MSCS reports over 200 teacher vacancies three weeks before school starts

A Memphis teacher smiles and signals to her students sitting on the floor to raise their hands with her
Across Memphis, Tennessee, and the nation, school officials are scrambling to staff classrooms amid ongoing teacher shortages. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

With less than three weeks to go before students return to classrooms, Memphis-Shelby County Schools has 220 unfilled teaching positions.

The number is down nearly 18% from a year earlier, according to a Tuesday news release. But it’s another sign of the persistent teacher shortages in Tennessee’s largest school district, a problem that is mirrored across the state and the country.

MSCS officials attributed the decrease in teacher vacancies to a new state law allowing retired educators to return to the profession without losing their retirement benefits, as well as the district’s “extensive work” on teacher retention and recruitment.

But it’s unclear whether MSCS will be able to fill the majority of the openings by the time the 2022-23 school year begins Aug. 8. At this time last year, the district had 268 openings, and filled only about 50 of them by the start of the school year.

In the meantime, district officials say plans are in place to cover all classrooms by combining under-enrolled courses, sending certified central office staff and substitutes to fill gaps, and utilizing remote instruction for some higher-level courses. The state’s recently launched Access for All program also allows the district to offer virtual instruction for several Advanced Placement at high schools, the district said.

Across Tennessee, and elsewhere in the country, the teacher pipeline continues to shrink, and burned-out educators are leaving the profession in large numbers in the wake of the pandemic. Nashville Public Radio last week reported over 2,000 teacher vacancies across Tennessee, including more than 200 in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

A survey by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the U.S., earlier this month found that 80% of its members teaching pre-K through 12 are dissatisfied with their jobs — a 34-percentage-point jump from the start of the pandemic. The survey also found that 40% of AFT members said they’re thinking about leaving education within the next two years.

Even before COVID, U.S. schools were struggling to fill open educator positions for over a decade: Between the 2008-09 and 2015-16 school years, the number of people graduating with education degrees decreased more than 15%, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report.

In Tennessee, the latest report card on the state’s 43 teacher training programs found that the number of new educators graduating has dropped by nearly one-fifth over five years, leading the state Department of Education and the University of Tennessee system this spring to announce a $20 million Grow Your Own Center to create new paths to the teaching profession.

The MSCS data comes at a tumultuous time for the district, with an impending school board election, lingering concerns about COVID-19, and questions swirling around Superintendent Joris Ray, who was placed on leave July 13, pending the outcome of an external investigation into whether he abused his power and violated district policies on relationships with coworkers.

Since his state of the district address earlier this year, Ray has touted his efforts to recruit and retain teachers, including boosting salaries, offering bonuses, and expanding health care coverage for all staff. On Tuesday, the district also highlighted the launch of open interviews for teachers — a recurring hiring event to help teacher candidates get licensed and connect them with open district positions beyond the start of the school year. Over 475 teachers have been recommended through the events since mid-May, according to the district.

The district will host its next open interview event from 9 a.m. to noon Friday at the New Teacher Academy, 3030 Jackson Ave. Attendees may register by calling 901-416-5304 or emailing SCSinduction@scsk12.org

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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