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Three Solutions to Rochester’s Critical Teacher Shortage
By Kate H. Elliott
Each thread of the state’s teacher shortage has tangled into a giant, seemingly hopeless mess—leaving educators and communities somewhat paralyzed as to which string to sort out first.
But Kaycee Rogers, director of education at Augsburg College’s Rochester site, believes in Rochester’s nimble fingers. The overwhelming statistics, she said, aren’t factoring in the power of human energy, the collective strength of community, and the innovative connections mounting among educators and community leaders. Rogers is among a growing cadre of “citizen teachers” working together to increase teacher support and retention, remove legislative and licensure obstacles, and empower neighbors to fill vacant positions within the community’s second-largest employer—Rochester Public Schools.
Complex, Mounting Problems
On the rise since the 1980s, Minnesota’s teacher shortage has achieved crisis levels in the past decade. The Minnesota Department of Education, for instance, reported hiring more than 3,500 teachers who lacked necessary licenses, with special education and English Learner teachers among the toughest positions to fill. And students in these populations are increasing at roughly the same rate as the decline of those licensed to teach them.
To wrap these factors in even more red tape—ahem, string—are mounting paperwork and licensure requirements, which are made worse by the fact that some required licenses are not offered at the state’s colleges and universities.
Embrace Diversity, Empower ‘Citizen Teachers’
But Rogers remains hopeful. She uses the phrase “citizen teacher” to reiterate the role of teachers in public life and the importance of community-focused, culturally-relevant education. Rogers said the solution is not “out there,” but within each city, within Rochester.
“Rochester is a resettlement hub for refugees; and with several industry leaders, including the Mayo Clinic, our community draws non-native English speakers, who often start out in the service industry,” Rogers said. “We want to reach out to people who look like our students, come from the same backgrounds—perhaps those already working with our students as teacher aides or in other supporting roles—to advance their education, and we want that education to celebrate all cultures, provide students with multiple entry points for understanding, and make a difference in our community.”
It’s well documented that students retain more and have a positive view of education when they relate to teachers and aren’t asked to check their heritage at the door, Rogers said. Growing teachers from Rochester’s diverse population will beget more teachers of color—as students see someone like them leading the class, they may want to teach the next generation, she added.
Adopt Community-Focused, Student-Led Learning
Rogers and other teacher educators in Rochester are focused on retaining teachers, particularly within the critical first five years (a period with the highest turnover rate). She said that efforts start with conversations that build into professional development and support networks that address challenges. Rogers stresses that incentives and infrastructure must coincide with initiatives to confront the roots of the shortage, including class sizes, paperwork loads, and appropriate student placement, especially for those with special needs.
Meanwhile, teacher educators and administrators are striving to improve classroom culture through the support of meaningful, relevant learning experiences. As an example, Rogers shares work an Augsburg student is engaged in as part of her coursework on public achievement:
Heather Mabbitt, a special education teacher in Lyle, Minnesota, asked a group of first-12th graders: What is a problem in our community? Their response: Hunger, specifically that some students go without snacks each day. Her next question: Well, what are we going to do about it? As a part of the answer, she is now guiding these students with physical and emotional disabilities to raise awareness and support for a snack pantry of healthy options.
“There’s no reason why students shouldn’t learn through experiences that matter to them, and we can give them the tools to make a difference now,” Rogers said. “We have fourth- and fifth-graders writing grants, speaking to community groups, navigating teamwork, and participating in democracy,” Rogers said. “It’s been amazing to watch our teachers transition to more of a coaching role, while students take the lead to apply classroom learning to issues and situations of meaning to them.”
Broaden the Scope of Licensures
This community-focused approach pairs well with the more comprehensive, inclusive approach emerging to address special populations. More and more colleges and universities are phasing out specializations in narrow disability categories and adopting broader licensures, like the Academic Behavioral Strategist. The ABS prepares teacher candidates to work across all classifications of mild to moderate disabilities.
“A comprehensive, inclusive approach, we believe, equips teachers to address the complex challenges of today’s classrooms and qualifies them for a wider range of teaching positions,” Rogers said. “Exposure to more teaching strategies, more specializations only helps teacher candidates adapt and innovate in order to provide students with multiple access points for understanding.”