News Story

Is There Really A Teacher Shortage? Grand Rapids Shows It’s Complicated

Many want to be basic classroom teachers, but some specialized positions stay empty

A recent opening for an elementary school teacher drew 1,056 applications after it was advertised by the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

But the school district’s administration said that having a high number people apply doesn’t preclude there being a teacher shortage.

In 2018 and 2019, Grand Rapids schools attracted 3,636 applicants for a total of 35 teacher job postings, or an average of about 104 applications per position. A special education teaching position drew 349 applicants and a social studies teaching posting had 258 applicants.

At the other end of the spectrum, the district didn’t get any applicants for an American Sign Language position. Nor did it receive an application for a bilingual special education teaching position that required Spanish, or for a science position geared to students learning English as a second language. By comparison, a science position with no language requirements drew 159 applicants.

The starting salary of a Grand Rapids teacher ranges from $38,000 to $44,000, depending on the number of academic credentials an individual has accrued.

The school district said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that there were 1,343 unique individuals who applied for teacher openings, many of whom applied for multiple positions.

“For example, one candidate applied to an elementary position, a self contained position, and a social studies position,” said district spokesman John Helmholdt in an email. “That one person would be counted three times. The report also includes internal teachers who applied to transfer positions within GRPS as well as candidates who applied for teaching positions, but are not qualified/certified to teach.”

Helmholdt said the school district hired between 90 and 120 teachers in 2018 and 2019.

“The majority of those applicants are in fact elementary, English, or Social Studies teachers,” Helmholdt wrote. “We cannot take these applicants and consider them for other subjects. An elementary teacher, for example, is not certified/qualified to teach high school math. So, there is a teacher shortage in specific areas, namely; math, science, special education, Spanish, and English as a Second Language. We have a challenging time staffing those positions any time of the year.”

Helmtholdt continued: “There is also a shortage depending on the time of year. The candidate pool is largest in the spring. In April, even hard to fill subjects are somewhat less hard to fill. However, we get new openings throughout the summer and indeed as the school year is starting. It is in the waning months before school starts that the ratio of available applicants to openings steeply narrows in all subjects, including elementary, English, and Social Studies. That means, when we have an English teacher resign the week before school starts, the five extra English applicants we didn't need in April are unlikely still available in August(especially the top notch ones). So, even elementary, English, and social studies are hard to fill subjects in August/early September. As we are not the only school hiring teachers, as in any industry, we are competing against other districts over an ever shrinking pool of candidates. Of course, schools are not alone in struggling to fill their vacancies.”