|Allen Pratt has visited with educators in more than a dozen states since becoming executive director of the National Rural Education Association in 2017.
The search for highly effective teachers is an ongoing quest for small, rural school districts across the nation. It is one of the greatest challenges facing rural district superintendents and their boards of education.
From the allure of more urban areas to low teacher pay to the scarcity of secondary amenities (coffee shops, trendy restaurants or even the ability to access a dentist or optician easily), many factors contribute to the mounting mismatch between the supply of and demand for capable teachers in remote school settings.
When rural school leaders post their classroom job openings, many say they feel fortunate to attract applicants. A superintendent in North Dakota recently explained that a job posting in his school district that once would have attracted upwards of 60 applicants now is fortunate to get two.
The problem is nothing new. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt raised the issue in his “Report of the Country Life Commission,” and in 1944, the shortage of teachers in rural places was central in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The White House Conference on Rural Education.”
A key component of my role as executive director of the National Rural Education Association is to observe these problems firsthand and present them to national lawmakers. As I have travelled throughout the country the past two years, I’ve picked up several suggestions and strategies to consider as possible solutions. Some of the more distinctive ideas and plans of action are worth considering and have inspired me to approach the problem in a different way.
In a story for Colorado Public Radio in 2017, Sam Brasch listed five ideas for addressing the teacher shortage in Colorado. In addition to better pay, he pointed to part-time work partnerships, teacher recruitment campaigns and mentoring programs for early-career teachers. But where the state has really shined in recent years is in the development of subsidized housing specifically for its rural teachers.
Brasch pointed to the progress being made in the Telluride School District, a mostly upscale community. Superintendent Michael Gass and the school board secured three apartments for teachers and staff to rent at lower than market prices once they have been hired in the district. Gass said some teachers have doubled up in the units to maximize space. Last fall, the district decided to construct six new units, two of which opened at the beginning of the school year, with the rest due to be completed this month.
Subsidized housing with lower rents in high-priced or scarce housing markets could be a good way for civic groups and local businesses to collaborate with school districts in an advantageous way to recruit and retain teachers in their communities. These groups understand that if they can get people to move to the community and establish roots, they are more likely to stay. As a former assistant superintendent and even as a high school principal, I knew if I could get the family involved in our community, I had a greater likelihood of keeping them over the long term.
It also can be a good way to involve students. About three hours south of Denver, Custer County Schools gave students in the building trades the chance to remodel a former preschool in the district into four apartments. Once finished, these units were offered exclusively to teachers at affordable rents. The Salida School District in central Colorado has started a similar program, according to several news media reports.
On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, high school students in the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs, Colo., are working on constructing tiny homes to be auctioned off to teachers to help alleviate the valley’s housing crisis, according to an account in the Post Independent
One of our affiliate members, the Texas Rural Education Association, spotlights exemplary work by some of its member districts in teacher recruitment. The association’s executive director, Don Rogers, points to the innovative work of Brian Stroman, superintendent of the 280-student Bloomburg Independent School District in a small town on Texas’s border with Arkansas.
Stroman has tried several ideas in the past year — shorter work days for teachers, district stipends for graduate-level courses, peer mentor programs for new teachers and even retention bonuses for exceptional teachers.
In an interview with The Dallas News
, he said, “With all of these options, we still lose teachers to more suburban or urban districts.”
Stroman and other rural leaders worked with the Texas Department of Education on the agency’s Rural Task Force to address this issue. They have been addressing the work as a marketing issue and are considering creative uses of social media to help with promotion of rural schools and communities.
A New Approach
Similar to the Texas Rural Task Force, I have noticed during my meetings with rural teachers, leaders and stakeholders a lack of rural schools marketing what they are doing to overcome teacher recruitment and retention woes. For every Telluride School District that makes the news for its positive strides, many others don’t have an outlet to express their ideas.
The NREA is collaborating with Ryan Fowler, who directs rural community partnerships and projects for The New Teacher Project, and Gary Funk, executive director of the Rural Schools Collaborative and a long-time champion for rural schools. Together, we want to bridge the gap between the appealing aspects of rural communities and the educator supply and demand mismatches in those places. We’ll highlight why it’s important to work in these little communities and why working there would benefit teachers.
We are in a design phase of creating a social media/website platform called “Find Your Place: Teach Rural.” This interactive space would address marketing and advertising needs to help districts promote themselves. It also will enable candidates to search for teaching and leadership posts in rural schools across the country and allow each region to highlight its strengths and attractiveness to potential candidates.
Additionally, our hope is to commission local art, videography and cultural artifacts from within our targeted regions to enhance the unique elements of the area, weaving the teaching jobs and culture together and providing career seekers a holistic view of the community. We want them to see the potential of their life, not just at the school but within the community itself.
All in all, rural districts and their communities must continue to address basic needs in their communities to attract rural teachers. Pay scale is a great place to start, but it is not sufficient.
There must be outside-the-box ideas, such as some form of housing support and even part-time employment partnerships for teachers. School districts must help their communities add local town amenities such as day care for preschoolers, community medical centers, local shopping and restaurants and grocery stores.
Our partnership hopes to ease the burden in one area of human capital and social media marketing. This portal will allow rural district leaders to tell their unique stories and champion their rural regions.
This problem has been around for more than a century and will not be solved simply from one direction. This will require national, state and local leaders to roll up their sleeves. This problem must be solved community to community with targeted help from federal and state government. Philanthropic support will begin this process.
is executive director of the National Rural Education Association at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Twitter: @NREA1