Miranda Bratland is blunt about why Iowa is experiencing a teacher shortage: “It’s a sinking ship.”
“I love teaching,” said Bratland, a third-grade teacher in Newton. “I love working with kids. I’m sick of the red tape. We’ve been asked to do the impossible during COVID.”
Bratland has taught in Iowa’s public schools since 2004 and becoming a teacher was her childhood dream. She noted wages have been stagnant while responsibilities continue to increase for educators, not to mention the other headaches that come with the job.
Bratland and other education professionals Starting Line interviewed noted stress, disrespect, and politics are other major factors in the shortage.
The Iowa Department of Education has a formula for calculating a shortage, according to spokesperson Heather Doe.
“We examine the number of jobs posted in the Teach Iowa job posting system for each category of position, compare it to the number of teachers produced and the number of emergency licenses issued in each category,” she said. “The difference indicates a shortage.”
Teach Iowa shows more than 1,500 openings for professional/instructional/certified positions, which includes most full- and part-time teaching positions, substitute teachers, and guidance counselors.
Iowa’s teacher shortage predates the pandemic, but COVID helped deepen an existing wound. Stress was the primary reason most teachers left the profession pre-COVID, according to a survey conducted by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
The survey also noted most former teachers accepted jobs with equal or lesser pay to escape the classroom with three out of 10 respondents taking jobs that offered no health insurance or retirement benefits.
Amy Moore, a middle school special education teacher in Des Moines, said in her experience, most teachers don’t leave the industry over the pay, knowing full well when they enter the profession the kind of salaries available. Moore said they get out because of all the additional headaches that come with teaching not directly related to the classroom.
“We care about these kids so much and the job so much that it’s hard to feel like you’re feeling all the time because there is just so much of it,” she said.
Moore has taught in Iowa public schools since 1997. She herself once walked away from the classroom and wrote an op-ed about it for the Des Moines Register, so she greatly understands why people leave.
Early in her career, Moore said when colleagues left, it was because they reached an age and experience level that allowed them to use their retirement benefits. If they still chose to work post-retirement, they would stick around in education as a consultant, sub, or work at a college, or take a position with the Area Education Association.
“But now they’re leaving us to go into the private sector or to simply stay home with their own kids or to a lot of just office-type jobs that they can do you from home that aren’t going to cause the kind of stress that they’re dealing with here,” Moore said. “These—like I keep saying—impossible expectations. They’re feeling like they can’t do it.”
Greg Stevens, a retired Iowa teacher, said 2017 was a turning point for teachers in Iowa for several reasons, including making the position more politically polarizing. That was the year the Iowa Legislature rewrote Iowa’s collective bargaining law, which limited what public employee unions could negotiate for. Stevens served on collective bargaining teams for about 25 years before his 2015 retirement, so he knows how important the old process was.
“It wasn’t only for bargaining,” he said. “It was like where you took problems that are happening in the district to the superintendent, to the school board in an unofficial way, where a lot of problems were solved. Because you could tie it to a bargaining issue. That’s all gone. So there’s no this give and take, this sharing about, ‘Here are some problems, here’s how do we fix it.’ None of that’s going on anymore. It’s illegal for that to go on.”
Stevens, who spent 33 of his 36 years teaching in Iowa, says that lack of additional discourse at the negotiation table creates a disconnect and erodes the sense that everyone is working together.
A veteran central Iowa teacher who asked for anonymity said that decision forced her to become more politically aware and active.
“I hate that politics are even involved in this whole thing but it is,” she said. “Unfortunately, I’ve gotten into politics a lot more in the last few years just because it’s attacking my job. I didn’t think I was getting into a job that would involve politics, but here we are.”
The pandemic was another one of those flashpoints that further inserted partisanship into public schools debates.
Courtney Arnold is a senior elementary education major at Iowa State University. She isn’t even in the classroom full time yet, but she’s aware of the trouble COVID has caused teachers coupled with the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that troubles experienced educators.
“I’ve heard from teachers who have said that there’s now more than ever—especially with COVID—that there’s been a huge political divide, and they have felt like that has taken too much of a place in the education system, and that education is not what it used to be,” Arnold said.
Moore, the special education teacher, said COVID has put teachers into a tricky position where they are trying to manage the needs of their students, the schools, and their colleagues, which is nothing new. The twist is they are also dealing with people who want to rush to get things back to “normal.”
“They think that teachers don’t want to or we’re lazy or whatever when actually, teachers and administrators in those school district, in general, we have always had the responsibility of keeping our students safe,” Moore said. “That’s like number one—before the learning—we have to keep them safe.
“That’s what we’re trying to do and we get attacked for that,” she continued. “We get called names and things for that, it’s really frustrating. We have families too. We have lost people too.”
Lack of Respect
Stevens relocated to Tacoma, Washington, after his retirement. He stays connected to public education by following the careers of family members and former students who have entered the profession. That, coupled with his own experiences, helps him form his opinion as to why Iowa and other states are experiencing teacher shortages.
“The number one reason is just total lack of respect and support,” Stevens said. “It’s just that the community, they used to always support teachers and everybody was in it together. Now, somehow teachers are the enemy that need to be told what to do and they’re the ones wrong if there’s any problem with their situations.”
