To solve teacher shortages, school districts are getting creative Limited national data suggest teachers are plentiful, but many districts that serve some of the most vulnerable students would beg to differ.

What we do (and don't) know about teacher shortages, and what can be done about them

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Almost half of America's public schools were down at least one teacher this school year. You can blame low pay and politics and pandemic burnout. NPR's Cory Turner and Lauren Migaki visited a job fair in Mississippi where recruiters were seeking new teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #1: Hey. I'm from Frisco, Texas. We're, like, busting out the seams (laughter). So we're going everywhere to find good teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #2: We have a lot of openings.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #3: Math and some science.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #4: We have a shortage of math teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #2: Foreign language. Special education.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #5: High school English.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #6: So we're looking for a music teacher. We have...

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #2: Yeah, a little bit of everything.

INSKEEP: Cory Turner shadowed a recruiter for Jackson, Miss.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Dr. Tommy Nalls Jr. used to teach high school science in Mississippi's capital city, Jackson. Now he's trying to convince a new generation of teachers to do the same.

TOMMY NALLS JR: They have to kind of have that certain grit, that certain fight - like we say, that dog in them, so to speak - where they are tenacious, you know, they fit us.

TURNER: Nalls is head of recruitment for Jackson Public Schools. And even before the pandemic, he had a tough job. On average, the district loses 1 in 5 teachers every year. It doesn't help that Mississippi ranks near the bottom in teacher pay. And Jackson is embroiled in a years-long water crisis. And then there's the city's poverty. It follows children to school in the form of trauma, disruptive behavior and lower test scores. But Tommy Nalls is an optimist. And on this sunny March morning on the campus of Mississippi State, he's arrived early with a plan.


TURNER: Nalls wears a grey plaid jacket with a blue cloth flower in his lapel. In one hand, coffee - in the other, he pulls a suitcase full of job fair pamphlets and giveaway goodies.

NALLS: I have eight interviews set up this afternoon (laughter).

TURNER: Eight interviews.

NALLS: Eight interviews. My first one starts at 11:30.

TURNER: When he checks in...

NALLS: Good morning.


TURNER: ...Good news. Jackson's been given a table just inside the doors.

NALLS: Prime real estate.

TURNER: Even now, as the school year winds down, Jackson schools still have 88 vacancies out of about 1,700 teaching positions. To give you a sense of the impact of just one vacancy, we're going to leave this ballroom for a minute and go to Jackson.


TURNER: At Forest Hill High School, home of the Patriots, Principal Torrey Hampton walks fast with a walkie talkie. He's winded when he shows me around. I ask, how hard has it been to find a qualified Spanish teacher?

TORREY HAMPTON: Still hard. Hadn't found one yet.

TURNER: And yet Hampton's walking me to a classroom full of students taking Spanish 2.

HAMPTON: So I had to do what's best for the children and change the class, but through our online platform.

TURNER: That means when we get to the room, instead of hearing Spanish, we hear this.


TURNER: Smooth jazz plays through speakers at the front of the class while students sit at their desks, library quiet.


TURNER: They're trying to translate English phrases into Spanish through a computer program on their laptops.

Wait, what just happened? I saw a big, red X.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Laughter) If you get it wrong, it gives you a chance to try again.

TURNER: How do you like this?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I think it's all right. Like, I think it would be better if we actually had a teacher.

TURNER: For much of the past decade, enrollment in teacher training programs dropped nationwide by roughly a third. With fewer new teachers in the traditional pipeline, Jackson has to compete more than ever with better funded suburban districts. So back at that job fair, just listen to these pitches from the competition.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #7: We are an A-rated district.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #8: There are a lot of high expectations. And, you know, we are that A-rated school.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #9: We have a beach that most places don't have. So...

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #10: Listen; let me talk about the town a little bit. Vicksburg is very close-knit.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #11: Western Line is family. So everyone really gets to know each other.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #10: You still got a little bit of shopping that you can do.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #12: All right. So we have our own health clinic for teachers that's free. We can reimburse them for if they go and workout.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #9: We have instructional coaches at every one of our campuses.

UNIDENTIFIED RECRUITER #12: We pay really well. Texas probably pays better than most. Next year, it should be about 60,000.

TURNER: In Jackson, the starting salary is less than 44,000. There's also those A ratings we just heard about, doled out by the state for things like student test scores and absentee rates. Well, all over this job fair, districts trumpet their A ratings on banners, districts that haven't had to deal with the poverty or systemic racism that Jackson has. So I asked Tommy Nalls, Jackson's recruiter, does that bother him?

NALLS: I mean, I'm of the mindset that, hey, if you're A district, regardless of how you got it, you know, you're A, you know? Promote that.

TURNER: Nalls proudly points out that Jackson's gone from an F rating just a few years ago to a high C.

NALLS: We're going to promote that we're a C. But one day, just understand and know that our district is going to be right there with you. And we're going to be able to promote that we did it without all of the resources and without all of the affluence.

TURNER: Nalls faces one more challenge. Most of the candidates here are young white women, which reflects the teaching force nationwide. Jackson's students, on the other hand, are predominantly Black after generations of white flight from the city. It takes more than 20 minutes for just one teacher candidate to stop at Nalls table. Kierra Carr says she's hesitant to work in Jackson.

KIERRA CARR: It's kind of scary. I think that's why most people stray away from teaching there, because of, like, what's been said on the news a lot.

TURNER: Nalls does get her attention, though, when he mentions the district is offering a signing bonus.

NALLS: Yeah, for elementary, we do 7,500.

CARR: That sound nice, too.

NALLS: I should've led with that, huh (laughter)?

CARR: Yeah, you didn't say that.

TURNER: While the bonus helps, Nalls says he wants teachers who want to work in Jackson. Later, a trio of promising candidates drop by Nalls' table, including Sydney Bearden (ph).

SYDNEY BEARDEN: More than ever, we need to show up and show out and show these kids, here I am, dedicating my time to teach you and advocate for you.

TURNER: In the end, I ask Nalls, how would he rate this job fair?

NALLS: Yeah. I would say B, B-plus, not quite an A because they're not beating the table down trying to get to Jackson. But we're working on that part of it. But nice, solid fair, good traffic.

TURNER: Tommy Nalls packs up his pamphlets and keychains and readies himself for another job fair and another chance to make his case for the children of Jackson.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Starkville, Miss.


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