Oklahoma’s deepening teacher shortage has education officials trading in their “Help Wanted” signs for ones with a more urgent message: “Help Needed NOW.”
As schools ring in the start of a new academic year, administrators are desperately trying to fill teacher vacancies amid a scarcity of applicants.
Evidence of that growing desperation abounds through the number of emergency certification requests at the Oklahoma State Department of Education and through vacancies still advertised by districts.
Since July, the state has received 526 requests for emergency teaching certificates — already exceeding the 506 it received in all of 2014-15. Those certificates allow those who haven’t completed basic higher education and training requirements to enter the classroom right away.
“The teacher shortage is at a point of crisis,” said state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. “Emergency certifications continue to skyrocket, and class sizes continue to increase. Until we can attract and retain teachers in our state, education will suffer.”
Tulsa Public Schools, which had 568 teachers — or 20 percent — of its certified teaching positions exit over the past 14 months, has resorted to the measure at a record high rate. District officials say they have submitted 59 emergency certificate requests. Records from the state show 40 of those among the total of 526 already processed.
Today, low teacher morale in Oklahoma and better salary and benefits in surrounding states are making it harder for districts to compete for recent college graduates and retain experienced teachers. The state also averaged 3,000 annual teacher retirements in each of the past five years.
The teacher shortage is spinning off a complex web of devastating consequences in course offerings for students and working conditions for the educators left behind.
Tulsa’s new superintendent, Deborah Gist, said she didn’t fully appreciate all of the implications when she left her position as Rhode Island education commissioner to come here in July.
“Not only do we need a teacher in every classroom, we also need experienced and stable teams of teachers in our schools,” Gist said. “TPS has consistently had around 50 teacher vacancies at the start of school and even through our school year for many years now. So to start the year with a full complement of teachers is an enormous challenge. We have worked tirelessly and creatively to ensure every student in our district has a teacher on the first day of school and throughout the year.”
Three days before the start of school, the TPS website still lists more than 150 teaching positions for applications because hiring needs persist all year. Another 100 support jobs, such as janitors and classroom aides, were also posted.
Frustration leads to retirement
According to the Oklahoma Teachers’ Retirement System, nearly 15,000 teachers retired over the past five years, including 1,100 early retirees. Public schools reported 1,000 unfilled teacher vacancies in August 2014, and over the course of the academic year, another 3,090 teachers retired.
Of last year’s retirees, 238 left early, including Lynetta Tart, who had taught for 39 years at TPS before retiring in June, shortly before her 61st birthday.
“I decided to retire because I was tired of going to meetings,” she said.
In early July, one of Gist’s first actions as Tulsa superintendent was to send a letter asking more than 900 teachers who had left in recent years to consider returning. A spokesman said that although the effort produced about 35 “leads,” none resulted in new employment contracts.
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