Headlines about teacher shortages abound as schools recover from the pandemic. The challenges they faced during the pandemic significantly increased, and many experienced burnout so intense they considered resigning.

Shereen Oca Beilstein

Oca Beilstein

However, conversations about teacher shortages are nothing new — they predate the pandemic by decades. Although there is debate over the magnitude and severity of the issue, stakeholders generally agree on the importance of recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers.

Meg Bates


Addressing these shortages begs the question: Are the forces behind today’s shortages the same as always? Or is something new happening in the wake of the pandemic?

To understand this, we recently surveyed 3,478 current and former educators in Illinois. Findings reveal a complex picture.

1. A majority of educators feel their salary is low. Less than half of current and former educators said their salary was appropriate, suggesting the importance of increasing salaries in general. But given that both current and former educators found their compensation lacking, pay might not be the main factor driving shortages.

2. The biggest factor that motivates educators to leave — and stay — is school leadership. Only one-third of former educators felt supported by leadership, compared with two-thirds of current educators. School leadership clearly plays a critical role in promoting working conditions that retain educators, which ultimately supports student development.

3. COVID-19 safety was a concern for former educators. More current educators reported feeling safe from COVID-19 than former educators, the majority of whom left during or after the pandemic. Given that safety was a concern of those who left, checking in with remaining educators might be a valuable practice going forward.

4. School policies must be transformed to align with the beliefs of educators of color. Among educators of color, only one-fifth of those who were considering leaving agreed that school policies aligned with their personal beliefs, compared with more than half of those who were considering staying. Supporting educators of color is important for many reasons, given the benefits for all students, especially those of color. But, as other scholars have asserted, this can be realized only if accompanied by structural changes to working conditions that have historically excluded these educators.

5. School leaders must cultivate supportive environments for early-career educators. Less than half of early-career education who were considering leaving felt accepted in their workplaces, compared with 85 percent of those considering staying. With nearly half of teachers leaving within five years, creating supportive environments — through programs such as mentoring — could be one mechanism to decrease attrition.

So, are teacher shortages in the wake of the pandemic driven by new or old causes? It’s complicated.

Issues like low salaries and fraught relationships with leadership are tales as old as time. But improving teachers’ sense of safety and working to align school policies with the values of educators of color are issues that deserve a spotlight in the post-pandemic period.

As states invest in policies to address teacher shortages, it’s important not to forget about the importance of school leadership. Schools must cultivate leaders who forge positive relationships with and promote feelings of safety among staff, align policies to values of educators of color, and enhance novice educators’ support systems.

University of Illinois alumnae Shereen Oca Beilstein (research specialist) and Meg Bates (director) work at the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative, part of the UI system.