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‘You’ve gotta think outside of the box’: Facing teacher shortages, Minnesota districts get creative

On the heels of graduation ceremonies across the state, school administrators are busy trying to finalize their new hires for the upcoming school year — snatching up recent graduates and enticing more experienced educators to join their team.

The end of June typically marks the end of the teacher hiring season, but there are still lots of openings posted online. Many of these openings are reflective of the predominant teacher shortage areas: special education, math and science.

The shortages aren’t just subject-specific. Districts across the state are also struggling to attract applicants of color, as well as applicants interested in working in more rural districts. And hiring officials predict that these shortage areas aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.

In response, many districts have begun to rethink how they go about recruiting teachers. The traditional job fairs aren’t producing enough applicants, some administrators say. So they’ve begun investing more in some lesser-known recruitment strategies that seem to be promising — everything from offering signing and retention bonuses to establishing in-house grow-your-own programs and setting their sights on local high school students who, with a bit of encouragement, may take an interest in pursuing a teaching degree and coming back home to work.

“You’ve gotta think outside of the box,” said Brett Joyce, superintendent of Triton Public Schools, located in southeast Minnesota. “I really believe we’re gonna have to be more and more innovative to make this work.”

Getting a jump-start on the recruitment process

Looking at the upcoming school year, Joyce says he was fortunate in being able to fill the majority of his open teaching positions, thanks to a creative solution.

For instance, in order to fill an open industrial tech position at one of his schools, he ended up hiring two young men who are still completing their agricultural education degrees to each do half of the teaching load. They’ll essentially do a paid internship at his school to fulfill their student teaching program requirement — an arrangement made possible with the state’s new tiered teacher licensure system, he says.

Since they’ll both be commuting from the metro area, he hopes the stipend they collect will allow them to rent a place to stay closer if they’d like. And Joyce is hoping this experience will help fulfill this particular hiring need more long-term. Even though the two college students are pursuing agriculture education degrees, he says they’ll be able to teach things like welding and robotics — the sorts of IT classes that he can’t find any IT teacher candidates to consider.  

“We’ll get a look at two individuals and see how they do, as they share it,” he said. “These folks are getting their license, but they’re not quite there. So maybe we can get them a bit interested a bit sooner.”

Heading into summer, Joyce is still searching for a special education teacher — the sort of in-demand candidate that’s often snatched up by a larger metro district, or a more specialized intermediate district that serves special education students exclusively.

In past years, he may have relied on the Minnesota Education Job Fair, an annual event held every spring that brings together employers and recent graduates from Minnesota’s teacher preparation programs, to help him connect with special education teachers. But he now largely shoulders that staffing burden himself.

“Ten years ago, we would leave that job fair in April with over 100 résumés,” he said. “This year we left with six.”

He says they’re considering not even attending the fair next year. Instead, he says they may refocus their efforts on going to job fairs in South Dakota or other neighboring states, hoping to attract qualified teachers with the lure of better pay.

Sharing some other recruitment methods he’s relied upon as of late, he says many of the principals he knows aren’t shy about tracking openings filled in neighboring districts. If they’re looking to fill a similar position, they may give their counterpart a call and ask, “Would you share who your number two or three was?”

He’s also begun sending his principals to nearby college campuses each fall, so they can begin connecting with those in the pipeline. They used to wait until students were about to graduate before reaching out, he said. But they’ve become much more proactive with this particular recruitment strategy, even inviting students to come visit their schools to see if they could envision themselves working there the following year.

“We really think there’s no better sell than our staff on being here,” he said. “They’re going to get that feel when they’re on our campus.”

If they’re really in a pinch, he says he’s rehired teachers who recently retired for positions that he can’t find any qualified candidates to fill. Under this arrangement, they collect retirement along with a regular paycheck.

Lastly, through the last two rounds of contract negotiations with the local teachers union, Joyce says he’s been able to “buy off the lower steps” in their agreed-upon teacher pay scale, to entice candidates with a higher starting salary.

“I think that’s pretty common around this area,” he said, noting this strategy commonly referred to as “compressing the salary schedule.”

Overseeing two districts located in the opposite corner of the state — Red Lake County Central and Red Lake Falls — Superintendent Jim Guetter says he still has some openings as well.

Northeast Metro Intermediate School District
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The hiring team at Northeast Metro Intermediate School District launched its own grow-your-own program in 2012.

At this point, he’s most concerned about being able to find an English teacher. While colleges across the state may be graduating more English teachers than math, science and special education teachers, Guetter says these graduates aren’t making their way to his district, located about an hour’s drive east of Grand Forks, North Dakota.

