For the past six years, Shari Daniels has tried to be the person she wishes she had in her life as a student.
Daniels grew up on the Fort Peck Reservation, home to about 6,000 members of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, in northeast Montana. Now 48, she struggles to remember the name of even one of her teachers, and she has no memory of making a personal connection with any of them. Raised by her grandmother, Daniels said she can’t remember ever seeing a report card sent home.
“They always treated us like we were another number, especially the Native American students,” said Daniels, who is Dakota Sioux from the Fort Peck Reservation. “It felt almost like they passed you [to the next grade] to get you out of their eyesight before they packed their bags.”
More than two decades later, the teaching ranks of the Poplar School District, which serves about 900 students, 96% of whom are American Indian, look quite different than when Daniels was a student there. About a third of its teachers identify as Native American, including Daniels. But high turnover remains a problem.
Poplar schools lose about a fifth of their teachers each year — more than double the national attrition rate — and principals have struggled to fill vacancies across most grade levels and subjects. For about 1 in 10 positions there, the district last year reported hiring people with no formal training who needed an emergency waiver from the state to teach. The problem is the same across Montana — where 65% of rural schools in remote settings reported difficulty filling vacancies, compared with 35% of non-rural schools. This school year, with the pandemic making it even harder to import teachers from elsewhere, education leaders in the state issued the highest number of emergency waivers — 122 — for unlicensed teachers to work in classrooms since at least 2005.
Though the communities hit hardest by the teacher shortage are small, the problem is large. Across the U.S., about 9.3 million public-school students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all students in the country — attend a rural school, according to a November 2019 report from the Rural School and Community Trust. At just below 75%, Montana has the highest share of rural schools of any state.
For many reasons, including low pay, isolation and scarcity of housing, hanging on to local talent is an especially acute problem in Montana. The state actually produces roughly six times as many teachers — 1,600 a year — as the labor market can absorb, according to data from the Montana Department of Labor & Industry. Still, Montana principals reported hiring nearly 400 people without full credentials over the past three years to lead classrooms, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the state’s Office of Public Instruction.
Sheryl Kohl, who is white, was ready to teach when she moved to Daniels’ hometown in 1983. She didn’t expect to still be teaching there nearly four decades later.
“People arrive here, and they can’t deal,” said Kohl of the many teachers who come for a few years but don’t stay. “Yeah, the mountains are beautiful, but they’re nine hours away. If you want to fly anywhere, you drive 325 miles to Billings.”
What convinced Kohl to stay? Her husband, an associate member of the Fort Peck Tribes, whom she met when he was making repairs on a friend’s home. And the 55 kids the couple has fostered over the years. But arranging marriages to locals isn’t a particularly practical plan for keeping out-of-town teachers in classrooms.
“The question comes up every 10 years or so: How do we recruit people to come here, and then how do we get them to stay?” Kohl said. “Pretty much the only thing anyone can come up with is there’s pretty good hunting and fishing, but it’s also 30 below in January and 110 in the summer.”
One idea is to stop recruiting people to move and just focus on getting them to stay. Many of the recently funded government efforts have been aimed at convincing people who grow up in these towns to stay and teach. It’s harder than it sounds, since rural areas tend to produce fewer people with the education levels necessary to become teachers. Those who do earn advanced degrees can be loath to return. And there’s little evidence to say how well “grow your own” efforts work.
“Growing your own is a really good, very bright concept,” said Sun Young Yoon, with the research organization Education Northwest. However, she added, “there’s not a lot of empirical evidence looking at the impact on student or teacher outcomes.”
With no clear academic guidance as a student, Daniels hoped to escape to Rapid City, South Dakota, where she could train to become a flight attendant and travel the world. She graduated high school, got as far as Bismarck, North Dakota, and then returned home to care for her sickly grandmother. Daniels’ own diagnosis with an autoimmune disease kept her in Poplar even longer. She took temp jobs as a teacher’s aide in special education and early childhood classrooms to pay the bills. And then, in 2015, Daniels noticed an opening to teach special education. The elementary school principal, however, wondered if she’d rather lead her own kindergarten classroom.
Daniels went for it.
“I never thought I’d become a teacher,” Daniels said. “It was never a calling or anything like that.”
She soon earned a degree in elementary education from Rocky Mountain College in Billings. At first reluctant to take the kindergarten job — “I honestly wondered, ‘Am I capable?’ ” — Daniels realized the importance that kindergarten would play in the lives of children in her community.
“It’s such a strong foundation of what these kids will learn forever,” she said. “I want to give them the encouragement I never got.”
For school leaders in rural areas, finding people like Daniels more than once in a great while is no small task. That’s why some states and districts have started thinking about how to nudge homegrown talent into the classroom and how to create more reasons for imported teachers to stay.
Low pay is part of the problem in Montana, according to Ann Ewbank, director of accreditation and operations for the Department of Education at Montana State University. She noted the average starting salary for teachers falls just below $31,500. Better salaries can help. In neighboring North Dakota, which reported a teacher shortage of just under 4%, recent graduates can start their teaching careers earning almost 20% more than in Montana. And in Wyoming, which issued emergency waivers for fewer than 2% of all teachers, starting pay tops $45,000.
Yoon, with Education Northwest, and her colleague Ashley Pierson have studied teacher turnover in four Western states — Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Washington. They found higher turnover rates in rural schools in Alaska and Montana, with some rural districts losing teachers to urban and suburban neighbors. Turnover was especially high among Alaska teachers trained out of state.
“Both short- and long-term ideas might help, but it can be challenging to invest in all of these at once,” Pierson said.
But a shoestring budget and courses shutting down due to unreliable internet on the reservation hampered the expansion of the program to the Crow community. While Howard initially hoped it would take just five years for the share of locally recruited teachers who are Indigenous to match student demographics, she has readjusted her goal to 10 years due to the pandemic.
“The teacher shortage may be especially intractable in the near future,” she said. “Teachers have already left in droves and many more are likely to leave after this year. This is particularly the case in tribal communities, which have experienced great loss of life and significant disruption in schools.”
Although participants have filled over 60 teaching positions since Howard’s program first began, “the demand remains significant,” she said.
Back in Poplar, school superintendent Dan Schmidt has tried many ways to attract and keep teachers in his community. The district offers a $1,500 signing bonus. It also starts new hires at a third-year salary level and even owns 16 housing units to keep rents low for transplants.
As for Daniels, her tenure in the school district may have an expiration date. She soon will start studying to earn her master’s degree in early education, but ultimately wants to become an instructor at Fort Peck Community College.
And while Daniels acknowledged her own departure from the elementary school will contribute to the rural teacher turnover, she remains committed to helping her hometown schools.
“I could maybe end up teaching my own replacement,” she said.
For her work to make a difference in the rural teacher shortage, she’ll need to train more than just one new teacher. She thinks she can, especially if she and other leaders work on better getting the message to local, Native young people that they are capable of being great teachers.
“We don’t help them see the strong points in their life and how they can contribute to a community that’s so desolate and so far from everything,” she said of Poplar students. “We have to offer a future for students who can’t or won’t go away.”
This story about rural teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.