Student teacher Jenn Smith was pleasantly surprised when she learned the Richland School District planned a teacher job fair last week.
A master’s student at Heritage University knows it’s early for the district to be hiring for next school year. But she and at least 80 other potential teachers — some close to finishing school, some working for other districts, some just considering an education career — were more than happy to take up the district’s offer to learn more.
“They can put our faces with our names,” Smith said of principals at the job fair.
Aggressive teacher recruitment isn’t new for some Mid-Columbia school districts. The statewide shortage is driving many administrators to look at new and innovative ways to bring in new staff, from incentive payments for new teachers to fast-track training programs that get full credentials for college-educated candidates who’ve never taught before.
Not having enough teachers or other staff hurts everyone, students as well as current teachers, district officials and teacher representatives said. But there’s concern that these tactics won’t permanently address the lack of qualified teachers available to work in schools.
“What would make teaching attractive is if (teachers) were paid a professional wage and given respect,” said Teri Staudinger, president of the Kennewick Education Association.
Plenty of jobs, not enough teachers
The Tri-City school districts — Kennewick, Pasco and Richland — hired dozens of emergency-certified employees to guarantee classrooms were staffed on the first day of school this year.
Many are emergency substitute teachers, as the pool of substitute teachers was drained by administrators hiring regular substitutes for full-time positions.
The state also granted full-time emergency teacher certifications for six teachers in Pasco and one in Richland. Some of these new employees are student teachers originally scheduled to work with a mentor teacher; others will have a university degree but no formal teacher training.
Advance hiring has long been a priority in Pasco, which has seen big jumps in its enrollment and opened three new elementary schools in the past two years. And all the districts also need to hire more teachers to implement all-day kindergarten and to meet a statewide classroom size reductions.
Also, teacher advocates add that stagnant pay and increasingly challenging working conditions have driven veteran teachers to retire and students to choose other careers.
The Pasco district regularly sends representatives to job fairs outside the area, said spokeswoman Leslee Caul. Four years ago, administrators began organizing “candidate days” for interested job candidates to come learn about the district, be interviewed and potentially receive a letter of intent for a position all in the same day, said Robin Hay, Pasco’s director of employee services.
But that approach hasn’t been as fruitful in recent years.
“Last year, we did job fairs and didn’t get good results,” said Tony Howard, Richland’s executive director of human resources. “People don’t need to move (to get a job).”
Making the hard sell
That’s what led Howard to organize the job fair at Orchard Elementary, where the district was prepared to sign 20 advance contracts for the 2016-17 school year.
He spread the word of the event to teaching programs at universities throughout the region and heard that even some student teachers working in the Seattle area were interested in coming over.
Other districts are already reaching out to the 80-plus student teachers in the region who won’t even graduate until spring, said Judy Morrison, associate professor of science education at Washington State University Tri-Cities’ College of Education.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this happen in the fall before,” she said.
Hay said her district and several others were working on a grant with the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board, the body responsible for ensuring teachers are qualified, that would help establish new programs at WSU Tri-Cities and Heritage University.
They would make it easier for people with some college education to become certified educators, including a one-year track for those with at least a bachelor’s degree to become full-time teachers.
That includes a man that Hay said the district just hired as an emergency substitute who has a biology degree and started medical school before deciding to try out working in a classroom.
“There are some amazingly educated people out there who are interested in teaching,” she said.
And districts aren’t afraid to use incentives to attract hires.
Richland’s new teacher contract will allow the district to offer incentive pay to new teachers. Pasco has offered stipends to prospective student teachers to encourage them to work in the district and many are later approached with advance contracts when they are ready to graduate.
“It’s good to see teachers being recognized ... being wanted,” Morrison said.
Progress still needed
Staudinger said she and other educators support the districts doing whatever they can to relieve the demand for educators.
The shortage has put a lot of additional pressure on current teachers, as they are increasingly having to cover classrooms during planning periods or other scheduled time because of fewer available substitutes.
It isn’t ideal to be turning to a pool of candidates who haven’t been through an accredited teaching program, she added, “But that’s what we’re doing now and it’s just not working.”
While it’s great that non-teachers are eager to work in the classroom, that isn’t a long-term solution, she said.
The Legislature’s failure to pay for basic education in the state and the politicization of teaching, particularly the frequent push to reform or change policies such as standardized testing and standards, have made teaching unattractive, and it will remain so until that changes, she said.
“People need to want to be teachers from the start,” Staudinger said.
Smith said more could be done to encourage and support people to go into teaching. However, its unlikely that teaching will ever be a field people enter if they want to make a lot of money or because it’s easy work.
She’s pursuing it as a second career, previously working in business, raising her kids and even living overseas.
“We came back and I said I was going to do this. It’s what I always should have done,” she said.