Throughout this year, you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Continuing the conversation from our February newsletter featuring Autumn Graves, head of St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA, Jeff Mitchell, head of Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, TN, reviews the current challenges of teacher recruitment and retention. 

Like you, I have felt the employment pinch in my school. It’s simply harder to find and harder to keep our faculty and staff. Like you, I have responded with stronger compensation increases and a number of additional ways to nourish our staff. Also, like you, we are just a very small fish in a very large ocean of employment dynamics and opportunities. Subject to the waves, currents, and predators of the marketplace, we are trying to find our way. What follows are some musings on the employment outlook for education and educators, especially in our SAIS schools.

The Bigger Picture
On the bright side, the national labor scene seems to be improving. According to Roy Mauer in an article written for SHRM, the U.S. labor market in 2024 is expected to exhibit stability, with a lower chance of recession and inflation decreasing. Hiring will slow, unemployment is predicted to rise slightly, and wage growth will cool. Despite challenges, including a fast monetary policy tightening and potential geopolitical crises, the labor market has remained resilient. Economists forecast a moderation in job gains, with health care and government driving growth. Job openings and postings are declining, yet sectors like tech and services continue to hire. Wage growth is slowing but is expected to stabilize, reflecting a cooling yet enduringly strong labor market.

The Outlook for Teachers in 2024
Teacher job prospects are influenced by education level, targeted teaching grade, and geographic location, with states like Texas and California offering abundant opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 3% growth for preschool teachers by 2032, a 1% increase for elementary teachers with 109,000 new positions, and similar growth for middle and high school teachers, indicating modest expansions mostly due to retirements. Advanced degrees and specialization will enhance job prospects, with salaries ranging across levels, emphasizing the importance of location and qualifications in securing teaching positions.

There seems to be a more sober picture of the independent school teacher market. Recent articles and analyses, including a NAIS Snapshot written by Debra Wilson, highlighted widespread staffing issues. For example, 40% of NAIS schools experienced a worsening recruitment season for 2023-2024 compared to the previous year. 

I reported in my November 2023 FastStats article that nationally both public and independent school teachers have experienced a decrease in real wages (adjusted for inflation) over the past 20 years. For instance, public school teachers saw a slight increase in their median salary from $55,370 in 2009 to $65,090 in 2020, but this actually represented a 2.5% decrease when adjusted for inflation. Similarly, independent school teachers saw their median salary rise from $62,905 in 2018-2019 to $69,333 four years later, but this was effectively a 5.13% decrease in real terms.

My analysis also compared SAIS teacher salaries with their public school counterparts across seven southeastern states, focusing on whether SAIS schools are keeping pace with public school salary increases. It was found that public school teacher salaries increased by an average of 10.27% from 2016 to 2023, with variations among states. SAIS schools showed a median salary increase of 12.46% in the same period, slightly above the public school rate.

Significant variations exist between states in both public and independent school sectors, with factors like cost of living influencing the real earning power of teachers. Despite these increases, teachers continue to earn less than their college-educated peers, a gap that has widened over time. The challenge for independent schools is to balance paying competitive salaries, maintaining affordability for parents, and delivering on their educational mission without compromising class sizes or educational quality. Moreover, teachers seek not just competitive compensation but also a fulfilling work environment where they can achieve personal and professional growth.

There is a broader, systemic issue within the teaching profession— the chronic and seemingly cultural undervaluation of educators. Despite their extensive training and the critical role they play in shaping future generations, teachers have consistently been underpaid relative to their similarly trained professional counterparts. I believe we are on the verge of a long-overdue reckoning in the teaching profession.

The gig economy’s rise has notably impacted the availability of teachers for traditional school settings, luring educators away with the promise of flexible schedules and potentially higher earnings through freelancing or contract work. This shift towards short-term, gig-based employment undermines the stability and consistency that traditional educational environments rely on. Teachers, enticed by the autonomy and variety of gig work, are leaving permanent positions, exacerbating the existing teacher shortage in schools. This trend not only challenges the recruitment and retention of qualified educators but also impacts the quality of education, as schools struggle to find and keep committed teachers, leading to larger class sizes and reduced individual attention for students.

The potential reckoning is augmented by varying generational expectations of parents for educators. Diverse cohorts of parents, each with their unique outlook shaped by their generational experiences, place varying demands on schools and teachers. These evolving expectations have contributed to the attrition of educators, as the profession becomes increasingly demanding with no commensurate adjustment in compensation or societal esteem.

Moreover, the escalation of safety concerns within K-12 schools casts a long shadow over the profession. The specter of school shootings and the burgeoning responsibilities placed on educators to safeguard their students while fostering an environment conducive to learning add weight to the profession. We should not be surprised that the prospect of facing such harrowing situations may be a significant deterrent for those considering a career in education, further depleting the ranks of potential educators.

The confluence of these factors— the systemic undervaluation of teachers, the allure of the gig economy, shifting parental expectations, and the heightened responsibilities for student safety— paints a concerning picture for the future employment in independent schools. To navigate these turbulent waters, a paradigm shift is necessary. Schools must adapt to the changing economic landscape by offering more flexible employment models that recognize the value and dignity of the teaching profession. Society at large must reevaluate how it values educators, not just in terms of compensation but also in societal esteem and support. Without such a comprehensive reimagining, the fragility of the education employment outlook will only worsen, to the detriment of educators, students, and the future of education itself.

Currey Ingram has an illustrative example of a reimagining. The creation of the CORE Program, a one-on-one intervention initiative for children who are not enrolled at Currey Ingram. The CORE Program sessions are primarily facilitated by former Currey Ingram Academy teachers seeking a more balanced (gig) work-life dynamic. While the program stands as a testament to the adaptability and responsiveness of the institution and generates revenue, it concurrently signals a distressing trend: the exodus of some of the most skilled educators from our regular classroom settings. 

In a perfect world, the tenuous employment outlook for K-12 education, marked by significant challenges such as a widespread shortage of teachers, may indeed be the catalyst for a profound transformation within the sector. This moment in time holds the potential to be a turning point akin to the Sputnik moment, sparking a revolution that could fundamentally alter the landscape of teaching and learning. Models proposed by Ian Symmonds, among others, suggest innovative pathways that reduce reliance on traditional in-person teaching, thereby reimagining how education is delivered. 

Perhaps the most impactful change would be a societal shift in how educators are valued, recognizing them not just as facilitators of learning but as pivotal contributors to the future of our society. This recognition must translate into tangible rewards, necessitating significant increases in compensation, funded by corresponding rises in the taxes dedicated to education. Such a move would compel both public and private educational institutions to rethink and realign their strategies towards valuing and compensating educators appropriately. In facing these challenges head-on, we stand on the brink of potentially ushering in an era of real and meaningful change in the status and recognition of educators, transforming the educational landscape for generations to come.

Jeffrey L. Mitchell, Ph.D.
Head of School
Currey Ingram Academy
Brentwood, TN