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At the halfway point of the 2023-24 school year, the Florida Education Association reported that there were still 4,096 advertised instructional vacancies in Florida K-12 public schools. In Southwest Florida, Collier County had 174 advertised instructional vacancies, Lee County had 260 and Charlotte County had just 25 openings.

Statewide, the vacancy numbers had improved from August 2023 levels, when there were 6,920 advertised vacancies for teachers (up from 6,006 in August 2022). And those vacancies don’t mean that kids are necessarily sitting in teacher-less classrooms. Many of the openings in Collier County, for example, were being covered by long-term guest teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees and are working toward certification in the state. The school district said it must keep those vacancies posted for audit purposes, as it’s working to fill them with full-time teachers.

But the FEA said a shortage of more than 4,000 teachers is more than the population of teachers in 19 of Florida’s smallest counties combined. And with that number of posted and advertised vacancies, potentially hundreds of thousands of Florida students don’t have access to a full-time, certified teacher.

The problem’s not unique to Florida. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in October 2023 that 86% of U.S. K-12 public schools had challenges hiring teachers for the 2023-24 school year. But according to a study released by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, Florida leads the way when it comes to measurable teacher vacancy numbers among the 50 states.

Here in Florida, teacher shortages can be tied to a combination of national trends and issues particular to the state, said the range of experts interviewed for this story. So let’s embark on a lesson about teacher vacancies in the state, what’s contributing to them, what could be done about it and why it should matter to everyone in the region, even if you don’t have school-age kids.

Money Matters

Teacher pay has long been an issue, never seeming to match the long hours and intense effort required to do the job well. On average, teachers earn almost 24% less than other comparable college graduates, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

According to 2024 educator pay data from the National Education Association, the national average public school teacher salary in 2022-23 was $69,544, with a projected 3.1% increase for 2023-24. But when adjusted for inflation, the NEA says teachers are making 5.3% less than they were a decade ago.

   Per that NEA data set, the average teacher salary in Florida was $53,098 for 2022-23, ranking the state 50th in the nation. Florida’s average teacher starting salary was $47,178, making it 16th in the country, but that stat comes with some issues.

In recent years, the Florida Legislature has earmarked funding to increase starting salaries for teachers. While a positive step, the funding meant that salaries for new teachers saw bigger increases disproportionate to those for existing teachers.

“It forces the pay of experienced teachers to increase at a much slower rate,” says Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest association of professional employees with more than 120,000 members. “We’ve talked with lawmakers about how unfair these rules have been. And it really comes down to the desire of the governor to increase beginning teacher pay without putting the funding there to make sure it didn’t negatively impact those who were already in existence.”

Add in the high cost of living and housing in Southwest Florida, and teacher salaries become even more challenging in these parts. “We have difficulty with housing—not just availability, but cost of housing,” says Valerie Wenrich, chief of human resources for Collier County Public Schools. “So we don’t typically see a lot of younger teachers come to Collier County.”

“Teachers have historically been underpaid,” says Kevin Daly, president of the Teacher’s Association of Lee County. “It was never a path to riches. But there were other components. When the other components aren’t there and it’s not a path to riches, people reconsider their commitment.”

Supply and Demand

The supply of new teachers coming into the field was already a concern before the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing political polarization further complicated things. According to a 2022 report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the number of undergraduate education degrees awarded annually hit a high of almost 200,000 in the early 1970s and had dropped to less than 90,000 in 2018-19.

A 2022 Pew Research Center analysis found that colleges and universities awarded 85,057 bachelor’s degrees in education in 2019-20, which was only about 4% of the more than two million degrees conferred that year. In 2000-01, that percentage was about 8%.

Locally, enrollment in Florida Gulf Coast University’s School of Education dropped from 1,122 students in fall 2011 to 833 in fall 2019 but has since rebounded to 1,014 students in fall 2022. The  picture is similar at Florida SouthWestern State College, where enrollment in the B.S. in elementary education program fell from 191 students in fall 2020 to 139 students in fall 2022.

“[The pandemic] kind of compounded an existing problem that we already had,” says April L. Fleming, dean of the School of Education & Charter Schools at FSW. “But we actually started to see a turn in enrollment.” In spring 2024, the program expects to graduate 43 students, the largest group since before the pandemic.

When there aren’t enough new teachers coming out of college to meet demand, it becomes more difficult to fill open positions. TALC’s Daly says the five counties in Southwest Florida are “knives out competing for the graduates that come out of FSW and FGCU.”

