Leigh Ann Zerr enjoys her work running an online business — she says the flexibility is a big perk — but it’s a far cry from the structured environment of the teaching career she left behind.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Zerr said. “It seemed like a natural fit for me. I was always pretty good academically, high achieving.”
Upon graduating with a master’s degree in French language teaching and a teaching certification in 2007, Zerr began her career as a teacher, fulfilling a childhood aspiration.
Two years into her career, she transferred to the Liberty School District in suburban Kansas City as one of the inaugural teachers for a new high school.
“I remember feeling at the time, ‘This is so awesome,'” Zerr said. “Twenty-five years from now I get to be the one saying, ‘I opened these doors. I was the one here in the beginning.’”
But after eight years at the school, she was gone — not only from the district, but from education altogether.
An increasing number of people are deciding either to forgo teaching or, like Zerr, to leave after a few years. This is causing a teacher shortage in the state, making it difficult for school administrators to staff their districts and forcing state education officials to come up with a solution.
A dearth of teachers
There is a 5% shortage in full-time equivalent instructors in Missouri for the current academic year, according to a report from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.
In some respects, what has taken place in Missouri is indicative of a broader trend. The Learning Policy Institute published a report in 2016 projecting persistent nationwide shortfalls of about 112,000 teachers starting in 2018.
The DESE report ranks the disciplines with the most severe shortages. Elementary education, early-childhood education, early-childhood special education and general science are among the worst.
The same report identifies the content areas that are most in need, such as technology and engineering at both the high school and middle school levels, agricultural education in both the high school and middle grades, and marketing at the high school level.
“High school science is often one that is pretty complicated to find,” said Rocky Valentine, superintendent of the Sparta R-III District in southwest Missouri. “Higher-level math is often difficult. Counselors at any building level are generally a challenge. Math and science, those are some of the hardest positions to fill for a lot of the smaller school districts.”
A problem on two fronts
Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner with DESE, said the issue is growing.
“It has become much more elevated in the last year or two, simply because of two factors,” Katnik said. “One of them is that we have less kids on campuses today studying to be teachers, so there has been a big drop in teacher education program enrollment.”
According to a teacher recruitment and retention report published by DESE, Missouri school districts hired 4,501 first-year teachers for the 2013-2014 school year but only 4,025 at the start of the 2018 academic term — a decline of almost 11%. There were 5,444 individuals who received their initial teaching certificates in 2013-2014, but that decreased to 3,900 five years later — down more than 28%.Compounding the problem is that some educators are leaving the profession.
After five years, only about 47% of educators who started during the 2013-2014 school year remained as teachers. By contrast, during the early 2000s, five-year retention figures were about 60%.
The underlying reasons
Compensation is a significant factor that weighs on teachers’ minds.
Zerr had a child in 2015. The new baby, coupled with daycare expenses, the hours spent away from her family and the additional time required to grade papers and plan lessons, simply became too much.
“After 10 years in the classroom, you are still just getting these incremental 1% to 3% raises per year if you are lucky, if your district isn’t on a freezing hire,” she said.
At those salaries, some are eligible for government subsidies, according to Todd Fuller, director of communication for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
“We have had teachers who have families that qualify for food stamps,” Fuller said, “even though they are a schoolteacher with a full-time job.”
The Economic Policy Institute published a report last year stating that, accounting for education and experience, educators’ weekly wages in 2018 were about 21% lower than those of their peers working in other fields. In 1996, that disparity was 6.3%. The report also showed that almost 60% of educators took a second position for additional pay.
“It is not a market in the sense that other labor markets might be,” said Emma Garcia, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “It is a public-sector market in which the wages don’t adjust based on supply and demand.”
This is especially salient in rural Missouri. School districts located in more populous counties generally offer teachers better compensation than those in less populated areas, according to salary data gathered by the Missouri State Teachers Association.
That is no accident.
School funding is linked to property taxes, along with some state aid. Broadly speaking, the more populated the county is, the higher the value of land is. That means more populous areas are better able to compensate their educators because they have more funding available.
In Worth County, a northwest Missouri county with about 2,000 residents, the salary range for educators with bachelor’s degrees is between about $31,000 and $35,000. Contrast that with St. Louis County, one of the state’s most populated counties, where the salary range is between $39,000 and $58,000.
That tends to put rural and smaller school districts at a disadvantage.
“Let’s say we have a fifth-grade science position become available; we might have eight to 10 applicants,” Valentine said of Sparta, a district in a city of about 2,000 residents. “Whereas if the same position opened up at Springfield Public Schools or Ozark, which are within 20 minutes of our district, they may have 50 to 75 applicants for the same type of position.”
Aside from pay, teachers must also deal with matters related to classroom management, which can lead to additional stress.
Patricia Woods was an instructor for nine years in the southwestern part of the state. She took an interest in teaching when a college instructor suggested a career in education.
“I think we all remember the great teachers in our lives and what it was like to be a student at the time we were in high school,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be a hands-on teacher, that students get a lot out of lab, that I could be part of that ‘aha’ moment.”
Woods graduated in 2009 and accepted a position at the Sarcoxie R-II School District teaching science. During that time, there were several incidents that sparked concerns.
“It was the first time I had been cursed out,” Woods said of one student disruption.
“I went and cried in a closet because I had never had anyone speak to me like that.”
That was one of many episodes that Woods endured.
Another time, a student forced her onto his lap and restrained her there, she said. “This was in front of every student, and there wasn’t any discipline given to the student either,” Woods recalled.
After a couple of years, she transferred to the Carthage R-9 School District to teach at-risk youth. There, Woods said, she worked with students who had unstable family and home lives, along with students who had been part of the criminal justice system.
After several years of dealing with the stress, Woods left teaching for a corporate job.
Woods was not alone in navigating those types of altercations. Almost 22% of educators say they have been threatened, and 12% say they have been attacked by a student at their current school, according to a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute.
“Teaching is hard,” said David Hough, a professor of education at Missouri State University. “Teaching is harder than it has ever been because every child who comes into the classroom is entitled to an education. These children reflect our society, and many of these children are coming out of environments that are absolutely frightening.”
Coping with the problem
Administrators at rural schools have had to find creative answers to address the shortage of available teachers for their districts. Valentine encourages paraprofessionals to obtain their degrees to become full-time teachers. Since they are local, he said, they are more likely to remain in the district.
Gearl Loden, the superintendent of Nixa Public Schools, petitioned his district’s school board for a wage increase for educators. He also championed Nixa’s introduction of fringe benefits such as complimentary health care visits to the school district’s clinic.
As other districts seek solutions to the teacher shortage, Valentine said, the issue has ramifications that extend well beyond the classroom.
“Effective educators are a benefit to our state, our economy, and a lot of different areas,” Valentine said. “The more successful our students are, the more successful our communities are going to be.”