NEW ULM – Teachers are in short supply, and the local district feels it.
It’s one key take-away from a recent conversation with Superintendent Jeff Bertrang.
Bertrang says that, while the problem is not of the same magnitude throughout the system (with elementary positions, for example, still possible to fill), in specific areas, the school system is finding it more difficult to fill open positions than in the past.
The trend has been at work over the past 5-8 years, he noted.
The areas concerned are primarily vocational education (industrial technology, agriculture, business, and family and consumer science, or FACS), special education (with its many unique licensures), early childhood and family education, or ECFE, and, often, although not this year, math and science.
The district has been getting two to five applications in what Bertrang calls “high-need, low-candidate” postings.
Generally, he says, one-half of the applicants are immediately “out” because they do not have the right license; the remaining candidates may or may not be a good fit.
To choose good candidates, schools ideally prefer to see 8-10 applications in low-supply areas and 15-20 in others, says Bertrang.
Even when you appear to have several applicants for a position, it can be misleading, noted Bertrang.
Candidates apply “across the spectrum,” especially in special education areas such as learning disabilities, emotional and behavior disorders, speech, etc.
The same person applies for several open positions at once, at the elementary, middle, or high-school level.
The problem spills into substitute teaching, added Bertrang. As districts hire out of that pool, it dwindles.
Most schools with openings left unfilled after July 1 fall back to the next line of defense: seeking a licensure “variance” from the state.
Variances are permissions for teachers to teach in an area in which they have expertise but are not formally licensed.
In some cases, these teachers go on to earn the required license.
Some openings in the district – for media specialists and ECFE teachers in particular – have been filled this way.
“Every year, we seek a variance for somebody in ECFE,” said Bertrang.
Another level of recourse is seeking a “community expert” license to fill hard-to-fill openings, continued Bertrang.
This is a license for someone without a teaching degree who is an expert in their field.
It’s an approach especially applicable to vocational areas, such as business.
The district has not done it lately, but keeps in mind this option.
The teacher shortage is a national problem and has to do with the skyrocketing cost of university education, said Bertrang.
He is backed up by statistics.
The teacher pipeline is drying up, according to a national survey of first-time freshmen.
The percentage of freshmen interested in teaching is at an all time low of 4 percent, according to the University of California, Los Angeles, which conducted the survey.
It also comes at the end of a 15-year decline. At the turn of the century, it was around 11 percent.
It is expensive to earn a teaching degree, and earnings in the teaching profession do not justify it, noted Bertrang.
To many young people, it makes no sense to enter into a great deal of debt to become a teacher when they can earn a lot more, and pay off debt much faster, by working in industry, said Bertrang.
“You really have to love teaching, and want to do it, to become a teacher,” says Bertrang.
The nationwide “school accountability” drive of the past several years has had the unintended consequence of making the profession less attractive to those inclined to view it as a vocation.
Teaching candidates see the increased emphasis on high-stakes testing – and being forced to teach to the test – as taking away from being creative in the classroom and making a true difference to children.
Another reason for the shortage is state-specific. State vocational training programs in colleges have closed, producing no new vocational teachers.
It’s double, perhaps a triple, whammy: the closure of college programs has coincided with a wave of baby-boomer retirements. No new grads are available to replace vocational teachers, just as the state has increased vocational programming demands on high schools under its World Best Work Force law.
“You can’t find them, and everybody else also needs them,” Bertrang said, of vocational teachers. “It will get worse before it gets better.”
Teacher burnout is also a factor. In special education – where building trust with students and families is arguably even more critical than in other fields – teachers tend not to last. Many of them are quickly overwhelmed and disillusioned with the amount of paperwork and time spent in meetings – meant to protect children’s interests but in many cases counterproductive. That takes away from actual work in the classroom, with the children.
In the science field, in particular, specific factors are also at work, Bertrang noted.
In one sense, the science teachers’ organization “shot itself in the foot” when it successfully pressed for a requirement that teachers be licensed in a specific sub-area to teach it.
Under this requirement, a chemistry teacher has to teach chemistry – and cannot teach biology, for example.
While this idea is meant to, and does, ensure quality, it also has an adverse side effect. It makes it difficult to recruit science teachers for small schools.
“If they can’t teach six sections of chemistry, they become part-time,” said Bertrang.
It limits both the school’s and the teacher’s options.
“A good science teacher is a good science teacher,” noted Bertrang.
“Some teachers are capable of teaching content across the curriculum.”
To deal with the shortage, schools are resorting to unconventional approaches.
“We contact colleges and work with various deans to see who is in the pipeline,” said Bertrang. “We go to them, instead of waiting for them to come to us.”
Schools also closely watch students-teachers they help train and “take a gamble” hiring capable candidates “out of sequence with the norm” or before graduation.
Then they mentor.
In one instance, the local district recruited one of its own retirees, an experienced FACS teacher, to mentor such a new hire, recalled Bertrang.
Schools also “take a calculated risk” and “snap up” candidates quickly, fearful of being beaten to the finish line by another school.
“Ideally, we’d like to take a little time to consider a candidate,” said Bertrang. “But if you think too long, they are gone. Someone else has snapped them up.”