This article appeared as “The Great Unknown” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School.
We have been talking about teacher shortages for years. Even prior to the pandemic, we could see that the changing macro-conditions and generational attitudes would cause strain in schools’ ability to hire, as NAIS President Donna Orem described in her January 2019 Independent Ideas blog, “The Future of the Teaching Workforce.” There’s no doubt that schools are struggling today with short-term staff shortages and teacher burnout. Throughout the pandemic, we saw that teachers were particularly affected by safety concerns, emotional burnout, and constant change and uncertainty. But amid all the recent talk about a mass exodus of teachers from the profession, the data on the actual impact on overall teacher staffing, so far, is inconsistent.
Here’s what recent data tells us:
What is unknown today is the extent to which the teaching profession will become part of the Great Resignation and whether teachers will leave quickly in large numbers. Many of today’s staff shortages in schools are caused by quarantine requirements and struggles to find child care. Large influxes of temporary government funds have created new jobs at public schools, further impacting the supply-and-demand balance. The jury is still out on the level of impact the pandemic will have on independent schools’ mid- and long-term ability to hire top talent.
- The U.S. is experiencing the Great Resignation; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows quit rates reaching a record high in November 2021 with 4.5 million people leaving their jobs, a surge that is continuing. BLS monthly quit rate data for local and state public education finds that teacher resignations were at a record high in the summer of 2020 and at a record low in the summer of 2021, and the overall quit rate for state and local public education employees is considerably lower than the national rate for all industries.
- Fewer college students are pursuing teaching; in its second comprehensive report on the state of teacher preparation, released in March 2022, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) found that enrollment in education programs continues to decline. AACTE member surveys in 2021 and 2022 found that about 20% of institutions reported a decline in new undergraduate enrollment of 11% or more; 19% of undergraduate-level and 11% of graduate-level teaching programs saw a significant drop in enrollment this year.
- Educators are burned out. In a January 2022 survey of National Education Association members, 90% of the respondents said that feeling burned out is a serious problem, and 55% said that they plan to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic.
But teaching is a unique profession with intrinsic rewards that are difficult to recreate in other professions. As we look at the sea of concerning, and even alarming, hiring data, are there any glimmers of hope? Might independent schools have some time to figure out how to turn the negative trending data around?
A Snapshot View
In February 2022, NAIS published the findings of a snapshot survey on staff and faculty turnover in which 405 schools responded. The survey named several trends and asked respondents to select the trends they had observed at their school in the current academic year; a substitute teacher shortage and fewer job applicants were the two that rose to the top. (See “Trends Affecting Turnover” below.)
Though the survey shows that schools are clearly challenged, many of the observed trends have the potential to improve if and when we are able to successfully navigate through the pandemic’s impacts. For example, the most observed concern, that of a substitute teacher shortage, is highly impacted by the temporary consequences of COVID-19, including teachers needing to be out due to illness and quarantine requirements and the fact that, historically, many of the substitute teachers are from high-risk age groups. The second most observed trend, that of fewer applicants for jobs, is an inevitable consequence of the current shift in supply and demand. The lowest reported observed challenge is actual teacher shortages, reported by only 24% of heads. Perhaps this is a glass-half-full perspective, but this level is below what would be classified as an overriding national trend.
An individual school will likely face the pains of a teacher shortage if it has a normal number of openings but fewer candidates, or if it has a higher number of departures as a result of ongoing morale issues. We know that the first is a condition that exists for most schools today. But what about the second?
In a November 2021 NAIS Snapshot survey on retention and well-being, 343 school heads responded to a question about current staff morale. Despite all the challenges schools have faced during the pandemic, only 11% of the responding heads felt that the overall staff morale was not strong; 56% said it was somewhat strong. A school has far less control over the number of candidates available for their open positions than the strength of their staff morale. Given the current hiring environment, spending time and effort on staff retention is more important than ever.
Another Data Picture
NAIS’s Career Center is a highly visible and active resource for posting and searching teaching and administrative job opportunities in independent and private schools. Given the robust activity of the site, the Career Center is also a good source for trend analysis and real-time insights, including historical benchmark comparisons and current data to use as an early indicator of what the future holds.
Looking at the recent job posting data, there are a few notable trends. The monthly number of jobs posted in the NAIS Career Center had normally followed a regular pattern. Because of the traditional contract renewal schedule, the peak job posting activity usually occurs in March and April. If we consider 2019 as a representative pre-pandemic year and compare the job postings to 2021, we see that, after a delayed start, the number of jobs posted were consistently and significantly higher than the pre-pandemic patterns. Even more troubling is what we are seeing for this year (denoted by the green bars in the “Job Postings” chart below). The number of job postings in 2022 is even higher. Overall, the number of new jobs posted to the Career Center in the first three months of 2022 is 59% higher than in 2021.
Exploring the types of jobs posted in the Career Center offers further insights. By looking at the year-over-year counts of job postings for the first three months of 2022, we see that the top category with the largest increase in postings is science, with 656 jobs posted, compared to 492 in 2021. The next five categories with the largest increase in postings are early childhood, elementary teacher, development/fundraising, visual/performing arts, and math.
Clearly the fact that the number of job postings is so high relative to historical data is an indicator that schools are facing hiring pain. But what do we know about the job seekers? Looking at Career Center site visitor analytics provides some insights. The data shows that the number of sessions reported through Google Analytics for the first three months of 2022 is 12% lower than in 2021. However, there are plenty of job openings, so it’s likely that a job seeker would need to return less often to the Career Center. Looking at the number of new Career Center users by month and how that pattern has changed over the course of the pandemic provides another interesting perspective. (See “New Users Visiting NAIS Career Center”)
Here we see that though the number of new users is lower than in 2021, it is higher than counts prior to the pandemic. This could be an indication of continued strong interest in working at independent schools from the broader community. This data perhaps offers a sliver of optimism in what is otherwise very concerning hiring data.
In a world where schools are able to return to a predictable work environment and schedule, where positive change through innovation was accelerated out of need, where schools—public and private—are rethinking their compensation models to remain competitive, and where short-term pandemic hindrances such as disappearing child care and health risks have more or less been resolved, will teachers continue to be drawn to a career where the intangible benefits are so unique and compelling?
It is frankly too soon to tell. We need to keep watching the data and indicators. The data from the first three months of this year is indeed concerning, and school leaders should be prepared for another year where the supply of teachers is lower than the demand—and for a little more ambiguity until a clearer picture of the long-term horizon evolves.
Check out these NAIS research resources on teaching, hiring, retention, and satisfaction: