Montana rural teacher shortage addressed

MSU hosts Rural Teaching Colloquium to bring together administrators from rural districts, potential teachers

By Debra Redburn for the MSU News Service

BOZEMAN — As part of its efforts to address teacher shortage concerns in rural Montana school districts, Montana State University’s Department of Education brought together rural administrators and education students just completing their student teaching experiences for MSU’s inaugural Rural Teaching Colloquium.

The colloquium held Dec. 14 included a panel presentation by rural administrators from nearly a dozen northern and eastern Montana rural school districts. Teacher candidates also interviewed with the administrators for teaching positions.
Tena Versland, assistant professor in educational leadership and one of the colloquium’s organizers, said administrators in rural Montana school districts often report that they have difficulties finding teachers interested in coming to their districts, for reasons ranging from low salaries to isolation.

“Superintendents are telling us they don’t get applications for openings, or they have to fill a teaching position with a person who is not a licensed teacher but is willing to take classes to become certified,” she said.
In addition, recent articles in Montana media outlets have reported that teacher shortages in northern Montana have reached “crisis levels” and that universities are not graduating enough teachers to fill all the vacant positions, Versland said.
Tricia Seifert, head of the MSU Department of Education in the College of Education, Health and Human Development, noted that while some other universities in Montana have seen a decline in students majoring in education, MSU has remained relatively steady over the last eight years in teacher education student numbers and is the highest producer of education graduates in Montana.

“Overall enrollment is consistent with 2007, with 932 students enrolled in a teaching major in 2016,” Seifert said. “Elementary education numbers have been steady in the last five years, as well, with about on average 430 majors.”
Versland that as part of a land-grant university, the MSU Department of Education felt it was important to actively address rural school districts’ concerns “to let them know we are partners” in finding ways to increase interest of graduating students.
“Rural schools are a great place to learn to teach,” said Brad Moore, superintendent of Big Sandy Public Schools. “Teachers have more academic freedom to explore subject areas and find what they really want to teach.”

A number of the panelists also noted the close-knit connections of a small community and the ability to build close relationships with children and families as a strong benefit to teaching in rural schools.

Marie Judisch, principal of Meadowlark School in Conrad, said teachers in her district become close and provide a support system for each other. Others said that their districts have signing bonuses, help with student loan forgiveness, pay for coursework to be certified and offer lower housing costs. One district, Lambert Public Schools, noted that it owns houses that teachers may rent for $300 a month.
After attending the panel, several education students said they had a more favorable view of rural districts, and the presentation changed the way they view rural schools.
Alexandra Hinchcliff, a secondary education major from Manhattan, Montana, who student taught in Bozeman, said she liked the idea of smaller class sizes and the ability to work more one-on-one with children.

Cori Phillips from Billings said she wanted to teach in a rural district because “it’s home for me.”
“I was left with a feeling that the administrators have a genuine interest in me as a teacher, which you may not find in a large school district,” said Keaton Ramm from Loveland, Colorado.
Versland said she and her colleagues have received a College of Education, Health and Human Development community-based participatory research seed grant to continue exploring ways to engage students in rural settings. In the spring, a group of education students will travel to northeast Montana for a week to participate in practicum classes, the department’s hands-on clinical experience where students work side-by-side with classroom teachers.

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