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Addressing The Teacher Shortage

When asked to share the biggest challenge facing today’s schools, one answer has risen to the top for school leaders: the teacher shortage.

Certainly, there is truth to these claims. According to the Learning Policy Institute, schools in the United States were short more than 100,000 teachers in 2020 … before the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the number of teachers exiting the profession doubles the number of students entering teacher preparation programs, these numbers figure to get much worse.

As is the case with any dilemma, school leaders have two options: complain about the problem or figure out solutions.

Those who complain about the teacher shortage say:

“Politicians need to give schools more money!”

“Colleges need to attract more students to the field!”

“Society needs to stop being so hard on educators!”

Those who look for solutions to the teacher shortage say:

“How can we attract more teachers?”

“How can we improve our hiring processes?”

“How can we keep teachers from leaving?”

Consider the phrases used in your district.

Are you placing blame of the problem on others?

Or, are you taking ownership of the problem?


On Episode #98 of The Group Project Podcast, I interviewed Roark Horn who served as the Executive Director of School Administrators of Iowa. During our interview, I asked Roark, “What advice do you have for school leaders who are dealing with a teacher shortage?”

Here was his response:

Simply put. I would make your district a destination district. We’re going to be in competition for teachers early in their career. When you are in competition, you want to put your best foot forward. What are you doing as a district to prepare yourself for this possibility so that you are attractive to people?

Many schools place teacher recruitment low on their priority list. Instead of strategizing how to attract highly talented employees, leaders prioritize test scores, instructional frameworks, student behaviors, social-emotional learning, professional learning communities, and other initiatives.

While all are important for school success, the previous statement poses a subtle irony: when schools recruit, hire, and retain effective staff, initiatives have a way of taking care of themselves.


Today's leaders must possess a recruitment mentality. Rather than recruit staff only when they have openings, administrators must actively recruit staff at all times.

How much time do you invest in subs, student teachers, and practicum students? Whereas some leaders say, "I don't have the time!", forward-thinking administrators view these individuals as prime candidates to fill vacant positions.

The same could be said for interactions outside of work. School leaders who want to keep their buildings fully-staffed must approach every interaction through a recruitment lens, understanding that you never know where you’ll find your next employee.

One of my favorite stories to tell is how I found a rockstar custodian at a Casey’s convenience store. One winter morning, I was waiting in line to pay for my Peach Mango Bang when a voice behind me said, “are you Dr. Smith?”

If you know, you know.

I turned around and saw a middle-aged man who I had never seen before. He said he knew me from social media and had heard good things about my leadership. During our discussion, he shared that he was unhappy in his current job, and was looking at other options. Immediately, I went into recruitment mode and asked to exchange numbers so we could stay in touch.

A few weeks later, I texted him about a custodian opening in one of our buildings. Beyond simply alerting him of the position, I sent him the link to the online posting, passed along his name to our building principal, and told our HR department to be on the lookout for his application. Essentially, my goal was to remove all barriers that would prevent this individual hired being hired.

Two weeks later, he was introduced as our new custodian.

Whether it’s the hard-working gentleman who stocks shelves at the grocery store, or the pleasant secretary who works at city hall, school leaders must always be on the lookout for talented individuals who could potentially fill workplace vacancies.


Looking for more ideas about teacher recruitment and retainment? Here are eight suggestions:

Post Jobs Early: Starting the hiring process early is vital as school districts battle over a dwindling number of qualified applicants. To get an accurate picture of the openings they will have the following year, schools should issue contracts as early as possible (in Iowa this day is March 15th). While they may not be legally binding, contracts are a major piece of the hiring puzzle that should be finalized ASAP.

Market Job Openings: Many school districts use outdated approaches to promote teacher openings. Rather than passively post openings on job search websites and in local newspapers, school leaders must proactively market vacancies using social media and other forms of digital communication. In a time when teachers are in high demand, districts must ensure openings are seen by large audiences.

This particular post was shared more than 50 times and seen by thousands of people on Facebook.

