Class Disrupted Podcast: Why Is This Teacher Shortage Different — and How Did We Get Here?

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

With large numbers of teachers resigning from schools, Diane Tavenner and Michael Horn dive into what exactly is happening right now in schools, explore how it’s different from past teacher shortages, and ask bigger questions about who is a teacher and the system of preparing and developing our teachers — and suggest a hopeful path that might emerge from the current moment of struggles and shortages for schools.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane. We’re coming into the home stretch of the fall and it does feel like it. And I for one am really excited about the vaccines being approved for children ages 5 to 11. How are you doing?

Diane Tavenner: Well, I am really looking forward to a bit of time to rest and connect with family over the next six weeks, Michael. I’m super excited for the vaccines for younger children. It makes things feel a lot more doable this year with almost everyone eligible for those vaccines. And so I’m feeling hopeful, which is exactly why we’ve continued to do this podcast. As folks who listen know, we never thought we’d be here in season three of this podcast, let alone in the third year of schooling that’s impacted by the pandemic, but here we are. And we feel that despite all of the challenges, and there are many, maybe some incredible opportunities to transform schooling are going to present themselves.

Michael Horn: Yeah. And this year, we’ve been taking obviously a new frame to our podcast, one of curiosity, trying to answer the big questions of the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” of schooling. And today we get to tackle the “who,” as in, who are the teachers in our schools and why that matters.

And Diane, this is a topic that I have been looking forward to tackling with you for some time because way back when we were in person in August of the GSV Summit, and that feels like ages ago, frankly, you had told me that you had never seen such challenges, hiring and particularly retaining teachers, as you had coming into the school year. And we both commented, “I don’t see this story in the media at all.” And you were saying you didn’t either, but it was a big deal and it wasn’t just your school. And now it’s a huge storyline on national papers and newscasts across the country. And we hear about the shortages constantly, how central staff in New York City, for example, are filling in at the schools. People are driving buses. The challenges of finding substitute teachers. And it feels like a really big deal. So I think it will be illuminating to help people understand more on this topic of, “Who are our teachers?”

Diane: I agree with you, Michael. It’s such a significant topic. And it’s helpful to review some of the evidence because this moment is being called the “Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit,” as we know. This is the coverage we’re getting. But I must say that back in August while I was feeling it, it was really visceral for me, it was a little bit hard for me to step back because I was so in it. We’re still really in it. But I think today we’ll be able to make a little bit more sense from our experience of what I’m seeing and align that with what’s happening nationally.

Michael: Yeah. And I’ll just note that this phenomenon isn’t just in education, Diane. We’re seeing this in lots of sectors right now, people quitting, not ready to come back to the job that they had, wanting more, thinking about their passions for any number of reasons, and people are really puzzling over this. So I think with that puzzlement in place, my first question, I guess is, “Is this really happening as people described?” And, “Is it different from things that have happened before?” Let’s start with the, “Is it really happening?”

Diane: Great. Well, let’s start from my experience and work our way out. I hope this doesn’t end up being too much like therapy. But I think it might be instructive. So here’s what I’m seeing and how it is truly different than anything I have ever experienced previously. I think the story starts actually with last year, Michael. So our schools located in California and Washington state were primarily virtual last school year. Unlike in other places in the country, this wasn’t really controversial in our communities. And perhaps some of the reason for that was that the state and local health officials were mandating the closures for all. And quite frankly, our schools transitioned rather successfully to virtual learning. I share this because I think it will become an important bit of context in just a moment.

So we began returning to school buildings last March, but it’s important to note that that was a phased-in return with both students and teachers volunteering to return. No one was required. And I share all of that because when we wrapped up in June, we had a very high retention rate of both school leaders and teachers. We had 100 percent of our school principals — or we call them “executive directors” —  planning to return, and just about 90 percent of our teachers planning to return, which is great. So we all knew that we would open the school year in person, which begins in mid-August for us.

And then something crazy happened to those numbers. Starting in July, teachers started resigning. At first it was one or two, but as we got closer to their return date and then our pre-school professional development days, we had just about a resignation per day. This is unheard of for us, Michael. For the first time in our organization’s history, we began the school year not fully staffed because with these late resignations, we also encountered the reality that there was no one to hire. And you never want to be hiring late in the summer like that, but there were literally no applicants in our pipelines.

