At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, there were 36 unfilled teaching positions in the Yakima School District.
On the first day of school that year, the district pulled out all the stops to make sure those classrooms had teachers in them – several substitutes were called in, and administrators from the district office were sent to schools to teach. Even Superintendent Jack Irion prepared to spend the day teaching a math class, but a substitute for him was found at the last second.
The district was eventually able to fill those positions, but the vacancy problem persists. In fact, educators throughout the region report difficulty filling vacant teaching positions over the past few years. But unlike most school districts in the state – where there are primarily shortages of special education, bilingual and STEM teachers – many local districts say they have trouble recruiting teachers in all subjects.
“In our region; it’s hard to find teachers, period,” said Kevin Chase, the superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which provides a wide range of services for the region’s school districts.
The number of vacant teaching positions in the area isn’t tracked, making year-to-year comparisons difficult, but a Yakima Herald-Republic analysis of current online job postings found that there are at least 65 open teaching positions in the Yakima Valley. Officials say that number is consistent with the average number of openings in recent years, and it’s left some districts scrambling to fill vacancies with certified teachers before the school year starts in a few months.
Educators point to a number of reasons why local schools may have trouble finding teachers, including a lack of colleges that offer teaching degrees in the area, increased pressure on teachers in terms of accountability, and an inability to compete with larger school districts in other parts of the state that can offer prospective teachers more money.
“The teaching profession has been under siege for a long time,” Chase said. “People say, ‘Don’t be a teacher, that’s hard work for not enough pay,’ that’s what people say to their kids now … teaching has become really difficult.”
Shrinking pool of candidates
If an aspiring teacher wants to become certified while remaining in Central Washington, he or she has three options when it comes to colleges. Central Washington University and Heritage University both offer master’s degrees in education fields. Students may also receive a bachelor’s degree in education – a typical prerequisite for earning a teaching certificate – from Yakima Valley College, but certification options through the college are limited.
Students living in Western and Eastern Washington have more options. For example, a student living in the Spokane area could attend Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, Spokane Falls Community College or Washington State University and earn a teaching certificate. Chase argues that the disparity in college choices contributes greatly to the dwindling number of teacher candidates in Central Washington.
With colleges in other areas of the state churning out more teachers who take jobs near their homes, Chase said school districts in Central Washington rely on finding teachers who have a connection to the area. Otherwise, he said, it’s unlikely they’ll stick around for long.
“Teachers in their first year will take whatever job they can find because they want to get their first job,” he said. “But after that you start looking for your second job, and if there’s no anchor for you here – if you don’t have family, friends or a significant other – then you’re going to move to find those (other jobs).”
Yakima School District Superintendent Jack Irion said in addition to being able to offer higher salaries in some cases, school districts in Western or Eastern Washington may attract fledgling teachers because living in more urban cities gives them better access to popular social events such as professional sports games or concerts headlined by big names in the music industry. Also, he said, teaching in a region like Western Washington could be more appealing because the area offers unique educational opportunities for teaching students.
“I believe any student would love to go to the Seattle Aquarium, or the Seattle Center, there’s just a wealth of opportunities for young people,” he said. “If you live in that neck of the woods, your child in all likelihood through the school system will get to (go to) those things, but once you cross the mountains you can’t say the same thing.”
Apart from regional differences, local educators say they have trouble finding teachers simply because fewer people want to become teachers.
In fact, a recent study of college freshmen by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that the number of students who said they would major in education hit its lowest point in 45 years in 2016. According to the study, just 4.2 percent of freshmen that year intended to major in education compared to 11 percent in 2000; 10 percent in 1990; and 11 percent in 1971.
“Education in and of itself is definitely a more challenging career than it was 20 years ago,” said Selah School District Superintendent Shane Backlund. “There are a lot more external demands in terms of accountability and mandates.”
Backlund and Chase – both former teachers – say the profession in Washington became dramatically more challenging in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the state introduced standardized testing and held under-performing schools accountable.
