Area school districts are facing a teacher shortage

Monday, April 21, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ Laura Ernst helps students in her physical science class on Friday, April 18, 2008 at Perryville High School.

Kelly High School in Benton, Mo., has been advertising for a high school math teacher for months. Despite ads being placed in the newspaper, on college Web sites and through the job search engine SuccessLink, they have seen few takers.

So far, superintendent Don Moore has received one application.

In the Meadow Heights School District, several people have interviewed for a junior high science position. None were fully certified.

And in the Woodland School District, problems finding secondary teachers have spilled over into the liberal arts field — an area in the past wheresuperintendent Dennis Parham said teachers were easy to find.

"I knew it was bad when I couldn't find a social studies teacher," said Parham. "I think across the board schools are having trouble finding teachers. There's not as many candidates, and sometimes they're not the quality you'd like to have," he said.

Teacher shortages are certainly not a new problem. But it is a problem that appears to be acute this year, causing districts to look into hiring teachers with alternative certification, bringing back retired teachers, combining classes or resorting to employing a permanent substitute.

"It may be typical, but this is the hardest time we've had," Moore said about the low number of applicants this year.

The state's education department does not release data on the number of teaching vacancies in Missouri. On a countrywide level, the National Education Association estimates more than 2 million teachers will be needed in the next decade.

Areas of need include math, science, special education, foreign language, speech/language and counseling.

Alternative certification

In Southeast Missouri, most districts are only looking for between one to five teachers, mostly in the fields of math and science. Missouri lawmakers have once again taken notice of the persistent shortage, proposing bills to help recruit and retain teachers or make it easier for people to become teachers.

A bill awaits Gov. Matt Blunt's approval that would allow people to be certified to teach in Missouri after taking a multiple-choice test, student teaching for 60 hours and completing preparing-to-teach workshops. Certification would be administered by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, a Washington not-for-profit group. Excluded from the bill are those who wish to teach early childhood, elementary or special education.

Supporters say the quicker and cheaper method would address the shortage, while opponents worry about the preparedness and quality of the teachers.

The Perryville School District already employs about six teachers who are alternatively certified.

"Most of the [math or science] candidates we get are not fully certified, people that want to come back and change career fields," superintendent Kevin Dunn said. He said the district hires alternatively-certified candidates generally as a last resort, preferring those with teaching experience or new graduates from colleges of education.

Laura Ernst earned a degree in physics from Southeast Missouri State University and attended graduate school in Oklahoma. After working at AT&T for years, she found herself in a Perryville High School science classroom this fall, able to operate on a temporary teaching certificate. She is currently taking online classes, one a semester, to retain the authorization.

Before she started, she said she drilled all her friends in the education field to learn about lesson planning, assessing students or how to handle situations.

"I always wonder if I'm missing anything from classes in education. But I've heard being in the classroom, hands-on experience, is the best," Ernst said.

Like most first-year teachers, management is a struggle (cries of "I don't want to work," "I lost my notes" and "Dude, did you feel that earthquake" rang out during a quiz). But there were also proclamations of "You're my favorite teacher" and "I love you, Ms. Ernst."

Parham said Woodland has had mixed results with teachers who have been alternatively certified. One engineer-turned-math-teacher didn't last the first semester.

"He didn't realize teaching was that hard," Parham said. A retired teacher returned to fill the position. The measure is only a stopgap, however, as the state puts limits on the hours and length of time a retired teacher can teach.

Proposed incentives

State lawmakers have considered paying bonuses to teachers who sign on to work in a small or unaccredited district. One bill would give school boards the option of offering stipends to math and science teachers.

Dunn is not sure about the plan. He thinks one reason a shortage exists is because math and science teachers can often find more lucrative or less stressful jobs in the private sector. But he doesn't think it would be fair or equitable to only pay specific teachers stipends.

"If I'm an English teacher and working really hard, yet make less than the teacher next door to me, that's a tough issue. That's a comradery issue," he said.

The federal government offers loan forgiveness to teachers who work in low-income areas or in fields where there are shortages. The state's Urban Flight and Rural Needs Scholarship Program pays a student's tuition if they, in turn, teach for at least eight years in a school where 50 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

At Southeast Missouri State University, 2,241 students were enrolled in the school's College of Education during the 2006 to 2007 school year, according to interim dean Dr. Jerry Waddle. Of the 2,241, 195 were in early childhood field, 721 elementary, 193 middle school, 572 secondary and 560 in K-to-12 programs such as music, art or physical education.

For secondary, there were only five with an emphasis in physics, 11 in chemistry and 76 in math, compared to 106 in English and 198 in social science.

The university offers a unified science program where education students are trained in biology, chemistry and physics, becoming certified to teach any introductory science course. The program is particularly popular with schools in the Bootheel, where a small high school may only have one science teacher.

Larger districts, such as Cape Girardeau or Jackson, have not had as hard a time attracting qualified candidates in high-need subjects.

Dr. Mike Cowan, principal of Central High School in Cape Girardeau, said the district is coming close to filling two secondary math positions, and that the promising candidates are well-credentialed and have teaching experience. "I think there's some preference for being in a larger district, where there is the opportunity for collaboration and the sharing of resources and strategies," he said.

There are currently 29-first or second-year teachers working in Cape Girardeau that graduated from Southeast. There are 35 in Jackson, according to data from Waddle.

Student Nick Klaus knows he could probably make more money elsewhere, but has opted instead for the unified science program. "With the private sector, yeah the money's there, but you don't really get anything from it. It's become clear to me that I would like to help kids prepare for the future," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

Have a comment?

Log on to

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: