SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — We are a week away from school starting for Memphis Shelby County Schools, while a teacher shortage looms over the nation.

In May, school hadn’t even ended yet, but the district was already planning for the upcoming year. Applicants filed into a building off Jackson.

“We are trying to ensure we staff our schools early. Earlier than we have done in the past,” said MSCS Chief of Human Resources Yolanda Finnie Martin.

Finnie Martin said her team started reaching out to teacher candidates months ago.

They vetted their qualifications and on this day in May, invited them in for an open interview. She said they offered many applicants a job on the spot and placed them immediately into a school — something they’ve never done before.

Starting with fewer vacancies than last year, MSCS stated instructional positions are currently 97% filled for the upcoming school year. Out of 6,000 teaching positions, MSCS said they have 180 instructional vacancies, and those vacancies are spread across about 160 district-managed schools

Parents can rest assured that there is a plan in place to have quality coverage in every classroom on Day One, which includes combining under-enrolled courses and using certified central office staff, certified substitutes, and remote instruction on a course-by-course basis for some upper-level classes, as commonly found on campuses nationwide.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools Media Relations

Martin said the new approach was “a must.”

It’s a must because the nation is fighting a serious and growing problem.

New reports show 300,000 teachers and staff left their job between February 2020 and May of this year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. It created shortages largely in math, science, special education, and early childhood education.

As for MSCS, according to info provided through an open records request, the district reported 77 teachers left during the last school year. By mid-summer, they were 570 teachers short. By the end of July, there were 220 openings.

“This teacher shortage existed prior to the pandemic. I would say 10 years and beyond,” Finnie Martin said.

Studies show fewer students are choosing to go into the education field. Then COVID-19 exacerbated the issue. Teachers were handed various safety protocols and remote learning.

Teachers told us more stressors emerged when they went back to the classroom. Political wars and school shootings made it even worse.

Some resigned. Others retired early, including Calvin Fant. He retired a year ago.

“It was really kind of uncertain for a lot of older citizens such as myself,” Fant said.

MSCS recently recruited Fant to come back after the state passed a law allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom without losing their retirement benefits.

“To get that added benefit to keep your retirement money and MSCS money is really a plus,” he said.

MSCS said it hopes to hire more retirees by the start of school.

“We are calling individually and speaking to retirees because many are not aware of the new legislation,” MSCS Director of Talent Management Brian Ingram said.

But Shelby County Education Association president Keith Wiliams says more needs to be done, particularly with pay.

“Our pay has lagged behind in this state for the past five years,” he said.

The National Education Association echoed Williams. It reports nationally that the average teacher’s salary is lower than it was a decade ago when it was adjusted for inflation.

In Arkansas, there has been a push for a significant boost in teacher pay.

Mississippi’s governor just signed off on the largest pay raise for teachers in years.

Tennessee set aside $124 million for teacher salary increases. The state department of education says it gave a pool of funds to each district to use it in various forms like increasing salary schedules, step increases, funding new instructional positions, or bonus payments.

Williams said that fine print is frustrating.

“We have to have something that will strengthen our salaries every year so you can retire with a decent retirement. Giving a bonus, you can make the same thing your entire career and not ever get a raise,” he said.

MSCS says all classroom teachers are “moving up one step” on its new “pay schedule” and returning teachers are getting a “$1,500 retention bonus.”

Critics are asking if all of these efforts are too late, and whether it’s enough to retain educators, especially those who can retire. Another union in Tennessee says 7,000 teachers in the state are eligible to retire in the state and in 2024, add another 3,300 to that list.

While the looming shortage is creating uncertainty for districts near and far, Finnie Martin said one thing is clear: They have to continue to adapt.

“The way we have to hire and recruit yesterday will look way different than tomorrow,” she said.