Teacher Labor Market Trends
Insights From Two Southern States

Publication May 2024

Teacher shortages, high turnover rates and declining interest in the teaching profession have proven difficult for policymakers to address. These concerns are even more dire in Southern states. 

Partnering with researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, SREB studied data in Kentucky and Tennessee on teacher labor market trends over the last decade. This online report features seven findings with interactive charts.  

Insight for Leaders 

Education leaders were burdened with teacher shortages even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and trends in teacher vacancies, shortages and morale have all continued to worsen.  

The concerns are even more dire in Southern states where student learning tends to lag the national average. Education and policy leaders need more information about the landscape of the teaching profession and dynamics of recent changes to craft better solutions to address shortages. 

The Southern Regional Education Board and researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education formed a research partnership to study how the workforce may have shifted, and to deepen understanding of teacher shortages, vacancies, retention and quality.

The aim of this research is to support education leaders and policymakers in making evidence-based decisions. We used longitudinal data on teacher preparation and licensure as well as school staffing data from 2016 to 2023, for both Tennessee and Kentucky. 

We ask: How have the characteristics of the teacher workforce changed? What has changed about early-career teachers’ preparation experiences and supports, and what trends are we seeing in retention and commitment to teaching? This research seeks to inform efforts to restore the pipeline of quality educators for every classroom in the nation. 

We find that the teacher workforce has not experienced dramatic changes in terms of demographics. But pathways to entry have expanded, in part as a response to increases in teacher turnover. While Tennessee and Kentucky have many similar trends, like unchanging teacher populations, we find differences in retention patterns. 

National Teacher Labor Market Trends

Prior to analyzing Kentucky and Tennessee data, we synthesized published surveys and research studies exploring teacher labor market trends just before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings from this national review of the literature include:  

Teacher Vacancies 

  • The overall number of K-12 education workers decreased at the start of the pandemic and has remained low. Reports of national teacher vacancies have increased in the last 20 years. 
  • Teacher shortages remain highly localized. Schools serving more students of color, economically disadvantaged students and students in rural and urban locations face more severe teacher shortages. 
  • Both pre- and post-pandemic, teacher vacancies were more prominent in certain subject areas, including special education, world languages, math and science. 
  • Teacher shortages hinder schools’ ability to deliver key student services. 

Teacher Hiring Trends 

  • Applicant pools to fill open teaching positions have gotten smaller. 
  • In the wake of increased shortages, districts increasingly hired less-qualified candidates. 

Teacher Retention  

  • Teachers were more likely to stay in their positions during the height of the pandemic, but teacher retention declined post-pandemic. 
  • Teachers are less certain they plan to remain in teaching and say they are unlikely to advise their “younger selves” to enter teaching. 
  • Teachers working in Southern states, Black teachers, younger teachers, those with less experience and teachers in low-income schools were significantly more likely to express plans to leave teaching. 

Teacher Job Satisfaction and Morale 

  • The pandemic elevated teacher stress and dissatisfaction levels that were already on the rise. However, teaching-related stress appears to have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Black and female teachers report higher stress than their peers. 
  • Teachers cite lower confidence, lack of respect, low salaries, long work hours, stress, mental health and wellness, and political conflict as reasons for why they are dissatisfied with their jobs. 

Since the pandemic, Teacher vacancies rose, Teacher retention declined,  Applicants decreased

For details and sources, see Recruiting the Next Generation of Teachers: Challenges and Innovations. A Literature Review.

Finding 1: The composition of the teacher workforce largely stayed the same from 2017 to 2023, while the proportion of teachers over age 50 increased.

Kentucky’s teacher count slightly increased while Tennessee’s teacher count slightly decreased; both states saw a slight decline in student enrollment. 

In the years before the pandemic, the states’ teaching workforces grew despite declines in public school student enrollment, Kentucky’s continued to grow after the pandemic. Larger teacher counts in Kentucky may be attributable to district spending of federal emergency relief funds issued in response to the pandemic.  

In Tennessee, student enrollment fell 2.5% between 2016-17 and 2022-23 and teacher count decreased by about 1,400. In Kentucky, student enrollment declined by 3% and the teacher count grew by about 1,200.  

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

Overall, the racial, ethnic and gender composition of teachers stayed mostly stable over time.

Despite adding more teachers overall, the proportion of male teachers and teachers of color — including Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, native and multiracial people — stayed the same in both states.

