*Part 1 of a series

There is no doubt about it - our nation is experiencing a teacher shortage. It is being referred to as “real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” While the states of California, Nevada, Washington, Indiana, Arizona, Hawaii and the District of Columbia seem to be feeling the biggest impact from the shortage, make no mistake it is everywhere. Including Nebraska.

In the fall of 2021 the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) conducted a teacher vacancy survey. The survey of all 438 Nebraska districts/systems - which include 244 Pre-K-12 public school districts, 17 ESUs, and 177 nonpublic school systems in the state - requested the following information:

The number of districts/systems that could not find fully qualified teachers to fill teacher positions;

The endorsement areas of the positions that were unfilled;

The reasons why the applicant pool was not sufficient; and

What the district/system did to address the unfilled positions.

Districts/Systems reported 482 positions as unfilled with fully qualified personnel, and 68 left vacant for 2021- 22. Of those 482 positions, 138 positions (28%) were in districts/systems with less than 500 students. There were 143 districts/systems (44% of the returned surveys) with unfilled positions at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Though the pandemic may have contributed somewhat to the shortage, it is not a problem that has just developed within the last year or two. Of the 17 endorsement shortage areas, six have been designated shortage areas each year for the last 15 years and eight others have been designated shortage areas each of the last five years.

The highest percentage of unfilled teacher positions in Nebraska, according to the NDE survey, were found in the Central region of the state. In other words, rural areas like ours.

“When I first got into administration 11 years ago, we would have 20 applicants for a job opening in an elementary position. Now we’re getting about three or four,” said James McGown, Superintendent of Brady Public Schools. “There is a shortage, and it is real.”

McGown said while the workforce shortage is not unique to education, it is a concern. He also said there are people working together to find solutions to remedy the problem.

“I’m on a committee with the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association (NRCSA) to address the teacher shortage. There are different committees looking at whether it is a quality of life issue, and what we can do to change the image to try to get people to go into education,” said McGown. “It is a very rewarding career. It’s not just a job, it is a career - and there is a difference.”

McGown noted that for students choosing a career path in college, salary is often a key issue. And the visible bottom line for teachers can be a deterrent for some. He wants people to understand that the base salary for teachers can often be misunderstood - and education, he says, is about so much more than dollars.

“It’s not so much about how much money you make, it’s more of an issue of making a difference. Some of the benefits to being an educator are having students that you once taught come back later and tell you what you did made a difference. That’s the reward,” said McGown. “If you ever want to feel good about yourself go into a kindergarten classroom. They are just so excited about being there.”

In the NDE survey, comments were provided by 132 different districts/systems. Those comments indicated that the overall applicant pool continues to be smaller with less qualified candidates applying. In addition, 17% of the comments referenced the difficulty of certification in Nebraska including concerns about challenges for out-of-state applicants and the Praxis requirement. McGown agreed that certification guidelines are a real issue.

“We are bound by state mandates and requirements, and some of those can be burdensome. There is an understanding of why some of those things are in place, but some of those can be a burden that does tend to lead to issues such as burn-out,” said McGown. “There is a lot to be said for local control and having the teachers be able to deviate from canned curriculum based on the needs of an individual class. We try to allow our teachers to do that to a point; they are the ones who know if a class is getting a concept or not. And that is one of the things I have seen change the most over the last 20 years, there are less opportunities for that.”

While finding teachers for the classroom has become more difficult for school administrators, finding substitute teachers to help out has posed a challenge as well. “There are probably more days that we need a sub than days that we don’t,” said McGown. “Some days we need three or four. With illnesses and quarantine there is even a greater need now. Before the pandemic we had maybe 15 days out of the year when we didn’t need a sub - now we need one almost daily.”

McGown admitted that his district is a lucky one - he has a good pool of substitute teachers. “We work hard to create an environment that makes people want to be here,” he said. “But trying to recruit prospective teachers to come to a rural area is a little more difficult.”

In an attempt to address the issue with action rather than just words, the Nebraska Association of Colleges for Teacher Education hosted the first ever Nebraska Teacher Shortage Summit last fall in Kearney. The Summit brought educational leaders and stakeholders from across the state together to identify challenges and gaps, share innovations and develop coordinated efforts to reduce the educator vacancies and shortages in Nebraska schools.

One of the primary goals of the Summit was to identify some action steps that can be implemented to help alleviate the problem, which everyone knows will not be a quick fix. The good news is that while there is a shortage, there are also still students choosing a career in education.

Taking the last step toward the full-time classroom

Stanton, Virginia native Carissa Cline decided several years ago that she wanted to be a teacher, in particular, an ag teacher. So when it came time to pick a college she unexpectedly landed in Nebraska.

“I did FFA and ag in middle school and high school and did livestock judging. I came out here for a camp one summer with my advisor and I just really loved Nebraska’s campus and their ag-ed program,” Cline explained.

Cline said it was the teachers and advisors she had during her years in middle school and high school that inspired her to want to become a teacher. “They were really inspiring and pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and find my passion. That’s why I’m here - I want to do that for kids,” she said.

Cline is in her final semester at UNL and is completing her student teaching at Gothenburg Public Schools. While she enjoys the rural environment, she said she is also drawn to potentially teaching in an urban school. “I enjoy the aspect of teaching to the urban kids who don’t really know what ag is and to see that light bulb click of seeing where their food comes from and all the things related to agriculture,” Cline explained. “I would really enjoy a school that had a mix of farm kids and city kids.”

Her plan while in high school was to become a veterinarian, and she had the opportunity to spend time in a vet’s office as part of a mentorship program in her school. While she admits she enjoyed it, the thought of eight years of schooling did not much appeal to her.

“And I really enjoyed the FFA aspect and interacting with kids more than the animal side, and I figured this was a career that would bring it all together and not be the same thing everyday,” she said.

Cline said she is excited about finally getting into the classroom and putting all that she has learned into practice. During her years at UNL she has had to spend hours in the classroom observing a teacher. She spent the majority of those hours at Ashland-Greenwood observing ag teacher AnnaLisa Mosel, who joined the staff at Gothenburg Public Schools this school year.

“We have to go talk to three schools and then give our top three choices and our adviser places us, so I was originally placed at Ashland. But then I found out AnnaLisa was leaving and coming here, so they gave me the option of finding a school closer to Lincoln. But she’s an awesome teacher and I didn’t want to lose that connection,” Cline explained.

Cline will graduate in May and said she knows she will not have any problem finding a job. “I was told there are like 40 or 50 openings in Nebraska,” she said. “That’s really strong job security. And that’s nation-wide. When I went home last summer I was working in the extension office and had lots of teachers tell me to come back when I graduate. They had so many positions in July and August that still needed to be filled.”

Contact Ellen Mortensen at ellen@syndicatepub.com or call 308.537.9498