As the candidate pool shrinks, he says the biggest adjustment has become starting the entire recruitment process much sooner in the year. “If you go early — I’m talking six, nine months early — you’ve got a chance,” he said. “But there are definitely less graduates.”

He received resignation notices from two English teachers this year, at different times. To replace the teacher who gave him a generous heads up, he was able to lock in a soon-to-be graduate. But since the other notice came in much later, he says he may not even be able to fill that position for the upcoming school year. The nearby colleges that he’s called have indicated the rest of their graduates have already found jobs.

Meanwhile, Guetter was able to fill one high school teacher opening with relative ease. But he attributes this new hire to coincidence more than anything. The experienced candidate came looking for a job since the candidate’s partner had just enrolled in a med school program nearby.

Guetter says family ties have proven helpful in attracting qualified candidates to his districts. For instance, he was able to hire a special education teacher for a position he didn’t expect to get a single application for because the candidate had recently moved back home to help care for elderly parents.

“We’re finding that we’re probably not getting near the number of applicants unless we’ve recruited them as rookie teachers,” he said.  “We’re seeing more with experience. Maybe they’ve already raised kids, or had some type of family change.”

Grow-your-own programs

Sarah Mittelstadt, director of Southern Plains Education Cooperative, has been relying on some less conventional teacher recruitment measures as well, primarily to fill special education teacher openings in her district, which serves six member districts in south-central Minnesota.

Divulging her No. 1 recruitment strategy, as of late, she said she’s been going to church and looking around for folks with a four-year degree who may be interested in teaching.

“I’ve tapped all those people out,” she said. “I’d have to find a new church or a new venue to look for people.”

She’s not shy about soliciting people who may consider making a career change to become a teacher. She’ll even offer to help line up job interviews for their spouse, if that’s what it takes to persuade someone to take the leap.

In the past, she said she relied heavily on the more traditional job postings and job fairs to bring in qualified candidates. But those tactics simply aren’t yielding results anymore. For instance, when she began her job nine years ago, she says she’d get at least two or three teachers applying for each special education job posting. A couple of years later, she’d get two or three applicants with elementary education degrees applying for those same positions — an indicator that colleges were producing too many elementary ed teachers and not enough special education teachers.

“Now we can’t even hire elementary education teachers,” she said of her member districts, noting the superintendents she talks to used to come back from job fairs with at least 200 résumés, but are now happy if they come back with eight.

“I will go to a job fair and even schedule an appointment right there for them to come do a site visit and an interview, and they end up not showing up,” she said.

She’s tried more unconventional incentives like signing bonuses, but it didn’t seem to attract the right type of candidates to her schools, she said. So, instead, she’s doubled down on her efforts to bolster the candidate pipeline — starting by going into high school classrooms to pique students’ interest before they head off to college and then supporting nonlicensed staff who are already working in her schools in pursuing licensure.

A few local high schools have kick-started efforts to pique students’ interest in teaching, offering them introductory type classes while still in high school — in some cases, offering college credit as an added incentive. Mittelstadt says she’s tracking these efforts closely, hoping to attract some of these students back to work in her district once they acquire a teaching license. This year, Fairmont High School had at least 17 students indicate they were looking at going into education, she says.

At the same time, she’s investing a lot of resources and energy into strengthening her district’s grow-your-own initiative. Three years ago, she tried partnering with St. Mary’s University to create a pathway to licensure for a cohort of her nonlicensed staff members. That cohort will soon gain licensure.

But she found that, by and large, her paraprofessionals are better served through more of an eclectic approach. So she’s helping those with the most potential to piece together an arrangement with various teacher prep programs that’ll allow them to continue working while they complete their program, coordinating efficiencies in time and credit costs along the way.

The grow-your-own strategy has recently gained popularity in districts across the state as they look to eliminate barriers to teacher licensure in an effort to diversify their teacher corps. It’s also become a pillar of recruitment strategies for districts serving a concentrated population of special needs students.

For instance, Intermediate District 287 — a district located in Plymouth that serves the most high-needs special education students from its 11 member districts — started its own grow-your-own program three years ago, in partnership with North Hennepin Community College and St. Cloud State University. Participants only have to pay half of their tuition costs and they’re expected to continue working for the district while they complete the program.

In January, their first cohort will complete the program and transition into licensed teaching positions in the district, filling seven openings for the upcoming school year. But they’re still looking to fill about 10 more special education teaching positions, along with two teaching positions in math and science at the area learning centers they partner with to serve at-risk youth. The next cohort in the pipeline will yield 12 newly licensed teachers.