We have an incredible group of school leaders who include not just principals, but the deans as well. And among this group, only one leader didn’t return. And I will say, Michael, if not for this group of folks, I’m not sure where our schools would be. Many of them began the year full-time teaching and running the school, which is significantly more challenging given added COVID work streams, and quite frankly, a much larger group of students than usual who require significantly more support to productively engage in school. And I’m sad to report that as the fall has unfolded, we’ve continued to have teachers resign. So the problem continues to persist.

The most interesting thing to me is why they are resigning and what they are going to do next. And there’s some connection here to some of those national trends you have just cited a few minutes ago. And while in general, I think it’s unwise to generalize, there are definitely a few themes that are surfacing. Specifically, some people are just making huge life moves. The pandemic has provoked people to quit their jobs and move somewhere far away, often without new jobs or even clarity on what they’re going to do. Many of our teachers are leaving to work for companies or organizations where they can continue to do education-related work, but with significantly more flexibility and less responsibility than they have as teachers.

Michael: Wow. I mean, that sounds seismic, but I just want to double-click because this sounds very different for your school. But I’m curious. Maybe there’s an argument your school is just finally following into the national trends that we’ve always seen because look, we know the often-cited stat that nearly half of new teachers quit the profession after five years. And then I actually was looking into this before the show. And I found some evidence that there’s conflicting reports in this. There was a federal study from just a few years ago that suggested the number was closer to 17 percent. And that’s a huge discrepancy, by the way. So I’ll just grant you that it’s kind of hard to get a grasp over what this problem is with discrepancies like that. But we also know that there have historically been lots of teacher shortages in the country, but that those shortages haven’t been universal.

And what I mean by that is that they disproportionately affect certain places and grades and subjects. So first, certain grade levels, harder to staff than others, specifically high schools and middle schools are harder than elementary schools. Second, and then closely related, are grade level shortages. And that’s… sorry, particular subject areas within those grade levels, right? So the STEM areas, for example, chronically understaffed, science, math, but also foreign languages and special education teachers, which I suspect really played out perniciously and led to a lot of the challenges we saw with remote learning for special needs students during the pandemic. And then the third area is geographic. So some geographic regions of the US face ongoing teacher shortages, where others actually often report a surplus. And specifically, the South, Southwest, and West have historically struggled with teacher shortages relative to the Midwest and Northeast. And it’s also the case that urban and rural schools have been harder to staff than have suburban schools historically. So I’m just curious, are you falling into perhaps a trend that’s always been there or is this meaningfully different?

Diane: You know, Michael, there is no doubt that we operate in more competitive markets and in middle and high school, which are harder to staff, as you’ve just said. And we most certainly struggle the most to hire special education teachers, math, science, and Spanish teachers, in that order. And so we certainly fall along all of those lines that you just named. But we also partner with schools across the country. And there are few places in the country where this issue isn’t playing out, we have many partners where this year, the entire site leadership team turned over during the summer. And half of the teachers are new or are still trying to fill holes in staffing. This is something we’ve never seen. I have never seen this in 25 years of teaching and leading, often in some of the most challenging places to staff.

The question that I keep asking is, “Where are the teachers going?” We spoke to this a little bit, but speaking personally, I was never able to quit my job and not work. And for most educators I know, the same is true. And so I’ve been trying to figure out, what jobs are teachers taking? Are they simply abandoning the profession altogether? And my hypothesis after talking to a lot of people is that we have an interesting, I believe, unintended outcome of COVID relief money. Essentially, schools across the country have seen this huge influx of funding like I’ve never seen before. And while, let me be clear, the cost of implementing COVID mitigation is high, there are still significant funds remaining, and they are designated for student supports and have been positioned to be much less traditional than sort of like, hire more teachers. Rather, create tutoring and after-school programs and summer programs and partner with community organizations.

And couple that with the reality that many technology products came into intensive use during school closures and have opened people up to things they might have never considered before. I think that leads us to a lot of existing companies and organizations expanding to meet this new demand and many new ones coming into the market. And in every case, they are seeking to hire educators. This looks like everything from teachers becoming pod leaders and working with small groups or families or becoming full-time tutors or working for staffing agencies that are providing teachers to schools that can’t hire them. That one’s super interesting. Might come back to that. People might ask, “Why would a teacher leave the benefits and security of a school job to become a contractor, sometimes in the very school that they left?”

And it turns out that in many cases, people are making more money because the agencies can charge a premium right now. And who knows if that will last? But I think even more importantly, these teachers right now are valuing flexibility and control. The intensity of being in schools full-time right now is, quite frankly, just too much for some folks. And there is something to being a contractor with less responsibility, more options to leave and move on if it gets to be too much. And I’ve also seen teachers leave to join ed tech companies where they feel like they can still be doing education, but in a totally different environment.

