Montana’s ‘last resort’ for finding teachers is becoming increasingly common in rural schools

February 4, 2019

Barely any Montana schools used emergency authorizations to certify teachers a few years ago. Now, that number has jumped to 94, more than double what it was last year.

And almost all of them are in small, rural schools.

Whether the jump illustrates a worsening teacher shortage in those schools is unclear. But other evidence has long since established that the shortage reached “crisis levels” in rural schools, and the increase in emergency authorizations lays bare how schools are coping.

“There are some positions that I advertise for, but I get no applicants,” said Opheim Schools superintendent Tony Warren.

Opheim received emergency licenses for three teachers this school year, in science, physical education and music.

Warren feels like he has good educators in those positions, but he had to look in unconventional places.

The science teacher is from the Philippines, a market that schools from Shelby to Glendive have turned to. However, the teacher’s science education didn’t match up properly with OPI’s requirements for science, thus the emergency license, Warren said.

The music teacher is a former certified teacher who now teaches online courses for universities, he said, and agreed to return to K-12 but didn’t get re-certified, he said.

Warren said he mostly tries to market a rural lifestyle and low teacher-student ratio for open positions, but he finds it hard to compete with other states.

At a recent teacher job fair, he found himself sandwiched between districts from Alaska and Wyoming.

“On a financial level, we cannot compete,” he said. “Both doubled what I could offer to begin with.”

Montana offers the lowest beginning teacher salary in the nation, according to the most recent federal statistics and national union information. Generally, those salaries are even lower in rural areas.

Adding up

Warren, who’s been Opheim’s superintendent since 2014, has no delusions about Opheim having ever been an irresistible draw for teachers.

“I’m realistic enough to know that I’m fortunate to get someone for a year or two to get some experience before they move on,” he said.

But in the past, a small percentage of those young teachers would stick and build a career at Opheim, creating a pipeline of veterans. Without a supply of rookies, that pipeline runs dry.

Two notable inclusions on this year’s report were Glendive and Sidney; both are small, rural towns by most reckonings, but they’re regional hubs for Eastern Montana. The report does also include one license for the Missoula High School district, and one for a private school in Butte.

The 94 schools sometimes represent double-counts in the same community. Montana school districts are often split into high school and elementary districts, and if a teacher is certified to teach at both levels and receives an emergency license, it counts for two in the report.

When totaled by subject area, the state issued 75 emergency licenses to 40 communities.

Part of the increase is because the Office of Public Instruction is pushing the option to schools who can’t find a properly licensed teacher, said OPI Educator Licensure Program Manager Kristine Thatcher. If schools employ a teacher in a position they’re not licensed for, they get dinged on their state accreditation. The emergency authorizations have no penalty.

“The last several years OPI’s been making a concerted effort, and especially this past year, to bring awareness of the option,” she said, particularly among accreditation staffers who visit schools.

“I do know that they were also saying, ‘OK, it appears that you’re also needing someone in this area. … make sure you apply for the emergency authorization.”

Teacher certification can be a contentious method of addressing teacher shortages; proponents of expanding teaching qualifications argue that restrictions keep good teachers who haven’t jumped through the right hoops out of the classroom, while others raise concerns that easing requirements will lead to a water-down and ineffective teaching workforce.

The authorizations have been an important tool for Glendive, Dawson County School District superintendent Stephen Schreibeis said.

“It has helped us quite a bit maintaining accreditation,” he said.

Glendive has used several of the authorizations for long-term substitutes, he said. State law requires a sub to have a teaching license after working in the same position for more than 35 days.

“We don’t have many licensed teachers in Glendive just hanging out, not teaching,” Schreibeis said.

The district also used an authorization for a special education position this year. They hired an educator who is in the process of finishing her schooling that would qualify her for licensure.

That feeds into the grow-your-own model of teacher recruitment — finding people with roots in the community.

“If you can train your own, you have a higher likelihood of retention,” Schreibeis said.

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