Rick Joseph spent the last 19 years teaching language arts and social studies in the affluent Birmingham school district, an assignment many educators would covet. He gave that up to start a new role this fall as a master teacher in the Detroit school district.
The hiring of Joseph — the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year — would be a coup in any year for Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has long struggled to attract teachers. But this year it means something more. Joseph is among a class of new hires who have helped district officials close in on a goal that has eluded them for years: starting the school year fully staffed.
As recently as two weeks ago, district officials were expecting to actually hit that goal. But then they received about 30 last-minute resignations, mostly involving teachers leaving for better-paying suburban jobs like the one Joseph left. As a result, with school starting Monday, “about 80% of our schools are still fully staffed with teachers,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat Friday.
Still, the district is in much better shape than it has been in recent years. In 2017, when Vitti was hired, Detroit had over 200 teacher vacancies a month before the start of school. The previous year, there were around 180. District leaders attribute the turnaround to increased staff pay, a restructured HR department, and a pipeline to develop teachers.
Vitti, who spent part of his first day as superintendent making the rounds at a teacher job fair, made recruiting a key piece of his plans to turn around the district. It has also helped that recent collective bargaining agreements with the teachers union have boosted pay and made it easier for experienced teachers coming in from other districts to get credit on the pay scale for their years of experience.
Joseph will teach fifth-grade part time at Wayne Elementary School and spend the rest of his time coaching and mentoring his peers.
“DPSCD has prioritized hiring people who want to work in DPSCD,” Joseph said. “In the past, that wasn’t possible. It was much more difficult to make that switch, but now it’s become more doable for a lot of teachers.”
How Detroit faced its longstanding staff shortage
The district’s successes are noteworthy given the challenges school districts across Michigan and the country have faced to attract and retain educators. Between high levels of stress during the pandemic, an ongoing decline in people training to become teachers, and competition among districts, this year has looked much harder for school districts attempting to staff their classrooms with skilled teachers.
The Detroit school district has historically had a shortage of teachers, particularly during emergency management — the nearly decade-long period of state control during which pay cuts were common, morale was low, and teachers were leaving the district for prospective employment and better salaries elsewhere.
Vitti points to a combination of strategies DPSCD employed over the past five years to recruit and retain teachers.
At the top of the list: increasing salaries.
In recent years, the district has put considerable effort into boosting its starting salaries, from roughly $36,000 at the beginning of Vitti’s tenure to over $51,000 this past school year. During the pandemic, staff were eligible to receive hazard pay, and the district has been able to offer recurring holiday and seniority bonuses for teachers.
The district also made it easier for current teachers and prospective hires to receive credit for their years of service. Before Vitti’s arrival, teachers hired into the district would receive credit for only up to two years of service elsewhere, which placed them near the bottom of the district pay scale, and meant a huge pay cut for most.
And the district overhauled its human resources operations, giving principals greater agency to seek out staff for their buildings, and developing the district’s teacher pipeline.
Vitti credits the On The Rise Academy, an alternative teacher certification program the district developed in 2021, as an “essential” step toward boosting the district’s teacher workforce in a competitive market. The program allows participants to begin teaching while working toward certification.
Those types of teacher development programs, Vitti said, “are essential because education programs are simply not producing enough candidates nationally or statewide.”
“The challenge is even greater for large urban districts, because the few undergraduates who want to teach are more likely to teach outside of the city,” he said.
Recruiting teachers in a competitive market
The district will have to make up for vacancies in teacher and support staff positions at the start of the year, Vitti said. Last-minute teacher resignations will require that individual schools rely on their master teachers to cover classes or adjust students’ schedules.
Hourly positions such as security guards, bus aides, paraprofessionals and cafeteria workers, will be recruited during the school year.
In the past, the district has called on retired educators to address critical staffing needs in math, science, and special education. Vitti said the district no longer intends to do that, but he said it could rely on them as part-time academic interventionists, another area of critical need.
But the district still has to contend with competition from surrounding school districts in metro Detroit, which have adopted a variety of tactics to appeal to both education majors and to DPSCD employees considering a change.
As of about two weeks ago, the district was assured it would be fully staffed heading into the school year, Vitti said at a parent listening session on Thursday. But, he noted, “some individual schools have had a spike in teacher vacancies,” brought on by people taking “jobs in nearby districts that have been offering $10,000 or more than we are offering.”
Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said many suburban districts “aren’t afraid to poach from Detroit because we tend to have folks who have some good level of experience, expertise and know-how.”
Martin credits the district’s overall teacher staffing levels in part to the union’s efforts, noting that their discussions at the bargaining table worked to “bring teachers in at a higher salary rate” and retain current teachers.
As part of its current negotiations with the district, Martin added, the union is looking to increase pay for substitute teachers.
Vitti said there’s still more the district will need to do to make the district more attractive to prospective employees, including continuing to raise salaries. That might mean reordering other budget priorities to be able to prioritize teacher salaries in the future, he said.
Joseph’s first day
Aug. 22 marked the first day for teachers in the Detroit school district, and Joseph said he felt the same excitement and enthusiasm that he’s had in the past meeting new colleagues and familiarizing himself with his new classroom at Wayne Elementary.
“I was struck by the strong family atmosphere at Wayne,” he said. “I know that exists in a lot of buildings in Detroit, just from what I’ve heard from other educators, and there’s a real need to support each other.”
It’s not lost on Joseph that teaching in Detroit takes on the added responsibility of serving a district that has historically been “underserved and marginalized.” But he said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“I know for a fact that good teaching is good teaching is good teaching,” Joseph said. “And it doesn’t matter where you find an educator. There are certain standards of practice that are common to all teachers everywhere.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I really want to do my best to use my talents and gifts in their highest and best form to support my students and families.”
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.