Classrooms without teachers

In many large school districts, hundreds of teaching positions were unfilled as school year began

How many classrooms in America’s largest school districts are missing a teacher when the school year starts?

A small but significant number, according to new data obtained from those districts, though it varies widely. In Los Angeles and Houston, virtually all teaching jobs were filled. But in Chicago, nearly 6 percent of teaching jobs were vacant.

Districts used their own definitions for a “vacant” position, meaning the numbers may not be directly comparable. Still, they highlight how several big districts, by their own admission, are not able to fill teaching jobs by the time school starts. Research and experience suggests that students stand to suffer, particularly those in already struggling schools.

Districts with vacant teaching positions have less-than-ideal options. They can use short- or long-term substitutes; raise class sizes; or leave non-classroom positions like reading specialists unfilled.

Researchers and advocates say the problem can be addressed through a combination of short-term policies — like improving hiring policies that make it difficult to get into the classroom quickly — and long-term reforms, such as improving pay and working conditions to make teaching a more attractive job.

Matt Kraft, a Brown University professor who has studied how students are affected when their teacher who is hired late, summed it up: “It’s bad for kids,” he said.

In Chicago, budget questions lead to empty jobs

Chalkbeat requested the number of vacant or unfilled teaching positions at the beginning of the school year from the 15 largest school districts in the country, as well as how many teachers were employed. Their answers varied widely.

In Chicago, which was recently lauded as the urban district where students make the fastest improvements, there were nearly 1,300 teacher vacancies. As the district serves almost 400,000 students, this suggests that tens of thousands of students were affected.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said funding issues that left principals unsure of how much money they would have to hire teachers were at the root of the high vacancy rate.

“Last summer’s budgeting process was marked by an unprecedented level of uncertainty due to the state’s delay in funding education,” Emily Bolton said in a statement. School budgets would be released early this year, she said, giving principals more time to plan.

She said that if citywide social work and nursing positions — which are officially classified as teaching positions — were excluded, the vacancy rate would fall to 4.5 percent. Bolton also provided data showing that the number of open positions had been cut in half by the beginning of December.

Hawaii, which has one statewide district, reported 470 teaching vacancies to start the year.

“Filling teacher vacancies is one of the greatest challenges, as Hawaii shares the national trends of increasing teacher shortages and fewer numbers of individuals entering the profession,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Education.


Teacher vacancies in largest 15 school districts, 2017–18

District Teachers employed at start of school year Vacancies at start of school year Vacancy rate
New York City 77,000 900 1.16%
Los Angeles 24,166 12 0.05%
Chicago 20,413 1294 5.96%
Miami-Dade County (Florida) 20,005 147 0.73%
Clark County (Nevada) 18,541 413 2.18%
Fairfax County (Virginia) 15,526 97 0.62%
Hillsborough County (Florida) 15,401 258 1.65%
Broward County (Florida) 14,892 184 1.22%
Orange County (Florida) 13,650 79 0.58%
Hawaii 12,850 470 3.53%
Palm Beach County (Florida) 12,820 136 1.05%
Gwinnett County (Georgia) 12,150 0 0.00%
Houston 11,975 13 0.11%
Dallas 10,207 129 1.25%
Philadelphia 8,771 98 1.10%

Source: Public records requests from school districts. In the case of New York City, information came from a district spokesperson.

Vacancy rates may not be comparable.


Mireille Ellsworth, a high school teacher in Hawaii for over a decade, says she sees positions sit empty every year. It has a significant impact, especially when the vacant teachers would otherwise be assisting her students with disabilities.

“When I start the school year with a teacher that is not a [special education] teacher — just a substitute — that is really difficult,” she said. “They’re supposed to be helping with … adapting the lessons and the curriculum to the students’ unique needs.”

Including Chicago and Hawaii, nine of the 15 surveyed districts reported a vacancy rate of over 1 percent.

Should the numbers be a major concern for policymakers? On one hand, all 15 of districts reported that the vast majority of their teaching positions were filled. But in large districts, having even a small share of positions vacant means a substantial number of students going without a dedicated teacher.

“This is one where percentages are less important than the absolute number,” Dan Weisberg, the head of TNTP, a consulting group that has worked with districts to overhaul their hiring practices. “Getting close is not good enough — you need to fill every one of those vacancies.”

Some districts report doing so. Los Angeles, a district about the size of Chicago, said there were only 12 open positions at the start of the year. A district spokesperson credited recruitment practices, partnerships with local teacher preparation programs, and a program to award early contracts to certain candidates in hard-to-staff schools. The district has also touted its retention rate among novice teachers: 94 percent in the 2015–16 school year.

Kraft, the Brown professor, warned that the true number of vacancies may be higher than districts report, as some may manipulate definitions of “vacant” or have principals who attempt to hide vacancies to avoid having a teacher placed in their school.

“I think you can take [these numbers] as a lower bound,” Kraft said.

How it plays out inside classrooms

Classrooms without full-time assigned teachers aren’t just a logistical problem for schools. Those vacancies also mean students learn less.

That’s according to peer-reviewed research from Kraft, along with Brown’s John Papay. They found that students taught by late-hire teachers had slightly lower math and reading scores on year-end exams.

The study suggests that the harmful effects come not just because students get off to a slow start when a teacher is hired late, but because late-hired teachers are less effective than others. This highlights a potential hidden cost to schools that hire late: top teachers have already been snapped up.

Poor students, students of color, and students who attend struggling schools are more likely to bear those costs.

An analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union found that vacancies in the city were concentrated on schools on the south and west side, which serve more students of color and those in poverty. And Kraft’s research on an anonymous urban district in the South found that schools with more vacancies tended to serve more low-income students. “In some ways, your averages mask the real story,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kraft points to some ways to avoid late hiring: creating a streamlined hiring process, ensuring principals realize the detrimental effects of late hiring, and setting school budgets as early as possible.

Those budget timelines can be critical, because some districts have had to issue layoff notices only to scramble to rehire teachers later. Research shows that this causes teachers to leave their schools, even if their positions are not ultimately eliminated.

Sarah Rothschild, an analyst for the Chicago Teacher Union, said this has been a problem.  Pointing to budget issues, Chicago Public Schools regularly lays off teachers in the summer and then rehires for the same position months later, “at which point those people left for the suburbs or other jobs,” Rothschild said.

Offering bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, like those in special education and in high-poverty schools, could also help. Recent research has found that this approach is an effective way to retain teachers, and fewer teachers leaving means the district needs to make fewer hires.

More fundamentally, improving teacher salaries and working conditions is likely to attract new teachers and get others to stay. “That’s a big, long-term solution — not a quick fix,” said Kraft.

Corey Rosenlee, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, emphasized pay, arguing that the state needs to spend more on schools.

“It’s not going to encourage people to go into the profession if they feel they can’t make a living off of it,” he said.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.