Michael: Super helpful context. I will say personally, I can understand wanting to work in the gig economy. I like that arrangement quite a lot. And I also will say, it’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it until hearing you say it, but the flexibility that teachers desire, I wonder if an unintended benefit in the long run might be that it gives schools the flexibility that they need. But it’s interesting just because we haven’t had a mega study before in the U.S. like Korea did with those millionaire teachers that we read about a few years ago.

But the dynamics, I guess now have fundamentally changed. And given that, I guess maybe it would be best, Diane, to take a step back, and as we like to do, ask larger questions. And I’ll just start with one, which is, “Who are America’s teachers today?” And I will push you to generalize because I know we both don’t like the averages, but it’s just helpful, I think, to paint a picture of what the teaching force looks like, to get a deeper idea into who is a teacher, how do you become one, and what does that mean for our system?

Diane: OK. Well, let’s start with the headline, Michael, and it is a headline that I will admit surprised me a few years ago when I first learned it as we were developing our own teacher residency program. And that headline is a huge majority of America’s teachers are white women. So essentially me. This is America’s teaching force. In the 2016 school year, America had about 3.8 million teachers. 80 percent of them were white, Michael. And it’s important to note that over half of the nation’s students were not white at that time. So as we’ve said before, big data sets like this lag significantly, but there is no reason to believe that the teaching force has gotten much less white in the last five years, although there is good reason to believe that the student population, students of color, that population is growing in our schools.

Equally important is that during the same year, 23 percent of America’s teachers identified as male. So again, predominantly female across the country. As to your earlier point on how many teachers leave the profession within the first five years, as you said, it’s an oft-repeated stat that it is 50 percent. I appreciate that you’re beginning to question that and I’m interested to stay tuned and dig into that study you referenced. Here are a few more stats that I think might add a bit more intrigue to this. So in 2017-2018, only 9 percent of America’s teachers had less than three years of experience. So that’s a little bit, “Hmm. Interesting.”

Michael: That’s jarring, right?

Diane: Yeah, exactly. 28 percent had three to nine years of experience. 40 percent had 10 to 20 and 23 percent had 20-plus. And so that suggests to me that the teaching force in America is predominantly white women who stay in the profession for quite a bit of time.

Michael: So all data points suggesting the current moment is more and more unusual. How do these people get to be teachers in the first place? How do people like you end up there, and what does it take to be a teacher?

Diane: Well, technically speaking, to be a teacher, you have to be credentialed in your state. And so that is universal. And you guessed it, every state has different requirements. Not surprising here. And they aren’t really nice about accepting credentials from other states. I believe one of the unintended consequences of this is that teachers tend to be people who stay put for most of their lives and careers. So that sort of adds another layer to who is teaching. By definition, a credential requires at least a bachelor’s degree. That is universal. It used to be more common that you could major in teaching as an undergrad, but that’s less and less true. Most states now require additional coursework beyond the bachelor’s to become a credential teacher. And they often also require some practice teaching in a school, that would be a good thing, and the passage of some exams in order to get the credential.

Nationwide, about 90 percent of teachers are fully credentialed. The other 10 percent are in some sort of specialty permit that allows them to teach while they’re pursuing their full credential. But the majority are fully credentialed, which I think goes along with those numbers of how many people have been in the profession for longer periods of time. America’s teachers are, as a result, Michael, a pretty highly educated group. 58 percent of them hold a master’s degree or higher. And that number has been on the rise in recent years. That said, entrance requirements into teacher credentialing programs are quite modest. In general, the vast majority of programs that credential teachers aren’t really vetting for dispositions, mindsets, or even meaningful skills that will enable a person to be a strong teacher. And there are obviously some exceptions in some sort of boutique and elite programs, but that is the general state of affairs.

Michael: It’s just interesting as an aside there because we know that more education, those master degrees and so forth, don’t correlate to better teachers, in many cases. And I think you just nailed it because on the front end, they’re not necessarily thinking about the dispositions, mindsets, meaningful skills, nor are they always training those things and recognizing the vast number of jobs that a teacher has to do in today’s system. And I’ll just briefly say, and I know you were part of the film “Waiting for Superman,” but my issue with it often is that it implies that one teacher can be that Superman or Supergirl, Superwoman figure. But we ask teachers to be tutors, mentors, facilitators, curators of learning experiences, designers, evaluators, counselors, content experts. That’s not even all of it. And that’s an exhausting list.

