Previously the Times-Tribune did a story regarding the teacher shortage problem in the state of Kentucky. We wanted to take a closer look here at home, and see if any of our local school districts were facing a shortage problem.

Most of the country and state are facing a teacher shortage issue, however that problem doesn’t seem to be impacting our region so far.

While the state’s educator employment website states that there are job postings for local school districts — Laurel County has 12 positions posted, Knox County has 11, Corbin Independent has 6, Williamsburg Independent has 1, and Whitley County has 0 — those posting are outdated and those numbers do not accurately represent actual teaching vacancies in our area.

School officials from all districts interviewed (Laurel County didn’t comment for this story) say all teaching vacancies have been filled. Filling those vacancies proved to be difficult, however.

Middle school and high school math and science teaching positions are the most difficult to fill. Director of Communications and Governance for Knox County Frank Shelton says that Knox County and most school systems in the region have seen a decrease in middle and high school math and science certified teachers.

“Many young adults entering college who are gifted in those areas choose other paths than education for their major. This does make it difficult to sustain programs such as biomedical sciences and dual credit mathematics within our schools,” Shelton said.

Superintendent of Corbin Independent Schools David Cox says his district has had issues finding candidates for math and science positions as well.

“Math and science are always an issue," Cox said. "There are certain areas that have alway had less applicants than others. There seem to be plenty of applicants at the elementary level. When you start getting a little more specific at the middle and high school level it tends to be a little more thin.”

Whitley County and Williamsburg School Districts rely heavily on the University of the Cumberlands’ Education Department for student teachers, and new teachers.

“We are in constant contact with the folks at the University of the Cumberlands,” said Whitley County Superintendent John Siler. “The number of people going into education in specialized areas like high school math and high school science, those are getting tougher to find. My fear is that’s where we’re first going to experience this shortage in this area, it’s going to be those two fields at the high school level.”

Loren Connell, the Director of Instruction for the Williamsburg School District, says his district is having a harder time finding student teachers. “There just aren’t as many college students entering the education field.”

Connell has been in his current role with the school for nearly 17 years and says this past summer was the most difficult the district has had in finding qualified applicants since he’s started.

The number of job vacancies in our region doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern, but the dwindling number of applicants do have school officials worried.

“What I have seen in our district I wouldn’t necessarily deem it as a shortage as of yet, but we’re certainly seeing diminished numbers in applicants. Before we might have 35-40 applicants for two or three elementary jobs, that number is now down to 20,” said Cox.

This may have to do with the lower number of college graduates in Kentucky majoring in education. Bachelor's degrees obtained by Kentuckians over the last five years was up by 23.9%, however education degrees had the largest five-year decline at 13.2%.

Cox says things like the licensing procedure with the state, and pre-certification processes like the Praxis exam may have something to do with less people majoring in education.

“I know a lot of people who have had a hard time passing that test or have decided not to go into education because it is a difficult process," Cox said.

Others point to the pay Kentucky teachers receive vs. the amount of education and training required. According to the National Education Association the average teacher in Kentucky made $52,952 during the 2017-18 school year, which ranks Kentucky in the bottom half of the country.

“Let’s say you want to be a high school chemistry teacher,” said Siler. “The amount of science you have to take at the college level to get that certification — a lot of folks are finding that they can go into industry or other fields and get better pay.”

Then there is tension between state government officials in Frankfort and Kentucky teachers that could be swaying Kentuckians from teaching. Cox says that the relationship between Frankfort and teachers has grown into an adversarial kind of relationship.

“It shouldn’t be adversarial, it should be supportive," he said. "We all want the same thing. We all want a great education for our kids. I think that there is a perceived lack of support from state government at this time for teachers. I don’t think that the lack of support comes from the Department of Education.”

The lack of those earning teaching degrees has caused school districts to hire those who enter the education field in an alternative fashion.

“Locally the impact has been an increase in employees entering the teaching profession after majoring in other fields at college,” said Shelton. “Those teachers go through the alternative certification program at local colleges and universities where they must take classes that assist with the transition in their career. The timing of the interview, enrollment in an alternative program, request for hire, and receiving all paperwork can make it challenging.”

School officials in multiple counties say they plan to continue to work with local colleges and universities to help fill student teacher roles, and teaching positions when they’re open.

“Our local colleges and universities have been helpful with our recruitment efforts as their students graduate and begin searching for their first job," said Cox. "We frequently communicate with them and let them know anticipated vacancies so that they can let their students know. The education programs also place their students in our schools for observation hours, so the student already has exposure to the school and district expectations.”

Why are places like Jefferson County and Fayette County experiencing a harder time replacing teachers?

Cox said it could be the economics of each area respectively.

“The general economics in the particular district and particular area has something to do with [teacher shortages]. We’re one of the larger employers in our area, that’s not the case in say inner-Jefferson County," Cox said. "There’s not a huge amount of industry for people to go to, so consequently a lot of times I see people decide to go into education, because they do know that the school systems are a staple for employment in that area.”

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