There's a serious teacher shortage in Kansas City and across the country, as fewer people pursue a career that often involves low pay, high stress and lack of community support.
Missouri’s teaching colleges are battling that trend, trying new strategies to attract students pursuing education degrees and to answer a vital need for quality instructors in every classroom.
“We are reaching out to the high schools,” said David Hough, dean of Missouri State University’s College of Education, “trying to change that narrative and trying to convince people it really is a good career despite the negatives.”
The number of undergraduate degrees nationally peaked at nearly 200,000 in the early 1970s and has dropped to less than half that today. So the pipeline for new teachers has dwindled significantly.
Kathryn Chval, dean of the University of Missouri College of Education, attributed part of the problem to a barrage of negative media.
“We have a media issue, I would say, a PR issue, with the teaching field,” she said. But Chval also acknowledged that teachers don’t command the respect they deserve and often battle paltry starting salaries, a lack of resources and difficult teaching assignments.
It certainly doesn’t help that Missouri ranked 49th among the 50 states in average starting teaching salaries, coming in at $31,842 in 2018, compared to a national average of $38,617.
Still, Hough said, people need to realize teaching remains a very rewarding career, with the chance to make a profound difference in the lives of children. And, he notes, the retirement benefits are good.
“Similar to the military,” he said, “after 30 years, at the age of 52, you can retire from teaching and still have many years left to work another job if you wanted to.”
Both Chval and Hough said they are working hard to boost the ranks of students pursuing education degrees. They are also striving to attract a diverse student body to meet the multicultural needs of the classroom of the future.
Attracting new students
“You have to be out in the high schools talking to young people,” Chval said, adding that MU has an aggressive recruiting program throughout Missouri high schools.
It’s paying off, Chval said, with the education college’s opening day enrollment up 37 percent this fall, at 239 students versus 174 in 2018.
Missouri State University’s education college has just launched a program that sends its alumni into Missouri’s high schools, asking them to talk up teaching as a wonderful career.
The number of undergraduate education majors at MSU has declined slightly in recent years, from 1,496 in 2016 to 1,345 so far this fall. But total education enrollment, including graduate students, is at 2,322 so far this fall, compared to 2,149 in 2016.
MSU’s Master of Arts education certification helps professionals in other careers transition to teaching. In one success story, Hough said, a man who retired from Dow Chemical in his mid-50s ended up teaching chemistry in a rural Ozarks school.
“I’m thinking wow how cool is that,” Hough said, “to be in a rural school and have somebody like that.”
MU has a scholarship program to attract future teachers from minority and underrepresented groups, and MSU also actively recruits students of color to pursue teaching degrees.
“Our school districts are asking us for teachers of color,” Chval said.
One obvious solution to the teacher shortage would be to improve salaries. Hough and Chval said they see some reasons for hope.
Chval noted that recent teacher protests and strikes in other states have sometimes drawn strong public support.
“The narrative has even changed on that, and people can understand it,” she said. “We are going to have to start thinking about what do we invest in our teaching workforce so that our communities have the best teachers.”
Hough was encouraged that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson talked about the need to boost teacher pay at a conference earlier this summer.
“I’m guardedly optimistic,” Hough said about the prospects for a better teacher pay plan in Missouri. “It might just produce something in the next year or two.”
Kathryn Chval, dean of the University of Missouri’s College of Education, and David Hough, dean of Missouri State University’s College of Education, spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up to Date.
Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley