As Pennsylvania students prepare to get back to the classroom, school districts across the commonwealth are facing a teacher shortage.
Pennsylvania will need thousands of new teachers by 2025, according to the state Department of Education, but fewer college students are entering the field and more teachers are leaving the profession.
The number of certificates for new teachers issued in Pennsylvania has dropped by roughly two-thirds over the past decade, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
About 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year a decade ago, while only 6,000 did so last year.
“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in people entering the field of education,” acting Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty. “To make matters worse, the rate of teachers leaving the field is also accelerating.”
That has left school districts scrambling to hire enough candidates to fill open positions.
School districts in Washington, Greene, and Fayette counties have not been immune to the problem, with some local superintendents reporting struggles in being able to find teachers to lead classrooms.
“It’s been a challenging summer. Knock on wood, as of (Wednesday) morning, I can say we are fully staffed when it comes to teachers, but it’s been a battle of ups and downs filling those positions,” said Brandon Robinson, superintendent of Jefferson-Morgan School District in Greene County.
After advertising for weeks for a high school chemistry teacher, the school district received zero applications.
The school district also struggled to fill two elementary-level special education positions, including a life skills and autistic support position.
Superintendents acknowledge there is a shrinking pool of candidates to interview for teaching positions.
“Do we have the number of applicants that we used to? No, not nearly as much as we used to,” said George Lammay, superintendent of Washington School District. “Locally, there’s a lot of interest in elementary positions, but when you get into more specialized areas – physics, chemistry – it can be difficult. You have to keep working at it. It’s a challenge.”
Lammay said the school district had to fill 11 teaching vacancies, including eight special education positions – the most difficult position to fill – and as the start of the school year approaches, they have only one open position, a special education position.
Robinson said school districts are finding themselves competing for the same qualified candidates.
“We’re getting five applicants for an opening instead of 20, for instance, and a lot of schools are looking at those same applicants, so it turns into kind of a hiring battle,” he said. “The big thing we have learned here is we have to go out and look for candidates. We can’t sit back and wait for candidates to come to us.”
The state Department of Education last month introduced a three-year plan to attract more educators to the position.
The plan focuses on recruiting and retaining teachers, improving diversity (less than 7% of teachers in Pennsylvania are people of color, and teacher preparation programs struggle to recruit more diverse candidates), streamlining certification, improving training for aspiring teachers, and expanding professional growth and leadership development for teachers.
“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” said Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus, a national teacher development organization. “If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward.”
There are several reasons for the teacher shortage: among them, salary, additional responsibilities, student behavior, politicization, and public safety issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic, according to superintendents, made it worse.
In a spring survey conducted by the National Education Association, which represents nearly 3 million educators, 99% of respondents reported burnout as a “serious problem.”
Fifty-five percent of teachers said they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.
“It is much more challenging to find qualified teachers than it was just two years ago. Less experienced and qualified applicants are available,” said Dr. Michael Lucas, superintendent of Trinity Area School District. “The teaching job has become so much more demanding, and challenging, and teachers or those thinking about teaching are finding more flexible and less stressful employment.”
In addition to the shortage of teachers, schools are in dire need of substitute teachers.
“Finding enough substitute teachers remains impossible now,” said Lucas.
To address the shortage, Pennsylvania now allows individuals with a bachelor’s degree but no teaching certificate who are interested in day-to-day substitute teaching to receive an emergency teaching permit.
Those who want to obtain an emergency permit must contact the school district where they want to substitute for more information on the district’s specific requirements, processes, procedures, and compensation for substitute teachers.
Lammay said Washington School District’s emergency substitutes have played an important role in providing classroom coverage when teachers are absent.
Often, if a school district can’t find a substitute teacher, regular teachers have to cover classrooms on their prep periods, classrooms are doubled up, or administrators fill in, said Dr. Keith Hartbauer, superintendent of Brownsville Area School District.
“We are finding it very difficult to find substitute teachers,” said Hartbauer.
In response to the shortage of substitute teachers, Connellsville Area School District increased the long-term substitute rate to $150 a day and included individual health care. For substitutes who don’t want or need health insurance, the daily rate is $200.
Charleroi Area School District, too, has raised daily substitute rates to $120.
Said Dr. Joseph Bradley, superintendent of Connellsville Area School District, “Our teachers have always risen to the occasion to do what’s best for our students, but we’d rather have substitute teachers, and it’s hard to get them.”
Between the 2008-09 and the 2018-19 academic years, the number of students enrolled in traditional teacher education programs nationwide declined by 35%. Alternative programs have experienced significant drops, too.
Waynesburg University, though, has managed to buck that trend.
Enrollment in undergraduate freshman education courses for the fall of 2022 has increased by 28% over the fall of 2021, and there has been a surge of enrollment in the university’s graduate programs in education, according to Dr. Kelley Solomon, chair of the education program at Waynesburg University.
Solomon remains optimistic that there will always be people who have a passion for the field of education, and said teaching “is not only a career but a vocation.”
Stephen Puskar, superintendent of Burgettstown Area School District, too, stressed the importance of the teaching profession and the role that teachers play in making a difference in the lives of children.
“Teaching is a calling. To do it well is difficult and takes a special skillset. It takes someone who thinks of students first and puts their heart into it,” said Puskar. “You cannot overstate the impact that a good teacher has on students and on the future of our society.”