NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Superintendent Stanley Bean has several contingency plans in place.
For his sprawling district in Franklin County, he faces 20 teacher vacancies with only so many days to fill them before the school year starts. His district stretches into Monteagle Mountain down to the Tennessee-Alabama line.
"I am meeting teachers; currently just preparing them for Plan B and Plan C if we cannot hire teachers, and using long-term subs," Bean said. "The state has made some efforts but not enough. Teachers are always trying to make more money. When a job gets open, they will go. It’s recruitment all the time."
Bean is not alone.
A NewsChannel 5 analysis shows more than 1,000 teacher openings during the first week of July. During the 2021-2022 school year, the state had 1,024 unfilled vacancies, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Education. From that same school year, the state issued 1,354 permits, which give a person an emergency credential to teach in the classroom without any teaching license.
"Hopefully, we will be in better shape. We are very concerned. We are three weeks away from the school year beginning. We would typically have about 10 openings," Bean said.
A years-long problem
Tonya Coats just left the classroom but didn't leave education behind.
In her new role as the president of the Tennessee Education Association, she said she wanted the next step in her career to revolve around advocating for teachers.
The new role also means facing the problem head-on of teacher vacancies across Tennessee.
"With all the added challenges in the classroom, we are taking on more jobs with more students in the classroom and our pay is not the average on the national average. We should be well into $60,000 plus. We are professionals. Most educators have more than two degrees. The things we have to do in the classroom, we have taken on more because of this teacher shortage."
Coats said the teacher shortage didn't just happen overnight. From her perspective, she said she's seen it coming throughout the last few years, dating before the pandemic. She said found a lot that has to do with the amount teachers make.
"There are educators who take on two or three jobs," Coats said. "We have educators who have to do night shifts. When we think about the criteria in the classroom where we take care of Tennessee students, educators just can't survive on what we have been able to survive. We love our students. But loving our students doesn't take care of our households."
At the Professional Educators of Tennessee, executive director JC Bowman said districts were calling them for help and advice. The organization is a professional organization for teachers across the state.
"It's been an ongoing trend," Bowman said. "It's going to become a crisis. I think not just in Tennessee but nationally. Tennessee has been immune from it since we border eight states. But we have made it difficult for them to come in. It's become a real big problem. People are leaving the profession for all sorts of reasons. I think they are projecting at least 2,000 teacher openings statewide."
The education culture war
Tennessee Tech University's Julie Baker — associate dean of the College of Education — said they are constantly fighting a culture war to get potential students interested in becoming teachers.
"It's really tough," Baker said. "For several years, teacher accountability has been drilled in. Teachers are accountable now more than they ever were before. The general public is hard on teachers. It is definitely a battle we are fighting all the time. It's not just with families or current teachers. When people who hold high positions are saying things that aren't favorable at all about education, of course, that is going to push us back."
Tennessee Tech produces the largest number of students in a three-year cohort, according to data from the Tennessee State Board of Education. Of those numbers, Tech has 796, followed by Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee-Martin. Baker said Tech had started seeing a dip in the numbers of those entering the education program starting around eight years ago, but those numbers have stabilized in the last couple of years.
To combat some of the negative public discourse on entering the field, Baker said Tech has its own marketing person to go into schools to talk to prospective students. The school also has more than 50 different partnerships with school districts across Tennessee.
"When students look around at professions, they don't always look right in front of them," Baker said. "One thing that's the elephant in the room that you have to talk with to high school students is asking them how many people have told you not to go into the education profession. Right now, the culture is even teachers, unfortunately, encourage these young adults not to go into the education field. So one of the things we try to do is reverse that. We really have to think about respecting our own profession, and we have to show young students how rewarding it can be."
Being part of the solution
A casual conversation between MNPS Adrienne Battle and Lipscomb University president Candice McQueen turned into a whole new program starting in another year.
Lipscomb University will provide full tuition and fees for a cohort of 10 MNPS students every year to enter the teacher preparation program beginning in fall 2023, which means a total of 40 students will receive full tuition through the program during any given school year once the program is fully populated in four years.
"The First step was just forming that partnership with MNPS and Antioch High School," said Emily Medlock, the Director of Undergraduate Programs and Student Teaching as well as an associate professor in the College of Education. "As we are preparing our teachers, we are pairing our teacher candidates with high-quality teachers as they are going into MNPS classrooms. They are getting that training at MNPS so as they graduate they can go into a classroom at MNPS."
The Lift Off to Lipscomb program means the university will have the chance to interact with students prior to their senior years. School officials said they were focusing on creating teachers for the education community in Tennessee to help combat the lingering shortage of teachers the state faces.
"This is not an easy profession," Interim Dean for the College of Education Trace Herbert said. "Children are not easy. They are complex beings with complex needs. So we are trying to create teachers that understand all the variances of all the children they have in front of them. It's a complex endeavor that requires training and it requires study. It requires an understanding of how to be a good teacher in complex environments."
Starting teacher salaries across Middle Tennessee