And so I guess with all of that said, I’m curious. There’s a lot of talk right now about alternative licensure and alternative forms of teacher education. Thomas Arnett, at the Christensen Institute, wrote about this a few years ago, profiling Match Charter Schools’ work to get a new graduate school of education. There’s High Tech High in California. There’s the Relay Graduate School of Education. And of course, you all at Summit have done this process as well. So is there hope for new ways to get into the teaching profession?

Diane: Well, Michael, back to our experience and what you’re referencing, which is Summit’s teacher residency program. Here’s the short story of it. About eight or nine years ago, we saw a real need for a completely different approach to preparing teachers to be successful in our diverse, high-performing classrooms. And like the other handful that you named and many more who’ve thought about this, we wanted to recruit many more male teachers and people of color so that our students could really reap the proven benefits of having role models who they identify with and connect with. And so the process of becoming a state-approved credentialing program is daunting. I can tell you that from firsthand experience. There is a reason only a handful have done it. And while I could spend hours telling you deeply disturbing stories of a bureaucratic and biased process that is truly designed to hold the status quo, I won’t. I won’t do that. Instead, I’m just going to share a few trends.

The people who are controlling the process for approving new programs are the very same people who are running the competitive programs for those students. And we were… 

Michael: Accreditation 101 in our country.

Diane: Yeah. We were used to seeing this in the charter world, but it showed up again in the teacher credentialing world. So that’s a big theme and trend. And then there are really only disincentives for innovation because everything you have to do to prove you should exist as a teacher credentialing program requires you to basically replicate what is out there. There are no incentives for innovation. In fact, oftentimes you get knocked or they can’t understand it, or it’s not seen as proven. And so those are two big themes that keep coming up over and over and over again in that very lengthy process. Here’s the sad part of it all, Michael. When you finally get down to it, getting a teaching credential is complex, time-consuming, and ultimately expensive, especially relative to ultimate earning potential. And as a result, we have a very low number of low-income folks or people from low-income backgrounds who can even afford to get started in this profession. And that is truly unfortunate for our students.

Michael: It’s a really important point you just made there. It all makes sense in a kind of insane way, I’m going to be honest. But let’s keep pushing, I guess, this thread forward. So that’s how people get into the teaching field. What about the development of teachers in their career arc?

Diane: Yeah. Well, this might be a whole big conversation, but to begin, there are so many misaligned incentives. Most schools place a cap on transferable years. So once you have seven to 10 years of experience, you will take a significant financial hit if you move from one place to another. And so people stay put. And since pay increases are capped and the same for everyone, the incentives are, quite frankly, to just reduce and simplify your workload and the time you spend versus incentivizing our more experienced people to keep taking on bigger challenges and the toughest problems. And so this is why you see experienced teachers taking on advanced courses where the perception is that the students are easier to teach or teaching the same course over and over so they don’t have to replan or organizing their schedule so they have a first or last prep to shorten their school day. There’s all of these very logical individual moves that a teacher makes to sort of maximize their earnings by minimizing, if you will, the time and energy they’re putting into their work.

And I don’t want to say that with any disrespect because you and I both know tons of teachers who pour their lifeblood into their work, but the system really incentivizes teachers not to do that. And teachers have to push against that if they don’t. And so in my view, the most challenging part of this is that everyone from the first day on the job teacher to the 30-year vet is basically expected to do the same job. And as you just sort of rattled off, it is a complex, complicated, multidimensional job.

And we wonder why so many beginning teachers don’t make it. And this is a challenge that truly plagues me. You pair that with the reality that an extraordinarily small amount of time is built into a teacher’s job, which is actually your original question here, I think, but it’s so varied here because to actually build the knowledge and skills and improve, we should be spending extraordinary amounts of time given the complexity of this job. We do see that in other cultures a little bit more, and you’ve certainly studied a number of them. But most teachers have a handful of days, I am truly talking about maybe three, six on the high end is pretty normal, to engage in improving their practice. And what we know is this is absolutely not how to improve practice. It has to be ongoing. It has to involve direct, quality feedback. There’s all of these things you do, not these sort of event type days where some speaker might be coming in or some workshop is happening. And so, I’m sorry. That was not very encouraging.

Michael: No. Not at all. I mean, I think it’s telling on a number of fronts. One, that people would think listening to me would be professional development and it would somehow improve your practice. Because in my experience, I’m often that speaker. But the second thing, I think, is all the individual behavior you described, it reminds me of what my mentor Clay Christensen always said, which is, “People don’t do stupid things because they’re stupid or they don’t try to cheat things because they’re cheats. They do things because they’re in stupid systems and they do the logical things around that.” And that’s fundamentally, I think, what we have here, and it’s totally at odds with the research around employee motivation as well. And this has been known since 1968.