The hiring team at Northeast Metro Intermediate School District — a similar district located in the White Bear Lake area — launched its own grow-your-own program in 2012. Participants only need to complete 36 credits. Megan McAllister, the district’s human resources supervisor, says she’s built the remaining credits into field work that participants complete while maintaining their jobs in the district as they complete the program in tandem.

They hired all seven of the graduates from their first grow-your-own program and have retained five. This year they had nine more graduate. McAllister says she had 30 special education teacher positions to fill at the outset of hiring season. With these graduates, plus a few other new hires, she’s been able to bring that number down to 14 openings. That’s still a big number for a hard to fill area.  

Back in Intermediate District 287, hiring staff have rolled out another incentive to help bridge this gap between the number of grow-your-own candidates they’re able to produce and their hiring needs: signing and retention bonuses.

New hires receive $500 upfront, plus an additional $1,250 after 90 days of working with students and $1,250 after 120 days. There’s also an internal referral incentive, offering employees the power to re-invest $500 per successful referral into a classroom or department project of their choosing.

“What it has done is its brought that attraction overall,” said Michelle Axell, the district’s human resources director, noting the signing and retention bonus brought in over 30 new hires the first year it was implemented and around 15 more this past year.

Megan McAllister, the district’s human resources supervisor
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Megan McAllister, the Northeast Metro Intermediate School District’s human resources supervisor, said they hired all seven of the graduates from their first grow-their-own program and have retained five. 

While the bonuses seem to be effective, Axell says the recent decision to hold an on-site job fair has been equally helpful in attracting candidates with a passion for working with special education students. By simply getting candidate through the door and interacting with principals and other staff, they’re able to dispel some of the negative misperceptions often associated with federal level IV setting schools.

“All these pieces are helping us as we struggle through a time where most of our licensed positions are in a shortage area,” Axell said.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/14/2018 - 08:50 am.

    There is a way to solve the teacher shortage; offer compensation commensurate to ability and field of interest.

    If you want to attract STEM majors into teaching, you have to compete with the market. But as long as the profession is held captive by a blue collar trade labor union, the Bachelor of Science in English Literature is worth exactly as much as a BS in Physics. It’s crazy, and as we can see, it’s unsustainable.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/14/2018 - 11:28 am.

      The tax paying public in many (perhaps most) school districts aren’t willing to pay any graduate what they’re worth for the work they do. Do you really believe they’d be willing to pay STEM graduates more?

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/14/2018 - 12:40 pm.

        I can only speak for myself, of course, but I’m very willing to pay a grad what they’re worth. The problem is the trade labor union that represents teachers do not agree. The contracts they create mandate some teachers get paid more than they are worth, and others less.

        Treating teachers like the professionals they are would mean they are able to negotiate their own compensation packages, and administrators would be free to offer more to teachers with degrees in high demand without having to pay those with less desirable degrees the same. It would be the end of the trade labor union’s involvement.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/14/2018 - 09:46 am.

    Out of the box

    Offhand, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Senker’s first sentence, and even his second, but then he wanders off into ideology.

    The profession is **not** “held captive by a blue collar trade labor union.” The profession pays abysmally because it’s still perceived by the general public as an occupation primarily for women, and since much of the culture still doesn’t believe women should be paid as well as men, and that teaching is something women do “between children” of their own, those perceptions tends to hold wages down. A second, and equally powerful reason for abysmal wages, is that, unlike the private sector, public school teachers are public sector employees. Their wages are completely dependent upon local tax rates and the local school district’s tax base. And by the way, the vast majority of private K-12 schools pay **less** than their public school counterparts, and in many cases, their teaching staffs are, by design, not part of the teachers’ union.

    School districts with a sizable tax base – affluent families living in expensive homes, lots of commercial and industrial property and businesses contributing their fair share – have much more to work with financially than many/most rural districts, as well as neighboring districts in more urban areas, and can offer higher salaries as a direct result. In rural areas, the primary basis for tax rates is land value, and I’ve yet to meet a farmer who’s enthused about paying higher taxes on his land, especially when crop prices are, at best, unstable, and in down years, leave the farm in the red at the end of the year.

    As a former practitioner, I know that becoming wealthy wasn’t a big motivation for me to go into teaching, nor was it for my colleagues in the faculty room. There are, or at least were, other factors involved. That said, choosing to become a teacher ought not to be equivalent to taking a vow of poverty, and especially given the regulatory hoops through which prospective teachers must jump to secure and maintain their licenses, being able to afford to raise families of their own, and feed, clothe and house them, doesn’t seem to me an outrageous demand.

