How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 4: Reversing the Teacher Shortage Trend

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

This concludes Dr. Jared Bigham’s four-part series for Ahead of the Heard amplifying issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. Read the series in its entirety here, here, and here.

My grandfather used to say, “You’ll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a fried chicken flies in.” So too goes the work of recruiting and retaining rural teachers across our country, as most young or new teachers increasingly pursue jobs in urban and suburban areas. Many rural schools and districts spent considerable resources and time on this issue before the nationwide teacher shortage began in 2009; it’s a challenge that continues to grow with each passing school year. Whether it’s the competition of pay scales, in vogue fusion restaurants, craft breweries, or strip malls offered in urban or suburban areas, rural districts have started relying on grow-your-own models to meet talent needs.

To be clear, there’s a difference in hiring local and hiring local intentionally through grow-your-own talent strategies. Hiring local means you give Johnny a job because he grew up in the community, left and earned a teaching certification, and now wants to move back home to work. This scenario is OK if Johnny is, or has the potential to be, a good educator. But the scenario also represents the double-edged sword of rural human capital plans that hire based on tribalism vs. talent acquisition. The problem arises if Johnny is only a mediocre educator, because in most cases he’ll be in the classroom until he’s ready to retire…or becomes the principal. Unfortunately, this is a common practice in rural schools, whether it’s in response to a sense of loyalty to community members or to the pressing need to fill positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that rural communities can’t or shouldn’t hire local. It’s that the most successful rural schools are meeting their hiring challenges through intentional, proactive strategies of identifying local talent, recruiting that talent through various incentives, and retaining that talent by cultivating their potential as educators. 

A great example of this is Globe Unified School District in Arizona, led by Superintendent Jerry Jennex. As recently as five years ago, his district faced teacher shortages and a high turnover rate before implementing a talent pipeline and retention strategy. His team identified talented, local non-certified staff working in the field of education as paraprofessionals and Head Start workers, and supported them in obtaining a traditional teacher certification through the satellite campus of a partnering university. Globe USD also prioritized alternative licensure pathways, which make up approximately a quarter of its districtwide K-12 teaching staff.

For prospective teachers taking the alternative certification route, Jennex said they, “Identify people that have the knowledge and technical skills; then we help them with the pedagogy side.” “Our district vision statement is Capturing Hearts and Empowering Minds. This is how we approach our recruitment of community members to be teachers. We want them to feel a connection to our district, and we will take care of supporting them on the instruction side,” he added. In addition, Globe USD has an innovative strategy for student teachers they want to keep in the district. The district pays student teachers 50% of a first-year teacher’s salary, covers health insurance, allows them to participate in the state retirement system, and counts their student teaching as one year of service.   

Jennex said they also put just as much effort into retention as they do recruitment. His team wants to support new teachers in “growing into the profession.” As a result, their turnover rates over the past five years have dropped from 25% to single digits. The key to Globe USD’s success? “It’s one of the great things about being in a smaller rural district, we can try innovative things quickly without the bureaucracies of larger, urban districts,” Jennex said.

In addition to serving as Superintendent of Stanfield Elementary School District #24 in rural Arizona, Dr. Melissa Sadorf is part of the U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellowship program. Like many rural district leaders, she competes for talent with surrounding urban and suburban districts that offer much higher pay scales. To combat this, her school district developed an intentional, strategic grow-your-own talent model that takes investing in future teachers to the next level. Sadorf’s district recruits current non-certified staff members and offers to pay for them to complete a credential in education. In exchange, the new teachers commit to teaching in the district for three years. Sadorf says that the strategy has not only been successful in recruiting local talent, but it’s also been successful in retaining that talent. The teachers feel they have invested themselves in the community, and, in turn, the community has invested itself in them. “There is a level of mutual respect because it’s an investment on both sides…the board’s resources and the person’s time and effort,” said Sadorf. 

God loves a normal bell curve, and they’re seen in just about every facet of life where statistics are applied. However, teaching is one area we can’t afford to have a majority of practitioners that are just “average.” We owe students so much more than that. Some of the best rural schools and districts across the country are successfully using grow-your-own strategies to stack the teacher pipeline deck so that the distribution is skewed to the betterment of students and communities. 

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.