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Scrambling for Staff: The Teacher Shortage in Rural Schools

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:

  • After they graduate, only about 60 percent of students trained as teachers actually enter the profession.
  • Thirty percent of the traditionally trained teachers, 10 to 15 percent of teachers prepared in five-year teacher preparation programs, and 60 percent of those prepared in truncated alternative programs leave the profession by their third year.
  • Of those who enter the profession, most teachers in public schools are non-Hispanic Caucasian females; the proportion of minority teachers is far less than the proportion of minority students.
  • More than 25 percent of those hired each year are not fully prepared and licensed for their jobs, and those teachers are assigned primarily to the most educationally vulnerable children.
  • Even if new teachers have certification, they are frequently not certified in areas of greatest need, such as math, science, and special education.

In addition, Hammond found, teachers are hesitant to move from where they are to rural or remote regions where they may be most needed.


Though some believe the current supply of teachers is inadequate, "national figures seem to indicate that there are enough teachers to go around," Timothy Collins, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools and coordinator of a recent symposium for the National Rural Education Association told Education World. The problem he perceives is one of subject shortages and geographic distribution. Once a teacher has years in a system, he or she may be reluctant to move to a rural or remote region, starting over again on the bottom rung of a salary scale that is not adjusted for past experience.

"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.


Like those in Pennsylvania, Alaska's "Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna school districts hurt themselves a few years ago when they stopped giving new hires monetary credit for their years of experience," Alaska's teacher placement director Mary Ellen LaBerge told Education World. "Unless you are in a specialty area, teachers coming into the systems come in at entry level." Not recognizing past experience, not providing inducements to relocate, and paying a flat salary certainly do not help a rural or remote area's teacher recruitment, said LaBerge.

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."


Although most Alaskan schools do not offer signing bonuses or adjust pay to reflect a teacher's past experience, even rural schools that do are having trouble finding and retaining quality teachers.

"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."


"Our University Board of Regents has just mandated that [the four-year] Bachelor of Education Program will be terminated by the spring of 2002," said LaBerge. A new five-year program will take its place. "The only concern here is that there is a possibility that the number of students graduating through this program could be cut as much as 50 percent. This would dramatically affect the ability to fill teaching positions in Alaska's rural sites. As it is already at a critical stage, this prospect is frightening."

"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."


Some believe with the right offer, they might be able to recruit surplus teachers from states that have them -- states such as Connecticut. But do any states really have a surplus of teachers?

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.


One program that apparently does work at effectively attracting males and minorities into teaching, and specifically into the shortage areas, is Troops to Teachers (TTT). The program is designed to help military personnel interested in a second career in public education to locate certification programs and employment opportunities, John Gantz, chief of the Troops to Teachers program, told Education World.

"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.



  • Should PTAs Be Allowed to Fund School Staff Positions? This February 1999 National Education Association Today story debates whether PTA groups should be permitted to fund school positions not covered by the regular school budget.
  • Recruiting New Teachers, Inc. Recruiting New Teachers, Inc. is a national nonprofit organization formed in 1986, to raise esteem for teaching, expand the pool of prospective teachers, and improve the nation's teacher recruitment,

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