toni Poling (Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.)


But, Poling, BA English, MA ’04 Secondary Education, says these aren’t the only issues. 

“One of the main things [teachers who leave] cite is lack of support,” she said. Often in their mid- to late-20s, these young professionals are many times thrown into classrooms in challenging school districts they have no cultural ties with and are expected to be successful from day one. 

“Teaching is one of the only professions where we expect a first-year teacher to perform like a 30-year veteran. We give them a classroom on their first day, we walk out and we leave them alone with 140 kids and say, ‘Go do your thing,’” Poling says.  

“If they aren’t prepared, if they haven’t spent the time building their support system, I mean — wouldn’t you run out? We need to have our veteran teachers there to help pick them up, lift them up and guide them during those first few years,” she says. “But when counties and local school boards have to look at allocating limited funds, one of the things that unfortunately is the first to go is the mentoring programs.” 

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, about 92 percent of teachers who were mentored their first year returned the next year, compared to just 84 percent who were not. And after five years, 86 percent those who were mentored stayed, versus 71 percent who were not. That mentorship can occur as part of a strong teacher education program. 

A native of Doddridge County, W.Va., and first-generation college student, Poling credits her own preparation at WVU as one of the reasons she was able to successfully move from student to teacher. 

“I tell everyone how great my education was and how well-prepared I felt moving into my own classroom, but a key component of that is the time I spent in a public school, which was actually Fairmont Senior, where I did my student teaching and where  I ended up working after graduation. I spent three years there, building my relationships, building institutional history.”

That history and network of support and camaraderie among teachers is fast eroding with retirements, an influx of — at times — less-prepared teachers (including career changers who became teachers through alternative pathways without going through teacher preparation programs) and a revolving door of new, young teachers.

Potential Solutions for the Mountain State

  • Having robust teacher loan forgiveness programs for service in high-needs areas in the state.
  • Rural teacher residency programs that would help potential new teachers build camaraderie, find mentors and develop a sense of community, especially, more remote areas.
  • Long-distance coursework and student-teaching placement that would allow teacher preparation programs at places like WVU to serve potential teachers already living in the communities that most need them.
  • Supporting professionals already working in education certified to teach but who have an interest in becoming a teacher — teaching assistants, paraprofessionals, substitutes — and working to attract them into the profession.
  • Giving teachers a seat at the table and a voice during policymaking as well as working to improve the respect and image of the teaching profession broadly.

Listen to Teachers

As Teacher of the Year, Poling has spent a great deal of time talking to educators and policy makers across the country, and she has seen other ways of addressing the shortage longterm. 

Besides mentoring and increasing teacher support, she says teaching has a public relations problem. 

“We are not good at selling our profession. When was the last time you attended a career day where someone talked about being a teacher?” Poling says. “We need to talk about the importance of this profession, what we give back to the community and what we provide to the state and to our students, instead of sending these great students off on other paths, we need to get them back in our classrooms.”

Matthew Campbell

Matthew Campbell (Photo by Brian Persinger)

The WVU researchers agree. And they see the rise in alternative teacher pathways, often used to shore up major shortages, as potentially problematic for the same reasons — because these pathways can reinforce the idea that teaching itself is not a worthy pursuit that requires specialized training. They call it the “deprofessionalization” of teaching.

“Teaching is a specialized craft,” Campbell says. “There are specialized parts of the work that need to be developed. Just because you are a good engineer doesn’t mean you’d make a good science teacher right off the bat. That's some of the danger with these alternative certification pathways. Not only does it put people in a classroom who might not be prepared, but it reinforces the narrative that anyone can teach.”

Finally, Poling and the researchers agree — teachers need a bigger voice. 

“One of the most important things policymakers can do is to makes sure we have K-12 educators at the table,” Poling says. “Before we do policy, let’s talk about what our students need and talk about it with folks who actually have boots on the ground in our schools. When there’s a place at the table for K-12 educators, the innovations and ideas can be limitless.” 

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