Educator Challenges Still Remain

Jun 22, 2023 at 05:17 pm by JC Bowman

Teacher vacancies are problematic in Tennessee and challenges remain. Data from the Tennessee Department of Education shows 67 percent of Tennessee schools started the school year with vacancies, with an average of 20 openings per district. The vacancies are up 16 percent since last school year.

Programs to make it easier to recruit new teachers, like Grow Your Own, are often touted by the state. Is it working? A cursory glance says no. Writer TC Weber shared concerns by Educator Preparation Providers and partner school districts about the lack of transparency by both the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) and the newly launched Grow Your Own Center. “Funding and communications are not the only issues plaguing the program” according to Weber.

Gloria Johnson, an enduring thorn in the side of the Lee Administration, took to social media in early June to address “disturbing rumors” about the lack of funding for the Grow Your Own program. She wrote that Governor Lee has “been taking victory laps” on the program. And to cut funding for the program during a teacher shortage “would be insane.” To counter that position, we must ask a key question: does the Grow Your Own program work?    

The teacher pipeline program was praised by First Lady Jill Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who visited the center in September 2022. Former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn wanted the program to serve as an example for other states. Weber warned, “As the GYO program has grown, the Center, which was created by The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) and the University of Tennessee System in 2022, has attempted to exert more influence on individual preparation programs.” Two key staff members from the Center have now resigned.

The Grow Your Own program can be salvaged. It can probably be better managed within the Tennessee Department of Education itself. As far as being a national model, establishing success statewide would be a more convincing objective. Policymakers must filter out the noise and look at the facts. It will probably be one of the first challenges for incoming Commissioner of Education Lizzette Reynolds to address. Educator Preparation Providers also need to step up and offer some solutions.

Teacher attrition continues to climb higher, yet those entering the field are going down. What happened? That is the problem we must solve. Why do educators quit? There are numerous reasons: salary, low morale, student discipline issues, and safety concerns are just a few reasons frequently cited. When teachers lose hope in their careers, eventually they change the direction of their own future, and in turn, it impacts the future of our children. If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and their thoughts on the future of education.

We have worked with policymakers to address these issues. Student Discipline issues led Professional Educators of Tennessee to work with legislators to pass the bipartisan "Teacher's Discipline Act" to help create a system to address chronically disruptive students. We also worked simultaneously on a Mental Health Trust Fund, which Governor Lee funded. This will help address mental health challenges. However, the trust fund needs better implementation by the state. We have also worked to strengthen school safety with state leaders.      

Compensation is critical to recruiting and retaining effective educators in our classrooms. According to most economists and policy wonks, we do not pay commensurate salaries to get and keep the best and brightest in our classrooms. Educators must move up to administrative positions to get bigger salaries. Sometimes the skills that made them excellent teachers fail to translate into an administrative role.

This year we also worked with policymakers to raise teacher salaries. For too long, teachers have seen salary increases be used for other necessary items, but not go to them. Most school districts employ more staff than are covered by state funding, and the available state and local dollars earmarked for salaries had to stretch over more teachers than the staff positions generated by the previous funding formula. The new funding formula will change that. More importantly, dollars can now reach the teachers for whom it was intended.

This year Governor Lee proposed, and the Tennessee General Assembly included, an additional $350 million investment in the new Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) funding formula, including $125 million for educator salary increases. This is a strong start, but we must continue our advocacy.  

Money alone will not stop teacher attrition nor serve as a reason people will choose to enter the field of education. In education, there is never a shortage of issues we need to address. We will continue to raise the right issues and champion educators and children.

A strong educational system is essential to our future. An engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning. The most effective vision for P-12 education in Tennessee is one that embraces local control of education and listens to those educating our children and engages with parents and families.

We have a lot of work left to do.


JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

Sections: Politics Education