School districts across New England and the rest of the country are experiencing a teacher shortage. Myriad factors have contributed to the nationwide teacher shortage; public officials, school administrators, and educators have cited the COVID-19 pandemic, stagnant wages, and the politicized fight over course offerings in public schools as deterrents to recruiting and retaining teachers. Northeast states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts have substantial immigrant populations, and there is a great need for multilingual teachers and classes. There is also a significant shortage of special needs teachers in these states, as well as New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut. And while many educators hold their profession in high regard, recruitment is becoming an urgent problem, with an estimated 55,000 teacher vacancies nationwide.
“Education is the best profession in the world. There is nothing like seeing that glimmer, the sign in the students’ eyes when they finally get something that you’re teaching [to] make everything also worthwhile,” said Princess Moss, vice president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the U.S. States representing current, retired, and student teachers. However, Moss added, “we need caring adults who are qualified who will love our students and help [them] be the best that they can be.”
Several school districts in the Northeast have been struggling to address systemic issues that exacerbated the teacher shortage even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Boston Public Schools narrowly avoided state receivership by agreeing to a state improvement plan. The district review report published by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DSE) also noted that Boston Public Schools needed a “deep redesign of BPS special education services,” and special education and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) were designated as areas where significant improvement and progress were needed. In Rhode Island, the Providence Public School district is in its fifth year of a state takeover after Johns Hopkins University released a report in 2019 that detailed low academic performance and a toxic environment for students and teachers.
Maine had a record number of teachers and other school professionals retire or leave after the 2021-22 school year. Maine does not have a centralized tracking system for education vacancies, and officials from the state’s Education Department say collecting the data needed to assess the teacher shortage and find solutions could take a year.
In Connecticut, the educator shortage has impacted class sizes and the courses offered. School districts reported about 1,300 teacher vacancies as of March 2023, and more than 60% of those vacancies are in Connecticut’s Alliance Districts, the 36 lowest-performing school districts in the state. Like other Northeast states, Connecticut reports most of their vacancies are in special education, math, and science. New Hampshire’s Department of Education has also placed ESOL and special education teachers on their Critical Shortage List.
“The already existing teacher shortage is exacerbated by the fact that our school [district] has been drastically underserving our huge population of multilingual learners,” said Maya Lehrer, a teacher in Providence, Rhode Island. Lehrer teaches at an alternative school for “older immigrant students, especially with entering levels of English and some of whom would have interrupted formal schooling.”
Teacher shortages impact schools with a high concentration of low-income students and disproportionately impact multilingual students and students with special needs. High-poverty districts and those with a higher proportion of students of color have a more challenging time filling vacancies, and school districts must also contend with learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic absenteeism, and rising school construction costs due to inflation.
The decline in people pursuing education degrees has also contributed to vacancies, as fewer candidates replace the aging teacher workforce. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of education students decreased by nearly a quarter million. Massachusetts and New Hampshire are among 13 states to see a decline in students of color completing teacher preparation programs. “Yes, we have an educator shortage, and we also know that educators of color are underrepresented in the profession,” said Moss. “Black teachers are significantly more likely than white teachers to report intending to leave their jobs and are significantly more likely than white teachers to experience burnout.”
Demetrius Dove, an aspiring educator, mentioned the lack of Black teachers as his motivation for becoming a teacher. According to a 2022 National Education Association survey, 62% of Black educators planned to leave the profession earlier than they intended to resign, along with 59% of Latinx educators. “Children need to be able to see themselves not only represented in the material, but they need to see themselves in the school buildings where they spend so much time, and that’s what made me go into education. Ever since then, I just fell in love,” said Dove.
But Dove, Lehrer, and Moss acknowledged pay as a barrier to entry to the profession, especially for aspiring teachers of color. “We don’t have people going into the profession because they can’t afford it,” said Dove. “We are expected to be in the classroom for our practicum doing our student teaching as much as the lead teacher is in that classroom [for] eight hours a day, five days a week … I know people who have actually had to leave because they couldn’t afford to live while they’re doing their student teaching. So they had to leave the profession before they even got into it.”
