In the Classroom

Why people think there’s a teacher shortage in Indiana and why they’re probably wrong

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Superintendent Tom Hunter grew worried this summer when he realized that fewer people were applying to become teachers in his rural district, Greensburg.

In one extreme instance, a high school teaching position that he said would have drawn 100 applications a few years ago yielded just three. Overall, the district was scrambling to fill jobs weeks after it would have finished hiring in the past.

“We had about 20 positions that we filled this summer, probably more than half of those in the last couple weeks before school started,” Hunter said. “That’s really, really uncharacteristic of what our normal hiring procedure would be.”

An hour or so north in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Scott Robison’s district, Zionsville, was encountering hiring challenges of its own. But Robison, who has been with the district for nearly a decade, said the difficulty seemed to arise from a new twist on a longstanding problem.

“The hiring cycle for prime teaching candidates who are in subjects that are traditionally hard to get seems to be moving earlier,” Robison said. “And so for those of us who start real early in August, there are many [districts] that start in July now, that may have some effect on the pool.”

The two stories illustrate what’s wrong with the narrative that there are too few teachers to fill Indiana’s classrooms this fall, an idea currently grabbing headlines and spurring officials into action. Instead, in Indiana, as in many other places, the problem isn’t the number of certified teachers but a mismatch between them and available jobs. And the situation isn’t as bad or out of the ordinary as recent media coverage has suggested.

The first alarm bells went off when Greensburg’s newspaper reported last month about a sharp decline in the number of new teachers earning first-time teaching licenses in 2014. The follow-up stories painted an even more dismal story, pointing to teachers’ dissatisfaction with the state’s education policy agenda and to declining enrollment in teaching programs. One even reported that the number of students pursuing teacher training had fallen to zero at some Indiana colleges.

Some of the stories were just wrong: The bottomed-out education school enrollment reflected changes in federal reporting rules, not actual enrollment patterns. Others overstated the shifts. And few looked at what researchers say is the real impediment to maintaining a strong supply of teachers — retaining existing educators, rather than minting new ones.

A closer look teacher licensure data from a federal report and the state department of education reveals that while the number of new teachers receiving first-time licenses has fallen in recent years, the actual decline has been small. New-teacher licenses have fallen by just 6 percent since 2008 or 18.5 percent since 2009, when young adults shut out of other work because of the recession might have had greater incentive to become teachers.

Teachers from the enormous baby boomer generation are also now between the ages of 49 and 68, prime retirement years, and they are increasingly leaving the classroom.

Taken together, those shifts could look like a big problem to someone judging Indiana’s teacher supply just by those numbers. But the state is adding teachers in other ways, including by more often issuing “emergency licenses” to educators making career changes. Plus, first-time teachers make up only one-fifth of the new teachers entering Indiana classrooms each year, as educators who have stepped away for a variety of reasons return.

Overall, the state’s teaching force has been stable for more than a decade, according to federal data.

Data source: National Center for Education Statistics
Credits: Sarah Glen & Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Plus, “a decline is not necessarily a shortage,” notes Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, who calls the teacher shortage narrative “lore” that has rarely ever been true.

“I am skeptical that there is a national shortage,” he said. “It’s clear that some school systems have a hard time recruiting teachers. But it’s also the case that over the last couple decades, we’ve produced two to three times as many elementary education teachers as there are available slots every year.”

Indiana appears to face a similar dynamic. Changing federal reporting requirements for colleges make using teaching program data difficult at best and misleading at worst. But Indiana’s job bank, which school districts can, but do not have to, use to list open positions, contained about 600 jobs, and the state licensed more than 4,000 first-year teachers last year.

Schools across the 11 Marion County school districts that serve the city of Indianapolis don’t have large numbers of unfilled positions — and there’s evidence that they’re in better shape than in the recent past.

With more than 2,000 teaching jobs, for example, IPS had just 44 unfilled jobs as of Aug. 17, and only 25 of those are classroom teachers, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Cutler. Just before the school year started, the district had 69 open teaching jobs, compared to 117 at the same time last year.

The rest of the county’s school districts posted only 27 jobs for full-time, non-temporary classroom teaching positions as of last week. The two wealthiest Marion County districts, Franklin Township and Beech Grove, had just one opening for a teacher between them.

