KPS educators and administration at odds on solving teacher shortage

A survey of Kalamazoo Public Schools teachers finds widespread dissatisfaction, looming departures, and recommendations to make the classroom experience better for them and their students. District administration says retention rates are steady thus far into the summer, and they plan to retain and lure teachers with a focus on compensation and professional development.

Thirty-five percent of Kalamazoo Public Schools teachers are “somewhat” or “very dissatisfied” with their job – and more than 44% are planning to leave the district, the education field, or retire within the next three years, according to a survey of KPS teachers conducted by NowKalamazoo.

Respondents to the survey, which was voluntary and for whom NowKalamazoo agreed to keep anonymous, said the challenges to being a teacher this past school year are far-and-away related to a learning environment that is lax on responsiveness to student behavioral issues and an excessive number of students in a class. In order to keep teachers, the respondents said, the most important tools were compensation, reducing class sizes, and adding staff to help students.

The results pose a conundrum for Darrin Slade, who began as KPS superintendent on July 1, as negotiations continue over a new teachers contract, which expires this August.

The results of the survey underscore a local struggle within a nationwide effort to hire and retain teachers. The problem was growing prior to – but has gotten exponentially worse during – the pandemic, according to a December 2022 report by the Economic Policy Institute. 

So far this summer, KPS turnover in between school years is around 5% of teaching staff, or filling around 40 positions. That’s the low end of the average of as many as 70 positions to fill over the summer, the district says.

In an email response to questions, then-Interim Superintendent Cindy Green attributed it to “normal trends such as retirement, relocation, and teachers exiting the profession. It’s a constant kind of in and out going on. That’s not unusual.”

This has been exacerbated by a dearth in certified teachers and a drop in people entering the field in college, as well as the impact on the profession during the pandemic, the district said. There’s also a “cyclical” nature of turnover when teachers who started during a big hiring push then become eligible for retirement at the same time.

When asked what they are doing to retain teachers, both the KPS communications office and Green said the primary tool was compensation.

“Kalamazoo Public Schools tries to be proactive when it comes to working on teacher attraction and retention,” Green said. “In 2018, the school district set the base salary for new teachers at $40,000. In general, our teacher salaries are strong for the area.” The district communications office credited the annual raise structure negotiated in the teachers contract, along with the one-time bonus given to employees this past year.

When asked about teacher compensation packages at KPS under the current working conditions, 57% of survey respondents said it was “equivalent to” or “higher than” comparable school districts.

When asked what KPS was using in addition to compensation to address teacher satisfaction and retention, Green only referred to “an extensive professional development program to assist and support teachers.

“In addition to professional development sessions, the district uses mentors and coaches to support teachers, especially new staff,” Green wrote. “Coaching and professional development  is available to help in topics such as academic areas, classroom management and social emotional learning.” 

This is where the district administration and its teachers diverge starkly. The survey offered a list of two dozen commonly expressed “challenges” facing KPS teachers and asked respondents to rank them based on the impact on job satisfaction. 

More than 73% said student behavioral issues were a “significant impact,” followed by class size (68.46%), shortages of mental health support for students (57.05%), shortages of teachers (54.36%), and lack of substitute teachers (54.36%). Just over 50% of respondents said the emphasis on standardized testing and the shortage of support staff in the schools had a significant impact. 

The majority of the free form comments regarding challenges, submitted by respondents to the survey, cited the stress of teaching due to conditions they blamed on KPS administration, both during the school day and the work expected after hours; class sizes that are too large for a quality learning environment; and, a lack of support for students in need and lack of disciplinary options when needed.

When asked what are the three challenges that “impact your experience the most,” the top two by far were student behavioral issues (69.8% of respondents) and class size (52.35%). This was followed by lack of support from administrators (20.81%), lack of work/life balance (18.12%), shortage of substitute teachers (17.45%), and shortage of student mental health support (16.11%).

When asked to select three solutions to teacher recruitment and retention that would be most impactful, the respondents said: higher salary and benefits (77.85%); reducing class size (61.74%); and hiring more staff to support students (42.95%).

Twenty-six percent of respondents said their average class size was more than 30 students; 51% said it was between 25 and 30 students.

When asked what the target class size is and what it was doing to reduce the number of students in the classroom, citing the concerns raised by teachers, Green wrote that “the district does its best to maintain smaller class sizes, especially at lower grade levels and in schools that have higher numbers of students on free and reduced lunch. We remain committed to implementing smaller classes, however, that is becoming more challenging as the number of new teachers continues to decline.”

Publisher’s Note:

The results of the survey are available to see here.

The survey of KPS teachers was conducted by NowKalamazoo in order to understand – and explain to our readers – why teachers may consider leaving, and what those teachers thought should be changed. To do so, we asked the Kalamazoo Education Association, the union that represents KPS teachers, to send our survey to all of their members. In our request, which was approved by the KEA executive committee and sent during the second half of May, we told them the survey process would be fully and independently controlled by NowKalamazoo the entire time, and they would have no editorial input or influence. We also promised survey respondents anonymity, as there were concerns expressed about retribution for participating. Neither the KEA, the survey respondents, nor the KPS district officials were shown the survey data or articles prior to publication. 

It is important to note that this was not a scientific survey. However, we received responses from a total of 139 active teachers, around 18% of the KPS teacher workforce, as well as some retired teachers and active support staff. Furthermore, we also asked the same key question in slightly different ways throughout the survey, which is a best practice for surveying that increases confidence in the data; the resulting answers to those questions were relatively consistent, which underscores the quality of our survey results.

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