Oklahoma Districts Report 800 Teaching Vacancies to Start Year

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) conducted a survey in early August and found that there were more than 800 teaching vacancies for the 2014-2015 academic school year.  Districts that represent three-fourths of the state’s public school enrollment were chosen to take the survey,  The results illustrate the enormity of the statewide shortage, which has worsened dramatically in the last two years, writes Andrea Eger for the Tulsa World.

“Local school officials have been saying for awhile that finding qualified teachers is difficult,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of OSSBA. “This survey put actual numbers to the problem — and the results should concern every parent and policymaker in the state.”

“Having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom is the most effective strategy for academic improvement, but as a state, that’s not where we’ve chosen to invest our time, energy or resources. It’s short-sighted because it limits the effectiveness of any other plan Oklahoma puts in place.”

• Tulsa Public Schools alone had 100 vacancies, which dropped to 70 by Monday.

• More than one-half of districts with vacancies sought emergency certifications.

• One-half of the districts said they would use long- or short-term substitutes.

• Many districts who had no reported vacancies said they had hired long- or short-term substitutes  in place of full-time teachers.

• Districts in every area of the state and of every size are reporting vacancies.

• The most difficult positions to fill are special education, elementary teachers, and high school math and science teachers.

• Incentives are being offered to recruits and teachers whom districts want to retain by districts that can afford to do so.

• The scarcity of applicants is worrisome, but the quality of applicants is of utmost concern.

Hiring teachers without the necessary teaching credentials is a choice few administrators are prepared to make.  Naturally, not having the adequate number of teachers means that class sizes are increasing, which is a huge burden on existing teachers.

Patti Ferguson-Palmer, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said she had warned that the forced exits of teachers who had ratings of “needs improvement” would be rash.

“They cut their own throats. Set the bar high, but these were people who just needed a little more support and professional development,” she said. “We did a climate survey of members in May that asked, ‘Do you feel valued by the school district?’ and the response overwhelmingly was ‘No.’ ”

But Talia Shaull, chief human capital officer at TPS, says that the exit of about 350 teachers in the last couple of years is not unusual for a district the size of Tulsa’s.  Approximately 60-65  teachers who are terminated, coached to resign, or retire for performance reasons, is normal, as well.

“For some, performance is the reason, but for many others, the reason they leave is to go to surrounding districts. Moving forward, we have to work on retention. We can’t talk about recruitment without also talking about retention,” Shaull said. “How do we improve working conditions and support for teachers, as well as helping them create a career path for themselves so they want to stay in TPS?”

Tim Willert of The Oklahoman says that education officials have agreed that low salaries and dissatisfaction are among the reasons why classroom teachers are choosing to leave the profession or moving to states which have higher teacher salaries.  Depending on experience and the subject area, schools in nearby states pay $2,000-10,000 more than Oklahoma.  Other factors that can make or break a teacher’s passion for teaching are poor, or lack of, mentoring programs, professional development or lack thereof, and difficulty in being promoted.

Kim Jackson, reporter for KTUL, says that schools in low-income areas have a difficult time keeping teachers.  The McLain High and Junior High in Tulsa lost 11 teachers at the high school and seven at the junior school.  The principal, Trista Harper, resigned from the high school in July.  Shaull said that difficult and challenging schools can see a turnover in the 20s and 30s each year.

In Oklahoma City, the district’s new superintendent Robert Neu, says he is addressing the teacher vacancy problem, according to Laura Hendrix, reporter for KOCO.

“We are becoming more aggressive in our recruiting efforts. I’d like to build a fund we can use, relocation centers to bring teachers into Oklahoma City,” said Neu.

After that, says Neu, there needs to be a plan to keep them in the schools which hires them.