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Shelby County Schools reports over 200 teacher vacancies at the start of the school year

An elementary teacher walks with her student to another classroom outside.
Shelby County Schools started the school year with 217 teaching vacancies, its highest number in at least five years.
Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat

It’s been just over a month since school started, and more than 200 teaching positions at Shelby County Schools remain vacant.

The Memphis district started the school year with 217 unfilled teaching jobs on Aug. 9, and that number has grown to 227 as of Monday, the district’s human resources chief, Yolanda Martin, said. That represents a dramatic increase in vacancies from around this time last year, when the district had just 63 unfilled positions as of the first day of school.

The rise in openings follows a wave of teacher resignations. Since May, 367 district educators have resigned from their positions, Martin told school board members during a committee meeting on Monday. The district saw a similar figure last year: 389 teachers resigned during the 2019-20 school year.

As schools across the country enter the third consecutive pandemic school year, there is an intensifying teacher shortage nationwide, fueled by pandemic-related burnout and retirements, as well as the dwindling number of students interested in pursuing a teaching career.

In a poll last month, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the U.S., revealed almost one in three teachers said COVID has made them more likely to resign or retire early. With many school buildings closed and classes moved to Zoom the past two school years, educators and students had to find new ways of teaching and learning.

It’s not immediately clear what role the pandemic played in educators’ decisions to leave the Memphis district. Board member Stephanie Love asked whether the district offered an exit survey.

“Did you see any common trends to where it would make you sit and think maybe we need to alter this, let me talk to somebody about this, or how can we maybe support teachers more so they wouldn’t leave?” she asked.

The most frequent reason teachers gave in exit surveys, Martin said, was pursuing a new job opportunity, though many former employees gave no reason for leaving, according to district data.

“What we do know is this is a laborer’s market,” Martin said, noting the district is continuing to prioritize offering incentives to help retain staff and keep them from seeking employment elsewhere.

“[The data] pretty much mirrors what we’ve seen in the past, but obviously not to this magnitude right now,” Martin said. “So we can suspect what that could be, but based on the data we have, these are the main indicators as of now.”

To retain remaining educators, the district offers ongoing professional development, annual 2% raises, and new teacher induction programs, among many other tactics. Using data, Martin said the district also tracks which schools have the hardest time keeping teachers so they can find ways to offer more support to school staff and leaders.

While the district can fill vacancies with substitute teachers — for now — Martin highlighted several strategies to continue recruiting educators throughout the school year.

Shelby County Schools has already held eight virtual and six in-person hiring fairs for the 2021-22 school year; the district will offer another hiring event later this year for December graduates, Martin said. In total, Shelby County Schools employs about 6,000 teachers, according to the district website.

In addition, Martin said, the district has shifted away from having a “hiring season” just before the school year to a year-round recruitment strategy. That effort has involved increased marketing online and through TV commercials, and continued support of programs dedicated to growing the teacher workforce long-term, such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teaching Residency.

“We recruit year-round,” Martin said. “We must because we have to continue to plug our leaky bucket.”

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