Tennessee is ranked 42 in teacher salary. What does that mean for recruitment?

New rankings from the National Education Association put Tennessee close to the bottom when it comes to how well we pay our public school teachers.

Tennessee is ranked No. 42 for public teacher salary with an average of $52,871 in the 2020-2021 school year, the report said. The national average public school teacher pay topped $65,000 that same year.

Knox County Schools and districts across the state have talked about the difficulties they've had in recruiting and retaining teachers since the start of the pandemic. But experts say salary is just one factor in determining whether teachers stay or go.

The support they feel from their bosses and peers makes a huge difference, too, studies show.

Administrators are doing what they can to fix the salary issue for the coming year. Tennessee's average teacher salary increased by 1.95% from the previous year, but with an inflation rate of 8.5%, teachers have, in effect, taken a pay cut.

Salary alone doesn't paint a full picture of the challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers, said University of Tennessee professor James Martinez, who worked in public schools for 22 years as a teacher and administrator and now serves as acting director of UT's Center for Educational Leadership.

Farragut Primary second grade teacher Sarah Kerstetter sets up her classroom last summer. Tennessee's teacher salaries are lower than the national average.
Farragut Primary second grade teacher Sarah Kerstetter sets up her classroom last summer. Tennessee's teacher salaries are lower than the national average.

The nation loses about half its teachers every five years, creating a cycle of recruitment and retention even without the burdens of the pandemic.

“We're having difficulties retaining and recruiting teachers in many schools,” Martinez said. “It's just tough all around.”

Martinez described retention as a three-pronged problem. Pay is one, but the other two are collaboration and support with other teachers, and collaboration and support with school administrators.

Backing from administrators is doubly important because it affects recruitment and retention.

Teacher pay is often tied to a community's cost of living.
Teacher pay is often tied to a community's cost of living.

“It's a huge domino effect,” Martinez said. “As we struggled to recruit teachers, school administrators are spending more time doing that and then they spend less time supporting the teachers that are already there.”

Without support, teachers are more likely to leave, kickstarting the cycle anew.

How well Tennessee pays teachers

Although Tennessee's low ranking by the NEA paints a grim picture of teachers' salaries, context is crucial.

Martinez said variation in teacher salary across the country generally aligns with the local cost of living. Of the 10 states with the highest living cost, nine also have the highest teacher salary.

So although teacher salaries differ across states, the actual amount teachers are taking home does not fluctuate too much overall.

But in Knoxville, where rent rose by 20% in the last year, cost of living is a growing concern.

Exacerbating high rental rates is the shortage of available units. Hancen Sale, governmental affairs and policy director for the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors, said the rental occupancy rate in the region is hovering around 99%.

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Teachers in Knox County Schools received an 8% increase in pay last fiscal year and a 4% increase for the upcoming fiscal year. Though the increase is higher than the average increase reported by NEA, it doesn't necessarily keep up.

Complicating factors

The intersection of cost of living and teacher salary does affect how many teachers of color and teachers from low-income backgrounds enter the field, Martinez said. In turn, that affects the representation students see in their schools.

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“Those that come from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds, those teachers are going to apply even less” in low-paying areas, Martinez said.

But teacher pay can’t be raised infinitely — it’s limited by a county's tax base and how elected officials value public schools.

So school districts hoping to improve recruitment and retention can focus on the two factors within their control – support for teachers by administrators and collaboration among teachers.

Potential solutions

Knox County Schools recently made a big push on both those fronts by adopting early release days. Administrators say they wanted to give teachers time to collaborate.

Early release days are “very helpful” Martinez said, though it may take time for the initiative to bear fruit.

“It all depends on the quality of the training and the professional development,” Martinez said.

Knox County Schools also voted to switch its retirement system to one used by nearby counties, making it easier for teachers to transition into the district.

As states see a teacher recruitment looming, Knox County Schools is better poised to attract candidates than other some counties in Tennessee.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is one advantage, both for teacher preparation during college but also ongoing professional development.

UT also partners with Knox County Schools in a Grow Your Own program to develop the existing pool of high schoolers and undergraduates into teachers.

Plus, Martinez said, the size of the district means teachers can work in a variety of settings and school sizes, but still access the city's amenities.

How Tennessee can retain teachers

One approach the state legislature could take to improve retention is offer financial incentives for schools that keep their teachers longer, Martinez said. This could be a bonus directly to teachers and administrators or for the school in general.

“Imagine the motivation and what steps people would take outside of what they would do normally, if they knew they could get these additional funds,” Martinez said.

In the bigger picture of teacher recruitment and retention, Martinez said it’s crucial to think creatively about benefits.

Initiatives like allowing teachers to receive zero interest home loans can increase retention in historically hard-to-staff, low socioeconomic status areas. Low student-teacher ratios make the demands of the job less burdensome.

“We have to kind of think outside of pay,” Martinez said. “Let's focus on the things we can change quickly.”

Martinez said new teachers are disproportionally placed in remedial classrooms, which have higher burnout. Schools that creatively approach placement and give new teachers a lighter workload can reduce their attrition rate.

Something as simple as a 10-minute meeting between early career teachers and their administrator about content and best practices can improve self-efficacy, according to a pilot study by Martinez.

The million-dollar question, Martinez said, is whether substantive increases in teacher salary would actually benefit recruitment and retention. Research has little to say in support of it.

“Teaching challenges are teaching challenges,” Martinez said. The great unknown is what salary is enough to offset increasing responsibilities for teachers in schools.

“Teachers already know when are hired what the salary is going to be,” Martinez said. “It's just when they get into it, they realize the compensation may not be enough to compensate for the actual demands of the profession.”

Reporter Silas Sloan contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee ranks low for teacher salary. What can help retention?


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