Northeast Ohio schools struggle to fill open positions

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Although education was once the most popular undergraduate degree to pursue, the number of people entering the teaching profession has decreased by 80% over the last few decades. Meanwhile, an increasing number of teachers already in the field are choosing to leave, due to rising dissatisfaction in the industry.

The combination of these two nationwide trends, among other issues, has created a years-long staffing shortage crisis in K-12 education that’s poised to only get worse. And school administrators are scrambling to retain and hire enough qualified teachers to keep their classroom sizes in check.

“I think all school districts in the state of Ohio are dealing with a smaller pool of candidates for the positions that we have available,” said Scot Prebles, superintendent of Bay Village City School District.

While the district has been able to assign a certified instructor to each classroom, Prebles said that over the last few years, the district has had to intensify its recruitment efforts to make it happen.

“We’ve had to look at a wider pool of candidates and expand the net to beyond places we’ve typically or traditionally looked for candidates,” Prebles said. “And it’s not just classroom teachers. It’s bus transportation, aids and food service workers. They’re all becoming harder and harder to acquire.”

In Warrensville Heights School District, administrators have had to find new ways to keep positions filled, particularly those specialties that are hardest to staff, like high school math, science and foreign languages.

One long-term music substitute is continuing to teach at a district school, while pursuing credentials to become a full-time instructor. And a recent last-minute hire, thankfully, solved a critical vacancy in Spanish.

“It’s been a very trying season,” said Donald Jolly, superintendent of Warrensville Heights School District.

Luckily, he said, the district hired new intervention teachers during the pandemic to provide students with extra support. Most of those teachers have since been moved to regular classrooms to fill vacancies.

Administrators anticipated coping with the shortages in this way, but the transition has been slow, because schools are still seeing the pandemic’s collateral damage on incoming students.

“We planned it that way because we were hoping that (students) wouldn’t need as much intervention as time elapsed, but we’re finding that’s not the case,” Jolly said. “The students entering school have a lot more issues than we could have imagined. They were isolated, and now they’re in kindergarten and we’re seeing that they need a lot more support and interventions than we could have predicted.”

Jolly lamented that for each teacher looking for a new job, multiple districts are vying for their application.

“We call it a ‘teacher’s market,’ ” Jolly said. “There’s a lot of competition because there just aren’t enough teachers.”

What happened?

In 1971, education degrees accounted for more than 20% of all bachelor’s degrees nationwide. That number fell to just 4% by 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Ohio, the number of newly credentialed teachers has been on a steady decline since 2014, an April Department of Education and Workforce study found. And over the past five years, more educators left teaching than were newly licensed in 12 of 17 categories reported, including elementary education, special education, world language, visual arts and health.

Not only are fewer people becoming teachers and more teachers are leaving the profession, but increasingly more teachers are leaving their respective districts for other schools, compounding the workload stress on those charged with hiring and onboarding.

“A lot of young people aren’t going into education,” Jolly said. “I think the teacher profession is not as attractive as it once was. Teaching is something that you have to want to do, and you have to have the heart for it. You have to study, pass the test, encounter students every day and be on stage all the time.”

Marius Boboc, department chair and professor of education at Cleveland State University, said that’s the big question – why aren’t high school graduates interested in becoming teachers anymore?

Boboc believes the teacher support systems that used to be in place at schools are “fraying at the seams,” resulting in a decrease of support, while teachers endure an increase in accountability, public scrutiny and burnout.

The Ohio Federation of Teachers surveyed more than 2,300 K-12 educators and school support workers from March to May 2023 and found that the majority of respondents have a lower level of job satisfaction than when they first entered the field, and nearly three out of four have seriously considered leaving their jobs recently.

Of those respondents who have decided to leave the profession, the majority listed student behavior, lack of autonomy/respect, emphasis on standardized tests and long working hours as their reasons for leaving. They suggested that decisionmakers fix deteriorating working conditions, listen to teacher needs and give educators more control over curriculum, if they want to retain a more robust workforce.

“Unemployment is historically low, so people have a larger variety of career options. Add that to all of the issues facing education, and many students are thinking, ‘Well, why would I go into teaching?’” Boboc said. “We’ve seen the effects. At Cleveland State, (the number of students pursuing education) has been trending down for about a decade, just like it has in all of the other public schools in Ohio.”

Boboc and his team are working to find the most effective ways to address the teacher shortage to meet the needs of Northeast Ohio schools, and sometimes that means adapting training programs in ways that better fit into the lives of enrollees.

“One thing we learned from the pandemic is the fast-growing appetite for hybrid and online courses,” Boboc said. “We’re creating pathways for community college students who want to complete a degree in education at a four-year institution, without unnecessary financial strain, and in a timely fashion, so we can produce high quality teacher candidates.”

He added that they’re also paying close attention to what the U.S. Department of Education has initiated on a national level to make teaching more enticing, such as offering high-quality and affordable training programs, career advancement opportunities and apprenticeships and teacher residency programs.

“The value we place on education speaks to our room for growth as a society,” Boboc said. “It would be great to come together as members of a larger community to make that happen.”