As a former CEO, I know that any organization is only as good as its people. I’ve managed companies as small as 50 employees and as large as 2,000 and the key to our success was always the talent and commitment of our teammates. Schools are no different. The quality of education our children receive is directly related to the talent and quality instruction of their teachers.
This is why I was alarmed that after we at Raising Idaho Standards for Education (RISE) met individually with every school administrator in the Coeur d’Alene School District to listen to the challenges they face, we found we are approaching crisis levels for viable candidates to fill needed teaching positions. Many principals said that over the last few years, they have been getting 1-2 applications for positions for which they might have had 30-40 applications a few years ago. And it is even more acute for hard-to-fill positions such as special education, math and science. Our administrators need to be hiring people because they are a great fit, not because they are the only option.
As a parent and an advocate for strong public schools, I was aware that teacher salaries were too low in Idaho and that our schools were not in the best competitive position compared to those a short drive away in Washington. But the issue was far bleaker than I imagined and I believe the public is also unaware of the depth of the problem. While we are fortunate to have so many outstanding educators committed to our kids despite these trends, if this issue goes on unaddressed it will likely lead to substandard education in our schools, and that shouldn’t be good enough.
We at RISE believe that a stronger community begins with stronger schools. If that’s true our business leaders should be very concerned about the availability of teachers as they think about today’s students being their labor pool for the future. We also believe that our schools cannot succeed in isolation. Because of this it is crucial that community leaders come together to support our schools in addressing this challenge. To this end, this fall we will be bringing together a committed group of local leaders in business, human resources, and education to work in collaboration with the school district to come up with different approaches and novel ideas to solve this very real problem. To get this rolling RISE has already been compiling data on salary and benefits offered in neighboring states.
The inability to recruit teachers is not just a problem locally; it is one of the key issues facing K-12 education nationwide. The teacher pipeline is narrowing, as fewer candidates are enrolling in and completing teacher preparation programs.
At the same time, the rate of teacher attrition from schools is increasing. Many school districts are losing existing teachers to retirement and/or other careers and bringing in fewer new teachers. Some sources estimate that up to 50 percent of teachers will retire or change jobs within the next seven years and 20 percent of new teachers will leave the job after just three years. I have no reason to believe the picture is any prettier for us locally.
Many may say the answer is to increase teacher pay. Fortunately, increasing teacher salaries is a priority in our district and while that is the right thing to do and a worthwhile investment, research suggests there are other factors under local control that can also meaningfully impact our ability to recruit and retain quality educators. Some may also point to the pending layoff of teachers in Spokane as the answer to our needs, but while this may provide some short-term opportunities it doesn’t fix our issues longer term.
Rather what we need, if we want our kids to benefit from having the best teachers in our classrooms, is for our school district with the support of local leadership to set a strong plan with the required resources and processes to recruit and retain top talent. This starts with knowing the needs today and into the future so we can get ahead in the recruiting process. It includes setting forward the district’s value proposition to show candidates why they should want to work here. Then use multi-channel marketing to get that message to targeted audiences.
But sourcing candidates is just the start. A rigorous hiring process should be deployed to weed out unqualified candidates as well as ensure a strong fit in a hire, while also attracting high-quality candidates who tend to seek organizations that hold high expectations for their students as well as their employees.
While recruiting is vitally important, keeping the best teachers is arguably more important. This is largely about having a culture that is very intentional in providing the necessary supports and resources, including cultivating a positive workplace culture, setting expectations, managing performance improvement and recognizing and rewarding excellence. Additionally, focusing on quality professional development serves as a win-win, as teachers learn skills to improve student learning and show loyalty to school systems that invest in them as professionals.
I’ve had the benefit of first-hand exposure to our local schools, administrators and many of the teachers. I can say without equivocation they are a talented and dedicated group of professionals who are doing their best to teach and develop our youngsters. They work incredibly hard with limited resources. But they desperately need the engagement of community leaders to develop solutions to address the shortage of teachers. We need to come together to create a game plan and help establish a culture that makes Coeur d’Alene the dream job location for top teaching talent. A place where the most talented teachers in the field want to spend their career educating and inspiring our kids to be the very best they can be.
Bill Elliott is a board member of Raising Idaho Standards for Education (RISE) a Coeur d’Alene-based think tank and advocacy nonprofit focused on improving public education in Idaho. He is an adviser to private equity today after a 30-plus year career leading health care companies.