On any given weeknight in Crosbyton, TX, you’ll find at least four adults in a computer lab at the town’s only high school.
They’re not there to fix software bugs. It’s not an online gaming club. It’s a group of people collectively working on their associate’s degrees through online community college courses.
And two years from now, these four individuals will make up at least 50 percent of Crosbyton’s next wave of new teacher hires.
It’s made possible through a Texas Tech University program, TechTeach Across Rural Texas, which aims to help districts in remote areas staff their classrooms and retain teachers.
“When I first got here, we had a lot of teacher turnover,” Crosbyton CISD superintendent Shawn Mason said. “The majority of our teachers were coming through alternative certification. But over the last two years, we’ve started seeing that trend reverse itself.”
There are many obstacles rural districts face in recruiting, and one of the biggest is figuring out a way to attract more traditionally certified teachers. Attrition rates among alternatively certified teachers are roughly 10 percent higher than those from traditional educator preparation programs, and 60 percent of newly certified teachers come from alternative certification programs, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Mason said that already-high number is significantly larger in rural districts, presenting another problem for small districts like Crosbyton to solve.
“Not only do we have to hire more alternative certification teachers, but those teachers, usually because of lack of preparation or quality preparation programs, don’t make it through the first five years,” Mason said. “That really makes it tough on rural districts because now you have a revolving door. And once that revolving door starts—we’ve looked at this five years ago when I came aboard here at Crosbyton—the high turnover of teachers becomes one of the contributing factors to low academic performance.”
These challenges aren’t unique to Crosbyton. Rural districts in Texas consistently lose out on the top new teachers in the state to bigger, higher paying cities and suburbs that have more to offer in the way of business and entertainment. Mason said hiring season doesn’t make its way to rural districts until late-June or early July, as the candidates who couldn’t find jobs in large districts slowly start applying to suburban and, finally, rural districts.
This places a huge burden on remote schools, because, not only are they getting a drastically late start staffing their schools, they’re also getting less-qualified applicants to choose from. Coupled with the fact the number of college students pursuing teaching as a career in general continues to decline, rural districts are left in full panic-mode every summer.
Fewer teachers, more competition
O’Donnell ISD superintendent Cathy Palmer has the disadvantage of competing with Lubbock ISD for teachers despite being located 45 minutes away. Teachers who live in the O’Donnell area have the option of hopping on I-87 up to Lubbock and working for a district that pays significantly more, and there’s not much O’Donnell can do about it.
Even so, Palmer said her district didn’t start to struggle filling vacancies until 2015.
“I really started noticing it three years ago,” she said. “Before that, people were talking about teacher shortages, but we were still getting applicants when we had openings. But about three years ago, it seemed like we stopped getting the number of applicants that we wanted, and the applicants that we received were not completely qualified.”
Palmer said there are a number of possible reasons, but ultimately it could come down to the lack of prestige surrounding the profession.
“It’s not respected like it used to be,” she said. “It’s not promoted as a positive life goal anymore. It’s like, ‘Oh, well, you can always get your teaching certification.’ And I don’t know why, other than maybe we’re responsible for that because we should have pride in what we do. That has to shift.”
Palmer is holding herself and her district accountable for changing the narrative about the teaching field in an effort to recruit more efficiently. Using aid from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) Grow Your Own: Teachers grant, O’Donnell has taken advantage of the opportunity to show its students how respectable and fulfilling teaching can be.
“With this new Grow Your Own program that Commissioner (Mike) Morath is promoting, we’re springboarding that and we’re starting classes in school, we’re offering dual credit for these kids to go into that field,” Palmer said. “And we’re letting them go and work with other teachers, and they’re seeing, ‘Oh, this is really a cool field to go into.’”
Introducing students to the profession isn’t all O’Donnell is doing to elevate the perception of teaching. They’re also taking to social media to promote their Grow Your Own program on a larger scale.
“We’re just promoting it ourselves, I mean, what we do makes a difference,” she said. “And we’re able to talk about that, do a media blitz on that. We do it on Facebook, and we talk about how we can make a difference in kids’ lives. And it’s not just about money. Everybody seems to be talking about just the money. Well, we kind of have shifted that and started talking about, ‘Look, you can raise a family, you can become part of a school family, and you can’t really do that in any other profession.’”
TechTeach serves Crosbyton well
Back at the CISD computer lab, our four future teachers are working together to get through their coursework despite some of them studying at different colleges. Whether they’re taking classes from South Plains Community College or Clovis Community College, what matters is that they can take 100 percent of their courses online so they can continue working in Crosbyton—a few of them are actually on staff for the district as secretaries or other support positions.
When they complete their associate’s degrees, they’ll be eligible for TechTeach Across Rural Texas, which will allow them to intern with Crosbyton CISD and complete their bachelor’s degrees simultaneously in one calendar year. By August of next year, they’ll be fully certified teachers with bachelor’s degrees, ready to begin a new career in teaching.
With such an accelerated path to certification—and it can be intensely accelerated if someone already has completed college credit hours or has an associate’s degree—it’s fair to question the quality of training these teachers receive.
