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How to Train a Teacher: Superintendents scramble amid staffing shortages | Local News

Five weeks before classes began at the Frenchtown School District, Superintendent Les Meyer received the first candidate for an industrial arts teaching position — a position advertised since at least March.

Meyer ended up taking the job with someone who had years of industry experience — but no classroom experience — and they were officially hired by the school board the day before school started.

Last-minute hiring didn’t stop there.

As the first day of school approached, the number of students enrolled in Frenchtown’s kindergarten unexpectedly increased and the district had to hire an additional teacher. Meyer had an interview with a potential candidate scheduled for Friday, and kindergarten classes are scheduled to begin the following Tuesday.

At one time, a lack of applicants for teaching positions in a school district like Frenchtown would have been unprecedented.

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“I think it’s really a sign of the times,” Meyer said. “Because our location, I think, is ideal from a recruiting standpoint, and even a retention standpoint.”

While the teacher shortage has become a national issue recently, it’s not new to Montana. Its effects have only been exacerbated when it comes to smaller, more rural school districts.

Among the myriad reasons for school staffing shortages in the state, administrators, teachers, and education stakeholders all agree that the issue of compensation cannot be ignored. On average, Montana pays its beginning teachers less than any other state, nearly $8,000 less than the national average.

Emergency permissions

In far northeast Montana, Plentywood School District Superintendent Rob Pedersen tried to catch his breath on the first day of school Wednesday after facing a huge hiring challenge during the summer.

An unprecedented 16 teachers left their posts in the district at the end of last school year, in a district that normally employs between 65 and 70 people as teachers, administrators, kitchen staff, custodians and more. Again.

“It was definitely the most eventful ever, probably in our school’s history, I guess,” Pedersen said. “It’s my fourth go-around and it’s definitely the hardest for me. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many people leave our neighborhood.

Some employees who were paraprofessionals the previous year entered teaching positions with provisional licenses this school year, which means they are in the process of gaining the necessary qualifications to be a certified teacher. Others have come through emergency clearance, which allows a district to employ someone without a teaching license after exhausting all hiring opportunities.

The U.S. Department of Education found that a quarter of teachers and principals in Montana held more than one position during the 2016-17 school year, and rural communities generally saw higher rates of employment. employees double their responsibilities.

“You’re constantly working on that,” Pedersen said. “Making phone calls and trying to recruit and then it was just your own staff that you were trying to move around like chess pieces.”

“You don’t just clock in at 5 a.m. and go home and turn off your brain and then turn it back on when you show up the next morning,” he continued. “It’s something that constantly weighs on your mind trying to figure out how to put this puzzle together.”

By the first day of school, all but two class posts at Plentywood had been filled. Even so, the district was short 22 fewer employees than the previous school year, about a third of its usual staff. These positions include guards, paraprofessionals, bus drivers and other hourly paid positions as well as teachers and administrators.

Hiring teachers and other district staff can be a challenge given the city’s remote location, about 15 miles south of the Canadian border and 25 miles west of North Dakota.

“You come to Plentywood for a specific reason,” Pedersen said. “It’s not near a metropolitan area. We are not on a highway, we are just small, rural and agriculture is the main focus of the economy.

Plentywood is also struggling to fill hourly positions, such as paraprofessionals, caretakers and kitchen staff. When the district was only able to fill one of its five custodial positions last year, teachers clawed back some paid overtime after class to empty trash and clean the school.

This year the district has completely replenished its bus routes with replacement drivers, meaning there is no back up if someone gets sick or takes time off and parents would have to find another means of bringing their children to school.

“For a superintendent at least, it’s as big a headache as the teaching situation,” Pedersen said.

Big districts feel the pinch

While large school districts in urban Montana cities do not face the same degree of difficulty when it comes to hiring teachers, it has become difficult to recruit hourly staff.

