Schools are getting creative in trying to attract teachers

Housing assistance, loan forgiveness, help with advanced degrees and more are offered by schools to help find and keep teachers in the classroom

Everyone has a labor-shortage story these days, whether it involves shuttered businesses, slow fast-food lines or big bonuses just for signing on to work.

Teaching, that critical profession that affects everyone, is just as vulnerable. The reasons are complex and range from practical considerations like salaries to societal influences like Facebook and family support.

The issue of finding enough quality teachers is not unique to Alabama, points out Dr. Michael Sibley, director of communications for the Alabama Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that all 50 states reported teacher shortages in at least one area in the 2022-2023 school year. The federal agency suggests fixes like paid apprenticeships, residency programs, scholarships, higher salaries and loan forgiveness.

In Alabama, some school systems are benefiting from the 2021 Teacher Excellence and Accountability for Mathematics and Science Act, or TEAMS, designed to attract teachers. Math and science teachers can earn up to an additional $20,000 a year teaching in 6th through 12th grade.

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The Alabama Math and Science Teacher Education Program also assists with loan forgiveness for teachers who graduated since 2018.

Those new programs are helping but more strategies are needed, officials say.

Dr. Michael Sibley, director of communications for the Alabama Department of Education.

“Other areas, such as elementary education and special education, still struggle to find teachers,” Sibley says.

Even geography is a factor. Some of Alabama’s smaller systems struggle to find and keep teachers.

“Very often in rural areas, it is difficult to attract young people to commit to a school system for long periods of time,” Sibley says. “If an individual is from a rural area, has family or a spouse in that area, or is in some way socially attached to the area, it is more probable the individual will commit long term.”

New teaching graduates naturally consider quality of life in choosing where to work. Fewer opportunities for shopping, entertainment, social engagement and professional activities can make some places less appealing to young people.

Many school districts are becoming creative in filling vacancies, Sibley says.

“Everything from assistance with housing and financial bonuses to assistance with obtaining higher educational degrees and professional development are used as incentives to recruit and retain good teachers,” he says. “Some school systems also have the ability to provide stipends and/or other incentives to draw teachers to their area.”

Alabama’s Department of Education’s own efforts include a “We Teach” marketing campaign. The We Teach Alabama website answers common questions and encourages collaboration.

Recruiting can also help.

“The department has also recently hired recruiters whose primary objective is to tap into the job market and identify individuals who would be a good fit for Alabama’s school systems,” Sibley says.

“Our recruiters seek those who are considering teaching as a career, those who already have a teaching certificate, and those who may be in the twilight of their initial careers and are considering teaching as a second career,” he says.

According to education department statistics, the average annual starting salary for a teacher in the state is $44,226. Alabama has roughly 48,000 teachers in 149 local school systems, plus administrators, librarians, counselors, support personnel and more for the state’s approximately 750,000 public school students.

“Our salary matrix is competitive with similarly situated states and offers teachers amazing benefits and a secure working environment,” Sibley says.

For years, teachers who earn additional degrees have been able to increase their salaries. Gov. Kay Ivey has consistently provided incremental pay raises to educators, too, Sibley adds, “but the allure of higher compensation in other fields continues to be a challenge.”

Salary competition is an obvious factor, but the state’s largest organized teacher group generally agrees that attracting new teachers is simply harder than it used to be.

“The profession of education is less attractive than in generations before,” says the spokesperson for the Alabama Education Association. That powerhouse organization has nearly 20,000 members who influence everything from state legislation to local policy and vacation schedules.

William Tunnell, manager of UniServ Organizing for the Alabama Education Association.

William Tunnell, AEA’s manager of UniServ Organizing, cites a number of factors behind a downturn in interest: burnout, extensive paperwork, outside competitive salaries, less support from parents and student disciplinary issues that aren’t adequately addressed by administrators.

Even the traditional summer break — the most attractive benefit for teachers for generations — “has been reduced in some cases to less than eight weeks,” says Tunnell.

AEA is working with the Alabama Legislature “to begin addressing the recruitment of new educators by increasing salaries and protecting benefits,” Tunnell says. “There are simply fewer future educators in the university pipelines than in years past.”

AEA hosts a Future Teachers of Alabama club in many high schools and an “educator signing day” comparable to celebrations of student athletes.

Not surprisingly, better salaries are high on the list of AEA’s suggested improvements. Most school districts pay the state’s minimum salary, Tunnell says, so there’s not much competition between districts. He cites the average teacher salary in Alabama as $57,231.

Beyond added compensation, though, AEA suggests supporting teachers in terms of student discipline; giving them time to teach and plan lessons; reducing paperwork and meeting time; and listening to them more. Paid student internships, signing bonuses, teacher-led leadership committees and regular meetings with school system leaders would help, too.

Teaching has never been easy, most agree, but many who pursue education do it to help children and society as a whole.

“Teachers teach for a variety of reasons, but the most common is a calling to impact the future through the lives of the students they touch,” Sibley says.

“The time and dedication that it takes to be an effective teacher far outweighs the compensation. But people don’t go into education to become millionaires,” he says. “Rather, it is often the desire to make a significant contribution to their community, have an impact on the lives of the young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow, and pass forward the love of learning to the young people.”

Negative factors in the modern teaching profession include social media attacks, political scrutiny, the proliferation of cell phones, classroom violence, lack of supplies, more laws, less respect and students who come from homes where drug use is a problem, experts say.

“Different people leave the profession for different reasons, but most often we hear the top reasons of a lack of support and too many other requirements placed on teachers that reduce their opportunities to actually teach,” says Tunnell.

Teaching is more challenging now, but “most positions of public service are as well,” Tunnell points out.

Despite the challenges facing the profession, more than 90% of school-age children in Alabama attend public schools, Sibley says. They “do so equipped with the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to be successful after high school,” he adds.

Deborah Storey is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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