TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Ross Parsons is surprised more people don’t go into teaching.
But it wasn’t his original plan, either. Parsons’ first career was a river ranger for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
This fall, he’ll teach sixth-grade language arts and social studies at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum – the school he attended as a child.
Parsons has friends who are hardworking, intelligent and personable and get along well with children, he said, but “teaching was just never on their radar, unfortunately.”
That factor may contribute to Idaho’s statewide teacher shortage.
Desperate for candidates, many south-central Idaho school districts are recruiting more aggressively. And the struggle is more pronounced in rural towns, which have to compete with larger school districts on pay and community amenities.
Shoshone School District superintendent Rob Waite – a superintendent for 17 years in Oregon and Idaho – remembers when it was easy to find teachers.
Years ago, when he advertised in a local newspaper he’d receive up to 100 applicants for a single elementary school teaching job. Now, Waite said, “we’re lucky to get a couple.”
Which teaching jobs are hardest to fill in his 500-student district?
“At this point,” he said, “they’re all pretty challenging.”
To put enough teachers into classrooms, school districts are hiring more applicants who don’t yet have teaching certification.
Some teaching jobs – such as in special education, math and science – have been a struggle to fill for years. Now that extends to mainstream jobs such as elementary schoolteachers.
“The trend for the last few years has been across the board,” said Dale Layne, Jerome School District superintendent. “Even trying to find elementary teachers now is very difficult.”
Waite says the teaching environment has improved across Idaho. And he likes the career ladder law, which took effect in 2015 to boost pay over five years to help attract and retain teachers.
Nonetheless, “I think we’re headed toward a crisis,” he said. “People don’t realize how hard it is to attract teachers these days.”
Declo High School principal Roland Bott said teaching has been demonized for a long time. “I think that has to change. I think it’s a wonderful profession.”
But without a change in mindset, he said, “our young, bright children aren’t going to go into the profession and there will be no one to fill the jobs.”
Melyssa Ferro, Idaho’s 2016 teacher of the year, is a member of the state’s teacher pipeline workgroup, which is looking into the teacher shortage and drafting possible solutions. The workgroup met in January before splitting into smaller groups covering topics such as certification, recruitment and retention, which all met this spring.
“We came back together in early June to share the individual solutions we’re working on,” Ferro said. The plan is to submit recommendations to the Idaho State Board of Education this fall.
One focus is changing the narrative from punitive assessment of teachers to how to support them, said Ferro, going into her 18th year as a middle school science teacher in Caldwell.
She’d like to see an option where teachers can access money for professional training and decide which opportunities would be most beneficial.
“That’s making sure the teachers have a voice in their professional development,” she said.
Ferro also wants to see a push to keep experienced teachers in classrooms.
The education system has a bizarre system of promotion, she said, because people with more experience are often pulled away from classrooms and into administrative positions.
The shortage can be particularly tough in small towns like Declo.
At Declo High, there isn’t much teacher turnover. When someone leaves, it’s usually a retirement. But when a job does open, it’s very difficult to fill.
For example, a math teacher retired this spring. The school district knew about it well in advance, and the position was advertised in January. The district made an offer in March. Ultimately, Bott said, the woman who accepted the job backed out for personal reasons. Now the job has been filled by a college student who will do her student teaching at the same time.
Four years ago, Declo High’s science teacher retired. The school advertises the job every year but hasn’t found anyone to fill it.
The “retiree” comes back to teach “or we wouldn’t have a science teacher,” Bott said. “It’s just difficult.”
In Twin Falls, it’s much easier to fill teaching jobs, but even there applicant numbers started dropping off this summer.
The number of applicants for each teaching job ranged from the high 30s to low 50s in March and April. But this summer, a first-grade teaching job received 11 applicants; a high school math job, after it was posted for two weeks, had received one applicant.
An encouraging trend: The district is seeing more experienced teachers applying for jobs, including some with 30-plus years of experience. Only about a dozen of the 47 teachers hired by mid-June were new or had just one year’s experience.
As of mid-June, the school district had 33 positions still open for certified employees such as teachers, administrators and counselors. Numbers were similar to the same time last year, human resources director Shannon Swafford said.
But with approval to hire four more elementary schoolteachers to help lower class sizes and cope with enrollment growth, she said, “we might just have a few more to fill.”
The Jerome district had hired 24 teachers for next school year by mid-June and had nine jobs left to fill.
The Shoshone district had only two job openings as of mid-June, both at the middle school. That’s similar to previous years, but Waite wasn’t sanguine.
“They’ve been open for more than a month and we’re this year struggling for teachers on the secondary level,” he said.
Hiring for classified employees, such as custodians, cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals, is harder to pin down across south-central Idaho.
“The last few years, it has just been a continual hiring process year-round,” Swafford said. Especially for paraprofessionals.
Often, paraprofessional resignations don’t come in until the fall, she said, because employees tend to find new jobs over the summer. This fall she expects stiff competition in Twin Falls for employees, with new companies arriving and the unemployment rate hovering around 3 percent.