More teachers were over age 50 in 2023 compared to 2017.

Teachers over 50 accounted for 27% of the teacher workforce in Kentucky and 31% of the workforce in Tennessee in 2022-23. The expansion of pathways to enter teaching for people changing careers, along with high turnover of new teachers and declining interest in education careers among Generation Z, contributed to this graying of the workforce.

New hires under age 30 made up less of the new teaching population than in previous years.

In Tennessee, 2023 marked the first year in which professionals under the age of 30 accounted for only half of all new hires in the state. The age composition of new hires followed a similar trend in Kentucky, where the proportion of new hires under 30 years of age fell to just over half. 

New teachers older than 30 can include those who left and then returned to the classroom, those coming from out of state, or those who switched careers altogether and are entering the profession for the first time.

Finding 2: Newly hired teachers of color and teachers over 30 are more likely to enter the teaching profession through non-traditional pathways.

A larger proportion of teachers of color entered through non-traditional routes.

Most newly hired teachers in Tennessee and Kentucky are still coming through traditional colleges of education, at approximately 75% and 65% respectively. Black and Hispanic or Latino teachers are more likely to have entered the profession through alternative pathways to certification than their white colleagues certified in the same year. 

Teacher preparation is generally categorized in two ways. A traditional preparation pathway includes a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education. Alternative pathways include different training options for those without a degree in education. Given declining interest in the teaching profession from high school and college students, most states are seeking opportunities to diversify pathways into teaching. In Tennessee, non-traditional pathways tend to be those that are job-embedded (on-the-job) teacher prep programs. Kentucky has numerous routes to teacher certification that include both traditional and non-traditional pathways.

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

A larger proportion of male teachers entered through non-traditional routes.

Male teachers in both states entered teaching through alternative pathways of educator preparation at higher rates than female teachers.

New hires from non-traditional preparation pathways are older on average.

The age of teachers entering teaching through alternative routes in both states has increased faster than the age of teachers certified through traditional pathways. The trend suggests that alternative pathways may be increasingly popular with transitioning into the teaching profession from a different career.

Finding 3: Average teacher salaries increased in both states, yet increases have been outpaced by inflation.

Inflation outpaced the increase in average gross teacher salaries.

Average staring and average overall salaries for teachers in both states increased. Average starting salaries increased by nearly $3,000 in both states. Average overall salaries increased by over $4,000 in Kentucky and almost $7,000 in Tennessee. Yet, when adjusted for inflation, average salaries in fact declined.  

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

Net pay increased for teachers at different levels of their career, yet when adjusted for inflation, take-home pay declined for Tennessee teachers.

SREB’s teacher compensation analysis for the 16-state Southern region shows salary, health and retirement benefits, as well as average take-home pay, for teachers at different career stages. From 2019 to 2022, average take-home pay for teachers increased in Tennessee by 8%, yet when adjusted for inflation, it decreased by 1%. Kentucky teachers fared better with take-home pay increasing 23%; when adjusted for inflation, it increased 9%. 

Just one-quarter of Tennessee teachers reported that they were satisfied with their salary in 2023.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, 37% of Tennessee teachers reported on the Tennessee Educator Survey that they were satisfied with their salary — an increase from 2019 — but this percentage declined in 2023 to 25%. This rate is lower than teacher salary satisfaction in a nationally representative survey of teachers, where one-third of teachers said they were satisfied with their base salary. 

Finding 4: Fewer Tennessee teachers report that they plan to continue teaching. Teachers who say they plan to exit the profession identify leadership as a primary reason.

The percentage of Tennessee teachers who said they plan to stay in teaching as long as they can or until retirement eligibility declined slightly in 2022 and 2023.

Early-career teachers’ intentions to stay as long as possible dropped from 49% in 2019 to 42% in 2023. Declines in intent to stay in teaching were consistent across teachers of various experience levels. 

The decline is mostly due to an increase in teachers indicating that their plans to stay in teaching were uncertain, rather than that they had determined to leave. While more teachers were undecided about their future in the teaching profession, the percentage of teachers considering switching schools did not change between 2018 and 2023.

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

In 2023, Tennessee teachers who planned to stay at their schools listed the culture among educators and the students as top drivers. Teachers who planned to leave listed personal reasons and leadership as top motivators.

