Recruitment. Salaries. Culture Shock. Retention. These are all factors that contribute to nationwide shortages of teachers—particularly challenging in areas of high demand, such as mathematics, science, special education, English language learning, and the like. While we commonly read about and focus on solutions to meet demand in urban settings, educational reformers and policy makers need to also consider how best to meet demand in rural areas. While there are some commonalities, the solutions are not one and the same.
Recruitment. As with urban districts, rural schools often have difficulty in recruiting qualified applicants for teaching positions. In some areas, school officials won’t receive a single applicant for a given position. Part of the problem is getting the word out—many rural school districts still rely on word-of-mouth, or publication in the local newspaper, or posting on the school’s website–but there are other factors that contribute to recruitment issues such as low salaries, few cultural opportunities, and feelings of isolation for individuals who may not have family ties to a given area. Plus, it’s likely that every other district in that area is also trying to recruit for the same positions, so there’s a competition factor at play as well.
Salaries. In some areas, a district’s salary scale is so low that teachers’ own children qualify for free or reduced lunch, due in part because of the declining number of local businesses and industries that contribute to the tax base. Less industry means less revenue generated in taxes, both from business owners and from their employees—who support local schools through real estate taxes. Moreover, principals and superintendents can’t always hire the “best” candidate or the most highly qualified candidate—because their salary budget is so limited, they often have to hire someone fresh out of college with no experience, primarily because they can pay that person less money than someone with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree. Plus, teachers already employed in a district have little incentive to go back to school and earn an advanced degree—in some rural districts teachers have received a total increase of $250 for earning a master’s degree—which is spread out over 12 months and subject to tax withholdings.
Culture Shock. When I was in school, it was easy to spot teachers who weren’t from my area—they dressed differently; they spoke differently; and they weren’t related to anyone I knew. And, more often than not, they didn’t drive a pickup truck—a dead giveaway that they were not local. With very few exceptions, those teachers never stayed long—after a year or two at the most they moved on—usually back to where they went to college or where they had family. I recall one high school teacher who packed up and left after one quarter—she had a bachelor’s degree and her state teacher certification but she was not prepared for such a cultural shock. I still think about her to this day, wondering if she ever recovered and returned to another classroom.
Retention. Retaining teachers after they’ve been hired is an ongoing challenge in every school district. Some teachers just job hop—for various reasons they like moving around. Others feel as though they have been treated unfairly for one reason or another. In many instances, a spouse’s job takes them to another location. School officials can’t always retain their high-quality teachers, but more could be done to keep them and support their ongoing professional growth—including finding ways to promote those who demonstrate a propensity for leadership roles.
A Few Recommendations
I’m a firm believer that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. So, here are a few ideas I have for addressing each of the challenges outlined above. Keep in mind this is just a start—a springboard for further conversation if you will:
- Start Building that Pipeline—School officials could work with local churches, parent and civic groups, and high schools to promote the benefits of local school involvement and employment. Build a cohesive, year-long campaign and improve upon it each year by making it a community-wide effort.
- Use the Grow Your Own Approach—Principals and superintendents should look closely at those paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and volunteers who have a bachelor’s degree—if they show promise they should be mentored and encouraged to get that teaching certificate. Form a committee for this purpose and make it a priority to identify, recruit, and mentor individuals who demonstrate a propensity for success and who have strong ties to the local community.
Salaries & Retention:
Endowed Positions—School districts could partner with local businesses and industries to attract and retain high-quality teachers, particularly those in shortage areas. For example, an endowment could be established in a company’s name to supplement the income of a highly-qualified math teacher—the district would provide the regular salary and benefits, with the business adding an extra layer of salary as an incentive. Such an endowment would be good public relations for the business and may even provide some tax benefits. This may help not only to recruit but also retain high-quality teachers filling key positions, and it would further encourage school-business partnerships to create a workforce-influenced curriculum.
This is just a start—I’m sure readers can think of many more. Let’s keep the conversation going—any rural schools out there want to offer some additional thoughts?
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation and academic quality assurance. She currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher licensure, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.