Preparing for the new school year: How to deal with the teacher shortage


For quite a while I have maintained that there is no shortage of teachers, not on the system-wide level or even at specific grade levels. This can be seen quite clearly in the annual publications of the Central Bureau of Statistics under the topic of teaching manpower. For the benefit of those who continue to claim that there is a system-wide shortage of teachers, here are a few possible ways to deal with that shortage in specific areas and specific taught subject fields.

Decreasing the number of currently active teachers leaving the system. The dropout rate for teachers in Israel is between 4% and 5% annually, and only a few leave the profession at the legally set retirement age.. A policy that directly or indirectly impacts dropout from teaching is an important tool for dealing with an imbalance between supply and demand for teachers, and it is in the hands to some extent of the leaders of the education system.

A unique and important issue in this context is the high rate of dropout among young teachers. Many young teachers leave the profession due to two major difficulties during their early years: the only partial positions they are offered during their first year or two of work, and, as a result, the low wages that they are offered, as well as a lack of sufficient support and mentoring.

In order to deal with this problem, it is possible to suggest employing young teachers in full-time positions for their first year, with only half of that time spent in frontal teaching. The second half of their time could be devoted to supervision, lesson preparation, observing more senior teachers, assisting in overcrowded classes, substitute teaching, individual tutoring, and other tasks that are an integral part of the professional life of teachers. In their second year, their time spent in frontal teaching can be expanded to three-quarters time while the rest is devoted to supervision and lesson preparation. Supervision will be done for the most part by more senior teachers who have retired and can be brought back for this particular work (see further on for more on this). This suggestion is accompanied by an expense, but the long run net gain from lessening the rates at which teachers leave the profession within their first year or two on the one hand, as well as the quality of new teachers on the other hand, is far greater than the expense.

Increasing the share of those joining the ranks of teachers from graduates of teacher training institutions. Every year, between 20% and 30% of the graduates from teacher training institutions do not join the system. It is important to put in place efficient mechanisms to connect between training institutions and schools. Alongside this, improving the selection mechanism to teacher training institutions and improved follow-up during training can bring about a savings in training expenses and an increase in the share of those joining the teaching profession among graduates.

Improving working conditions. In almost all surveys that deal with the dropout rate of teachers the factor of working conditions is raised. One of the often cited  complaints is the large amount of administrative tasks that the job entails. Teachers can be assisted in fulfilling these tasks — assistance that does not require pedagogical skills — through the employment of less skilled manpower as well as the use of advanced technologies, resulting in lower teacher dropout rates.

Increasing public appreciation. An important factor for those leaving the profession is the lack of public appreciation for their work. Public campaigns to strengthen the status of teachers as well as substantial cash awards for outstanding teachers can contribute to improving their feelings of appreciation.

Improving the process of retraining of teachers from subject areas where there are plenty to those areas where there are shortages. Currently, about 50% of “new” science, English, and language arts (Hebrew) teachers in high schools are senior teachers who originally taught other subject areas. Attempts should be made to raise this number with an eye on insuring that filling a shortage in one area of expertise does not create one in another.

Encouraging teachers to increase their employment positions. Currently, about 10% of teachers work less than a half-time position, and two-thirds work between half and full-time. That is, at least 150,000 teachers do not work full-time, and of these, about 20,000 work less than half-time. If a situation can be created where good teachers working part-time can be encouraged to increase their work hours, this will help deal with problems of shortages and contribute to improving the overall quality of the teaching workforce. In order to incentivize teachers to move to full-time positions, they can be given additional pay at a higher rate beginning with the first hour over a full-time position — say payment at the rate of 200% for the first hour, 300% for the second hour, 400% for the third hour (with a ceiling set at 110% employment position, which is 3 hours over a full-time position, or some other ceiling may be set). This proposal may also serve to convince teachers to forego “age-related work hours” or “motherhood hours,” since it essentially gives a higher value to these extra workhours. The decision to give extra pay for more hours will be under the purview of the principal with the approval of the supervisor of schools, will be temporary for a specific school year with an option to renew it for additional time according to need, and will at no time become a permanent arrangement. This type of incentive might convince teachers to choose to work at least a three-quarter-time position, and will certainly serve as an incentive for those already working between 75% and 90% of a full-time position.

