GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — No matter which way you slice it, Michigan’s schools are dealing with a teacher shortage. Whether it is working to attract new teachers, retain them or find substitutes, maintaining quality staffing levels is a common struggle for virtually every school district.
Jack Elsey, the founder of the Michigan Educator Workforce Initiative, says there is no single cause for the educator shortage, which means there is no “silver bullet” that can fix every problem. But pay floors — and pay ceilings — are the primary deterrents.
“We know that the buying power of teacher salaries has declined over the last 20 years, so it feels like teachers are making less. We know that retirement security has been pulled back a bit in the state of Michigan — pension reform, things like that. When somebody is considering being a teacher or considering another job, obviously longevity and being able to retire safely and securely is a significant issue,” Elsey told News 8.
According to the latest data from the National Education Association, the average starting salary for a teacher in Michigan is $38,963 — 39th in the nation. That starting pay is also 18% lower than the starting salary for the average college graduate.
Research from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Center shows that those daunting salary numbers could be part of the issue with establishing the state’s teacher pipeline. Elsey didn’t mince words at the smaller financial outlook for teachers.
“(You’re trying to decide) whether you are going to be an engineer or a teacher. You might come out making $32,000 a year as a teacher versus an engineer who might make twice that or more coming out of college,” he said.
That heavy emphasis on salary has forced some school districts to compete against each other, ultimately growing toward the market value point to retain more educators.
“Other districts are moving from the low thirties to the high thirties or the low forties in a lot of cases, even in rural places,” Elsey said. “I think a lot of people would argue that progress is good, but it may not be enough for your market.”
The Michigan Department of Education has touted data that shows more college students are showing interest in an education career. Nearly 15,000 college students in Michigan took education courses during the 2021-22 school year, according to the MDE, up more than 5,000 from the 2016-17 school year. But a deeper look at the data shows that hasn’t directly translated to more teachers.
“About 15.1% of Michigan high school graduates who started college in 2010-11 took an education course by 2014-15, while only 12.7% of those who started in college in 2017-18 took an education course by 2021-22,” MSU’s Kim Ward detailed in a blog post. “Of the students who took an initial teacher education course, 77% continued with more advanced courses in this area but only about a quarter became student teachers.”
Tara Kilbride, the assistant director of research for EPIC, said pay isn’t the only problem. She said the newest generation of teachers has put a heavier emphasis on mental health and stress management.
“Aspects of school leadership and school climate has also shown to make a big difference in determining how willing people are to stay in the profession,” Kilbride told News 8. “Over the last few years, since the onset of the pandemic, stress has been an increasingly prevalent issue that seems to be related to some of the recent increases in turnover.”
Elsey believes school districts would be well-served to focus on leadership training as much as they do on attracting new teachers.
“Never underestimate the power of a great boss,” Elsey said. “School leadership is often a lane that is overlooked because its not as big as teachers. Everybody knows the teacher, but not everybody knows the principal. … There’s a lot of research that says when you have a great principal, teachers stay, they are happier, they feel more productive, they are getting better coaching.”