As the new school year gets underway, Oklahoma’s teacher shortage persists. The state is on track to set a new record for the number of emergency certified teachers in K-12 classrooms.
The State Board of Education has approved over 2,300 emergency teacher certifications as of Aug. 22. The total so far is more than it was at the same time last year, when Oklahoma approved a record 3,038.
Emergency certifications allow school districts to hire people who aren’t yet qualified to teach. It is one of several alternative pathways into teaching, but schools must demonstrate that they have exhausted every recruitment option to find a qualified person. The emergency-certified teacher has two years to become officially certified.
A recent survey from the Oklahoma State School Board Association showed most schools are adding teaching positions thanks to increased state funding, but they are having trouble finding talent. OSSBA found that 70 percent of the districts surveyed anticipated needing emergency certified teachers for the 2019-2020 school year.
Emergency certifications used to be rare. Just 32 were approved during the 2011-12 school year, but Oklahoma has lost about 30,000 teachers since then. At the same time, the state’s K-12 student population has grown by nearly 33,000 students.
State lawmakers raised teacher pay twice in the last two years, but national surveys indicate that money is just one factor driving teachers away from the classroom.
A 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers showed the majority of teachers say their jobs are stressful, which dampens their enthusiasm. The survey’s 5,000 respondents described under-resourced classrooms, long hours and a lack of autonomy.
Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, says mounting student needs also make teaching more challenging.
“We now have children who have adverse childhood experiences that are profound,” Supt. Joy Hofmeister said in March. “The world outside the classroom impacts the world inside the classroom and teachers are shouldering the brunt.”
The number of public school students in Oklahoma receiving free and reduced lunch has risen, as have the number of English Language Learners and special education students. And, generally, depression and suicide rates are rising amongst teens and young adults.
The Teacher Pipeline
With fewer education graduates coming out of colleges and universities, some state officials are talking about incentivizing more people to teach. During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, for example, Gov. Stitt floated the idea of recruitment bonuses and reducing the number of certification tests.
Researchers point out, however, that solving the nationwide teacher shortage is actually a matter of retaining teachers.
About half of all teachers in Oklahoma leave the profession after five years. Ongoing training and mentorship can make a difference, especially for early-career educators. The education department is requiring new literacy training for some of Oklahoma’s emergency certified teachers beginning this year. Supt. Hofmeister has also said trauma-informed teaching is necessary.
Oklahoma’s teacher shortage could worsen following the 2020-2021 school year, when a large number of teachers are expected to retire.