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A Clearer Picture of K-12 Staffing: Insights from the K-12 Lens Survey

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Have you ever reflected on your human resources (HR) processes and wondered:

  • Is it just our district, or is it this challenging to recruit and hire great candidates in other districts, too?, or; 
  • Is it just me, or is it getting harder to fill certain openings?, or;  
  • What can I do to engage my staff and improve retention so that I don’t have to go back to the recruiting and hiring drawing board?

Wanting to answer questions like these was what inspired us to create the K-12 Lens, an annual survey that explores trends in district operations like recruiting, hiring, and retention. This year, almost 700 K-12 employees, including HR professionals, weighed in on important topics impacting the K-12 landscape. The goal of this post is to use our data to answer some of the K-12 staffing questions on everyone’s minds and provide some strategies that you can bring back to your district.

A Common Thread: Supply and Staff Shortages

Human capital factors topped the list when K-12 Lens participants were asked to name the biggest changes in their districts in the past three years. One explained:

Staffing has seen the most change in our district. There are too few teachers entering the profession. We are short staffed, so teachers are covering multiple classrooms at a time. Each and every day there is a coverage plan as we lack the staff needed to provide the level of instruction and staff-to-student ratio recommended. Teachers are constantly being asked to do more for low pay. They’re getting burned out and leaving the profession. Further complicating the situation, many new teachers, both those with traditional and alternative licenses, are entering the classroom unprepared.

Although this is a single story, the K-12 Lens numbers match it, suggesting that districts across the country are experiencing similar staffing challenges. More than three-quarters of respondents said that their district currently has a teacher shortage. The chart below displays this data and breaks it down by district location. Notice that the proportion of respondents from urban districts is the highest and the proportion of respondents from rural districts is the lowest. So, although the shortage is universal, some regions are feeling it more so than others.

According to K-12 Lens results, content area, even more than district location, is influencing the shortage impact. Our respondents indicated that the shortage is felt most in special education, substitute teaching, and among paraprofessionals.

Percent of Respondents Reporting That Their District is Experiencing a Shortage by Content Area

Also, when asked about hiring ease over the past year, most respondents, especially those in urban districts said that it has become more difficult to hire new staff.

Changes in Perception of Hiring Ease

Defensive Strategy: Retaining Existing Teacher

The K-12 Lens results show that retaining staff has challenged districts to a lesser extent than recruiting new candidates has. Seventy percent of respondents said that their district retains between 81 and 100% of teachers each year. However, one-fifth of respondents estimated their retention rate to be at or below 80%. So, for a district that employs 250 teachers, that would be a loss of more than 50 teachers a year.

Using Professional Development to Boost Staff Engagement and Retention

What can districts do to engage existing staff and up that retention rate? Professional development (PD) has the potential to increase staff engagement, but as one K-12 Lens respondent said, “The districts are not offering professional development in the areas that are being the most affected.” 

So, what forms of PD boost engagement and what are the topics that staff want to learn about right now? According to our results, coaching and mentoring, and professional learning communities or team meetings engage staff more so than other types of PD offerings.

PD That Boosts Engagement and Retention

Recent instructional changes that most impact teachers’ work make for relevant and authentic PD topics. But what are those instructional changes? The K-12 Lens identified four common themes across open-ended responses. They are outlined below as prime targets for PD sessions.

Digital Tools

“More technology. We are now one-to-one whereas 3-5 years ago, we had a tech lab that the students visited once a week plus one computer in each classroom for special use (or rotations). All of our classrooms now also have amazing interactive boards rather than projectors that we had just over 3 years ago.”

On-target topics for PD:

  • Strategies for reading and comprehending digital text
  • Digital citizenship and online safety
  • Digital/new literacy
  • Creating digital content for online learning
  • Flipped classroom strategies
  • Digital accessibility for students with special needs
  • Digital tools for professional collaboration

Student-Centered Approaches

“We are shifting to true student-centered instruction within student-centered classrooms. We are striving for active engagement through the implementation of real-world connections that make every content area real to students.”

On-target topics for PD:

  • Assessment in student-centered classrooms
  • Conferring in a workshop model
  • Implementing project-based learning
  • Designing student-centered lesson plans
  • A research overview of the benefits of student-centered learning

Classroom Management

“We have seen a significant change in student behavior in the classroom. Classroom behavior impacts learning to a much greater extent. Students are unable to maintain focus and there are more frequent distractions to learning.”

On-target topics for PD:

  • Student engagement strategies
  • Building a positive classroom culture
  • Using technology to support behavior management
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

Social-Emotional Learning

“There is a great lack of social-emotional abilities. Teachers need more flexibility in their curriculum and schedule so that they can adequately address social-emotional learning within the classroom.”

On-target topics for PD:

  • Integrating SEL into the content area curriculum
  • Creating an inclusive classroom environment
  • Conflict resolution and peer mediation skills
  • Mindfulness practices for students and teachers
  • Cultivating empathy and compassion

So, no, you are not alone. According to our findings, the teacher shortage is making it challenging to recruit and hire in districts everywhere. Certain content area positions are harder to fill than others. Focusing HR efforts on retention could be a district’s best defense strategy. Offering PD opportunities that are engaging in form and topic can help boost that retention rate, preventing HR teams from having to return once again to a limited pool of candidates.

Be sure to check out the full K-12 Lens Survey Report for more K-12 staffing insights.