South Dakota short on hundreds of teachers as school year nears

Even just a month ago, there were around 300 teaching positions open in South Dakota. That’s more than 100 higher than last year at the same time.
Published: Aug. 9, 2022 at 4:30 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - It’s no secret that it’s becoming harder for school districts in the state to fill teaching positions. With more retirements because of the pandemic and less applicants looking for jobs, open positions in the state have spiked significantly compared to previous years.

It won’t be long before students start filing into Harrisburg High School for the first day of school in two weeks. But like many districts in the state, they’re still looking for all the staff they need to teach courses. School Administrators of South Dakota Executive Director Rob Monson said even just a month ago, there were around 300 teaching positions open in South Dakota. That’s more than 100 higher than last year at the same time.

“It’s down a little bit. But we’re still looking at about 225 openings across the state. And when I’m talking openings, I’m not talking coaching or anything other than classroom positions.” Monson said.

There’s a number of reasons why the state is seeing an increase in teacher openings. Monson said pay is the biggest factor in retaining teachers. While the state average starting pay has improved to near where neighboring states are paying, that salary increase doesn’t always translate to more pay for experienced teachers. He also said events from the last few years have only increased those issues.

“There’s a whole compilation of issues of why we’re seeing this shortage. Certainly the pandemic had something to do with that. the job is harder than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s far more challenging working with some of the students that are in our school system.” Monson said.

That’s affecting smaller districts in the state, who’ve had to compete with larger districts for teacher opportunities and especially pay. Those districts, like Sisseton, are always having to worry about turnover, often times struggling to even find applicants.

“I started my administrative career as a principal. One of the hardest things to do as principal was knowing that during the summertime if I had a position to fill, I would come to work at the beginning of the day knowing I had one solid focus for the day. That was to find a teacher to fill that position,” Sisseton School District Superintendent Tammy Meyer said. “99 percent of the time, I went home at the end of the day knowing that I wasn’t able to fulfill that one job duty. Not for not having tried to do everything that I could within my power. But knowing that that was the most important thing that I could do as a principal, was hire high quality staff for our students.”

Meyer said the number of open positions in the state could even be higher, depending on what job search platforms are used to find applicants.

“If we have three elementary positions open, we’re only going to advertise that once on the ASBSD platform. So some of those numbers might be lower than reported, and what’s actually true out in the field.” Meyer said.

Back at Harrisburg, the fast-growing district has usually been able to attract some of the best talent in the state for teaching positions. But even it’s high school still has positions open headed into the year with the number of new positions they need to keep classes small.

MORE: Harrisburg school district looking to expand

“We added about 13 new teachers, and that can be a challenge. Especially when you’re looking in areas like special education, your CTE world and upper level maths and sciences, and sometimes in the fine arts as well.” Harrisburg High School Principal Ryan Rollinger said. “I’ve seen a decline in the number of applicants we get for each position. We see a decline in the number of people who have experience that are applying and kind of the total number of students graduating with education degrees. The challenge is definitely in some specific areas for those.”

Rollinger said there have been some actions taken by the South Dakota Department of Education to make teaching positions more attractive in the state, such as relaxing rules for teachers looking to move across state lines. He said while he appreciates the move, it still isn’t enough to retain faculty.

“There are a few things. I know they’ve relaxed some of the licensure for teachers coming across state lines. Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of teachers coming from, at least in our corner, from Minnesota or Iowa or Nebraska. As a matter of fact, we lose more to those states normally than we get.” Rollinger said.

The pay and respect for teaching as profession will also need to be looked at differently if all districts in the state are to continue to fill positions and retain valuable staff.

“In my mind, the number one thing is going to be to increase that pay, and get your stakeholders, your communities and the entire state to look at the teaching profession in a more professional light, and then make that pay accordingly.” Rollinger said.

Monson said it’s no longer as big of a divide between bigger and smaller districts when it comes to attracting applicants, stating that both are having to deal with no teachers in the pipeline. He said more emphasis needs to be placed on getting students to consider teaching as a career, and keeping them local.

“It would be if you were out in the hinterlands somewhere, you would struggle to find a science teacher or a music teacher. But it’s even now in the big districts. You look at Sioux Falls, I think they’re still struggling to fill a number of special education positions, and even went to some bonus type setups.” Monson said.

Monson said speaking solely for himself, the public conversation and actions towards educators from the public is turning students off from pursuing a career in education. He said unless something is changed about how people view teaching, it won’t matter how much the starting pay is for teachers when there aren’t enough that want to be.

“To be quite honest, the political rhetoric around public education is just being so negative. And looking at young people and saying, ‘We need you in education.’ They listen to the national rhetoric and say, ‘Why would I want to do that job if they’re not respecting teachers?’, and accusing public education and other educators of doing these things that truly aren’t happening.” Monson said.

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