Among teachers who said they planned to leave their school, 37% of teachers said leadership most influenced their decision. This is the most common reason cited since 2020. In contrast, 69% of teachers who said they plan to stay indicated that culture was their top influence, with 58% listing the student population.

Finding 5: From 2018 to 2023, teacher turnover in Kentucky largely held steady, while turnover in Tennessee dipped and then increased.

On average, one in five teachers either left or moved schools in the 2022-23 school year.

Teacher turnover is defined as teachers not returning to their teaching position in the following school year. As in any profession, some turnover is expected, given retirement or moves for personal reasons. 

In Kentucky, turnover rates ranged from 8% to 11% from 2018 to 2023. An additional 7% to 10% of teachers moved schools over those years, meaning they either went to another school in their district or moved to another district within the state, but remained in a teaching position. In Tennessee, the turnover rate dipped from 14% to 9% and then returned to 13% in 2023. During that period 7% to 10% of teachers moved schools.

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

Turnover rates are consistently highest among younger and older teachers.

Teacher leave rates are highest among older teachers, likely due to retirement. However, teachers in their 20s leave teaching at greater rates than others under age 60 in Tennessee, and in Kentucky by 2022-23.

Black and Hispanic or Latino teachers generally leave at higher rates than white teachers.

White teachers make up most teachers in both Tennessee and Kentucky. The turnover rates of white teachers across both states have remained slightly lower than that of Black and Hispanic or Latino teachers. Turnover rates among Black teachers are higher compared to their colleagues.

Finding 6: Early-career teachers in Tennessee report feeling less prepared and having less support than six years ago.

From 2017 to 2022, the percentage of early-career teachers in Tennessee who strongly agreed that their preparation program prepared them to teach declined.

On the Tennessee Educator Survey, early-career teachers in their first three years on the job report on how well their educator prep program prepared them for their current teaching role. In 2022, roughly 8 in 10 early-career teachers reported that they were satisfied with their educator preparation programs ─ a decline from 9 in 10 teachers who reported that they were satisfied in 2017.  Increased turnover of younger teachers may reinforce the need to better prepare early-career teachers for the demands of the job.

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

Early-career teachers in Tennessee are more satisfied with their clinical preparation than their coursework.

Satisfaction with preparation coursework (such as readings, lectures and projects) declined from 89% to 78% from 2017 to 2023. 

However, most early-career teachers reported feeling prepared by their clinical placement experiences (student teaching, classroom observations and residency). Almost 90% reported being satisfied with clinical preparation in 2023.

Fewer early career teachers reported having a mentor in their first year, but more reported having coaching or professional development targeted to their needs.

When asked about support provided in the first year of teaching, early-career teachers were less likely to report having a mentor teacher in their first year of teaching in 2023 than prior years. Research using Tennessee Educator Survey data has found that teachers with mentors are more likely to report that they plan to stay teaching at their schools the following year. 

More early-career teachers report having coaching or professional development targeted to their needs and support for college tuition than previous years. Additionally, an increasing number of teachers report tuition support during their first year, likely a reflection of increasing efforts in Tennessee to include job-embedded or apprenticeship teaching pathways which allow individuals to be hired by a school district while finishing their program and certification requirements.

Finding 7: Nearly half of early-career teachers in Tennessee formed aspirations to become educators before finishing college.

One third of early-career teachers in 2023 thought about becoming a teacher before starting high school.

Sparking interest in teaching among young students is an important component of building a pool of future employees in any industry, including educators. Among early-career teachers in Tennessee, 29% entered high school already aspiring to become a teacher, and nearly half graduated from high school with this level of interest. Early exposure to teaching as a career could influence a middle or high school student to follow an education career path.  

Still, many early-career teachers decided on their career path after college. 

For potential educators such as these, options for graduate-level credential programs and alternative pathways could help them enter the teaching pool. See more on this in the takeaways section of our Next Generation of Teachers report.

Hover to see more-specific data in the charts below.

Male teachers and teachers of color were more likely to report that they entered teaching through non-traditional pathways.

Key differences emerge when we look at aspirations for and pathways to entering teaching by race, ethnicity and gender. Male teachers and teachers of color were more likely to report that they entered teaching through a non-traditional pathway (such as a career change or after earning a degree in another field of study) than their female and white peers. 

What can we learn from these findings?

What can leaders from other states takeaway from the data in Kentucky and Tennessee? 

The data from both Kentucky and Tennessee show common challenges that most states across the South and the nation are facing – a decreased supply of ready, willing and qualified teachers to lead classrooms and prepare 55 million U.S. school children to eventually enter the workforce.