“People feel that there’s more of a sense of pressure,” Backlund said. “When I first started teaching 24 years ago, I didn’t have a sense that somebody was watching me based on how my kids performed. And while we try to not do that on an individual basis, we definitely do that as a system, the system does that, and the trickle-down effect on that is definitely felt.”
And while the job itself has become more demanding, Backlund and Chase say the pay hasn’t kept up.
In the region, starting salaries for teachers range anywhere from $30,000 to $41,000 per year, with an average starting salary of about $36,000 per year. This, they say, isn’t much when you consider how difficult the profession is.
“Teaching is rocket science – it’s hard,” Chase said. “My analogy is that it’s like being a doctor working on a patient. Teachers are the same thing. They have to diagnose problems in kids, they have to provide the right treatment for kids, and when you think about doctors in an operating room, how many patients do they have? One. Teachers have 25.”
Backlund agreed, saying even those with a passion for teaching could be dissuaded by current teacher salaries.
“This is passion-based work; people don’t go into it for the money,” he said. “However, when you’re looking at your career options, pay is definitely a factor.”
Filling the slots
If administrators don’t fill empty classrooms with standard teachers by the time school starts in August, they’ll need to get creative.
Educators say there are a number of ways they’ve filled vacancies in recent years, and Chase said one of the simplest is to issue an emergency certificate. Such a certificate allows someone without a regular teaching certificate to be an instructor. For example, a district may give an emergency certificate to someone with a bachelor’s degree in biology and have them teach a biology class.
Irion said his district sometimes employs this method, but often encourages those who get emergency certificates to work toward earning their teaching certificate in the meantime. Typically, he said, his district only certifies people who have taught in other parts of the country but aren’t certified in Washington state. However, rather than issuing loads of certificates, Irion said his district has primarily relied on student teachers to fill empty classrooms.
Irion argues that bringing in student teachers is preferable to seeking out prospective teachers at places such as job fairs – which Chase said many districts do – because the district is able to get familiar with them and their teaching style, and isn’t offering contracts based on one interview.
“The wonderful thing about student teachers is we get to see them interacting with our students and our families and their fellow staff members,” Irion said. “We know whether or not there’s a good fit.”
Since the number of student teachers looking for experience also is limited, districts need to be competitive when recruiting. Irion said his district offers out-of-area student teachers the option to stay with a local family free of charge as an incentive to bring them here.
“Yakima is a wonderful place to live; I believe that to the core of my being, so what we want our student teachers to do is experience Yakima,” he said. “So, when they’re done with their student teaching, they’ve not only experienced what every other student teacher across the land experiences, but they’ve experienced maybe something that’s different than other student teachers in that they’ve experienced the community.”
Another option schools in the Valley have, Chase said, is recruiting teachers from Teach For America, a national nonprofit that puts teachers in low-income schools. “In short, it’s kind of like the Peace Corps,” Chase said. “When kids get out of college, and they want to do some kind of service, they can select Teach For America as a way to give back. They’ll go to either a rural area in the country or to a high-needs urban area to do service.”
Those who are enrolled receive temporary certifications and teach for a minimum of two years. Chase – who was the superintendent of the Grandview School District before he worked at ESD 105 – said his district regularly requested Teach For America members to fill vacancies when the organization began operating in the region about four years ago.
Some stay in the areas they’ve worked in and become certified teachers, but most districts are happy to get at least two years out of members who often come with impressive credentials, Chase said. Of the tens of thousands of people who apply to work for Teach For America each year, the organization accepts roughly 11 percent.
“In Grandview I hired a (Teach For America) guy that got his law degree and had passed the bar examination in Texas and came here and taught fifth grade,” Chase said. “After his service he became a lawyer and worked for a firm, so that’s the kind of caliber of people you get.”
While filling vacancies in such ways isn’t always sustainable or preferable, educators say they’re the best alternative until the region sees an influx of teacher candidates.
“You have to have a body in the classroom,” Chase said.