For the past several weeks, K-12 schools across the country have been lamenting about the shortage of classroom teachers and other school staff. Difficulties filling job vacancies have been reported across the country. In many cases, these shortages existed before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has compounded the problem. It’s not just that people are concerned about being exposed to the virus; the stresses involved with educating in a COVID world full of regulations and ever changing mandates seems to be exacerbating the workforce crisis in K-12 education. To fix this problem, it’s time to look past the traditional school environment and focus on new innovative learning methods that can reinvigorate what a profession in education looks like.

The issue came up at the most recent State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meeting earlier this month, prompting a nearly one-hour discussion among board members and testimony from stakeholders. A few local news outlets followed up with stories about the impact of the problem on public schools throughout the state. In some cases, school leaders pointed to the same culprits blamed by their peers nationally. They described increased efforts to recruit from area colleges and other teacher preparation programs, but the supply just isn’t what it used to be. Far fewer individuals are completing those programs and showing up at recruiting fairs.

It’s no surprise that the status quo, including teachers’ union and school district spokespersons, have begun using this as an opportunity to lobby for watered down state policies on teacher evaluation and accountability, easier and less demanding curricula, and getting more retired teachers collecting state pensions back in the classroom. (On a related note, see this new report that uncovered Louisiana schools’ alarming drop in the use of high-quality, standards-aligned curricula over the past two year.)

As tempting as it might be to simply throw more money at the problem, water down hard-fought reforms, and bring back retirees who have done the job before but may not be prepared to teach in a modern classroom, these are not solutions that will attract and retain individuals to work in our schools. Instead, what’s needed is a comprehensive plan that fosters innovation, reduces barriers to employment, and prioritizes a more fulfilling career path. Great teachers expect and deserve to be compensated (including base salaries, retirement, and other benefits) competitively, especially if their students are achieving and exceeding desired learning outcomes. However, great teachers do not support lowering standards for their students, nor do they thrive under weak leadership, with ineffective training and support, and in antiquated school environments.

Schools also need to consider the new ways in which individuals want to work and families want their children to be educated. In many cases, it’s no longer in a traditional school environment or school day. There are a variety of new and innovative ways to educate children from online schooling to learning pods. Education professionals who are fully qualified to teach in a variety of settings may not be interested in taking a full-time traditional teaching job, but they might be very motivated to invest in the lives of school-aged children if given additional ways to do so.

State officials at the state Department of Education have begun recruiting vetted providers (instructors) to provide literacy tutoring and teach high school courses outside of regular full-time teaching positions in schools, but significantly more needs to be done to create a robust network of talent across the entire elementary and secondary continuum. To start, this will require new thinking about licensure, talent acquisition and HR policies, school schedules, and instructional delivery methods. To sum it up, state and local educational leaders need to be innovative to recruit and retain both school staff and students within the public education system.

The same old strategies just won’t work if we truly want to tackle this crisis once and for all. We need to pursue bold, innovative solutions that will make the teaching profession and other school roles much more attractive, competitive, and ultimately more responsive to the needs of students so help them thrive.