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Twenty-some years ago, when Steven Johnson looked to fill teaching positions within his school district, a wide range of applications from qualified candidates crossed his desk.
Now Johnson, the superintendent of schools in Lisbon, North Dakota, says the number of applications has dwindled, and many of the applicants don’t have the right experience or qualifications.
“In the 90s, I would have nearly 100 applications for an elementary position with many having experience,” Johnson said. “Last year, when I had an elementary opening, we had only 12 completed applications. Four of the applicants did not have North Dakota licenses and none of them had teaching experience.”
Johnson’s experience is a familiar one to educators in rural America.
Gary Funk, director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, said the issue is a trend educators have seen worsening over the past 30 to 40 years.
“As more teachers reach retirement age in those school districts, there isn’t any policy to attract new teachers to those positions,” Funk said. “This is a tsunami that has been building up for some time.”
The Rural Schools Collaborative hopes a survey — conducted now through the end of April — of teachers and administrators will help those districts attract more teachers.
With the National Rural Education Association and The New Teachers Project, the collaborative hopes to find out what is and isn’t appealing to educators about teaching in rural areas.
“I think one of the benefits is class size and community size,” said Allen Pratt, executive director for the NREA. “There are challenges in rural areas, like lack of classroom technology, but I think there are many benefits that some find appealing.”
Funk, whose background includes two decades in public and higher education as a teacher, professor and administrator, said the survey is likely to focus on just part of the problem. Rural communities also struggle to keep young people in their area and to return once they have left for college.
Ryan Fowler, project director for The New Teacher Project, said the website where the survey resides will eventually be used to help rural districts get the message out that they have good jobs available.
“I think this will help districts tell their stories better,” Fowler said. “One thing that’s hard for rural schools is that in a world where job searches are fueled by a web presence, rural schools sometime get drowned out by larger school districts with well-staffed human resources departments. Rural schools’ human resources offices are oftentimes one or two people who handle everything. Hopefully, this website will help those districts publicize what they have available.”
Some districts, like Johnson’s, are already using extra measures to attract new teachers. Lisbon Public Schools helps teachers further their education, resulting in larger pay checks.
“Our school board has made it a point in their strategic plan to ‘Recruit, Train, and Retain’ effective teachers. They work hard to keep our salaries high enough to be competitive. They have also placed in policy a professional development program, which includes a promissory note for tuition, books and fees for advanced degrees or degrees that help them become highly qualified in an area of need. The note is paid back by service. For each year they work for the district after completion of their degree 25% of the note is written off. This policy was enacted in 2000 and has moved our advanced degreed teachers from a little over 20 percent to over 40 percent.”
The district also offers scholarships for students going into education, as well as working with a local university to provide a dual-credit course called Getting Into Teaching, which gives students both a high school and a college credit for the course.
Still, he said, challenges remain.
“In the secondary schools, it becomes even harder to find teachers, especially in math, science, career/tech education, and special education,” Johnson said. “I once went a full year without an application for a high school special education instructor and had to fill the position with a provisional licensed individual who did not have a teaching degree. I have also found that teachers have a lot more options, which they use to their advantage. Many times I offer the position a number of times before I get someone to sign a contract. We also have a housing issue, which plays a huge part in the decision to sign a contract.”
Pratt said he expects data from the survey to be released in the summer after answers are tabulated. The survey can be found here. Group members said the survey is being sent to partner school districts, as well as teachers and administrators.
“We’re looking for meaningful data,” Funk said. “We’re not trying to get a specific number of responses, but we are looking for a large geographic area.”