Existing teachers also are leaving their positions, whether through planned retirements or because of burnout, pandemic-related stressors or other working conditions (more on that later). According to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 270,000 primary and secondary education teachers are expected to leave their occupation each year, on average, from 2016 to 2026. A 2022 survey conducted by the National Education Association found that 55% of members plan to leave education sooner than they’d planned due to the pandemic, and that 86% of members have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the start of the pandemic.

“What’s accelerated in the last few years is the number of teachers with experience exiting the profession or exiting the state at a much higher rate than we’ve ever seen before,” says the FEA’s Spar. “It’s experienced teachers who often mentor and support beginning teachers. When you have fewer experienced teachers, it makes it harder for beginning teachers to get up to speed faster and to really ensure that kids are getting that high level of education we want them to have.”

Rising Discontent

Working conditions are an important driver of teacher retention, said Christopher Redding, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida’s College of Education. “That can be defined broadly to include things like how happy you are with the colleagues you work with, whether you feel like it’s a supportive environment, whether you feel like you’re supported by your administrator,” he says. “Are you enjoying the school that you’re going to work in day in and day out? And for lots of teachers, that’s not the case.”

Public education has become a hot-button issue in the state and nation in recent years, with a highly polarized populace with very different thoughts and opinions on education rules and policies. Recent Florida legislation such as HB 1557 (often called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) and HB 1069 (which has led to an increase in book challenges and restrictions) has, at the very least, made teaching more complicated in Florida. It’s also played a part in teacher dissatisfaction in the state, something that had already been an issue since the pandemic.

“These laws are impacting teachers in every aspect of the work that they do,” says FEA’s Spar. “I haven’t heard a teacher yet say, ‘Oh, I think these laws are great.’ I went around the state at the beginning of the year, as I always do, and in every district I’ve been to, the one thing I hear over and over again from teachers in particular is: ‘Just let us teach.’ They don’t feel like they’re able to teach right now.”

“It has made it quite challenging,” says FSW’s Fleming. “Over the last few years, there has been quite a bit of shift in legislation that directly affects what happens in the classroom. If we have people who are already on the fence about staying in the classroom or moving into a different profession, they’ve kind of made that shift to walk away from the classroom. And it is quite unfortunate, because in some cases, those are our highly qualified, highly effective teachers who are leaving.”

It’s also influencing the potential pool of future teachers. “There are some broader questions about whether young people can see themselves being teachers, whether it’s an occupation that they would enjoy taking on,” says UF’s Redding. “We know from decades of research that for lots of teachers, the intrinsic rewards they get from the work are a really important driver for why lots of people go into teaching and why they remain in teaching.”

A 2024 report from the Network for Public Education ranked Florida dead last among the 50 states and District of Columbia following an analysis of factors, such as the extent of privatization in each state, charter and voucher laws, public school funding levels and how laws and other initiatives affect students’ and teachers’ “freedom to teach and learn.”

“You have to begin to ask the question, ‘Why would anyone want to be a teacher in the state of Florida?’” says Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “You have this combination of underfunding, being underpaid and then having a governor and state Legislature that believe that you’re some kind of an enemy … That is sending a signal out to teachers and the state that you don’t value them, you certainly don’t trust them and you have no interest in paying them well. And eventually what happens is people leave the profession.”

Photo By Brian Tietz

Changing the Narrative

There’s no silver bullet to solve the multifaceted issue of teacher vacancies. But there are steps already being taken, and more that could be done to recruit and retain qualified teachers in Florida.

Both the Lee and Collier County school districts have programs in place to bring more teachers into their classrooms. The School District of Lee County and FSW have partnered on a teacher apprenticeship program offered through the Florida Department of Education that helps paraprofessionals already working in schools become teachers while still getting paid.

The Teach 4 Collier program helps career changers with four-year degrees get certified to become teachers, and the county also taps into its pool of substitute teachers (or guest teachers, as it calls them). “These are folks who want to make a difference in the schools, but they’re not really quite sure they want to become a teacher,” says Wenrich. “Going through the guest teaching program, they can kind of test run the program before they make an actual choice to do it. We’re finding about 100 or more each year that want to transition into becoming teachers because they see it as a viable career for them. And we provide support and training all along the way.”

