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Educator shortage prompts area schools to shift teachers, drop offerings to fill gaps

“We just gotta do what’s best for the kids and keep moving.”

Classroom stock photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash
Classroom stock photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash
Barry Zhou / Unsplash
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WORTHINGTON — Backpacks are stuffed with school supplies, students are planning their first day outfits and desks sit in neat lines in classrooms, ready to be filled with books, papers and writing implements, but as the school year begins, many districts in the area are missing something vital: educators.

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“We’re not here to just throw the book at them,” Landgaard emphasized. “We want to do what’s right for them… our goal is not to expel kids, it’s to educate kids.”
"As you walk through the halls of the Learning Center, you will see students collaborating with teachers and students collaborating with other students."

Area school districts have covered the gaps in a number of ways, extending teaching loads, combining classes or having administrators teach, but it isn’t just a teacher shortage, as more than a few districts are also struggling to find enough paraprofessionals, substitutes, custodians and food service personnel.

“At last count I had 11 open teaching positions, and 22 non-certified positions — paras and others,” said John Landgaard, District 518 superintendent.

In order to bridge the gaps left by unfilled positions, some teachers have been moved from interventionist roles into the classroom, and some classes in Worthington Middle School and Worthington High School may be a little larger than usual.

In its recruitment efforts, the district has offered incentives, attended recruiting fairs, advertised on Facebook, in print and elsewhere, and gone beyond its usual processes to attract new employees.

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“I think some of it is related to, particularly in Minnesota, the licensure barrier that’s been created. It’s hard to get a license in Minnesota; it’s a lot of work and not a ton of difference in salary,” Landgaard said.

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The essays received were well written, kind and thoughtful, a release from the Wilmont VFW Auxiliary stated, thanking students who participated and teachers who supported the contest.

People also retired earlier than they had originally planned, he said, and the overall pressure of being in education has increased, just like the pressure on people in law enforcement or health care roles.

“It’s just very frustrating. I think because of the additional stress and overall pressures, and the fact that because of a variety of reasons, a negative connotation has come to not only education, but health care and our police force,” Landgaard said. “There aren’t as many candidates going into those professions. So until we figure out how to be, as a general society, more supportive and willing to help people say it is a good profession, it is going to take a while to turn around.”

Ellsworth

Even the schools that managed to find all the personnel they needed often still had to make a few changes. In Ellsworth, for example, no positions are currently open, but the school did have to cover music education in-house.

“There are just no music applicants out there,” said Amy Labat, K-12 principal there. “We’re just covering it in-house. I am a former music teacher, so I am going to be covering high school. Elementary and middle school (music) are being covered by other teachers.”

Ellsworth even managed to find enough paraprofessionals, as of this week.

“We actually got very lucky and got all the positions hired,” Labat said. “We got lucky this year, but it could very easily have been not like this.”

Fulda

"When it comes to day one, we’ll have our needs covered,” said Mike Pagel, superintendent and 7-12 principal of Fulda Area Schools.

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Fulda, too, had to make some changes in order to provide classroom coverage. Typically, Fulda has two sections of students for every grade level, but this year, they have just one section of sixth-graders, with a class size of 28 students.

In order to make such a large class work, the school made some adjustments to the room and made sure there would be paraprofessional support — despite also having a couple as-yet-unfilled openings for paraprofessionals as well.

Pagel said he felt fortunate that Fulda didn’t have as many openings as some districts did, and that there was not much staff turnover during the summer months.

“We’ve actually been pretty lucky here in Fulda,” he said.

Round Lake-Brewster

“We would’ve liked to hire three more teachers, but they’re just not out there,” said Ray Hassing, superintendent of Round Lake-Brewster Schools. “But our schedule works, so we’re very fortunate.”

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Most of the classes at RL-B have 15 to 20 students in them, and because there were not teachers available for hiring, there will be one class in the 24-student range, he said.

“I would hire another teacher if they were there. I feel like most districts would right now with the teacher shortage,” said Hassing, noting that he could use three or four more paraprofessionals, too, but they don’t seem to be out there either.

He believes the teacher shortage is driven by a lack of young people deciding to go into the profession as well as a negative stigma around teaching in the public, with “a lot of pressure on teachers today.”

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Adrian

Adrian Schools were not able to find a Spanish teacher or a K-12 music teacher, said Superintendent Molly Schilling. An elementary teacher was willing to teach music for that age level, so the school will have elementary music, but no choir will be offered for the middle school or high school age groups, at least for the first semester.

