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Why do teachers quit? Missouri hopes survey will help clarify

An empty hallway at Hoech Middle School in Oct. 2021, in the Ritenour School District.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
An empty hallway at Hoech Middle School in October 2021, in the Ritenour School District.

Missouri is launching a statewide survey of teachers Monday in an effort to address the chronic teacher shortage. Districts in the St. Louis area told St. Louis Public Radio last month they were behind in hiring for the coming school year because of the shortage.

The results of the survey will inform the work of Missouri’s Blue Ribbon Commission, which is looking for policy solutions to the high turnover in the education workforce. There will also be a public hearing in Jefferson City on Wednesday for teachers to share their thoughts in person.

“If you really want to know what it's going to take to retain great teachers, to recruit great teachers, to bring more into the profession, we've got to talk to the teachers themselves,” said Mark Walker, chair of the commission.

The commission has been meeting this summer and discussing pain points such as low pay — Missouri’s teacher salaries are some of the lowest in the nation. The group will eventually present recommendations and push for change in Jefferson City.

“Our job is to create a compelling case, a case statement that is irrefutable, that is clear and is understood, and that will resonate with our elected officials and the General Assembly in Jeff City,” Walker said.

State education officials are sending this survey to school districts to distribute to their teachers. It is also posted on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website.

The survey will ask educators about challenges they face in the classroom, issues that make them consider leaving the profession and changes that could make them stay longer in their job.

The state already has a lot of information about the problem. In 2019, the department ran a similar survey. About 6,000 teachers responded, and the majority said pay is the top reason they consider leaving. They also said lack of leadership and support in their schools are main frustrations. But that was before COVID-19.

“If we hadn't had a pandemic between then and now, I'd be a little more inclined to say it's probably going to be similar,” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner of educator quality for Missouri’s education department. “But I don't know now. The pandemic has changed the world in lots of pretty significant ways, and it could have changed this as well.”

Katnik spends a lot of time looking at teacher workforce data. Over the past several years, his office has tracked a decline in the number of people studying education, which has resulted in fewer people getting certified to teach. It’s an especially big problem because almost half of Missouri’s teachers leave the profession before their fourth year.

“That's why we have a shortage,” Katnik said. “We just don't have enough supply to meet demand.”

This year, the Missouri legislature passed a grant program to raise salaries for starting teachers, but it’s only guaranteed for this school year, which local district leaders say is not sustainable. On top of that, Missouri faces tough competition with neighboring states.

“Our border states haven't sat still either,” Katnik said. “They've been working on stuff, too. And so if you think about it, relatively speaking, did we gain much ground on our border states? I'm not sure yet.”

The commission will get the results from the survey at its next meeting in August. It is supposed to present its recommendations to the state board of education in October.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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