“Not only are you supposed to go get your whole degree in this, but you’re supposed to work for a good chunk of that without pay,” added Lehrer. “I’m very much for paying student teachers and paying people to go to school for teaching … In the long term, it’s a huge investment in our students. So why not?”
“I will tell you, no educator goes into teaching thinking they’re going to become rich,” said Moss. “We go into this work because we love our students … [Teachers] should be able to provide for their families; they should be paid a salary that reflects the time and effort that has taken them to become a professional.”
Administrations and public school systems across the Northeast have implemented recruitment and retention efforts to address the teacher shortage. Public school administrations across the U.S. have identified compensation as a significant obstacle to recruiting and retaining qualified educators.
“It is about respect of the profession, and a part of that is making sure that educators are paid a salary that is reflective of all the things [we’ve] had to go through in order to be an educator,” said Moss. “Educators have to provide for their families. In fact, during the pandemic, educators provided for their families and their students’ families as well.”
States in the Northeast have implemented grants for licensing support and other financial assistance such as scholarships, loan forgiveness and deferral, and mortgage assistance to incentivize new teachers to join and current teachers and teachers nearing retirement to stay in the profession longer. Rhode Island launched a recruitment website to address the shortage and attract out-of-state candidates, and Maine has also launched a similar recruitment website, Teach Maine.
Framingham, Massachusetts, which has the largest Brazilian population in the state, is using H-1B sponsorship as a recruitment tool to address the shortage of multilingual teachers. Boston also launched a H-1B visa program in February 2023 for current city employees needing visas, including teachers.
Some states, including Rhode Island, offer emergency certifications to get new teachers into harder-to-fill positions sooner. “Emergency certification is a temporary status and basically allows schools to fill positions that they cannot find someone who is certified for it,” explained Lehrer. “After that, you have to find a certification program and make steps toward becoming certified in your subject area. But for all intents and purposes, you’re allowed to be the teacher of record, and you are in the union, all the other normal stuff.”
When asked if emergency certification adequately prepares new instructors to lead a classroom, Lehrer added, “I would say that, in general, people who are emergency certified going in on their first year are not prepared for the work they’re going to do. There’s a certain extent to which we all just kind of have to rough it as teachers. We learn by doing just as much as our students do.”
“But there is kind of a sense of like … our students are going to kind of have to wait a couple of years before they’re getting quality teaching,” Lehrer said.
Lehrer, Dove, and Moss agreed that showing teachers respect and providing the proper support would significantly improve retention efforts. The educators mentioned the importance of being respected as an expert in their subject matter and supported by their school administration and community.
“I would feel supported if the community, including the parents and even administrators, would view the teachers as the experts on teaching. [If] we are regarded as the true professionals and as the experts in teaching, then I believe we will feel that support,” said Dove.
“Being supported could look like the school administration providing the professional development that the educator can rely on and use. It could look like having a mentor teacher or a mentor coach that the educator can work with,” said Moss.
Along with better pay, Moss cited smaller class sizes and better work environments as proven methods to mitigate high teacher turnover and to attract people to the profession. “Another aspect of respect is the working conditions, right?” said Moss. “We want to make sure that class sizes are manageable. Students deserve one-to-one attention, and when class sizes become unmanageable, then that attention is diverted.”
Lehrer noted that it would take years and several solutions to mitigate the teacher shortage. “Kind of feels like there’s no magic bullet … There are bigger questions that I think need to be addressed on a systemic level for teachers to sort of feel more supported, rather than everyday things.”
For Dove, teachers should be at the forefront of public education’s decision-making and overall vision. “I hope to effect policy change … [T]here are a lot of people right now who are currently making decisions for education who have not been in a classroom since they were in public school, and they don’t even send their children to public schools,” said Dove. “So they’re making decisions for us, and they’re not in the trenches where we are actually doing this work.”