The most downloaded article, I think, ever at Harvard Business Review was written by this guy, Frederick Hertzberg. And he wrote this research basically showing that job satisfaction, the opposite of that is not dissatisfaction. It’s the absence of being satisfied in your job. And dissatisfaction, the opposite of that is the lack of dissatisfaction. And he basically realized that there are hygiene factors which can take away dissatisfaction with a job. So better pay, better work hours, better working relationships, things like that, those are hygiene factors. They make you not dissatisfied with your job, but they don’t make you truly excited and motivated to come in. Those sorts of things are the work itself, opportunities for advancement, responsibility, the ability to have recognition, things like that, that give you more and more control as part of the workday and as part of doing a better job. And you realize all of those things, all of those motivators are systematically stripped out and maybe designed to be the opposite in the teaching profession, Diane.

Diane: I mean, yes, you’ve described the system and the profession and sort of these inherent, big, systemic challenges that we’re up against as we try to transform it or change it. I don’t know. We’re moving a little bit away from hope, Michael.

Michael: Well, let’s give us some hope, right? Wave your magic wand because there’s some depressing things here, but are there any glimmers? Where might we see change around how teachers are prepared and who is able to be a teacher that’ll create both a more robust teaching force in the years ahead for our students, but also a more manageable and logical teaching profession itself.

Diane: Yeah. It’s interesting because while it’s super challenging and painful right now, I’m a little bit hopeful about this potential teacher disruption we are experiencing because… And what’s so interesting is I think one of the things that happened when we went virtual is people just started to imagine things that they could have never imagined before. They started to visualize different roles and different ways of doing things and how we might use time and all of that. And while I don’t think anything was ideal during that time, just the opening of our imagination.

And it’s happening again this fall. Even though we’re back in person in most places because of the shortages and whatnot, we’re having to reimagine things and visualize things differently. And so I do wonder if enough teachers start moving into other adjacent roles and organizations, you might start to have a conversation around redesigning the role of the teacher with some influx of new ideas and visions and possibilities. And along with that, we have to redesign the role of the school to address some of these known and persistent issues that you just so clearly cited and that apparently we’ve all known since 1968, but have not been doing anything about it. And so I’m really curious about what’s happening right now and what openings we might find in that space.

Michael: Yeah. Those pressures in the system that you’ve cited, I think creates some really interesting opportunities. At the danger of having two quotes from my mentor, Clay Christensen, I’ll do it anyway, because he used to always say that questions create space in the brain for solutions to fall into. And that’s actually a principle from teaching and learning as you know, right? Start with that question. And hopefully with these questions that these pressures are creating, begging for, we will see some creative solutions that start to redefine what this teaching profession is and so forth. But hopefully this has served as a helpful primer for folks. And before we say goodbye, as is our custom, I’m curious. What have you been learning or exploring outside of this topic of reinventing the teaching profession?

Diane: Well, I’m smiling at you because I’m going to go very, I think, off-brand today and very pop culture-y, super out of character for me since I don’t really watch TV. But the Squid Games [sic], Michael. I mean, everybody was doing it. And my excuse to myself is my son is studying in Korea this semester, as you know. So it felt very necessary that I get a window. Let’s hope that wasn’t a window in what he’s experiencing. But I will say, Michael, I found it to be incredibly well done. And I think if you’re watching closely, it’s this really nuanced examination of the traditional definition of success, sort of wealth, status, and power, and a counter-vision that it’s really rooted in a much older and more collectivist culture. Yeah. I mean, it just really has me thinking, and it’s quite a page-turner. It’s not even a page-turner. See what a nerd I am. But yeah, it’s fascinating.

Michael: So I’m going to have to potentially renew… It’s on Netflix, right? So I may actually have to get my subscription back up and running so I can watch it because I feel obligated in my household to know what it is. But mine is Ted Lasso. So I’ll see your pop culture. I’ll raise it. But like I think everyone else in America… I don’t know about you, but everyone else in America… 

Diane: Welcome to the party. Even I watched this one.

Michael: Even you watched it. Right? They’d already watched it. But that never stopped me from being the last one on a pop trend. But it’s been a great escape. And I did find myself waking up in the morning talking to my girls with a twang in my voice and some corny lines to pep them up for each morning with school. And so with that, I will say to all of our listeners, keep your own heads up as we move through the home stretch of the fall. And we’ll see you next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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