Indiana’s teacher shortage has some schools scrambling

A school bus outside Penn High School in Mishawaka advertises the need for bus drivers. The high school is part of the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, one of many districts trying to hire support staff for the upcoming school year.  (Jakob Lazzaro / WVPE)

Matt Shockley needs two math teachers and has zero applicants. 

Shockley is principal of Avon High School, located 14 miles west of downtown Indianapolis. Avon students return to school at the end of this month. If Shockley can’t fill those positions, class sizes could increase, or students might be left with a long-term substitute who may not be qualified to teach the subject. 

“This is the most challenging hiring climate I have had in my 18 years of being a principal,” Shockley said. “It has been very difficult.”

There are more than 2,300 teaching positions posted on the Indiana Department of Education’s new online job board, as of July 7. Additionally, there are nearly 900 open student support positions, like school counselors, classroom aides and cafeteria employees.

Summer is typically a busy hiring season for schools. And it’s unclear if these vacancies represent a worsening teacher shortage, because the IDOE does not maintain comparable data for prior years, according to Holly Lawson, a spokesperson for the agency. Lawson wrote in an email that IDOE switched from its old job bank to a new platform in March of this year. Lawson wrote that nearly every school corporation in the state – and many charter and nonpublic schools – are using the new job board to post positions in real time, which wasn’t possible with their previous system. 

That means “comparing postings on the new supply and demand marketplace to postings on the previous job board is like comparing apples to oranges,” Lawson wrote.

Moving forward, she wrote that the state plans to use this new system to glean insights into the educator pipeline, including the geographic and subject areas with the highest need for teachers. 

Coping with a lack of qualified candidates

But principals like Shockley have an urgent need for teachers and support staff. Shockley said he’s hired 24 teachers so far this year — a greater number than previous years due to the loss of employees through retirement, stress of the job or other reasons. He said the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on students and teachers has driven some educators to leave the field. 

“I had relatively new teachers that have been in the teaching field for two to three years, and just said, ‘You know what, I can’t do this. It’s just been way too challenging over the last couple of years with the stresses of COVID,’” Shockley said. 

Shockley said the combination of retirements and teachers leaving, along with a shallow candidate pool, means districts are competing with one another for the teachers that are already in the field.

“It’s been really about kind of stealing from each other and hiring from each other. That’s what we’ve been doing this season,” Shockley said. 

Indiana also lags behind its neighboring states in average teacher salary, according to data from the National Education Association, an education labor union. The average teacher salary for Indiana teachers was about $53,000 during the 2020-21 school year, compared to nearly $71,000 for Illinois teachers, roughly $64,000 for Michigan teachers and $54,000 for Kentucky teachers.

Additionally, Shockley said a growing distrust of teachers and the education system, as evidenced in the proposal of curriculum bills and other legislation that seeks to control what can and cannot be said in the classroom, has caused some to look for careers outside education. 

To help cope with the shortage of candidates, Shockley said the district has relied more heavily on emergency permits; those are temporary credentials that allow people who aren’t licensed to teach a certain subject. They’re used when schools can’t find a qualified teacher for the job. Emergency permit holders must have a bachelor’s degree and be working toward a license in that subject area.

Statewide, the use of emergency permits has risen by about 58 percent between 2016 and 2021. 

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly a quarter of all emergency permits issued were for mild intervention — a special education teacher position. The state banned the use of emergency permits for special education teachers beginning this summer, because the practice violates federal law. The second highest category for emergency permits during that school year was elementary generalist, followed by mathematics and language arts. 

“I’m very concerned about our ability to attract and hire the best and the brightest into the field of education,” Shockley said. “We’re just not finding those candidates right now. And I’m concerned about our ability to continue programs in areas where we may not be able to find qualified individuals to fill those positions.”

A shortage of support staff

Lisa Soto Kile, director of human resources for the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, sees fewer students enrolled in teacher prep programs, and fewer applicants for teaching jobs compared to a decade ago. 

Soto Kile said the district, located between South Bend and Elkhart in northern Indiana, has been fortunate; they were able to replace the 65 staff members who retired after the 2020-21 school year and add additional positions to help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, they had 55 teachers retire. 

Soto Kile said the shortage in her district is more acute for hourly employees, like teachers aides for students with disabilities, food service workers, custodians and bus drivers. In total, she said they have 35 openings across all categories of support staff roles. 

She said the shortage has gotten worse in recent years, and the district has put more resources into recruitment.

“You can drive by our schools and in our community, and you can see buses with banners and such. We have signs that are recruiting, and we utilize social media to attract potential employees,” Soto Kile said. “We are working collaboratively with two organizations that assist us in our recruiting efforts.”

Shockley, the principal of Avon High School, said he is also struggling to find enough support staff, including secretaries, instructional assistants, special education teachers aides, study hall aides and other non-certified positions that support the operations of the school. 

“If we’re not able to fill those positions, then we’re going to have to find other ways using the people that we have to take care of those just day-to-day operations and needs,” Shockley said. “And that’s just going to be more challenging without people in these very important support roles. If we do not have them, our schools are not going to function very well on a daily basis and be as welcoming to kids and families”

A long-term and immediate problem

Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from administrators that the shortages of both support and certified staff are particularly dire in rural areas of the state. 

“I think it’s something we need to be very concerned about,” he said.

McRoberts said the narrative around teaching needs to change to make it a more attractive career.

“We’ve got to get creative in what we’re doing to get young people into the field of education,” he said.

That could include recruiting students in high school and offering benefits like free tuition in exchange for several years of teaching service. 

McRoberts said the field also needs to look at immediate solutions, like offering financial incentives to get teachers who have left to come back to the field. While there are concerns about the pervasiveness of emergency permits and a new law that allows for adjunct teacher permits, he said administrators need licensing flexibility to staff schools. 

“They got to find some people, you know, to get into these classrooms,” McRoberts said. “So it is an immediate concern and problem. [And] it’s a long-term problem that we’ve got to get figured out.”

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at Follow on Twitter: @LeeVGaines.

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