The teacher shortage means there’s more competition among school districts – especially within the Magic Valley – to find the most qualified candidates and ensure they’ll accept an offer.
By far the majority of the Twin Falls School District’s new teachers are coming from within the valley. Only a few are from outside Idaho.
“It’s almost like there’s a natural competition built into the valley,” Swafford said.
This spring, teachers union negotiations included a focus on putting money into the state career ladder to be competitive – especially, on the upper end for veteran teachers, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said. For example, a teacher with 13 or more years of experience – who has a master’s degree or bachelor’s degree plus 36 additional college credits – made $37,689 last school year.
Plus, the district started advertising jobs in January – several months earlier than usual – for the upcoming school year. Even without knowing yet who might leave, district leaders knew they’d have to staff South Hills Middle School, which opens this month.
Big factors for applicants deciding where to work are convenience and location. “Oftentimes, it will come down to where an individual lives,” Layne said.
The Jerome district – and others with a traditional five-day school week – face competition with local districts such as Gooding, Wendell, Hagerman, Bliss and Valley that are on a four-day week.
“That’s attractive to some folks,” Layne said.
Another big competitor: the Boise School District, which pays more and tends to hire later, Layne said.
“Even though we’re at nine openings, we’re always concerned when they start hiring that direction because we sometimes lose folks to the Treasure Valley,” he said.
The Boise area is attractive to younger teachers, in particular, because there’s a larger population base and more to do.
In Twin Falls, district officials are working with Idaho universities and Western Governors University – even a university in Kansas – to attract student teachers to Twin Falls.
“We’re trying to get them in as student teachers,” Craner said. Those college students tend to apply for jobs later.
Last school year, the district organized a tour for Idaho State University education students before they signed up for student teaching. They offered tours of several Twin Falls schools, answered questions and got feedback from the students about what they’re looking for in potential jobs. The district plans to hold the event again this fall.
Aware of upcoming retirements and preparing to add positions, the Jerome district got a head start on hiring in March – and received more high-quality applications than it did later in the season.
“Now we’re at the point where there’s not a lot of applicants for some of the new positions,” Layne said.
In Shoshone, there’s a relatively new partnership with Eastern Oregon University’s teaching preparation satellite program in Ontario, Ore., just across the state border. Many Idaho students attend the Oregon school. Waite visits the school and encourages students to do their student teaching in Shoshone, hoping they’ll stay once they graduate from college.
The recruiting system he advocates: Making a personal connection and letting students know “they’ll be treated right and have a good experience.”
And it worked. For the upcoming school year, the Shoshone district hired three recent Eastern Oregon graduates as first-year elementary schoolteachers. Last year, it hired two.
Another piece of the recruiting puzzle in Shoshone is selling the district’s and town’s positives, Waite said, including pay above the state’s salary schedule for some teachers and Shoshone’s central location near larger cities.
Shoshone district officials don’t attend job fairs anymore to recruit students. They just weren’t fruitful.
“We’ve given up on some of our traditional means,” Waite said.
At a multistate job fair in Spokane, Wash., for example, “we can’t even get people to talk with us,” he said. “We sit there all day and they’ll be talking with the bigger towns.”
The new approach: “We try to be aggressive and form partnerships.”
Nearby universities – such as ISU and Boise State University – aren’t putting out enough teaching graduates to fill the need across the state, Layne said. So Jerome is hiring more candidates on an alternate route to certification.
“We’re seeing a lot more of those hires,” Layne said. “The certified people aren’t out there.”
School boards declare an “area of need” if they can’t find a certified teacher. It allows them to hire an unlicensed educator.
One common option for unlicensed teachers is to take online classes through the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. The nonprofit, established by a U.S. Department of Education grant, helps people who already have a bachelor’s degree and want to change careers. Students have up to one year to complete the self-paced online program, and they must pass tests in classroom pedagogy and content before earning an interim license. Plus, they receive help from a mentor teacher.
So what should Idaho do?
Rural school districts – where the teacher shortage is particularly acute – should grow their own, Ferro said. Look around, see who’s there, and turn them into teachers. That is, if paraprofessionals or other people already working in schools show potential, provide incentives for them to gain teaching certification.
But it’s important to the state’s workgroup not to shortchange certification standards, Ferro said. “Educators have to be certified.”
To boost rural recruitment, the group has also talked about new initiatives modeled around federal offerings such as partial student loan forgiveness for agreeing to work in a low-income community.
“We wanted to be really careful to not start handing out bonuses for hard-to-fill positions like science or special education,” Ferro said. “It devalues every other educator across the state and creates a hostile work environment.”
Back in Blaine County, Parsons was a substitute teacher. It was a chance to see if he liked working at a school.
He did. He completed an alternate route to certification and got his first teaching job in Ketchum.
Now he’s preparing for the school year and hoping to make a mark on the next generation of students in his hometown.