Schools across Indiana are still struggling to fill open teaching positions ahead of the upcoming school year, which is just weeks away for many Hoosier school districts.
There are more than 2,300 open teaching positions statewide as of Thursday, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE).
The state agency’s online job board indicates an additional 1,300 open student support positions, including school counselors, classroom aides and cafeteria employees.
Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said low teacher pay is a main driver for the shortage.
He also pointed to a low “appreciation for teachers,” and a need to address educator workloads.
“I think everybody who’s got a stake in this — lawmakers, schools, educators, parents – we’ve got to quit kicking the can down the road, and come up with some strategies to take this head on and get it figured out,” McRoberts said.
The need for both teachers and support staff are particularly bad in rural parts of the state, he continued, noting that the farther a school is from a major urban area, “the harder it is to attract teachers to come there.”
“Since the supply is smaller, especially young teachers coming out of college, they have their pick,” McRoberts said. “They’re most likely going to gravitate to higher paying jobs, which are in those metropolitan areas. They’re going to migrate towards areas where there are more things for them to do socially.”
Lagging teacher pay
The average teacher salary for Indiana teachers was roughly $53,000 during the 2020-21 school year, which lags behind neighboring states, according to data from the National Education Association.
In Illinois, the average teacher salary is roughly $71,000. Teachers earn about $64,000 per year on average in Michigan, and $54,000 in Kentucky.
Indiana lawmakers will weigh teacher pay and school funding when they rewrite the state’s budget in the 2023 legislative session.
But Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, emphasized that increasing teacher pay alone will not help recruit and retain more educators.
The state’s largest teachers union also wants to see lawmakers address wage-related benefits, in addition to giving those in the education field “a greater voice” over their workload, Gambill said. This would be accomplished by changing state law on collective bargaining.
More than that, he said Indiana’s General Assembly should prioritize bills that “elevate the educator, and promote them in the work they’re doing.”
“Part of what we’ve been saying all along is, it’s not a one and done,” he said. “I have every belief that there are more than enough Hoosiers with all of the talents and capabilities to provide our students with a world class education. But in order to do that, we’re going to have to have a commitment from lawmakers — those who determine the funding for our schools.”
For years, Indiana teachers have advocated for increased salaries, smaller class sizes and more autonomy over their lesson plans. But for many, the pandemic has only heightened their workload and stress, Gambill said.
That was the case for Eli Hatcher, who previously worked as an elementary school teacher in Indianapolis. She said she left the classroom “for good”at the end of the 2022 academic year this spring, two years after she began teaching.
“I loved teaching … I still do. But the pay wasn’t right — way too low,” said Hatcher, who now works for a non-profit. “And I was honestly afraid of having a class – stuffed to the brim with students. How can I be my best for every student when there isn’t enough of me to go around?”
Gambill said “the number one impact” of Indiana’s teacher shortage on current educators and students is class size.
Schools that continue to have vacancies will have to decide whether to begin the school year with long-term substitute teachers — putting more work on other teachers to create lesson plans for those classrooms — or collapse students into other classrooms with already overloaded teachers.
Too few teachers at the middle school and high school levels could also force administrators to make choices about what courses to cut, which Gambill said often puts fine arts classes on the chopping block.
Adding fuel to the fire, lawmakers proposed a critical race theory-inspired, “divisive concepts” bill earlier this year that sought to control what can and cannot be said in the classroom. Other proposals sought to require all school curricula to be vetted by parent review committees and posted publicly online.
Those measures were defeated or abandoned by lawmakers following weeks of contentious debate and public testimony at the statehouse. It’s unclear if similar measures will be introduced again in the next legislative session.
Hatcher said fears of backlash from parents about her teaching methods also pushed her — and other colleagues — closer to leaving the classroom.
“I don’t want to be in a place where I’m not trusted by my students’ families to do my job, that I’m trained to do well,” she said. “The political nature of where we’re at right now has only made the job that much more stressful.”
Responding to the shortage
In recent years, Indiana has reported shortages in math, science, language arts, world languages, art and music education, special education, English as a second language, and career and technical education positions. The state also anticipates a need for more physical education teachers and counselors in the coming school year.
Still, IDOE has not maintained data for teacher job openings in prior years, making it difficult to know for sure if the current shortage is new, or an existing, worsening issue.
A new state-run website for educator openings allows schools and districts across Indiana to post vacancies in one place, however. State officials said they plan to use the new site to better understand the changing demand for teachers in particular subject matters, across different areas of Indiana.
Some school districts are also leaning on a new Indiana law that aims to help fill some openings by allowing schools to issue adjunct teaching permits.
The emergency credentials allow people who have a bachelor’s degree — and who are seeking a license to teach in that subject area — to teach certain subjects when a qualified teacher can’t be found to fill the job.
The use of those emergency permits statewide rose roughly 58% between 2016 and 2021, according to the IDEO.
Gambill maintained that the permits are a “bandaid” solution, though, and said the state should set better goals to reduce the number of emergency credentials that have to be issued each year.
“We cannot fix this by continuing to lower the standards for being able to be an instructor in these classrooms. Sadly, that is the playbook that too many legislators go back to every single time,” Gambill said. “We have over a dozen pathways to get into the classroom, yet we’re still in a shortage.”
McRoberts said the temporary licenses can be beneficial in the short-term, especially in rural communities where qualified community members, like farmers, can offer specialty courses.
But getting more teachers to stay — and even return — to classrooms will take “rolling up our sleeves, and doing more work on the ground,” he said.
“We have already-licensed teachers who are choosing not to teach, so I think we’ve got to do something there quickly,” McRoberts continued. “And then I think we need to really focus on the long term. We’ve got to start recruiting these kids in high school, getting them interested in teaching, and putting incentives in place. Teaching has got to be more enticing. We’re just not doing that well right now.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.