It's always been a challenge convincing young teachers to put down roots in remote northwestern Minnesota. But these days it's an especially hard sell.
The northland schools have struggled like never before to fill open jobs the past few years, said Bob Jaszczak, superintendent of the Kittson Central district. "I'd be talking to area superintendents," he said, "and they'd be saying, 'Oh my God, I cannot find a 'blank' teacher.'"
Jaszczak's kept a file on every teacher job opening the past three years in the region's schools, how many people applied and how many of those who applied were actually qualified for the job. The numbers are bleak. Places like Hallock — a town of fewer than 1,000 within walking distance to the Canadian border — aren't the first choice of most teachers looking for work.
While that may be a fact of life in Hallock, state and local school leaders have become increasingly concerned by the rising number of Minnesota school districts confronting Hallock-like troubles. Once viewed only as a rural problem, filling critical jobs in high-need teaching areas has become a serious struggle across the state.
"In a lot of ways I feel like we're the canary in the coal mine," said Jaszczak. "When we're looking for teachers, we will see difficulties before it gets down into a statewide issue."
Minnesota has struggled for years to address teacher shortages but hasn't found a consistent solution. Demands for science, math and special needs teachers have leaped, but the supply has yet to catch up. Despite the state's increasing diversity, the teaching pool remains overwhelmingly white.
There's no doubt the biggest concerns remain in places like Kittson County.
An MPR News analysis of state data shows teacher turnover is higher in smaller districts. While just under half the state's teachers work in districts of fewer than 300 teachers, since 2010 those districts have accounted for more than 60 percent of the teachers who left for other districts.
Still, the problems are much more nuanced. Finding answers requires a deeper look into why people become teachers and how they choose their work, how they're trained and paid, and how state policies influence all those decisions.
Special needs, big demands
How hard is it these days to find special education teachers? Cherie Johnson understands the competition, and the costs, as well as anyone.
She directs the Goodhue County Education District, a cooperative of six southeastern Minnesota school districts that shares some services, like classes for high-needs special education kids.
Johnson has a facility most teachers would envy: a big red-brick building up a small hill outside Red Wing that opened last year with floor-to-ceiling windows and freshly painted hallways.
But in the fierce competition for special needs teachers, money talks right now.
On a recent day as she watched a dodgeball game, Johnson rattled off a handful of nearby school districts she says will give qualified special ed teachers a $15,000 boost on the salary grid.
Districts increasingly offer bonuses right off the bat to new hires, she added: "$5,000 signing bonuses. I've even seen a $10,000 signing bonus."
She said she's had a position open all year without a single applicant.
GCED has not gone down the bonus route, yet, "but certainly we're going to have to consider everything that the entities around us are using."
A Minnesota Department of Education report last month acknowledged many school districts can't fill special education jobs and don't foresee the problem going away anytime soon.
"Special education" is a term that covers a wide range of situations, including children with autism, emotional or behavior issues, speech problems, hearing problems or physical challenges. That can compound the hiring challenge, since special ed teachers get trained for specific areas.
And the job can be tough, said Maggie Helwig, principal of the GCED special ed program.
"Longevity in special education suffers ... because of the constant emotional and social energy teachers put forth to provide safe learning environment," she said. "It's emotionally heavy work."
It can also be a paperwork jungle. Each special education student has an individual plan that has to be updated yearly. There are evaluations and meetings that go well beyond the grading and lesson planning done by general education teachers.
"The largest piece of it is the paperwork. That's a gigantic piece that I'm just so done with," said Brenda Crissinger, who taught special ed to students who are deaf and hard of hearing for 33 years in southern Minnesota before quitting this year.
She said all she wanted to do was teach, but she got tired of the documentation and other burdens.
"We need to track that very carefully," she said. "But I do believe far too many hours are spent on the paperwork, taking away from actually servicing those kids."
A 2013 legislative audit of Minnesota's special education program devoted a whole section to paperwork burdens and suggested the Education Department work to reduce them. Last year the Legislature mandated that reduction.
The department took some steps, including reducing the number of documents it checks when it monitors school districts. But requirements are set out in law, and some Minnesota-specific requirements go beyond what's federally required.