Mason denied that notion quickly.
“They’re great quality,” he said. “That training program that Tech puts out, it’s second to none.”
The strength of the program is a Texas Tech-provided (but district-funded) site coordinator, or instructional coach. When the teacher candidates begin their internship, they’re in classrooms three days per week under supervision of a cooperating teacher and the site coordinator.
“That site coordinator is the one that makes this whole thing work,” Mason said. “They come in and do observations, they meet with these students. They encourage them, they hold their hand, they motivate them. It’s really like having a second principal in the building with them.”
Each coordinator can supervise 15-20 candidates across multiple districts. Crosbyton only hires three to eight teachers per year and can’t entirely cover the cost of employing a site coordinator, so it made sense to collaborate with the other four members of the West Texas Rural Coalition (Floydada, Roosevelt, Slaton, and Tahoka) to share both the financial burden and benefit of having a site coordinator.
In addition to meeting, encouraging, and motivating students, the site coordinator also films their classes and reviews that footage to provide feedback and help refine their teaching methods. In the spring semester, students are teaching in the classroom four days per week.
“By the time these students get through their internship, they’ve had a full year of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher, a site coordinator, and a principal,” Mason said. “So when they come out, they’re very well-trained, ready to hit the ground running.”
Crosbyton gets a three-year post-graduation commitment out of the teachers going through this program, which will likely turn into many more because the majority of the participants were sourced locally and already have ties to the community. Ultimately, that’s the key to recruiting and retention in rural districts—establishing a bond among the teachers, students, parents, administration, and the community itself.
If you’ve ever been to Midland, TX, during an oil boom, you know a half-empty parking lot at a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no wait to get a table.
In a town where the unemployment rate is hovering around 2 percent, it’s tough to staff low-skill positions, so even if the restaurant is half full, it may be a while before you get served because of the labor shortage.
This has a direct impact on the local schools, too. There are “now hiring” signs all over the city as workers continue to flock from their old jobs to the oil industry for substantially higher paychecks.
Last year, Midland had a teacher move away for reasons unrelated to oil, but the solution they found may help the district fill vacancies regardless of what caused them.
“We had an economics teacher that was fabulous, was dual-credit AP, so there were higher credentials and requirements for those kinds of classes,” Midland ISD chief human resources officer, Woodrow Bailey, said. “She was moving to another state. We knew that we were going to have trouble finding someone to fill that vacancy once she moved, and she had great attachment to the kids and was just a great teacher.”
Bailey and his staff met with the campus principal to explore ways to keep the teacher on staff. They decided to try out a new method—virtual teaching.
“We thought we could utilize her through virtual teaching, utilize technology to see what we can do,” Bailey said. “We pursued that, and she was willing to do that because she wanted to finish the year with those students. And it was a great success. We found a way to keep her on staff and she taught a couple days a week with the students through virtual teaching, and responding and interacting with actual students, just virtually, answering questions and all of that. It was a great solution.”
The students enjoyed the experience, but more importantly, outperformed academic expectations.
“Over the course of last year, not only did those students really thrive in the program and in the way that it was set up, but their scores were actually higher than in previous years,” Bailey said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the students being engaged with technology. It’s interactive, it’s where they are.”
Bailey also mentioned the high percentage of college students who end up taking multiple online classes throughout their higher education, so it may be helpful for high school students to get familiar with taking classes through different media now.
“This is a way that you can also address when a teacher is out on leave. Maybe a teacher goes out and has a surgery or has a child and they’re out for 12 weeks. Well, this is another opportunity to make sure that instruction continues with a certified teacher. This younger generation, they want something that’s flexible. They want to work for places that provide them with the ability to work from home.”
Midland ISD contracted for six sessions, or class periods, of virtual teaching for next year with Proximity Learning, a fully accredited online education provider based in Austin, TX. Even though Bailey’s sample size is small, he’s confident turning to virtual teachers will result in the same amount of success as it did with his district’s first experience.
“Proximity has their history and their success stories and we hope that those same success stories will be realized in this one,” he said. “It’s about that certified teacher in the classroom. It’s not a recorded lecture. It’s a teacher in front of those students and we have a facilitator. It’s a lot different than things that have been out there for years where you can go online and take an online course, this is really geared toward direct, interactive instruction.”
Just down the street from Midland, Ector County ISD is starting a plan to use half-time teachers, which allows retired teachers to get back in the classroom without losing their Teacher Retirement System (TRS) benefits. The district plans to pay teachers whatever they made when they retired.
This works because the district can effectively take two retired half-time teachers and schedule one to work in the morning and the other in the afternoon, collectively meeting the responsibilities of one full-time teacher without doubling the pay. It also doesn’t hurt to have two teachers with tons of combined experience back in the classroom.
Whether it’s the location, low pay, economy, or weakening interest in the profession, teachers are becoming more and more difficult to come by in rural school districts. But, through collaborative efforts, government grants, university partnership programs, emerging technologies, and flexible work plans, there are now more innovative tools to cope with the effects of a teacher shortage than ever before.
Zach DiSchiano is the communications specialist at TASB HR Services. Email Zach.