So how to explain the experience of superintendents such as Hunter, who say they can’t easily find qualified teachers to fill their open jobs?

“You can’t say whether it is a supply or demand issue across the board,” Goldhaber said. “It really varies depending on the school and the kind of teacher that we are looking for.”

Indeed, hiring seems to be toughest for schools in areas of Indiana that some teachers view as less desirable to work in, such as isolated rural communities and high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Jobs that require more schooling or specialized skills, such as science, math and special education teaching jobs, are also harder to fill — but that’s nothing new.

“Even ten years ago when I first came to Zionsville it was difficult to hire certain areas,” Robison said. “Science, math and special education have always been more difficult than other areas.”

In IPS, most of the open elementary school positions are at schools rated a D or F by the state. At the high school level, the jobs are spread between magnet and neighborhood schools, but usually in career tech and positions that require knowledge of science, math, or foreign language.

Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for district's to recruit.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Carol Hofer, a teacher at Fox Hill Elementary School, works with English learners in a small group lesson. Teachers with special skills such as an English learner certification are harder for districts to recruit.

The persistent challenge of filling jobs in those areas is one reason that districts would be smart to find ways to keep the educators they have, said Richard Ingersoll, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher workforce trends.

“It’s sort of foolish,” Ingersoll said. “Here you have these people who are really good, and the state can’t make any efforts to retain them. Instead, they recruit newbies.”

Some states and districts have tried to use pay incentives to keep qualified teachers in place. That idea hasn’t been on the table in Indiana, where pay is relatively low and Indianapolis teachers just won their first raise in five years. But in addition to being expensive, those incentives might not tackle the issues that Ingersoll says most frequently drive teachers to leave their classrooms. He has found that work conditions are the most important consideration for teachers who are deciding whether to stay in the profession.

In Indiana, rapidly changing expectations for educators have unsettled working conditions for teachers in recent years. Political battles over education policy put schools under scrutiny and induced a rapid transition to tougher academic standards — and consequences for not meeting them.

That shift caused Ashley Maloff, a 25-year-old academic advisor at Purdue University, to abandon her plans to become a special education teacher. As a student teacher, she bristled at the limits placed on her in the classroom.

“It just became less fun and more like I was constantly checking myself, not knowing if you were going to have a job the next year if your kids don’t pass the test,” Maloff said. “In special education, that’s huge because most kids aren’t reading or writing at grade level.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, believes fewer teachers would leave the profession if they felt like they had support from legislators and other state leaders.

“There really is a climate that’s been created, and we have to look at the climate and figure out how to fix it,” Meredith said. “Who cares what the data says because when you have administrators who don’t have applicants before the first day of school, there’s a shortage, end of story.”

Alarmed by the specter of a teacher shortage, Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry said his plan to offer top students who choose to study education four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching at least four years in Indiana schools will address problems of both recruiting and retaining good teachers.

A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year.
PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School. Colleges produce two to three times as many elementary school teachers as there are open jobs for them each year, one researcher said.

Whether the $4.5 million proposal will gain traction remains to be seen. Hendry said he expects lawmakers to discuss it at a special committee meeting next month.

Legislators also took a pass earlier this year when two bills went nowhere that were designed to offer extra pay to teachers who complete National Board Certification, a rigorous evaluation of how a teacher teaches, in exchange for agreeing to mentor others.

Indiana’s legislative and education leaders might ultimately be trying to solve the wrong problem if they decide to adopt a plan that is about recruitment rather than one that rewards long-standing teachers and improves working conditions.

“Almost every president since Eisenhower has given a speech on teacher shortage … we’ve spent umpteen dollars trying to fix this over the last half-century,” Ingersoll said. “But this is the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prescription … It’s not an under-supply, it’s too much turnover.”

In the Classroom

Known for ‘no excuses’ discipline, Tindley charter network loosens policies to reduce suspensions

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Earlier this year, La Wanda Girton’s son was facing a three-day suspension from Tindley Accelerated School for handing a pencil to another student.

A teacher was trying to settle down the class, she said, and told the students to be quiet. But when Edwin, a sophomore, lent a pencil to a classmate in need, he said, “Here you go.”

