Enrichment Education

Here’s what’s driving the nationwide teacher shortage

The staffing crisis has permeated all levels of the profession, creating vacancies in nearly all capacities.
an empty school classroom and chalkboard
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Story at a glance

  • Burnout continues to be a driving force behind a nationwide teacher exodus that has left the industry with around a half a million fewer teachers.

  • But COVID-19 has only exacerbated a nationwide shortage that is decades in the making.

  • The current staffing crisis is compounded by a massive decline in undergraduate degrees in teacher education programs, low pay, expanded opportunities for women and lack of teaching degrees in STEM fields.

Burnout continues to be a driving force behind a nationwide teacher exodus that has left the industry with roughly a half-million fewer teachers. But COVID-19 has only exacerbated a nationwide shortage that is decades in the making.  

School staff have felt the acute challenges of pandemic-era learning for nearly two years. Periodic transitions between hybrid learning models and navigating myriad COVID-19 mitigation guidelines all while dealing with ever-increasing expectations has pushed many to the career brink and even out the door.  

The staffing crisis has permeated all levels of the profession, creating vacancies in nearly all capacities. This is nothing new, according to the National Education Association’s (NEA) President Becky Pringle, who said in February the current exodus represents a “five-alarm crisis.”  

Pringle added that a way to shore up staffing shortages would be to treat educators with more respect for their profession.  

“That means paying educators like the professionals they are, ensuring that their students can get the mental health support they need, protecting them from COVID, and addressing the staff shortages so our educators can do what they do best – helping every student thrive,” she said. 

A recent NEA survey found that 55 percent of educators — regardless of age or years at the chalkboard — planned to leave the profession earlier than expected due to pandemic-related stress, with 91 percent of respondents saying stress from the pandemic is a “serious problem.” 

Around 96 percent of educators participating in the survey supported increasing teacher salaries as a way to combat burnout. 

Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, wrote on social media in favor of hazard pay to combat burnout among beleaguered front-line workers, including teachers. 

“Stop normalizing the burnout of teachers, nurses, and doctors and start supporting them. Financially. Forgive their student loans & give them hazard pay. That’s the bare minimum,” DeBarros tweeted.  

Yet the current staffing crisis is compounded by a massive decline in undergraduate degrees in teacher education programs, low pay, expanded opportunities for women and lack of teaching degrees in STEM fields. 

A recent report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) shows that education degrees peaked at more than 200,000 per year in the 1970s. Fewer than 90,000 were awarded in 2019. This decline has corresponded with a rise in degrees conferred in other major fields of study.  

AACTE’s report also attributes the drop in teaching degrees to growing opportunities for women in other professions. Thirty-six percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by women in 1970-71 were in education. But only 6 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in 2018-19 were in the education field.  


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Another factor behind the ongoing decline in students pursuing undergraduate degrees is the pay scale. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows the median pay for high school teachers in the U.S. in 2021 was $61,820 annually. Meanwhile, the median salary for kindergarten and elementary school teachers the same year was $61,350.  

The average starting teacher salary for the 2019-20 school year was $41,163, a 2.6 percent increase from the previous year.

“The fact is teachers aren’t paid adequately—and everybody knows it, and everybody talks about it,” Cameo Kendrick, chair of the NEA Aspiring Educators, said in NEA Today.  

“These financial barriers are significant, especially as more non-traditional students consider [careers in] education. Like me, they have families and other responsibilities,” Kendrick added.  

Staff shortages and burnout have left school districts scrambling for ways to retain their staff, with some considering moving to four days of in-class instruction per week to minimize the fallout.  

A Texas school board voted unanimously last month to shorten the school week to four days and to offer $3,000 retention bonuses to teachers and $1,500 to staff — each to be paid in three installments. Funding will be drawn from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grants, which are part of the federal CARES Act. 

Jasper County Independent School District Superintendent John Seybold told ABC’s “Good Morning America” the updated model was prompted by long-term teacher burnout that was made “more and more of an issue” by the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“The four-day week kind of makes it a little more manageable for them because there’s so much pressure placed on our teachers,” Seybold told the network.   

“As a school district, ultimately the best thing we can do for kids is put the best possible teacher in front of them every day,” he added. 


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