The findings point to three strategies reinforced in much of the research on this topic as key to balancing the supply and demand of skilled teachers: prepare, support and reward educators appropriately.

What is the outlook for the teacher workforce?

The aging, majority white, predominantly female teacher workforce is not sustainable in our changing society. Overall population and labor market trends present the need to diversify the profession in age, gender, race and ethnicity, and background. Further, it is crucial to recruit talented and dedicated teachers with cultural knowledge relevant to low-income, rural and urban areas experiencing shortages of proficient teachers. 

The number of teachers has increased in the last few years. This is largely due to temporary federal funding for public education. Based on the data, these employment numbers will likely not be sustainable when the federal funding runs out in September 2024. Yet, turnover, vacancy rates and the supply of fully prepared future teachers indicate a shrinking population of interested, qualified teachers. (Find more on declining interest in teaching in our report The Next Generation of Teachers). 

How do we broaden the supply of new teachers?

To increase the supply of teachers, we must look to and inspire a diverse pool of career-changers and a new generation of young people to enter the profession. Relying on alternative pathways of preparation for teaching is the current most likely route to attract more men and people of different races, ethnicities and ages to the profession.

Early exposure to the profession and its impact on individuals and families can help to inspire more young people to pursue teaching. This, coupled with accessible paths to a college education and quality teacher preparation, can help more young people to become educators.

To elevate the success rate of those who are interested in teaching, all pathways and programs must fully prepare teachers for the demands of the job. The data shows that more new teachers feel less prepared to lead their own classrooms than in previous years ─ and teacher turnover for early-career teachers is at its highest levels.

Most important, the teaching career must become an encouraging, supported, valued and rewarding profession in order to attract more talent.

How do we prevent turnover? 

To stop the trend of increasing early-career turnover, policymakers can ensure that alternative as well as traditional routes into teaching are held to strict accountability standards for the requisite knowledge and skills of incoming educators. All pathways and programs must prepare and support teachers for the demands of the job. 

Local education leaders should be equipped to support new teachers with proven methods like teacher mentors, support staff, professional learning and lighter workloads in their first years on the job.

Education and policy leaders can also address and support the quality of school-building leaders. Teachers identify the primary reason for leaving the profession as the influence of the leaders in their building ─ their impact on instructional leadership and development, school climate, and management of resources and personnel. 

Compensation should not be ignored.

While this report points to quality support and preparation as the leading pressure points on retention or turnover, compensation should not be ignored. Although increasing salaries and benefits is challenging amidst competing resource demands at a time when recovery dollars are ending, we must address the effects on the profession. Dissatisfaction with salaries increased as inflation grew, decreasing how far a teacher’s paycheck stretches. Passionate, dedicated teachers should not be forced to make tough decisions between the personal fulfillment of impacting students or financial stability and their own quality of life. In addition, we know that some potential educators who may be drawn to the career decide against teaching because they do not see it as financially secure.  

Increased teacher turnover at all experience levels in Tennessee post-pandemic mirrors a common trend across the Southern region. And early-career turnover is at an all-time high in the South. More research should be conducted to study states with lower turnover to find out if certain policy or practice changes contributed to this result. 

About this report

Read the working paper, with references and appendices, on the website of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University. 

TERA working paper 

This report was produced with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

It was co-written by the Southern Regional Education Board and the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University. 

Co-authors are Laura Neergaard Booker, executive director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and senior lecturer, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University; Ashley Ellison, graduate research assistant at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University; Sam Keillor, graduate research assistant at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University; Raven Powell, research and operations manager at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University; Megan Boren, project manager at SREB, Jessica Nadzam, research associate at SREB, and Sheniqua Pierce, research analyst at SREB.

SREB and Vanderbilt University thank the Tennessee Department of Education, the Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYStats) and the Kentucky Department of Education for their participation. Additionally, we are grateful to various K-12 and higher education representatives from each state who provided feedback through the study’s research advisory committee.

Suggested citation: Booker, L., Ellison, A., Keillor, S., Powell, R., Boren, M. (2024). Teacher Labor Market Trends: Insights from Two Southern States. Southern Regional Education Board and the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University. https://www.sreb.org/publication/teacher-labor-market-trends

Teacher Labor Market Trends: Insights from Two Southern States is licensed under CC BY 4.0