Tindley’s network of six charter schools has long been known for strict discipline policies imposed alongside rigorous college prep. But after 14 years and some of the highest out-of-school suspension numbers in the state, the Indianapolis charter network is relaxing its controversial, unapologetically tough approach to discipline in the upcoming school year, Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall told Chalkbeat, in an effort to reduce suspensions and better serve students and families.

“Things are changing,” Marshall said. “Maybe we have to loosen some bolts a little.”

In the next school year, Tindley will move away from automatic suspensions for minor infractions, such as chewing gum and repeatedly coming to class unprepared, Marshall said. Instead, the network will adopt a demerit system, where students accumulate points for misbehaving and face suspensions after reaching a certain number of points.

The flagship high school will also loosen several signature rules — allowing vending machines, longer hairstyles on male students, cell phone use before school and during lunch breaks, and longer passing periods between classes. Gone will be the silent transitions while students stand in line waiting to be dismissed.

“It was a very, for lack of a better word, militaristic way of running the building,” Marshall acknowledged.

The decision to relax the rules came in part from feedback from students and families concerned that some rules were unreasonable. The changes, Girton said, are “well overdue.”

The relaxed rules could offer myriad benefits for Tindley, a cash-strapped network trying to stabilize after fast growth and troubled leadership while facing increasing competition from other charter schools — all during an educational moment that is embracing a gentler approach to discipline.

The changes could keep students — the Tindley term is “scholars” — learning in classrooms instead of sitting out a suspension at home. They could make Tindley more accessible to students who act out because of their backgrounds in poverty or traumatic situations. And they could stem dropouts and retain more students, including those who might be leaving Tindley schools because of excessive discipline.

While charter schools with “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline philosophies often see high academic results, those approaches have also faced heated criticism nationally for being so rigid that, for example, students aren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.

Still, at least one local education expert says even Tindley’s revamped policies could do more to address misbehavior in a preventative way, rather than a reactive one.

“You want to avoid children being suspended, period,” said education consultant Carole Craig, a former education chair for the Indianapolis NAACP who has been critical of Tindley’s strict discipline.

“Chewing gum, not having books, talking out in the hallway — those are misbehaviors, certainly, but why would you want to get to the most extreme on even adding up points and leading to a suspension?” she added.

Craig advocates for a positive discipline system that addresses the root causes of behavioral issues, as well as training for teachers in urban schools on implicit biases and working with children who may be acting out because of traumatic experiences at home.

Nationally, this is part of a larger conversation about stemming disparately harsh discipline against black boys in particular, in addition to Hispanic students and students with special needs.

Tindley serves nearly all black students. Last year, roughly two out of every three students at Tindley’s high school were suspended from school at least once, according to state data. The school, which enrolled 273 students, reported 182 students receiving a total of 568 total suspensions.

None of the network’s six schools, including three elementary schools, recorded fewer than 100 suspensions. The highest rates were at the all-boys’ middle school.

PHOTO: Sam Park
These are the numbers of out-of-school suspensions at Tindley charter schools reported to the state in 2017.

Tindley, which enrolls about 1,700 students across the network, is trying to become more aligned with restorative justice practices and look more into what’s causing students’ problems, Marshall said. Any time students get into trouble, school officials will call families in for conferences.

“What we’re trying to do is bring parents into the consequences before we [take students] out of school,” she said.

Sometimes, she thinks discipline issues arise out of students not being accustomed to the fast pace of Tindley’s curriculum — and then suspending them from school leads students to fall further behind. “It’s proven more effective to put that time into instruction,” she said.

The changes could also push teachers to improve their relationships with students and develop classroom management skills instead of resorting to suspensions, Marshall said.

The shift away from automatic suspensions is a dramatic turn for Tindley, which was an early charter school choice in an underserved, impoverished neighborhood — and, with test scores climbing to be among the best in the city, one of the first to show high achievement among its predominantly black students, many of whom come from lower-income families.

The high school distinguished itself with high expectations and long school days. The school’s front hallway is lined with years of college acceptance letters, with its motto painted in enormous letters: “COLLEGE OR DIE.” In the early years, founder Marcus Robinson explained that while the motto may sound extreme to some people, he felt passionately that it was in fact the reality for many of Tindley’s families. Education, he believed, could be a way out of the crime, drugs, and poverty surrounding them.

