New teachers hard to find

A current trend among U.S. school districts is a shortage of qualified applicants for teacher openings.

Some districts are finding it difficult to find certified teachers, while others look for potential hires among a dwindling pool of applicants.

North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler’s teacher shortage task force proposed giving struggling school districts the authority to request a hardship waiver to help fill their open teacher positions. Baesler said in a press release the step is necessary because many of North Dakota’s 179 public school districts are still scrambling to find teachers for the 2015-16 school year. Some districts are starting classes in less than two weeks.

The waiver would allow a community expert to become a classroom teacher in the subject of their expertise. For example, a school district could hire an experienced farmer who lacks a college degree in education to be licensed to teach vocational agriculture.

The board will draft emergency administrative rules that will go into detail about how the hardship waivers will work and under what conditions they can be used. Waivers are good for one year, allowing districts to continue their search for qualified educators after students are back in the classroom.

But larger school districts aren’t immune from the teacher shortage either. The Fargo Forum reported the district has 14 positions yet to fill and school starts in a few short weeks. Jacobson asked, if the Fargo School District can’t find enough qualified applicants, what chance do the smaller and rural school districts have?

Baesler said that 129 of North Dakota’s 179 public school districts responded to a recent survey about their success in hiring teachers. As of last week, Baesler said, there were 72 elementary teaching positions that had not been filled and 102 open high school and middle school positions.

Some are school districts have had to bend slightly to fill a teacher opening. Hankinson had an opening in the high school math department and due to certification among the district’s existing staff, could fill either a science or math position with a new hire. The district filled its opening with a science teacher and then shifted a science teacher into the math opening.

“We don’t usually get as many qualified applicants as we’d like, but in the end, we feel lucky to get someone fully qualified,” said Hankinson Superintendent Chad Benson. “They may not be a great fit, but we are thankful in the end the fit is what we are looking for.”

Benson cited a number of reasons for the current teacher shortage. One is the hiring boom in western North Dakota in the Bakken Oil Field. Another reason, he said, was the education field is not as popular as it once was. After graduating from high school, some students who would make great teachers are told not to pursue that career. Other bright young minds end up in the medical and engineering fields, careers where they can make more money. Money is an issue in any career and teaching isn’t known to bring in a large income, Benson said.

“The perception and it is somewhat real,  is they won’t make any money in education,” Benson said. “We’ve made good strides in North Dakota to get salaries to a place where teachers aren’t living in poverty. You can make a living as a teacher.”

However, rural school districts are having a more difficult time finding teachers because some new graduates are unwilling to work in a small town. Even districts like Wahpeton find young teachers prefer to live in the larger cities so they can have a social life.

“In Hankinson we have difficulty attracting people to apply because we aren’t Fargo or Bismarck,” Benson said. “We don’t have a Walmart, a car dealership and movie theaters here. If you get them to apply and hire them, you want them to stay.”

Wahpeton students will return to school Wednesday, Aug. 26 and Superintendent of Schools Rick Jacobson said this is the first year the district had a difficult time finding qualified applicants for open teaching positions.

“I never thought we would get to this point,” Jacobson said. 

Wahpeton School district has an online application process for all positions. In the past for elementary positions, the district received between 50-100 applicants. The trend of fewer qualified applicants has turned into a significantly lower pool, with perhaps 20-25 applicants this hiring season, he said. In the case of a high school math opening, that number drops to a more alarming pool of 10 possible applicants.

“When we have openings we’re looking for a certain type of person – their personality and academic background,” Jacobson said. “We don’t want to hire a warm body. Just because they are certified isn’t enough. We want to hire the best person for us.”

Wahpeton had some openings after the completion of the spring term due to retiring teachers. The school board hired two teachers from Circle of Nations School in Wahpeton and had one other opening to fill so officials went to the general application pool to look for replacements. Jacobson said the district was fortunate to find the instructors they needed. A few weeks ago Dave Rasmussen retired as the 6-12 grade band director due to health reasons and the district scrambled to fill this opening.

“I don’t know that we would have been able to fill our openings from the general application pool,” Jacobson said. “Outside of the two teachers we hired from Circle of Nations, we had to hire a sixth grade science teacher and that was a struggle for us. We went a different direction and were fortunate to do that internally.”

The first three years in education are somewhat defining for young teachers. Jacobson said if Wahpeton can keep them past those first initial years, they can usually retain them. He knows the district has lost young teachers to the larger cities because there isn’t as much to do in Wahpeton as compared to Fargo and West Fargo.

“These teachers would rather go unemployed or sub, sometimes working two to three jobs, rather than get a regular teaching job in a smaller community,” Jacobson said.

Responding to concerns from North Dakota school administrators, Baesler assembled a task force in June to explore ways to alleviate the state’s teacher shortage. At its second meeting Monday, the group recommended asking the Education Standards and Practices Board to give school districts the option of requesting hardship waivers if they were having difficulties recruiting a licensed teacher.

North Dakota’s administrative rules process allows agencies, with the governor’s approval, to implement emergency rules by filing them with the Legislative Council, which is the research arm of the North Dakota Legislature. Baesler said her task force would continue working on longer-term solutions to North Dakota’s teacher shortage. “Our work is not over,” she said. “It is just beginning.”

Area superintendents have become salesman to future applicants. They’ve learned how to “sell” their school district to make it sound enticing to qualified teachers. In Wahpeton, Jacobson pushes the number of services provided in Wahpeton, including basic care, from dental to health clinics. Hankinson relies on the amenities the small town has and its charming atmosphere. But the reality for both superintendents is many younger teachers are looking for more social interaction than either community can attain. Both districts have filled their openings, but neither superintendent has an answer for retaining young teachers.

“Everyone has to find their niche,” Benson said.

“If young teachers are willing to relocate they have a good chance of finding a job,” Jacobson added. “This field is what you make it out to be. The jobs are out there, but they have to be willing to apply.”

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