Solving the teacher shortage by keeping graduates home

Solving the teacher shortage by keeping graduates home

(Mo.) One rural district has engaged a new strategy to encourage its own graduates to become teachers and return to their hometown to live and work. Not only does the approach provide a college-and-career pathway for students but also takes aim at the problem many remote, smaller school systems face in attracting qualified educators to their communities.

Cassville R-IV School District reports that 25 students are enrolled this year in its first offering of Teach and Train, a high school course that explores the vocation of teaching and gives pupils hands-on experience working with educators in classrooms at all grade levels.

“If we can give them a better shot at being successful after they leave high school, knowing what they want to do as far as being college/career ready, that’s very important to us,” Cassville superintendent Richard Asbill said in an interview last week. “And the added benefit is that if this generates future teachers who have a desire to come back to our community, teach for us, have high expectations, raise a family – that’s all in our community’s best interest.”

Many communities across the nation are struggling to find enough qualified teachers to meet their needs, and some have predicted that the shortages will only grow as an aging work force retires and fewer people enter the field. Rural districts are particularly vulnerable as they typically have fewer resources and struggle to convince young people to relocate to localities where housing and recreational options are limited.

This leads to the larger concern of students in these hard to staff schools being denied equal access to quality educators who are sought by and often choose districts in more convenient locales with greater resources.

“The idea is that they try and keep their best and brightest in the district,” said Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Education, which sponsored teacher training for the course last summer as a way to promote its own “Top 10 by 20” initiative, an effort to rank among the top 10 states in education performance by 2020. 

“Cassville is a great example to other districts that face challenges in recruiting fully qualified teachers,” Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner in the Office of Educator Quality, said in a statement. “Their approach is a complement to Missouri’s plan to provide every child in the state with equitable access to the best teachers available.”

While Cassville, a rural district of 1,900 students in the southwest part of the state, is garnering attention for its new program, the school system for years has been taking a less formal approach to directing its students toward teaching careers.

Twenty-five percent of the district’s teachers are alumni, including the one who leads the Teach and Train course. Asbill himself graduated from a school district some 40 miles away and began his teaching career in Cassville before leaving to serve as an administrator in a neighboring district and then returning as superintendent.

In his 20-year administrative stint at Cassville, said Asbill, the school board has always worked to make its salaries and benefits appealing at all levels of teacher expertise – a philosophy that regularly places the district among the best in its region in terms of teacher pay and experience in annual reviews by both the state’s teacher and education employee organizations.

“We’ve been in the top 10 and that’s going up against school districts that are twice as big as we are – some of the more suburban districts to the Springfield/Joplin area,” Asbill said. “We’re still able to be very competitive and we’re able to do that because our board puts a priority on recruiting highly-qualified teachers and staff and making sure that we try to pay them for that qualification.”

In addition to providing a livable wage, however, the district has encouraged a very open dialogue between teachers and students – especially those showing an interest in a career in education – about what it means and takes to be a teacher. Now, with the Teach and Train program, there is a formal curriculum that serves both the district’s and students’ goals.

The course is offered in two sections, the first a classroom component that focuses on what it takes to become a teacher and explores the field of education. The second part of the course is the ‘practicum section’ in which students are actually placed in a classroom with a teacher at any one of the different grade levels – elementary, middle and high school. There are currently 20 students, all in grades 10 to 12, in the first section of the course, and five seniors completing the practicum session – one with a middle school band teacher, Asbill points out.

“It gives them a hands-on opportunity to work with a teacher,” he said. “It’s similar to a student teaching experience – it’s not student teaching; they’re never left alone – but they’re allowed to work with the teacher and have discussions about how to develop lessons and how to work with students.

“Even if there are five students in that group of 20 who say, ‘you know, teaching’s not for me,’ isn’t it better that we find that out now rather than after they go off to the university and spend two, three years of tuition and courses to find out that they don’t want to be a teacher?” the superintendent said.

An added component to the Cassville program is that the district works to ensure an effective and streamlined path for its future teachers with nearby Crowder Community College, Missouri Southern State University and Missouri State University’s College of Education, all of which are also making changes to improve the quality of the experience for education graduates.

So far, said Asbill, there are no special financial incentives – such as grants, loans or scholarships – for students in the program but that could change as it catches on in other districts around the state.

In the meantime, Cassville will continue to promote teaching as a worthwhile endeavor.

“Our best students could be very good teachers and we want them to understand and remember that education is still a noble profession and it’s still a needed profession,” Asbill said. “You can have a career, you can make a living, you can raise a family, and it’s something you can take with you anywhere if you should ever need to make a change.”