This type of arrangement has several outstanding advantages: it can give a full or partial solution to a teacher shortage where this is a temporary situation or even a long-term problem; it allows school principals to offer incentives to good teachers or those who teach subjects where there is a particular shortage without creating professional tensions; it is flexible and can be changed quickly; it is especially attractive to young teachers whose salaries are particularly low. Of course, increasing the employment positions of active teachers can lessen the need to train new teachers and can be an administrative tool to advance excellent teachers. This proposal also has a price tag, although it is considerably lower than training new teachers.

Giving priority to teacher’s children in daycare and preschools that are near the school where they teach, including tuition subsidies. A large portion of teachers have young children (birth to age 3). Giving priority to their children in daycare and preschool close to their place of work — in particular if it is accompanied by a large or total subsidy for tuition — may encourage teachers to increase their employment positions or for those who are considering leaving the profession, may serve to convince them to stay a while longer. This can be made contingent on foregoing “motherhood hours.”

Creating a registry of teachers. In Israel, there are currently thousands of men and women with teaching certificates who are not employed as teachers. Some of them work in other professions and some do not work at all for any number of reasons. It is important to create an information base (with the permission of teachers) that includes names, addresses, certification, and contact information. This type of registry would enable principals in local authorities to turn directly to teachers with the skills required who are living in their catchment area. This could be a useful tool in locating and enlisting teachers.

Encouraging teachers who have retired to come back to teaching. In Israel, every year, a great number of teachers take early retirement from the profession for a variety of reasons. Every effort should be made to retain the good teachers or convince them to return to teaching. If retirement is due to burn-out, they can be given positions in supervision, as advisors, tutors, or other positions which are currently part of active teachers’ work. In this way, younger teachers will also benefit from the wisdom of more senior and experienced teachers.

Enlisting teachers from other areas of employment. In the past decade the number of teachers who have retrained into teaching has grown. Some of them did this immediately upon completion of their degrees and others after a period of employment following a decision that their chosen occupation does not fulfill their needs or desires. Many of these seeking retraining are of a high caliber with a keen sense of a mission, and they are often willing to accept lower pay and employment conditions. To ease this transition into teaching, it is reasonable to examine the length and nature of the retraining process with some recognition of previous experience in salary considerations.

Easing movement between organizational frameworks within the system (sector, supervisory authority, grade level, etc.).  The education system in Israel is highly segmented, especially between sectors and supervisory authorities. In many cases, moving between divisions is nearly impossible due to different requirements (among supervisory authorities —State, State-religious, Haredi, etc.) or due to parental objections (between Arab and Hebrew education systems). Aside from investment in public relations, the Ministry of Education should take steps that support employment of teachers without considerations of religion, ethnicity, or gender, which are not relevant to the subject of instruction, with the proviso that teachers are willing to conduct themselves appropriately to the framework (in terms of dress, behavior, etc.).

Improving efficiency in work hours given to the education system. Unjustified cancelation of school days, absence and tardiness of teachers and students harm the functioning of the system and its efficiency. At the high school level, this occurs between 5% and 15% of the time. Substantially lowering the number of cancelations, absences, and tardiness can decrease the number of hours devoted to teachers and lead to a lessening of the demand for teachers.

Decreasing the number of small schools in the system. In Israel, there are a great number of small schools (those with a special pedagogical approach that serve under 100 students), with a great number of classes with only a few students. These schools “use” more teachers than other schools and have difficulty offering full-time positions to teachers wishing to join them. Full implementation of the method of differential budgeting per student can cause some of these schools to close and some to adopt teaching methods and organization that does not require as many teachers.

In conclusion, if we put aside for a moment the question of whether there truly is a shortage of teachers and focus on possibilities of dealing with such a shortage, it appears that there are a great many steps that can be taken before there is a rush to invest a valuable resources and money in the training of thousands of new teachers. The steps indicated here, which for the most part take advantage of existing manpower, can bring about efficiency and savings in resources. Of course, there is no suggestion that training of new manpower should be stopped; in fact, creating a surplus of teachers can serve as a useful tool in making the profession attractive. Taking the proposed steps along with continuing to train new teachers as well as selective enlistment and a raising of the entry requirements to teacher training institutions will allow the most effective use of resources without creating a real teacher shortage.

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