Be Aggressive: If you have ever been heavily recruited for a job, you realize how good it feels to be wanted. Turn on the charm and persuade candidates as to why they are needed in your building. Furthermore, consider sending “cold” emails, texts, and Facebook messages to potential candidates. I have sent hundreds of “Hail Mary” messages over the years, and – while only ten or so have panned out – those are ten positions that likely would have gone unfilled had I not been persistent in finding candidates.

Employee Referral Bonus: Do not underestimate word of mouth marketing when it comes to teacher recruitment. Research shows that 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family more than traditional advertising. By offering a referral bonus to current staff who recruit new teachers to the district (we offer $250 for each new hire), employees are encouraged to contact friends when jobs become available.

Our employees love when we surprise them with one of our oversized checks!

Empower Administrators: One of the biggest misconceptions in school leadership is that Human Resources is the only department that can discuss salaries with potential employees. Not only is this untrue, this practice creates massive organizational bottlenecks … slowing down the hiring process when time is of the essence. As long as they avoid promising candidates a precise income, leaders should not only be trusted to discuss salaries, they should be empowered to negotiate salaries using a set of clear guidelines.

First Day: “The lack of attention paid to an employee’s first day of work is mind-boggling,” said Chip and Dan Heath in The Power of Moments. “To avoid this kind of oversight, we must understand when special moments are needed.” What are you doing on the employee’s first day of work to make it special? First impressions are critical, meaning leaders should manufacture “wow” moments that leave new employees thinking “Sheeeesh … I love it here already!” (The next chapter provides several onboarding ideas).

Employee Check-In: Administrators who are committed to keeping their buildings fully-staffed must engage employees in retention-focused conversations. “Are you happy in your current role?”, “Do you plan to return next year?”, and “Are you looking at other jobs?” are reasonable questions to ask. Leaders who take time to understand where each employee stands are rarely caught off guard by a surprise resignation.

Stay Interviews: We’ve all heard of exit interviews. But what about stay interviews? Rather than reactively ask employees why they are leaving, leaders should proactively ask employees what makes them stick around. “What motivates you to work in our school?”, “What could be better about your work experience?”, and “What opportunities within our district do you want to pursue?” are questions that can take retention-focused conversations to the next level.


One topic that deserves its own section is employee compensation.

When school leaders propose teacher retainment solutions, the most common answer is to increase employee compensation. “We just need to pay our teachers more money!” administrators say, assuming compensation is the magic bullet. With this in mind, schools across the country are announcing long-term raises and one-time bonuses for staff.

Obviously, teacher compensation is a major concern and school leaders must continue pushing educator salaries higher to ensure they are competitive with other professions.

However - when you examine the root cause of job dissatisfaction - compensation is rarely the primary factor. In a recent study examining the most common reasons employees leave a position, only 12% of employees cited “wanting more money” as the primary cause for leaving a job.

Rather than compensation, employees cited lack of flexibility, unempathetic bosses, team tension, lack of engagement, lack of appreciation, and lack of opportunities as bigger factors when leaving a position.

“Yeah, but schools are different,” some readers may be thinking. “When the district next door pays more money, employees will leave!”

In It’s the Manager: Moving from Boss to Coach, Jim Clifton and Jim Harter explain that across all job professions, it takes a 20% pay increase for employees to leave jobs they love. Alternately, it takes a 0% pay increase for employees to leave jobs they hate. This means that a teacher making $50,000 would need to make $60,000 in another district to consider quitting.

Think about how your district salary structure compares to those around you. Certainly, if you are paying teachers 20% less than the neighboring district, it’s hard to blame teachers for leaving. However, my experience is that teacher compensation is fairly consistent across districts … meaning that money is rarely the deciding factor when employees choose to leave.

The lesson here is when employees feel valued, they rarely leave a position just to make a little more money at the neighboring district.


Listen folks: the teacher shortage isn't going away any time soon. In fact, it’s going to get much, much worse.

What is your response?

Are you going to sulk and blame others about the situation?

Or, are you going to create your own destination district?


If you liked this article, you'll love my new book Learning Curve!

Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.



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