Fostering a climate where teachers feel valued and respected aids in both retention and recruitment. “From my perspective, there are no jobs without teachers,” says Tessa LeSage, chief impact officer at the Collaboratory community foundation, which focuses on addressing social issues in Southwest Florida including education and workforce development. “We have to start to look at teachers as the most foundational element of economic development … We could go a long way by helping to change the narrative around how we think about teachers as part of our education and workforce and economic development systems.”

“It really takes a dedicated person to be a teacher; you have to really want to do it,” says FSW’s Fleming. “One of the things that we’ve been working hard on is rebranding the teaching profession. We know teacher pay is not fantastic. But we do have people who want to do it despite the pay. And a lot of times, all they’re wanting is just to be respected as a professional. They want to be seen as valuable professionals in the community—and they are.”

A recent poll by the Florida Education Association found that 55% of voters believe that public education in Florida is on the wrong track. In another survey administered by Ipsos on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 92% of Florida parents and 90% of the state’s general adult population said that school curricula should be developed by education professionals.

“I think the vast majority of people still think teachers are wonderful human beings who are doing the greatest work ever, taking people’s most precious possession, assuming responsibility for them for eight hours a day, educating them in the state-adopted curriculum and turning them into functioning adults,” says TALC’s Daly. “I think the vast majority of people are still on that page that teachers are doing the most important work possible. However, the people that no longer think that seem to have arrested the conversation.”

He believes the issues are solvable, if people are willing to work together and listen to the folks in the classroom every day. “Bring everybody in the room that has a stake, whether you agree with them or not,” he says. “Because if we’re going to solve this problem, one side can’t do it. We should all have, in my opinion, the same idea, which is the greatest public schools in the world for the children of Florida … But when you’re talking policy, you’ve got to get the room filled up with people of different backgrounds and differing experiences and differing feelings, all talking about the idea.”

“We as a district are collaborating with other counties and organizations to try to fix this issue [of teacher vacancies], but it’s not going to be an overnight thing,” says Suzette Rivera, director of recruitment for the School District of Lee County. Her message to concerned residents? Support their teachers and schools.

“If there is anything they can do to bring some sunshine into a school and do something nice for the staff or to bring to students there, that would be helpful,” she says. “Teachers are struggling right now. Anything that can be done to help also helps retention and to bring up morale. If the community can help with some of that by organizing a lunch or coming in to volunteer, that would help the morale of the staff in schools. And it’s a great way for businesses to get involved.”

Why It Matters

Students and teachers feel the biggest effects from teacher vacancies. “It has an impact on student achievement,” says UF’s Redding. “Having greater instability in the teacher workforce is detrimental for students. It can have this broader impact on the quality of education that students are receiving.”

Students might have a rotating collection of substitutes or be taught by someone not trained in the subject area. That kind of inconsistency can lead to trouble for students both in the short term and down the road.

“It is so important that students get a solid foundation, and that solid foundation is provided to them by a highly qualified teacher,” says FSW’s Fleming. “There’s all this research that shows if they don’t get a good start, then we’re consistently playing catch up all the way from pre-K to 12th grade. And some of them just never get caught up to where they need to be.”

Teacher vacancies can result in larger class sizes for teachers, who might also have to take on extra work or give up planning periods. “Anyone who’s taught knows that teaching is hard,” says FEA’s Spar. “You’re on your feet the whole time. Your mind is moving the whole time. You’re watching things. You’re on stage the entire time you’re teaching, and it can be very, very draining. I’ve watched teachers burn out at really high rates when they take those additional classes.”

But the effects also spread beyond the schools themselves. “One of the things that I think people don’t necessarily understand is that all professions are created as a result of a teacher,” says Fleming. “You have to have a teacher that’s preparing [students] to go into the workforce to take those positions. And when we don’t have those individuals in place, we lose valuable skilled workers.”

And it’s not just the future jobholders who are affected. “When you are recruiting a workforce and trying to maintain a workforce for any sector, that workforce is looking at the school systems, the quality of schools and the location of schools where they can afford to live,” says LeSage. “If those characteristics of a community don’t match their values and ideals, they’re going to go somewhere else. And the people who have the utmost ability to go somewhere else are the people who probably already have the skills needed to fill our jobs.”

“There’s going to be a point in time where the state of Florida is going to be paying the price,” says Burris. “Because if you want to move beyond the stereotype of a state for retirees and really continue to attract younger families and businesses, they’re not going to want to come to the state if there is not a strong public education system in the state and highly qualified teachers in the classroom.”

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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