School officials throughout Maine are struggling more than ever to fill teaching slots for special education. Foreign language educators are becoming so hard to find that some schools are using software to teach classes instead.

That’s the ground-floor effect of a nationwide teacher shortage that has escalated in recent years and shows few signs of letting up. It’s led to the canceling of courses and put unqualified teachers in classrooms across the country.

In some cases, it’s an indication that the skills used in teaching are simply more valuable elsewhere. College students with a facility for science and math, for example, can find much more lucrative jobs in other fields.

But it is also the cumulative result of a number of changes in education that have left teachers feeling undervalued and overburdened, and looking for a way out. It is a crisis in the making that if not solved will further harm K-12 education in Maine and throughout the country, particularly in poor areas where schools are already struggling.


The shortage, detailed in a recent report by the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute, comes as school districts are refilling positions cut during the Great Recession. Nationwide, there were 60,000 fewer teachers than needed in 2015, and the report suggests the deficit could reach 100,000 by 2018.

The shortage is fueled largely by the high turnover rate in education. Each year, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession, and teachers themselves are telling us why. Inadequate school funding means many classrooms have to make do without necessary equipment and supplies, unless teachers buy them with their own money. Standardized testing takes up too much time, and takes much of the fun and creativity out of teaching. Unions have lost power, and teachers are in some cases being evaluated using questionable metrics. Students are exhibiting disruptive and even dangerous behaviors at a troubling rate.

A 2013 Washington Post poll found teacher satisfaction declined 23 points in five years, to a 25-year low of 39 percent. More than half of teachers reported feeling “great stress” on the job, up 15 points since 1985.

The institute’s report shows that teachers in Maine feel more autonomy in the classroom and less pressure to “teach to the test” than their counterparts nationwide, a good sign.

But there are still statewide shortages in a number of content areas, including math, science and languages, and the problem is particularly acute in Maine’s poor, rural areas, just as it is across the country.

In areas where shortages are particularly bad, schools are forced to cut programs, increase class sizes and use teachers who are inexperienced or outside of their usual content areas. As a result, the quality of education suffers.


There is little help on the way. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs nationwide dropped by 35 percent from 2009 to 2014, and the number of education degrees awarded in Maine fell to 787 last year, from 1,222 at its peak in 2006-07.

But increasing the number of students who go into teaching won’t do any good if they leave education well before retirement.

The Learning Policy Institute recommends increasing pay and offering loan forgiveness and compensation packages that include housing and child care to attract and retain teachers, who earn 20 percent less than similarly educated college graduates.

Some of those initiatives were part of a teacher preparation program that was suggested by President Barack Obama at the beginning of his first term but quickly dropped. It should be given another opportunity.

There should also be an effort to better prepare principals as well, since they create, for better or worse, the atmosphere in which teachers work.

From what teachers say, that atmosphere has been worsening for years. It’s time to turn it around, and put teachers in a better position to succeed.

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