Stevens noted he worked with great administrators who would shield him from irate parents, but toward the end of his career, he could see things shifting. The school was always wrong, the student/parent was always right.
He’s not the only one who noticed that cultural shift. The central Iowa teacher also cited a lack of respect from parents and students being a factor in running teachers off.
“At my job, you’re just worried that something you say is going to get taken the wrong way and you’re done,” the central Iowa teacher said. “It takes one parent to make that happen.”
The disrespect has also gone digital as more parents use social media to take out frustrations on teachers and schools. Stevens got his first taste of that at a school he and his wife worked at while in Washington.
“There was a Facebook page that basically had a daily bash session against the school,” Stevens said. “I think those type of things are happening to most.”
The anonymous teacher said there are several Facebook groups dedicated to calling out teachers and schools in her district.
“You just stop reading because it’s despicable,” she said.
Politics has always played a role in public education with elections deciding everything from how future budgets will look to building projects. However, partisanship divides have taken a bigger seat and those battles may hurt with the recruitment and retention of teachers.
Stevens, the retired teacher, pointed to Iowa’s divisive concepts law (HF 802) and State Sen. Jake Chapman’s threats to have teachers arrested as extreme examples of partisanship hurting education, but he said it is not a one side or the other issue. When he taught American literature and college composition, he would have his students read controversial materials to spark debate and discussion.
“I wanted kids to get upset and get into it,” he said. “We would have people get upset in class and raise their voice and stuff—not very much—but they would get upset. They’re very passionate about issues and go back and forth. It was incredible discussion and a great learning environment.”
“I could get arrested for some of that stuff now. From the right and/or the left, I mean, it doesn’t matter about both sides. And reading that to make people think about stuff like that is so vital for kids to learn. Now we want to shut that out, I don’t get it.”
Amy Rutenberg, an Iowa State University associate history professor and coordinator of the social studies program, said it is too soon to know how Iowa’s divisive concepts law will truly impact future teachers. However, even before the law’s passage and implementation, she said her program was seeing fewer bodies coinciding with state and national trends. Furthermore, those who stick around don’t necessarily become teachers.
“I am finding, personally, that more and more of my students who are really well qualified and would make great teachers are choosing not to go on and teach after they graduate,” Rutenberg said.
Rutenberg also noted students are feeling burnout before they reach the classroom.
“Coming out of a couple of years of COVID at the university, and then walking into student teaching, which is already hard, thinking about a first year of teaching, which is even harder, I think they’re exhausted,” she said. “I think my students are just exhausted.”
Why They Still Teach
Originally from De Soto, Arnold, the Iowa State student, hopes to teach somewhere in the Des Moines metro after graduation. She was partially inspired to follow in the footsteps of her older sister who teaches and while in high school, she took a college class that let her work with elementary school students. That experience sold her on teaching. Arnold wants to teach so that she can make a difference in kids’ lives, but she can understand why some people she started with have switched programs.
“I have had a few experiences with people who have went into this major, thinking that it was going to be something super easy,” she said. “They were just going to be able to sit around in the classroom all day and play with kids and then they soon realize that it’s a lot of pressure, it takes a toll on you. You’re putting in a lot of work, you know, you’re staying before and after school. It’s not an easy job.”
Rutenberg, the Iowa State professor, said teaching attracts a lot of idealistic students who think about the future impact their work in the classroom can have, but other factors steer them away from teaching.
“Between COVID and administrative work and bureaucracy and pressure from parents and political pushback and partisanship, I think the piece that brings joy to the job—working with students—ends up not being able to compensate any further,” she said.
Working with students is what keeps the teachers Starting Line spoke to in the industry.
“I just like being with kids and helping them be successful,” the central Iowa teacher said. “I just don’t know what else I would do, to be honest.”
Moore, the Des Moines middle school teacher, built her life around becoming an educator.
“My dad always says I was like four years old and I stood up and said, ‘I was born to be a teacher,’ so I really didn’t ever have any other interests, ” she said. “I was the kid who played school all the time and the kid that teachers loved to have cause I did everything I was supposed to and all that. That was before I got feistier when I got older.”
However, unless significant changes are made including better pay, addressing direct attacks, and much more, a lot of the teachers Starting Line spoke to aren’t optimistic about the industry’s future in Iowa.
Stevens, the retiree, was a fourth-generation teacher but said his kids told him they would never join the profession. The central Iowa teacher said she would never encourage a prospective teacher to look for work in Iowa because “our governor hates teachers.”
Bratland, the veteran teacher from Newton, remained just as direct: “Why would you want to do this job?”
In response to the teacher shortage, US Rep. Cindy Axne introduced the $500 million EDUCATORS for America Act on Dec. 10, which would provide Iowa $15 million over five years to recruit and retain new teachers.
“We know that we need more teachers, and that we need to do more to ensure they’re are supported once they’re in the job,” she said in a statement. “With this legislation, we invest in Iowa’s educators—and by doing so, Iowa and our whole nation will see a monumental return on our investment.”
by Ty Rushing