By Katy Macek | Photo by Sarah Maughan, UW-Madison School of Education
Why are so many educators leaving the field, and what can we do about it?
As the 2023-24 school year kicks off for the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), interim superintendent Lisa Kvistad says the district has made many changes to support its staff and students through “some of the hardest things we’ve experienced.”
Despite bouncing back from a devastating pandemic, the teaching field has taken a heavy hit. As of July 2023, Kvistad says MMSD had 143 vacant positions, with its biggest need areas in bilingual and special education. However, that number is only half the total vacancies the district saw at this time prior to the 2022-23 school year.
Although they’ve filled some of those teaching vacancies since the 2022-23 school year, MMSD is not alone in feeling the pinch. Tom Owenby, Ph.D., associate dean for teacher education at UW– Madison’s School of Education, says the lack of qualified teachers is affecting statewide public education.
“Teaching has never been more challenging and complex than it is now,” he says. “Schools are in many ways a microcosm of the country. A lot of the fault lines we have on different forms of inequality and access — we see that manifested in schools.”
What’s Causing the Statewide Shortage?
Owenby says that partly, there aren’t enough people enrolling in teaching programs. Another factor is the “leaky bucket phenomenon.” People graduate and join the field for a couple of years, but then switch careers for one reason or another.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) issued 1,125 emergency teaching licenses during the 2012-13 school year. This license allows a person to temporarily fill a position while working toward a full-time teaching certification.
According to a spring 2023 Wisconsin Policy Forum report, the number of emergency teaching licenses has nearly tripled during the past decade. DPI issued 3,197 emergency teacher licenses in the 2021-22 school year. Elementary and special education had the highest need.
“The challenge of the teacher shortage is not getting better right now, at least in terms of the trend line,” Owenby says.
There is also a lack of staff supports, leading to more stress for those in the field.
“When you have these shortages, it means everything is just stretched more thin,” he says. “Students lose out on that support and … teachers often [are] trying to fill multiple roles at one time.”
What’s the Solution?
“It’s not just about filling vacancies that currently exist,” MMSD’s Kvistad says. “It’s about creating the conditions to support, retain and build upon the strength of our current staff members.”
The district overhauled its software system, shortening the hiring process and allowing HR to track professional development, career goals and training opportunities for staff until they retire or resign.
In June, the district’s board of education also approved an 8% pay increase for teachers and a $3.20 per hour raise for custodians.
At the university level, UW-Madison kicked off its School of Education Wisconsin Teachers Pledge in 2020, which covers the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees, testing and licensing costs to any teacher who pledges to teach in the state for three to four years after graduation. To date, 714 students have taken the pledge.
After graduation, Owenby says the School of Education works hard to continue supporting teachers, particularly through the first five years, alongside regional school districts.
UW–Madison also offers an Early Career Teaching Institute and partners with organizations working on the advocacy and policy side of education.
“We need to be able to position our teacher candidates as people who have a distinct set of knowledge and skills in a space with resources they need to do their jobs well,” Owenby says. “It takes that whole community for public education to work in this country.”