At a time when school districts nationwide are experiencing teacher shortages, districts that historically have difficulty attracting and retaining quality teachers are really scrambling for staff. This week Education World explores the effects of the teacher shortage on remote and rural schools. Included: What are schools doing to solve the shortage?
When Reid Riedlinger advertises for staff, he offers them subsidized housing, laptop computers, eight computers and a copy machine for each classroom, and a full-time teaching assistant! Riedlinger, superintendent of schools in the two-building Wellpinit School District, which serves 402 K-12 children on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, also offers classes that average just 17 students. Plus, he told Education World, he throws in free breakfast and lunch if teachers eat it with students, and he promises no staff meetings longer than 30 minutes.
To try to staff the state's schools, Alaska initiated the Rural Education Partnership Program, a one-year program that helps Alaska natives and others already living in rural districts obtain teaching certificates. The educators work with the local school district, community, and university while earning their credentials. Currently, about 60 percent of those enrolled are Alaska natives, director of Alaska teacher placement Mary Ellen LaBerge told Education World.
With an aging teaching force, mandated class size reductions, and the swelling numbers of immigrants and baby boomer children, U.S. schools will need an unprecedented number of new teachers over the next decade. Between 2 million and 2.5 million -- an average of more than 200,000 annually -- new teachers will be needed, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF). It is assumed that about half of those teachers will come from a pool of people newly prepared for the profession, and the rest will be returnees from the reserve pool of teachers.
However, those who left teaching may not be that likely to return. In many cases, they view their current salaries, working conditions, and opportunities for advancement much more favorably than do those who stayed in teaching. And as for the teachers currently being prepared to teach, in a series of reports written for the NCTAF Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond found the following:
In addition, Hammond found, teachers are hesitant to move from where they are to rural or remote regions where they may be most needed.
"That 20-year teacher has really locked himself or herself into a job by the time [the teacher has] stayed at [a] district for four or five years," executive director Joe Bard of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools told Education World. "The people teaching should have broad exposure to and knowledge of the world. Instead you get folks who teach within 25 miles of where they went to high school and college.
"A district that can put $14,000 behind each child can attract different teachers than a district that can put $6,000 behind each child," added Bard.
Several years ago, Pennsylvania offered a program of forgiveness of student loans for teachers who took jobs in rural or urban districts. "That program has sadly fallen by the wayside," said Bard.
In October of the current school year, there were 84 teaching vacancies in Alaska. About half of those were in the Anchorage area, and more than a third of the vacancies were in special education, John Holst, superintendent of the Sitka (Alaska) School District told Education World.
"We are experiencing extreme shortages in special education," said Holst. "Recent changes in the federal laws guiding special education programs have made it much more difficult to be in simple compliance with student discipline, meeting paperwork requirements, and dealing with providing for the needs of what appears to be a growing population of students who qualify for special services."
"We have many teachers in our regular classrooms who previously taught special education and even have maintained their certification," Holst added. " Most of them would quit or move elsewhere if they were required to do special education. We do not have the ability to differentiate pay for such positions as special education."
In addition to the 84 teaching vacancies, "we have 42 teachers on waivers right now," added LaBerge. "That means special education teachers who haven't finished their degrees are in the classroom as full-time teachers. Districts are becoming very creative -- using aides and paraprofessionals for teachers."
In addition, noted LaBerge, many of the rural districts are forced to use teachers endorsed in one area to teach classes in other areas. "This in turn causes retention problems," she told Education World. "Teachers required to teach out of their endorsement area reach stress levels much faster and become discouraged and/or overwhelmed much easier. Morale can be low, and turnover is much greater in districts that have to resort to this."
One other trend that LaBerge has noticed is that teachers seem to be "jumping" contracts. "We have had more teachers walk out on contracts this year than ever before," she said. "Signing bonuses -- generally, we don't have them."
"Several schools [in Nebraska] offered signing bonuses, and almost all schools are now allowing unlimited years of experience to new teachers," Matt Fisher, principal of Chase County High School (Imperial, Nebraska), told Education World. Yet "here in rural Nebraska we are definitely seeing a shortage of qualified teachers."
"In Iowa, larger districts often successfully recruit the new teachers because a spouse may have more employment opportunity in a larger district or because young people often prefer larger communities," Dr. Victoria Robinson told Education World. Robinson is coordinator of student teachers at the University of Northern Iowa and a member of the National Rural Education Association panel currently studying the rural teacher shortage.
Attracting teachers to teach on Indian reservations presents unique challenges too. If the local community and tribe support bilingual and bicultural education, then teachers hired must learn how to integrate the local tribal language and culture into the regular school curriculum. Isolation, salary, housing, social life, educational opportunities for children, and employment issues for spouses often lead to high turnover.
"This year over half the faculty is new," Sister Kathleen Kajer, principal of St. Michael Indian School -- located on a Navajo reservation in St. Michaels, Arizona -- told Education World. Some who work here "find they miss family and the big city too much to stay and we have a low pay scale."
The state of Connecticut equalized salaries to help rural areas attract teachers. Though that mitigated the situation, "Connecticut does not have a plethora of teachers," Jane Tedder, executive director of Education Connection, an education service center conducting online recruiting for 31 districts in western Connecticut, told Education World.
"While there is for the moment an ample supply of elementary candidates, severe shortages are beginning to cause havoc in higher levels. We have been protected to date by our comparatively high salaries, but even that protection is waning in view of the opportunities that appear in other employment sectors," Tedder said.
"Over 25 percent of TTT participants are employed as math or science teachers, and 24 percent are teaching in rural school districts," said Gantz. "The same percentage [24 percent] are teaching in inner city school districts.
"In addition, TTT participants are predominantly male [85 percent] and one-third are from racial or ethnic backgrounds," continued Gantz. "Many of these people may be interested in 'going home' or specifically look for a rural or small-town environment in which to raise their families. Others have come from an inner city or poverty situation and specifically seek to teach in these communities because they believe they can make a difference."
Unfortunately, though, "the future of Troops to Teachers is uncertain," Meryl Kettler, coordinator of the Texas Military Initiative/TTT, told Education World. "We have been given enough federal funds to continue the operation of the state offices [only] through September 2000."
Personnel who were already unable to recruit enough talented teachers shudder as they contemplate dealing with the teacher shortages expected over the next decade. Successful programs do exist for recruiting quality teachers (targeting males, minorities, and people with specialties) in high-need areas; eliminating barriers for them to move to where they are needed; and increasing the ability of low-wealth districts to pay for them. But as long as states and/or the federal government increase demands on teachers while canceling some of these very programs, the problem rural and remote schools face in attracting and retaining quality teachers is just not likely to fade.
Article by Glori Chaika
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