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

Many of the openings are reflective of the main teacher shortage areas: special education, math and science.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.