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Low salaries, changing views complicate search for new teachers

Taylor Owens

Staff Writer

Local superintendents are in agreement – the pool of new teachers is drying up.

“We used to have hundreds of applicants for a position, and now we have as low as five,” Hastings Superintendent Dan Remenap said.

Barry County school superintendents pointed to low state funding, which has led to teacher salaries and benefits falling behind those in other fields.

“People feel like they can make more money in the public sector and I think, sadly, the perspective has been that teaching has become thankless,” Remenap said.

“We haven't done a good job of funding teachers,” Maple Valley Superintendent Katherine Bertolini said.

She also pointed to changes in the role, such as an overemphasis on testing and tight regulations on how curriculum is taught, which has led to a deprofessionalization of the job.

“This is the result of how we've treated educators in our state, it's no big secret,” Remenap said.

“It's an extremely difficult and challenging profession,” Thornapple Kellogg Superintendent Rob Blitchok said. “More demands are placed on teachers than ever before.”

According to Remenap, not only are schools pushed to test kids too much because of state regulations, the results of those tests have become 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

Complicating the situation, Blitchok said, are disagreements at the state level over how growth is defined by those test results – and that's still a point of contention.

“There really hasn't been a consistent standard of what growth is,” Blitchok said. “It gets confusing and sometimes demoralizing for teachers.”

“It has added a significant amount of stress to the teaching position, and made it more of a competition,” Remenap said.

“I've read that one third of teachers quit the profession within three years,” Delton Superintendent Kyle Corlett said.

Before Bertolini started as Maple Valley's superintendent in January, she was a professor of education in South Dakota. She saw a 30-percent drop in students entering the teaching program, and she has seen similar results in Michigan.

In “all the data that we see, the number of kids going into teaching is way down,” Blitchok said. He pointed out that young people aren't being encouraged to go into the profession, which points to a larger cultural change that many of the superintendents noted.

“I think the greatest factor has been our culture's view towards education,” Corlett said. “It doesn't seem to be as well respected as in the past, with the American culture as a whole not valuing education and not respecting the profession. People who pursue a career in education do so because they love to help kids and make a difference in the world, but the amount of grief and stress they receive because of lack of support scares many aware from the profession.”

“Culturally, we have to stop blaming education for every one of society's shortfalls,” Remenap said.

Certain positions are more difficult to fill than others -- with math, science, computer science, foreign language, agriculture, vocational education and special education being the most difficult.

“Foreign language is next to impossible,” Remenap said.

During the last school year, Maple Valley went months without a single application for a vacant high school Spanish teacher.

Remenap pointed out that special education typically has a high level of burnout due to its challenging nature and the amount of paperwork required, but what's not typical is how few new people are coming into the profession.

While some districts still have a few specialist positions still open, superintendents said they have been able to find qualified teachers this year, although they are worried about the future.

“It's going to get to a point where you're just putting young bodies in a classroom and that's not good for our kids,” Remenap said.

 “We continue to attract many good and qualified applicants for our positions,” Blitchok said. “Do I have concerns? Yes, because the trend seems to be less kids in Michigan going into teaching.”

“Competition for teachers is pretty fierce,” Bertolini said. “Districts are desperate enough (that) they're poaching teachers from other districts, and that never used to happen.”

Many teachers used to spend their careers in one district, but the competition for faculty has made almost constant turnover the new normal, Bertolini said.

Maple Valley has 14 new teachers this year, in a faculty of just over 60.

The district had to fill one position at the last minute, after a teacher took a position with another district four days before school started.

Thornapple Kellogg has 15 new teachers this year, with a faculty of more than 170, although five of those new staff members were for newly created positions. Hastings and Delton Kellogg schools have had a much smaller staff turnover, with four and three new teachers, respectively.

Corlett attributed Delton's tight-knit family atmosphere to the low staff turnover at Delton, and all of the superintendents said creating a culture of support for their teachers is a main priority. Delton also combined the district's first four salary step increases to create a higher starting wage and be more competitive in attracting new teachers.

The superintendents said changes to state funding, testing and the cultural view of teaching would help mitigate these issues, but they don't see a lot of movement on those fronts.

“There needs to be a more balanced approach,” Blichok said, referring to the focus on testing in curriculum and evaluation. “Sometimes the pendulum swings too far, too fast.”

“It'd be nice, first, if politicians stopped complaining about schools,” Corlett said. “It would help if they increased school funding and funding for student loan forgiveness for teachers.”

Corlett also suggested that a partnership between K-12 schools and universities to improve teacher preparation, so students better understand what they're getting into, would be a step in the right direction.

Bertolini is in the planning stages of a teacher foundation. With the help of donations from local sources, she hopes to help teachers with student loans, or with mortgage payments if they move into the district.

“It's a very complex, multifaceted problem,” she said.

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