Amid U.S. shortage, metro Atlanta schools try to lure teachers to stay

As school districts across the nation work to recruit teachers for more than 60,000 vacancies, they must invest in long-term strategies to increase the prospective teacher pool and end shortages, according to a new study from the Learning Policy Institute.

Metro Atlanta school districts already are incorporating some new strategies to fill empty classrooms.

“If we could stem attrition and bring teachers in the right way – with adequate preparation and mentoring and reasonable compensation and working conditions – we could solve teacher shortages,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the Learning Policy Institute’s president. “History has shown that was the case in many states in the past and cities where shortages with the right policy moves were solved in 2-3 years.”

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States are utilizing a half-dozen strategies laid out in the study, “Taking the Long View: State Efforts to Solve Teacher Shortages by Strengthening the Profession,” including scholarships, student loan forgiveness, competitive salaries, and recruitment strategies to find better qualified educators and high-quality principals.

Former teacher Brad Tarter said the student loan forgiveness idea has worked as some teachers already benefit. Expanding that to all teachers would be a great benefit for most, especially as student loan debt often exceeds credit card debt. Tarter left the business world, went back to school and eventually landed a job as a special education teacher. He taught several years in Ohio and Cobb County. When he and his wife — whom he met while teaching — decided to start a family, he left the classroom.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to provide enough on a teacher’s paycheck,” Tarter said. “Being a teacher takes heavy investment. I really enjoyed working with the kids. But once you’re in it and you look at the (pay) scale, you feel like you’re staring up at it. The amount of pay … is just not enough.”

Metro Atlanta districts have worked to boost starting salaries and offer signing and retention bonuses, as well as incentive pay for teachers who take assignments at problem schools.

This summer, Atlanta’s six largest school districts were looking to hire fewer than 1,000 teachers, compared to nearly 2,000 two years ago.

Darling-Hammond said since 2015, about 40 states have reported math, science and special education teacher shortages. More than 30 states report shortages for bilingual, world language and career technical education teachers.

Pay isn’t the only reason for the vacancies.

Former teacher Kris Webb said she endured a heavy workload and students with needs outside of the learning environment that contributed to her leaving the classroom several years ago.

“The amount of need was big … and stressful,” said Webb, a founder of Science of Fun STEM Camp, which runs summer and after-school programs for City Schools of Decatur students. “Students needed more support to make it through the day. I brought snacks because they were often hungry. It was an immense workload.

“I loved it, but it wasn’t really sustainable.”

Rachel Meggs alluded to culture issues being part of why she left. She taught several years before going to Boston to earn a Master’s degree and returning to teaching in metro Atlanta for a year before leaving again.

“I left for a variety of reasons but the biggest thing that contributed to my departure was the state of Georgia refused to pay me on a masters level because I didn’t get my masters at a Georgia school,” she said.

Another issue has been unqualified instructors. Darling-Hammond said students in more than 100,000 classrooms across the country started the school year last year with unprepared teachers — those without certifications, mentorship or enough classroom training time before leading a room of their own. She said students of color and those with limited English, from low-income families and high-poverty areas are more likely to have underprepared teachers.

More than 300 uncertified teachers are currently employed in metro Atlanta, which districts can do thanks to the Strategic Waiver School System status that frees them from some state operation rules. As of this spring, about 200 uncertified teachers worked for the DeKalb County School District.

Underprepared teachers also leave two to three times more than those who are prepared, which creates student achievement issues and creates a revolving door for districts already spending more time replacing those teachers than recruiting new ones.

“The outcome of this reality, particularly when it’s sustained over high period of time, ranges from doing poorly in school, not graduating, high absenteeism, greater suspensions and expulsions, all prevalent with students of color and students from low-income families,” Darling-Hammond said.

Several initiatives laid out in the study already are seeing their way into metro Atlanta school district recruiting strategies. Gwinnett County is seeing success from a special-education teacher internship program, said Chandra Walker, the district’s executive director of human resources and talent management. It was done to encourage prospective teachers in that specialty, where candidates often are hard to find.

New DeKalb County School District human resources chief Bernice Gregory touted strategic recruitment — talking more to prospective teachers with a connection to the county or with students from colleges of current DeKalb employees— and easing away from a past practice of recruiting uncertified teachers.

“We’re using data to drive our hiring practices and … become more intentional when we’re going out recruiting,” said Gregory, who joined the district in April.

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