    Bringing teaching salaries into alignment with private sector jobs with similar requirements and duties shouldn’t be especially difficult, but it is, largely because (Minnesota is hardly alone in this) state legislatures don’t adequately support public education financially. “Equal opportunity” is a cruel joke in far too many instances, because some districts have (I’m making up the numbers, but not the concept) $5,000 to spend on each student each year, while other districts have only $3,000. If the state doesn’t equalize the resources available to each child, it’s a problem that isn’t going to be fixed any time soon.

    And by the way, I’d argue that the English degree is just as valuable and makes just as important a contribution to the society as the Physics degree. Mr. Senker should look beyond a few specialty tech firms and see what sorts of preparation the most successful business executives and political leaders have had. Generalists are often much better prepared to deal with changes in society, science, and social and political fields than specialists. The questions of “Why?” and “How?” are important ones, but equally important is the question, “To what end,” and that is a question addressed by the Humanities, including history, literature and language. Physics doesn’t touch it.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/14/2018 - 12:56 pm.

    “Bringing teaching salaries into alignment with private sector jobs with similar requirements and duties shouldn’t be especially difficult, but it is, largely because (Minnesota is hardly alone in this) state legislatures don’t adequately support public education financially.”

    K-12 accounts for 42% of the state budget. The per pupil expenditure in public schools has increased 350% since 1980…but it’s still not enough.

    OK. How much is enough? What will it take to get public schools to graduate 99% of students who can demonstrate mastery of “the three R’s”? $1 billion? $10? $50? What’s the number? And how long should we give the schools to prove the money is making a difference?

    “And by the way, I’d argue that the English degree is just as valuable and makes just as important a contribution to the society as the Physics degree.”

    If that’s so, administrators should pay teachers according to what society pays grads with similar backgrounds in the market…and tell the English major their reward may not be financial, but it’s still appreciated by society.

  4. Submitted by Jim Smola on 06/14/2018 - 10:40 pm.

    Problem is more than money

    To blame the teacher shortage on low salaries isn’t getting to the root of the problem.

    Teacher salaries since the 1970’s have not kept up with inflation. Many contract settlements for the a number of years has not kept up with inflation and that is a statistic that is supported by many sources. Minnesota schools have been under funded for almost two decades which hinders salary improvements.

    The shortage has been masked for years by this under funding because districts across the state have laid off teachers because of budget shortfalls. This has masked the shortage because districts had the staff to offer a variety of classes by having higher class sizes.

    The colleagues I worked with went into the profession because of reasons other than finances. I believe one problem in recruiting future teachers is that public schools have been vilified and bashed for almost thirty years. That has kept young people from entering the profession more than salaries. Another problem is the burden created by the cost of college which has potential future teachers going into careers that pay more. Who wants to work in a profession where you are not respected and paid poorly?

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/15/2018 - 09:25 am.

    Facetious questions

    …don’t really require serious answers, Mr. Senker. Do a little research about corporate CEOs and you’ll find that many of the most successful and innovative have Humanities degrees of one kind or another. How much is enough? Whatever figure will provide equitable access to every child in the state, whatever that figure might be. As for the 99% success rate you deem acceptable, that’s dependent upon the students. We’ve yet to figure out, and perhaps shouldn’t figure out, how to pump information and meaning into a child’s brain. I’m not too enthused about living in an Orwellian world where that might be done.

    Meanwhile, the cost of a lot of things has gone up by several orders of magnitude since 1980. As a certified old person, I remember when gasoline cost 75¢ per gallon at about that time. Actually, in my long-ago youth, gasoline could regularly be purchased at a local station for 20.9¢ per gallon, and during a “price war” for 17.9¢ per gallon. The world and our economy have moved on from those days. And just a reminder, administrators don’t pay teachers. Taxpayers pay teachers – and administrators.

  6. Submitted by Leon Webster on 06/17/2018 - 08:16 am.

    Regarding English degrees vs. other disciplines

    As someone with graduate degrees in English Language and Literature, but who spent his working life with titles like “programmer, “database analyst”, “systems programmer” and “systems architect”, I think that Mr. Senker’s notions of what a degree in the Liberal Arts is worth are way off base. Ray Sooch is right when he points out that many CEOs (and CTOs) have degrees in the humanities. When evaluating candidates, I found that the ability to think logically, and to express oneself clearly where just as important as technical skills and even more important than the latest technical fad. Conversely many good ideas failed because their author was not able to express him or herself well. In many projects, the major obstacles are organizational rather than technical.

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