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Teachers in Missouri are not returning to the classroom. Advocates say they have had enough

ST.LOUIS– Amid an ongoing teacher shortage in Missouri, a majority of teachers in a recent survey of more than 15,000 educators across the state want leaders to prioritize a higher base pay as they try to attract and retain more staff, according to a survey from the state.

The survey by the State Board of Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission, which included more than 15,000 teachers, 900 principals and 350 superintendents, is a part of the group’s larger goal of better understanding the state’s teacher recruitment and retention challenges. A final report and recommendations are expected in October.

The state constitution puts teachers’ starting salary at $25,000 — the lowest in the nation.

In the last six years, the average attrition rate for teachers statewide was above 11 percent, according to the commission — 3 percentage points higher than the national average of 8 percent (which drops to 4 percent in counties that are “high-performing,”). At the same time, the state experienced a “downhill slide” in the number of teachers available to replace them, said Dr. Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner with the Missouri Department of Elementary.

In the same time period, enrollment in teacher education programs dropped by 25 percent. Over the last decade, that number was almost 30 percent, Katnik added.

In some school districts in the St. Louis metropolitan area, for example, schools were experiencing a deficit in both teachers and support staff. At the start of the year, St. Louis Public Schools had to suspend bus transportation for eight different schools due to an ongoing bus driver shortage, a challenge other communities across the country have faced as well. At the time the district was also in need of 141 teachers. Today, a spokesperson for the district says that number has dropped to 99 due to “aggressive” recruiting and a recent raise in pay.

At Francis Howell School District, located in St. Charles County, officials say while their teacher roles are filled they are struggling to hire for other roles, such as custodians and paraprofessionals.

While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated some of these challenges, these issues existed well before the virus started to spread, said Webster Groves High School teacher Chloe Telle.

“All these inequities that you’re seeing, they’ve been there,” Telle told the NewsHour. “The problem is through COVID, we were not able to cover them up anymore.”

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Though the final report to the Missouri Board of Education is not due until October, the early data from the Blue Ribbon Commission, released during a meeting just before the start of the school year, gave some clear signals about how teachers are feeling and why for many it’s so difficult to stay. The commission’s first meeting was initially supposed to be closed to the public, with a report generated and released two weeks later. But under threat of a lawsuit and at risk of violating the state’s sunshine law, the Missouri Department of Secondary Education ultimately made the meetings public.

The strong support in the survey for raising base pay, which was shared by administrators as well as teachers, also came up time and time again over the course of the commission’s work, said Mark Walker, chairman and CEO of Transland and the chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission .

“It is not acceptable to be 50th in the country out of 50 states for starting salary on teacher pay and our average salary isn’t even close to where it needs to be,” Walker said.

Telle, who teaches English and has been in education for 14 years, said educators in recent years have been met with more and more challenges outside of the classroom which in turn hinders their work inside the classroom.

“When you talk about the teaching shortage, the bus driver shortage, even in the case of masks, you had people literally harassing teachers and harassing bus drivers who were simply trying to follow the orders of their jobs and they said enough was enough,” she said.

Though Telle notes that her faith is what has kept her going in the more difficult moments, she said she has seen a number of teachers leave.

“They’re gone and they’re not coming back,” she said.

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Recruitment and retention

To understand the state of education shortages in Missouri it is important to not only look at what challenges exist regarding hiring but also what difficulties lie in enrolling future teachers in programs in the first place.

The number of undergraduate education degrees awarded annually in the United States peaked at nearly 200,000 in the early 1970s, according to a report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. In the 2018 to 2019 school year, that number dropped to less than 90,000, according to the report. For this reason Katnik noted the importance of looking at educators in the early stages of their careers, saying his department is taking a special interest in retention rates at the three- and five-year marks.

He told the NewsHour nearly 60 percent of vacancies in school districts are filled by first-year teachers “which is fine if you have a steady supply coming in.” But “if your supply is diminishing … you’re going to have an issue there.”

Data from the survey showed student loan reimbursement and paid time off for wellness ranked high among benefits employees would value most.

The issue, however, is not just attracting and retaining teachers, but specifically recruiting teachers of color, and keeping them in the classroom.

“We as a state, at least for the past six years, we’ve been 93 percent white, 78 percent female. We only have 7 percent of any kind of nonwhite teachers in our schools and we have to change that now,” Katnik said.

When asked what would attract or retain teachers of color in the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission survey, respondents overwhelmingly said student loan forgiveness. That was true not only for the majority of teachers but 68.8 percent of principals and 64.4 percent of superintendents. Reducing the cost of becoming a teacher and career pathways to leadership positions were also cited as factors that would help.

The issue of inequities among student loan borrowers is not isolated to Missouri. Data from the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., shows the average Black college graduate owes more than $50,000 after four years of college compared to an average of more than $28,000 among white graduates.

But to address inequities, gaps and shortages, Telle said, the work has to be more than applying a Band-Aid — it has to be about overhauling the entire system.

“Businesses are looking at us, our students are talking about leaving our state,” she said. “We’re killing ourselves and we’re doing it willingly, that’s what I hope they take away from this. If you don’t fix your relationship with your educators, you’re going to kill your state. It’s that simple.”

She added while pay is a big issue and so are benefits, at the end of the day teachers deserve to be treated with respect.

“They’re tired of being disrespected by those that they’re trying to help the most and they’re just over it,” she said. “I’m not saying that teachers don’t want better pay but imagine if you were paying me okay but you were showing me that professional respect, showing me that respect as a human being. They’d still be here.”

Once the commission submits its report to the Missouri State Board of Education in October, Katnik said it will be left to them to decide what comes next. The report will be out ahead of the state legislative session, he added, giving lawmakers enough time to respond to any policy recommendations.

“We have some exhausted teachers,” Katnik told the NewsHour, adding that many still do have passion for teaching but they need more. “I’m hearing more now than what I’ve ever heard is that teachers don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel respected, they find themselves in the middle of a political bull’s- eye, and they went from being a hero when the pandemic first hit to being a villain – all in a very short amount of time.”