The school is also seeking a payroll/human resources staffer who can also be the district’s MARRS coordinator, sending required student data to the state of Minnesota in order to calculate school funding.

In addition, Adrian is always short a few paraprofessionals, and its food service provider is still looking for food service staff.

“We’re much better off than a lot of districts, but we are also still pretty sad to not be able to offer the full programs we’re used to offering,” Schilling said.

As some higher education institutions require a foreign language, Adrian seniors who want to take a second year will be connected with an online course if they wish.

“That’s definitely something we’re going to work to bring back, because we want to make sure we’re providing all the opportunities for our kids,” Schilling said. “... this year, we felt all our students were in a pretty good position to go to a two-year or four-year school if they choose.”

As for what her school is doing to attract new hires, she quipped “Call and beg?,” before continuing “In all seriousness, you look around, who might you know, or who in the community might have a connection? (We’re) looking at recent or former graduates from Adrian, finding out what they’re doing, having a list of who might’ve went into that field.”

Schilling explained that people with connections to the area are far more likely to stay.

Baby boomer retirement, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and the turmoil caused by the pandemic led to some of the shortage, Schilling said.

“I don’t think that we’ve treated (education) as a respected profession for a while and I don’t think that helps,” Schilling added.

In addition, she noted that sometimes teachers forget to tell others how enjoyable and rewarding their jobs are, and only speak about the negative aspects.

“I think that we just need to keep working together to realize that education, whether it's public or private, is a really rewarding profession to go into and it's critical,” Schilling said. “Our kids, our futures need us, we need good people in the classrooms working with kids and coaching kids. And without that, I’m a very nervous mother… I'm a nervous mother if we can't provide solid people in our classrooms for all of our kids.”

Heron Lake-Okabena

Heron Lake-Okabena Schools are short a high school special education teacher and a high school English language instructor, said Paul Bang, superintendent/principal.

He has been posting the open positions since March, and has talked to a variety of people about the job, even people with four-year degrees who aren’t currently working. He’s tried to get some retired teachers to return to the field too.

Bang will spend some time in the classroom teaching this year, and some staff will be on overload to provide coverage.

“We’ll get through it, it’s just not fun,” he said.

“For us it’s special ed, so I just need someone to teach that one class,” Bang explained. “If I had multiple sections I probably could combine them, and bigger districts could combine them — but we’re not able to.”

He believes the shortage has a number of different causes, including the retirement of baby boomers and the way COVID-19 pushed a number of people in that age group out of the workforce entirely.

“It is tough to compete for positions when our starting wage compared to other college-educated professions is lower, but that’s always been the case,” Bang added.

He hoped some students will graduate in December and fill out the teachers’ ranks.

“We just gotta do what’s best for the kids and keep moving,” he added.

Sibley-Ocheyedan, Iowa

Sibley-Ocheyedan Schools have three open teaching positions, all at the middle school level, one for special education, one for seventh and eighth grade English and another for seventh and eighth grade math, said Superintendent James Craig.

While S-O had been set up to be a three-section district, this year students in seventh and eighth grades will be divided into two sections instead. Two of the remaining teachers are certified in math, so with some moves back and forth, all of the teaching is covered. One substitute teacher has an English background, and will help a reading teacher cover what’s needed.

“We have three veteran teachers that are covering those classes, and they have really stepped up and understand that there isn’t anything we can do about it now,” Craig said. "They know the kids that they have, they’re confident in their abilities, as we are. And they really stepped up to the plate and represented what it means to be a General.”

In special education, some students with individualized learning plans may be moved to work with other qualified teachers, perhaps to the high school or to an elementary school special education teacher who can visit the middle school in the afternoon.

“So we’re getting things figured out,” Craig said. “But we will be keeping our positions open and hoping to hire in a semester.”

He believes much of the teacher shortage is a result of educators not returning after the pandemic, and of fewer students majoring in education in college. He also feels the national media often portrays public education as not meeting the needs of students, and not showing the many things schools actually do for their students. Additionally, many issues in education have become politically charged in recent years.

“Just finding people to fill positions is really hard regardless of what their degree or certification is,” Craig said. “But in the end, we’ve got a safe school that provides a great education and we have people that are going to get us through this. And the kids are still going to be prepared for their futures, and in the end, that’s what’s important.”

A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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