For all the discouragement, there are new teachers getting into special education.
"A lot of people are like, 'Oh no, special education paperwork is so much' and I was like, 'Oh! Mental health practitioners did a bunch of it, too,'" said Tira Petersen, a new special ed teacher who now works in the Goodhue County Education District building.
Petersen doesn't even have her teaching license yet, but she's able to work under special permission from the state. Districts can get an OK from the state when they can't find fully licensed teachers. The teachers they hire often take classes or finish up licensure exams while they're working.
Petersen says she's about to start classes, and while learning and teaching at the same time will be stressful, "they'll give me an extra prep to help work some of that school work in during my day, and they really want to help and support me so I don't burn out."
It's not just a theoretical worry. Johnson says more than 10 percent of her teachers are under the state permission system. And as those numbers go up, she worries a lot about teacher burnout and how that might hurt the kids.
"If you're a child with special needs, building relationships could be difficult for you, most likely it is difficult for you, and now we're putting new people in each year," she said. "It's impacting how much progress we can make with you. And we need to be making more than a year's worth of progress with our kids to close those achievement gaps."
'Not people of my race'
Special permission requests like the kind that got Petersen working for GCED have shot up in recent years as districts scramble to staff classrooms.
In some categories, special permission requests have doubled since 2011, according to a recent Minnesota Department of Education report.
Meanwhile, the number of new teachers completing training programs dropped 15 percent from 2012 to 2014.
Complicating matters, there's a glut of teachers in some areas. A recent statewide Education Department report showed that some teacher training schools have trouble placing graduates in jobs in elementary education, social studies and physical education.
It's even more complex in Minneapolis schools, which get plenty of applications but not enough in the disciplines they need and also struggle to find teachers of color to reflect the diversity of its students.
"We really struggle to ensure that we have a recruitment pool that reflects our student population," said Maggie Sullivan, human resources officer for the district, which is starting a program to get unlicensed employees who already work in the district through training and into special ed jobs.
Students of color now make up almost a third of Minnesota's school population. Just 4 percent of teachers are people of color.
The state hasn't calculated how long teachers of color stick around once they get in the job. But an MPR News analysis found that retention is much lower compared to white teachers.
About 40 percent of teachers of color leave after just three years. Only about 25 percent of white teachers leave in that time.
In large urban and suburban districts, student populations are even more diverse, which increases the need for a diverse workforce.
It's not just a problem for Minneapolis.
Just over half the kids in the Roseville school district are students of color. Roseville's teacher diversity is better than the state overall — 10 percent are teachers of color, according to district officials — but still not close to matching that of the student body.
It's a need districts know they must address.
That's clear in Roberta Hernandez Rasmussen's classroom. She's Mexican-American and in her 10th year in Roseville. She connects with her students at story time, with a book about farm worker and labor organizer Cesar Chavez.
Hernandez Rasmussen says Roseville does things to help teachers of color stay, like a discussion group that meets during the school day.
But she still worries about turnover, because she says it means students miss out on connections, such as the one she's built with Gennesis, a third-grader who mostly speaks Spanish at home.
When she moved to Roseville this year, she said Hernandez Rasmussen made things easier: "She was like the only person that I talked to, because I was nervous to talk to other people. I'm shy to talk to other people."
Hernandez Rasmussen says her students can really benefit from long-term relationships with a teacher who "gets" them.
School officials say they know staff diversity is a big issue. Programs in Minneapolis and Osseo focus on teacher training for unlicensed school staff, who tend to be a more diverse group.
At the state Capitol, lawmakers are considering expanding loan forgiveness funding to include teachers of color, providing scholarships and giving more support to targeted training programs.
And the share of newly licensed teachers who are people of color has grown slightly. However, retention numbers have not really moved, which means all those hard-won hires may be headed right back out the door.
If all goes well, Salah Ali will soon be one of those newly graduated teachers. Ali's in a master's program at Augsburg College, going for a math teaching license.
He's in an Augsburg scholarship program that pays tuition plus the cost of state licensure tests and a stipend during student teaching, to help overcome financial barriers for would-be teachers. The tests alone run about $50 each, and candidates take several.
