In the 1830s the Reverend Andrew Bell, an education reformer, started a free school for the poor citizens of London's East End. The school became enormously popular, and he soon found himself woefully short of teachers. To solve the problem, Bell came up with a stopgap recruitment strategy: He took the brightest of his students and made them "teachers."

Are we in this country on the verge of taking such desperate measures? It is estimated that nearly one half of America's teachers will be leaving the public-school system over the next few years to retire or change careers. In 1999 the National Education Association stated that 2 million teachers will need to be hired in the next 10 years to fill both current and newly created positions. Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit organization in Belmont, Massachusetts, concurs with these projections.

The cause for this great demand? In the coming decade the population "echo" from the Baby Boom will threaten to swamp the system, compounded by other factors. These include recent legislation that has mandated smaller class sizes and a great decline in the number of people who enter the areas of math, science, bilingual, and special education. The problem is most pressing in inner-city schools and remote rural areas. New York City public schools, for instance, now have 10,000 "emergency" teachers (among a total of 70,000), who are uncertified in the subjects they are teaching. The school board has also taken to recruiting in Europe, particularly in Austria and, to fill the need for bilingual teachers, Spain. On the other coast, Oakland, California, has half its teachers working through emergency certification. Meanwhile, with average starting salaries of $18,000, $20,000, and $21,000, respectively, such states as North Dakota, Mississippi, and Maine have found themselves strapped for newcomers, according to a 1996-97 report from the American Federation of Teachers.

Upon closer inspection, however, the problem appears to be not so much a shortage as an imbalance. A school district in Maple Grove, Minnesota, for one, claims up to 400 applicants for every elementary teaching position, but may have only one applicant for special education. Further, recent graduates who specialize in math and technology find that their hard-earned skills usually command a much larger salary in nonteaching fields. In Oklahoma, a beginning math teacher earns about $24,060. That same professional can command up to $50,000 starting out in the computer field.

To no one's surprise, school districts located in pleasant places that pay higher-than-average salaries do not seem to be suffering. Fairfax County, Virginia, for one, reports 200 applicants for any one teaching position. Communities in which parents are involved, teachers are respected, and school buildings are in good shape face a surplus of qualified applicants, not a shortage.

A simple checklist to determine if a school district could be faced with a dearth of teachers might begin:

  • Is the level of pay commensurate with the amount of education teachers have, and does it include cost-of-living increases and rewards for student performance?
  • Is the school district in an area where it is safe and attractive to live? Can most teachers afford to live there?
  • Are parents involved on a daily basis with the education process and its workings?
  • Are new teachers partnered with experienced master teachers? Are they assisted with daily work and encouraged to pursue courses in professional development?
  • Are the teachers valued by the community?
  • Are administrators willing to give teachers a voice and some control over school policies and practices?

If administrators in a school district can answer yes to all six questions, they will not lack for qualified, dedicated professionals willing to work extremely hard to ensure the success of every student. "Our district is a very attractive place to work," says John Kitzmiller, a middle-school math teacher at the Frances C. Richmond School, in Hanover, New Hampshire. "It is a resourceful, homogeneous, and committed community in a rural setting. Recruiting is unnecessary: Any teacher opening routinely gets a few hundred applicants of good to high quality."

One wonders: With 200 applicants for one coveted position, where do the unlucky 199 go? Are they willing to relocate to a different district? If not, will they abandon a teaching career altogether? Many schools nationwide are willing to bet on the former, and they are offering enticing incentives, among them housing loans, relocation bonuses, and repayment of college loans. Just how much money are districts willing to pay? Amounts run the gamut: from the $20,000 signing bonus offered in Chelsea, Massachusetts; to Atlanta's $4,000 bonus; to the Fort Worth, Texas, school district's new-teacher bonus of $2,000. Schools have even resorted to poaching the best teachers from neighboring schools with offers of higher salaries. Says Connecticut fifth-grade teacher Marcy Brown, "Poaching has always gone on, but these past few years have been very cutthroat. Money talks, and in this field it shouts."

Succumbing to aggressive recruiting by wealthy districts, some teachers have left schools in the lurch as late as August. Lauren Osham, a third-grade teacher in New Hampshire, confesses, "When another district approached me with a huge bonus to switch to them on August 30, I would have been a fool not to take it. I felt bad, but I can't raise a family on my pay." Although money may bring teachers in, it won't necessarily make them stay. Educators who accept incentives on the basis of money alone may come to regret the trade-off. While school violence is in steady decline (despite high-profile shooting tragedies), there is the sense that teachers are not accorded the respect they once were by students, schools, or communities. Even the most enthusiastic teacher can feel the strain of working in an uncomfortable or dangerous setting. Marissa Varick, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher from Detroit, laments, "There are too many other issues for my students: fractured families, drugs, gangs, even hunger. There's no time to get to education."

According to a 1997 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, retirement topped the list as a reason to leave teaching. But other explanations abound for calling it quits — among them, having to deal with discipline problems, poor student motivation, inadequate support from administration, low salary, and lack of influence over school policies. Mentoring programs, in which a veteran teacher shepherds a novice through the difficult first year, can alleviate feelings of isolation. In the Novice Teacher Support Project, at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, university educators offer feedback, encouragement, and advice to teachers from nearby school districts. The dialogue that such programs foster appears to increase the odds for teacher retention.

People with teaching degrees are numerous — but they are not all teaching. Currently, there are nearly 6 million certified teachers in the United States who left their calling (30 to 50 percent of new teachers leave after five years) or never even entered the profession. Can these people be brought back into the fold, and can new recruits be attracted and retained for more than a few years? Clearly, money is not the only solution. Education commentator John Merrow argues that the answer is not to spend millions of our tax dollars but to better use the resources available. Eager would-be teachers are the most valuable such resource. "A 1998 survey of college freshmen found that more than 10 percent of them wanted to become teachers." Merrow wrote in "Money Can't Buy Good Teachers" (The New York Times, August 23, 1999), "We should act to see that the profession is deserving of their excitement." Prominent education reformers such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, are calling for nationwide reassessment of the teacher-hiring system. A broader overview could help to resolve variances from state to state in hiring policies, salary schedules, and pension plans. According to Darling-Hammond, tactics such as establishing licensing reciprocity from state to state and creating scholarships to train teachers in high-demand areas should be the first order of business for policymakers.

At the end of the day, things may not be as grim as they seem. At least the specter of a shortage has ignited healthy debate on the role of teaching and the future of our school system, prompting innovative solutions. But whether enough new teachers can be attracted to what is a very demanding job, and whether experienced teachers now at work can be induced to stay, is yet to be seen. One thing is clear: The optimism and enthusiasm that compel people to go into educating our country's children should be conscientiously nurtured. Teachers are resources we can't do without.

High-Demand Teaching Areas Specialties in considerable demand:

  • Bilingual education
  • Speech pathology
  • Special education (various types)

Specialties in demand:

  • Physics
  • Technology
  • Audiology
  • Chemistry
  • Visually impaired
  • Computer science
  • Mathematics
  • Spanish language
  • Earth science
  • Biology
  • General science
  • Library science
  • Japanese language
  • School psychology
  • English as a second language (ESL)

Research from the American Association for Employment in Education, 1998 report.

Multimedia Resources Reports and Articles

"Teacher Supply and Demand in the United States" (American Association for Employment in Education, 1998).

Projected Need for New Teachers, by G. Lorandeau (Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Education, 1998).

"Facts About the Teaching Profession" (Recruiting New Teachers, 1998).

Web Sites

Samuel A. Southworth is a graduate of the Teacher's Apprentice Program at the Shady Hill School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.