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Hiring and retaining K-12 teachers: Washington state schools battle shortage

The U.S. Department of Education said school districts have long struggled to hire enough specialty teachers and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shortage.

REDMOND, Wash. — The 2021-2022 school year could have been Freedom Schott's final year teaching in the K-12 public school system in Washington state.

Many teachers she knew in various districts called it quits over the past two years in large part due to burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schott was considering her next best career move while still feeling a great passion for education.

"I want to give the kids the best of me as an educator as well," Schott said.

The four-year special education teacher did not leave the classroom after teaching for three years in the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) and then one year in the Renton School District.

Instead, Schott is setting up two classrooms for the 2022-2023 school year - one at Alcott Elementary and the other at Einstein Elementary in the LWSD.

Schott said splitting her time between two schools as a safety net teacher is a welcomed change of pace. It's one of the main reasons she is still a teacher.

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"I want to make sure that I'm still serving the kids," Schott said. "My kids learn because of what I'm doing for them, and if I lose that passion, I don't want that to come off on the students as well.”

In her role as a safety net teacher, Schott focuses on students' reading and writing skills.

Keeping teachers like Schott is a challenge across Washington state and across the country. 

The U.S. Department of Education reports the demand for teachers in special education, technology, bilingual education and math has been constant, but the COVID-19 pandemic only made the shortage worse and upped the competition to recruit teachers.

On Aug. 31, U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a joint letter to education and workforce leaders with an outline of three recommendations to address the teacher shortage. The letter includes information about establishing high quality paid apprenticeship programs, the benefits of increasing partnerships with workforce and education systems and ensuring teachers are paid a livable and competitive wage.

Camille Alexander, the LWSD human resources executive director, said those recommendations are already part of the district’s recruiting strategy.

In addition to recruiting at traditional job fairs and using social media, the district advertises in their school neighborhoods.

"That has been really effective, too, in terms of teachers, but also those classified positions and even bus drivers," Alexander explained. "People want to be a part of the fabric of their community, and sometimes the school is not the first way you think of that.”

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The district does not have a "formal" apprenticeship program, but Alexander said the district has university partnerships to build working relationships with future educators.

In terms of salaries, Alexander said a first-year teacher without past experience typically starts at about $56,000, and some teachers with several years of experience and a graduate degree such as a master's or a doctorate could make up to $105,000. All salaries vary based on those aspects, according to Alexander, who said there are stipends and cost of living adjustments to consider as well.

"Everyone got a 5.5% increase as well as like fringe benefits," Alexander said.

The LWSD is the second-largest school district in the state and serves Kirkland, Redmond, and Sammamish.

As of the first day of school on Sept. 6, the LWSD has 31,467 students enrolled in preschool through 12th grade. So far, the district has 2,202 hired teachers for the 2022-23 school year.

Credit: Lake Washington School District
Lake Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Jon Holmen checks in with a second grader on the first day of school on Sept. 6, 2022.

Both numbers are likely to grow in the coming days and weeks as families potentially move into the district and existing open teaching positions are filled. 

According to the LWSD online employment page, as of the first week of school, there are open positions for teachers but also for classroom support staff, school support staff, bus drivers, athletics, custodians and clerical staff.

Recruiting teachers around the Puget Sound region 

In Snohomish County, the Everett School District employs an estimated 1,200 teachers each year when it's fully staffed, according to Dr. Chad Golden, the executive director of human resources for the district.

As of the first week of September, 20,238 students were enrolled in the district. It's the 12th largest district in the state.

Golden said the district does a variety of things to attract new teachers while also working to retain current staff.

One of the more exciting and promising parts of the district's strategy, according to Golden, is utilizing a $100,000 Recruit Washington Teachers Grant.

Like the Lake Washington School District, Golden said Everett schools aim to build a community within the district as well. 

In that part of its recruiting plan, the district focuses on the students enrolled in the Introduction to Education High School course. There are currently 44 students enrolled. Golden said the district encourages its own students to not only consider a career in education but to use their talents to teach future students in the schools they once attended.

"Three students are in the process of applying for positions," Golden said.

A few students have shared they will be substituting in the district while they attend Everett Community College.

The Everett School District has seen a steady average of openings of about 123 teaching positions each school year over the past five years.

Golden said those positions are filled by the first day of school or within a few weeks of the first day back.

Everett School District Teacher openings at a glance:

  • 2018-19 = 139
  • 2019-20 = 155
  • 2020-21 = 110
  • 2021-22 = 124
  • 2022-23 = 91

First-year teachers without previous experience start at more than $64,000. Teachers with experience and a bachelor's and master's degree can make up to more than $135,800.

Golden said the district held a successful job fair on Aug. 17 as several people were hired on the spot. The district uses social media to advertise openings and has a billboard at Aqua Sox games.

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