The Solution to the Teacher Shortage Could Be in the Next Classroom

Access to a teacher mentor can be a difference-maker in the career of a new educator

Every year, school districts everywhere wrestle with an insufficient number of teachers for their classes despite increased recruiting efforts. Are there any solutions hidden in plain sight?

Simply stated, there is a shortage of teacher candidates in the United States. Regardless of the state, teacher shortages have been a consistent thread in the educational fabric of this country for many years.

The U.S. Department of Education provides a list of nationwide teacher shortage areas, and the list gets longer each year. Reform suggestions such as salary increases, class size reduction, and retention bonuses are often met with resistance due to a lack of funding.

Perhaps instead of looking outward for solutions, teachers need to look to each other as a way of reducing this issue.

The cost of attrition

Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies teacher turnover and retention, acknowledges that 40 to 50 percent of those who go into teaching leave the profession within five years. This type of attrition costs the United States roughly $2.2 billion each year.

These teacher candidates have dreamed of running their own classrooms, changing the lives of those they teach, and making the world a better place. So why would they give up and leave this noble profession in such volume? What can be done to keep fresh faces at the front of the room?

The overwhelming majority of new teachers have completed a student teaching process that allowed them to lesson plan, present curriculum, and work directly with students in the school setting. While this is invaluable exposure, this is not an induction program. Too many educators are being hired and then left on their own with very little guidance. The “sink or swim” philosophy is leading new teachers down a path to early departure from the classroom.

The power of a mentor

Developing a strong induction program that includes access to a teacher mentor can be a difference-maker in the career of a new educator. Too often, the expectations for a probationary teacher are the same as those for a veteran teacher.

Educational author Harry Wong refers to the first year of teaching as the survival year because this is the year that teachers make the most mistakes. However, with proper guidance, these mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities that can make someone a better teacher.

Any experienced teacher can be assigned as a mentor, but does that mean that anyone should be a mentor?

The NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education compiled a list of characteristics of a quality mentor teacher. The list focuses on attitude, communication skills, professional experience, and interpersonal skills. Sharing similar subject or grade areas is not enough to qualify someone as a career guide.

A mentor should have the desire to share knowledge, listen rather than just talk, and offer suggestions in a positive and productive manner. This person will establish a new teacher’s willingness to collaborate through the rest of his/her career.

Collaboration for everyone

Mentoring and collaboration is not limited to just new teachers. The importance of teaching partnerships has been infused into how many educators function. There are no limitations to the potential that exists, no requirements to work strictly with those in a single school.

Websites such as Teachers Pay Teachers allow for the sharing of lesson plans, games, bulletin board ideas, and thousands of other suggestions. Teachers Teaching Teachers is a weekly webcast with ideas and inspiring videos for educators. Pinterest has become the best friend of any cutting-edge educator.

Educators may be under the pretense that a teacher shortage is an administrative problem. The principal does the hiring and the teacher does the teaching. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Students will be arriving to school each fall whether a school is fully staffed or partially staffed. If there aren’t enough teachers, the remaining work load will fall onto everyone. Teachers have as much, if not more, invested into solving the teacher shortage crisis.

While reformatting state and federal budgets may be something that seem monumentally impossible, mentoring and supporting a colleague is something that can make a difference and recharge your dedication to the profession in the process.

Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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