The Augsburg program specifically targets students of East African origin, bringing them together for monthly meetings, where they dig into falafel and chicken gyros for dinner.
Ali said he wants to give his students what he didn't have in school.
"A lot of my teachers were not people of my race or my color and I didn't see myself in them," he said. "I think me just being in the classroom will motivate a lot of kids to see that they can achieve something in life."
Ali has a major hurdle left, the one that comes up often in talk about the teacher pipeline: student teaching. State rules say teacher training programs must include at least 12 weeks of student teaching.
Ali worries about taking time away from the full-time job he's already working.
"I have three children, and my wife, and I have a mortgage and I have a car payment, and I have all these responsibilities," he said. "It's a big, like, 'Oh, should I continue?'"
A new Minnesota licensure system being considered at the Capitol would let teachers get some types of licenses with fewer qualifications. There's also a proposal for state grants to help candidates afford student teaching.
University of Minnesota professor Misty Sato says the licensing proposals could help in the short term but she doesn't want Minnesota to lower entry requirements.
Education, she added, should learn from medicine and technology, fields that offer clear ways to advance in the job, good work culture — and more money up front.
"What those other fields will do is incentivize people to want to do that work," she said. "They'll offer strong beginning salaries. That's how the technical fields compete with people who are coming into teaching."
A path forward?
Bigger salaries at the start would be a great way to attract and retain young, qualified teachers. But that's not likely to happen any time soon, especially in small rural districts.
They need to find creative, cost-effective ways to find and keep teachers.
Bemidji State University is offering a path with an online program to grow teachers where they live. It's reaching students who because of distance and life circumstances can't make it to campus.
Twenty-five miles away, it's helping teacher Sarah Duquette, a special education teacher at Blackduck Middle School.
She likes the work, but technically she's not qualified. Duquette is certified to teach but doesn't have the special education license the state requires.
"We find a way to fill the spot, but not everybody is teaching under licensure here," said Blackduck superintendent Mark Lundin. "For lack of a better term, you're looking for a warm body that can help the kids. Because that's what we're into, trying to get that done."
Walking down the middle school halls, he explains that Duquette is doing a great job, though she only got hired because the school had more special ed students than they could handle. And she was the only person who applied.
He says they were lucky to get her. For some jobs, no one applies.
She's been teaching on a temporary variance, which is a legal waiver that allows her to work, as long as she's taking the college classes required for a permanent license.
"You can only have three years on the variance in your whole teaching career," she explained. "So for me I had to make sure to fit my schooling in that three years. Because otherwise, how am I going to get a job if I don't have the variance."
The Bemidji State online program is designed to get people like Duquette licensed while they're still teaching. It's the only program of its kind in Minnesota. While a few universities offer online paths to very specific licenses, only Bemidji offers all the diverse teaching licenses required to keep a school district staffed.
Small districts often find it nearly impossible to hire licensed teachers in any discipline, said program director Kris Nei.
Instead, those districts might hire a local construction worker to teach shop class, an engineer to teach math, or a middle school teacher like Duquette, to step into special ed. Very often those hires end up in Nei's online classes.
The program has been around for more than a decade, but recently Nei said, it's been growing quickly. A class that might have drawn 20 students three years ago, has 35 now.
She's happy to be helping more people, but says her full classes are a sign of the severity of the rural teacher shortage.
"We say we grow teachers where they live," Nei said, "because those communities are the areas which in many cases have extremely high need for teachers."
Duquette is just about to graduate from the BSU online program. That will happen just a few months before her three-year variance is set to expire.
Lundin's relieved too, but for him, it's one victory in a much larger struggle.
John Holliday, another Blackduck special ed teacher, is still working on a variance. Chemistry teacher Dan Carlson isn't licensed yet to teach in high school. The art teacher is Lundin's wife, and she's working on a variance, too.
Without the online program at BSU, he says, all their variances would run out in a few years, and he'd be back to square one, just looking for warm bodies.
"Dan was never part of the plan, John and Sarah were never part of the plan," he said. "But here we now attracted four amazing people, who are going to be here in the Blackduck district for a long time, helping our kids."
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