Kansas commissioner of education Randy Watson sat in an auditorium at Neodesha Middle-High School last week when a retired businessman pledged to pay college tuition for each of the school’s students for the next 25 years, at the minimum.

Stunned cheers and tears broke out among the students, and Watson said he walked up to a girl who was crying in the audience and asked her what she was going to do. She started to explain that she was going to K-State, but Watson cut her off. He didn’t need to know where she was going — he wanted to know what her passion was, and she said she wanted to become an agriculture teacher.

“I asked her if she thought she’d come back to Neodesha,” Watson said. “She said, ‘I hope I can.’”

Watson’s intention is to help develop Kansas communities where students know they can return to as teachers. At the third annual Retention Summit, sponored by the Kansas Department of Education, on Monday at the K-State Alumni Center, education leaders from across the state gathered to discuss what school districts can do to better recruit and retain teachers. That would help address a teacher shortage that Kansas, as well as other states, have felt in the past few years.

This fall, the Kansas Department of Education reported 815 teacher vacancies that school districts were unable to fill, an uptick from the 642 vacancies reported last year.

However, KSDE assistant director of teacher licensure Susan Helbert cautioned the school administrators from reading too much into the increase, as she attributed the jump in vacancies to better reporting procedures among the state’s school district since KSDE first started tracking vacancies three years ago.

School districts are most in need of special education teachers, followed by elementary teachers and science teachers. The data includes positions currently occupied by teachers who don’t have the appropriate licensure or endorsements to teach in those areas. About a quarter of all vacancies this year were because school districts received no applicants for those jobs.

The KSDE data shows that the state imports more teachers than it exports, as 559 out-of-state teachers came to teach in Kansas this year, compared to 263 Kansas teachers who left the state.

“We often say, well, there’s an educator shortage because that’s who we are, right?” Watson said. “There’s a nursing shortage, there’s an engineering shortage — there’s a worker shortage in America and Kansas, and I don’t think that we’re the only occupation. Unemployment is at historic lows, and some economists may argue that we’re at full employment. Those who want to work, can work.”

A study by Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor in K-State’s College of Education, found that Kansas teachers — particularly those under 30 or in specialty education programs like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and special education — are more likely to switch or leave schools compared to their peers in other Midwestern states.

However, Nguyen said that his research also found that Kansas teachers with graduate degrees or who belong to teacher unions are more likely to stay in their current schools, especially if the teachers indicated that they received better support from administrators at those schools. Nguyen added that school districts could likely boost retention rates by hiring a more diverse pool of educators and increasing salaries, although he acknowledged that that’s easier said than done for many districts.

Earlier this year, the state legislature boosted school funding to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that funding has been constitutionally inadequate over the past decade. Starting salaries, including benefits, for Kansas teachers now average about $40,000, although that average lags behind other states, Watson said.

“Here’s the challenge: $40,000 is where we wanted to be last year,” Watson said. “Now the new challenge is $45,000. Money matters only for you in that you want to be paid a fair wage. It’s not what drives us. … You can put a lot of money into this, but it won’t change the game because what makes people go into (teaching) is to change lives.”

Watson said that teacher burnout and stress is an increasing problem, especially as more students come to school with social and emotional trauma that carries over to teachers.

“Parents are sending their best kids to school,” Watson said. “They’re not holding their best ones at home. These are what they have. We can’t control what happened to them last night. We can’t control if they’re coming to school hungry. We can’t control whatever experiences or trauma they have.

“What we can control is that one of these outstanding (teachers) will be with them, and we can try to mitigate that and be with them,” Watson continued.

But Watson cautioned against educators letting that stress and trauma overwhelm them. He said when teachers complain about their jobs or overenthusiastically look forward to breaks from school or snow days, that sends the wrong message and could discourage others from becoming teachers.

“I know you’re tired, but we can’t let people know that on social media, because it drives other people away from the profession,” Watson said. “We have to be able to say to our colleges, ‘I know you’re tired. I saw how much effort you put in last week. But you can’t do that.’”

Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education, said that teaching is not a profession for “the intellectually weak or for the emotionally weak,” but administrators and teachers have to do better in taking care of themselves.

“There’s a reason that when you’re on an airplane, they say to put your own oxygen mask first before helping others, because if you’re not healthy and in a good place, it’s very difficult to help students around us who need your very best each and every day,” Mercer said.