Stringent rules were put into place to eliminate classroom disruptions, create a safe environment for students, and establish a baseline of expectations for students coming in from often-troubled schools, officials said.

In 2012, Tindley took its controversial discipline tactics to Arlington High School, a chronically failing school in IPS taken over by the state and handed to Tindley, then known as EdPower, to turn around. While some, including Craig, criticized the high suspension rates that followed, some students said the strategy made the chaotic school feel safer under Tindley’s management, which ended in 2015.

Robinson stepped down from Tindley in 2016 amid scrutiny over his lavish spending at the network’s expense, which exposed broader financial problems within the network. That led to the hiring of Marshall, a former Tindley middle school principal tasked with stabilizing the network.

The kinder, gentler approach to discipline is being explored elsewhere in Indianapolis. At KIPP Indy, part of a national network of schools that also started with a “no excuses” philosophy, schools have started incorporating programs for mentoring, peer mediation, and “holistic social-emotional learning,” executive director Emily Pelino Burton wrote in an email.

“Again, maximizing learning time by keeping our students in the classroom is incredibly important to us,” she wrote.

KIPP Indy recorded 678 out-of-school suspensions last year at its middle school of about 300 students, according to state data.

Indianapolis Public Schools has also taken steps to reduce out-of-school suspensions, though some worry that the sole focus on lowering those numbers could create unsafe school environments because staff might downplay dangerous behavior.

La Wanda Girton, whose son ended up with a one-day suspension after the pencil incident, admits, “I almost have a double standard,” because she chose Tindley in part because of its strict discipline. She values the safe environment and doesn’t want her three children in classrooms where other students fight or throw chairs. But at the same time, she thinks Tindley needed to relax its rules to make school more “reasonable” and “doable” for students.

“I am a Tindley advocate,” Girton said, “but when I would talk to parents about their children being there, as a parent, I’m saying to people, it’s a great school — but it’s very strict discipline-wise. I felt the need as a parent to put that caveat there, because I didn’t want to set people up for failure.”

For her three children, the strict rules have largely not been an issue, she said, with only a couple of isolated incidents, and they have thrived under “the Tindley way.” Girton, who is on Tindley’s parent council, is excited that the discipline changes could make the schools more attractive to other families.

Marshall said she doesn’t expect the changes to erode Tindley’s distinctive culture. Consider, she said, that when the high school began piloting the changes and announced that male students — gentlemen, in Tindley parlance — were no longer restricted to short haircuts, a student double-checked with her before getting his hair done, to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble for showing up with braids and a fade.

On a recent morning, as students arrived before class, they walked into the multipurpose room, where the new rules let them play on their phones and talk before class.

It’s not loud, not like school cafeterias can be, but for principal Marlon Llewellyn, this is a big difference.

“This would’ve been completely silent,” he said. “Girls on one side, boys on the other. No devices.”

But when it’s time for school to start, Llewellyn takes a few steps toward the middle of the room with one hand raised — and within seconds, the room falls completely quiet. Silenced phones disappear into backpacks as classes file out one by one.

Two student ambassadors stay to talk about the discipline changes and how Tindley’s structure and fast pace have prepared them for real jobs. One shaved off his dreadlocks to attend Tindley schools. They wear what they consider ugly, plain shoes every day because that’s the dress code, along with neatly tucked-in polo shirts, sweater vests, and khakis.

They can recite the punishments for misconduct from memory. Horseplay: three days’ suspension. Profanity: 10 days.

Taran Richardson, 16, a sophomore, mentions having been suspended for being involved in horseplay — even when it wasn’t his fault.

“Guilty by association,” fellow sophomore Dajour Finley said, nodding solemnly.

“You’re sending us out of the school with a suspension, so you’re not learning,” Taran said. “They can still discipline us in a decent way and still allow us to receive an education.”

But they also talk about how Tindley is more than the rules — how teachers can see if a student is having a tough day, and might ask what’s going on instead of deeming it insubordination.

“I always thought it was the people that made up Tindley — the staff and students connecting with one another, and striving for success,” Taran said.

How the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?  

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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