Hiring staff for positions such as back-ups, bus drivers, kitchen cooks and janitors has become increasingly difficult during the COVID pandemic, said Dave Rott, executive director of human resources and Labor Relations at Missoula County Public Schools.

One of the hardest hit areas for MCPS in particular is that of substitute teachers. Before the pandemic, there were more than 200 people on the district’s alternate roster.

“Over the past two years, that number has dropped precipitously,” Rott said. At an August board meeting, Rott noted that there were only about 100 people the district could call as substitute teachers last year.

Nearly 9,000 students attend the Missoula District School, which employs more than 500 certified staff members such as teachers, counselors, and administrators.

The MCPS School Board recently approved pay raises for many hourly positions, with substitute teachers seeing some of the biggest gains. Earlier this year, the district added an annual stipend to special education teachers in an effort to better recruit and retain them.

The $2 increase raised substitute teachers to $14.50 an hour, which still struggles to compete with local fast food restaurants like McDonalds that offer up to $16 an hour .

Superintendents and hiring administrators in districts across the state agree that the number of applicants for teaching positions has declined in recent years. While Missoula schools aren’t struggling to fill in-class positions, they’re also seeing candidate pools dry up.

“We can only get one or two applicants for positions that five years ago would have had six or seven or more applicants,” Rott said.

Fighting shortages

When a teaching position in music, foreign language, or family and consumer science is vacant, many superintendents hold their breath when it comes to waiting for applicants.

“All positions get awkward, there’s no doubt about that,” said Matt Genger, Malta Public Schools Superintendent. “The candidates just aren’t there.”

As a result, their districts have had to change what and how electives they offer by connecting students to classes through the Montana Digital Academy, which partners with public schools across the state to offer college courses. and high school online.

About seven years ago, Shelby Public Schools decided to expand its pool of teacher candidates internationally and became one of the first districts in the state to hire teachers from the Philippines.

International teachers can teach in Montana and earn necessary certifications through programs such as Foreign Cultural Exchange Consultants, which aims to place teachers in hard-to-fill positions across the United States.

“I can’t say enough how well this program has worked for us because when we first started it there was some nervousness around my school board,” Superintendent Elliot Crump said. “But it’s been a fantastic program.”

Filipino teachers can work in the United States for up to five years under the program, but were granted a one-year extension during the pandemic.

While these teachers may not be able to pursue lifelong careers at Shelby, Crump is happy to have filled some staffing gaps.

“Teacher longevity just isn’t the same as it used to be,” Crump said. “From what I’ve seen, having a teacher come and work for you for 20 to 25 years is not a reality I live in. When I have someone for five or six years to come work well with my students, I was very happy and they all did a fantastic job.

From five to four

In an effort to recruit and retain teachers, some school districts in Montana are moving away from five-day school weeks to four-day weeks. As of March 2022, 175 Montana schools were operating four-day school weeks out of 825 total schools, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Next year Plentywood will join the ranks of the four-day week to be competitive in hiring.

“We’re one of the few holdouts,” Pedersen said. “We just felt like we had no choice but to do it. I don’t think it’s great for education, but it’s something you almost have to do a certain way if you want to compete.

Despite the best efforts of administrators to recruit and retain teachers, the problem of low teacher compensation in Montana continues to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.

The average starting salary for a Montana teacher was $32,871 in the 2019-20 school year, according to an analysis by the Learning Policy Institute. On average, Idaho starts its teachers at $38,015. Teachers in North Dakota open at $40,106 and those in Wyoming at $46,558.

Regardless of low salaries, most Montana teachers reported that they were generally satisfied with teaching in their current district, according to a 2019 survey of Montana educators by Montana State University. However, less than half said they were satisfied with their salary and benefits.

Just under half of public school funding in Montana comes from the state.

“It’s a crisis in my book,” said Pedersen of Plentywood. “In our state, it’s a crisis. Yes, it’s happening nationwide, but we’re even worse off because of how we compete financially with other states.”

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