Rachel Burkel was raised to believe serving others was an important calling in life. It’s one of the reasons she became a teacher almost three decades ago.

“I think education can be the key to improving somebody’s life existence and I want to help people be the best they can be,” she said. “We are all here to help do the best we can for others.”

Burkel, whose been with the School District of Reedsburg since 1997, said she loves her job as an elementary school teacher at Loganville Elementary School and “looks forward to coming to work every single day.” However, she admits at times it isn’t easy and has felt burnout.

The teaching industry has faced multiple obstacles with less applicants entering the field to fill open positions at school districts. Statewide the number of applicants completing a teacher prep institution has fallen 35% since 2010 and the nation has similar numbers, said Director of Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing David DeGuire, who works with the Department of Public Instruction. The University of Wisconsin System assigned a task force to examine the issue more closely, he said.

There are many reasons for the decrease, including a tight labor market, the passing of Act 10, the amount of workload pushed onto teachers and a change in how people respect and see the profession.

While administrators of Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie, Mauston and Wisconsin Dells said their positions are filled, they have also had find more ways to recruit and attract people.

Decrease in graduations

DeGuire said the 2016-17 school year found over 5,000 teachers were not teaching in any Wisconsin school compared to the year before, numbers are both from retirements and those resigning, he said. At the same time, about 3,500 new teachers graduated from a teacher prep program.

“We’re losing more teachers than we have coming into the profession,” he said.

DeGuire said it’s hard to say if there is a teacher shortage because there are still 100,000 licensed teachers in Wisconsin.

“There are enough licensed teachers who could work it’s more a question they are choosing not to,” DeGuire said. “Some of them are retired, some are staying home for family. But I think the question we’d really like to be able to research why are teachers leaving in the numbers that they are and what would keep them in the profession?.”

He said the Department of Public Instruction has seen an increase in the amount of schools applying for emergency licenses that allows someone who isn’t fully certified to teach temporarily. The highest demand teaching jobs include special education, bilingual, reading and early childhood, DeGuire said.

DeGuire said he’s heard of school districts around the state not finding anyone whose completed a teachers prep program, but that do have a bachelor’s degree and are willing to learn on the job. As a former principal, he understands having a well-prepared and consistent teacher is key to a positive learning experience.

“When we don’t have enough of those learning suffers,” he said.

Wisconsin Education Association Council Public Affairs Director Christina Brey said about half of new educators leave the field within the first five years. Less applicants and more turnover creates a lack of stability in the learning process for students because the relationship aspect between teacher and students is so crucial, Brey said.

“Students need individuals who are in there for the long haul and are dedicated,” she said.

The reason

DeGuire couldn’t point to an exact reason for the low numbers. He said research shows a tight labor market contributes to it. Student loan debt also presents a challenge for those who want to make a living in the profession, he said.

“I can tell you that historically when the labor market is tight, schools have challenges finding teachers because teachers can generally make more money if they go into other fields,” he said. “Some of the research I have read shows teachers make about 20% less on average than their peers who have the same bachelor’s degree but go into other fields.”

According to a report from the National Education Association, Wisconsin ranks 33rd in the nation in teacher salary with an average salary at $51,469 in the 2017-18 school year compared to the national average of $60,447.

Wisconsin Dells School District Administrator Terry Slack, a third generation teacher in his family before becoming an administrator, believes the drop in applications has been about a ten-year trend since the passing of Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining rights of union groups.

He said the Wisconsin Dells School District has 150 teachers and 10% were replaced last year. He said all positions were filled before the start of the 2018-19 school year, even those at the elementary level that came in at the last minute.

Slack believes the decrease in applicants also comes with the workload expected out of teachers compared to other service field profession, like healthcare. Slack said he believes the lack of support is why teachers leave the field as well, something research also shows.

“The profession is rewarding and can be rewarding,” Slack said. “But at the same time there is often also a lot of obstacles that comes with the position I think some people have chosen not to go into the position.”

He’s heard other school districts still having openings two to three weeks into the start of the school year, so he considers the school district lucky. Reedsburg, Mauston and Sauk Prairie school administrators said all its positions have been filled as soon as the school year starts, but the number of applicants has decreased.

“It is a little bit like the game of musical chairs,” Slack said. “We’ve been fortunate that when the music stops we’ve had all our chairs filled. But there’s some district like when the music stops, meaning the start of the school year they have not had their positions filled.”

Another possible reason for the decrease is those who want to go into teaching may be dissuaded by parents or peers and could choose another field, something DeGuire said he’s personally heard of happening.

Burkel said her daughter, Elizabeth, is studying to become a teacher and expressed wanting to practice in another state because she feels she could make more money. Burkel said she was disappointed at first, but realizes she wants her children to be happy in whatever profession they choose.

“I didn’t want her to have to work so hard,” Burkel said. “It’s really hard work and it’s emotionally draining.”

Recruitment and retaining

Slack said the Wisconsin Dells School District matched salaries from larger metropolitan school districts to attract teachers who have more experience. The starting wage is $39,750 for a new teacher at the district. He’s also seeing more teachers commute from Madison and smaller rural districts where the amount of teaching may be different. He estimates about 35% to 40% of staff live within the district and the rest commute from local areas like Baraboo, Portage and Reedsburg.

To address the support challenge, the Wisconsin Dells School District created a strategic plan in 2016 that included its mentor program, which pairs an older teacher with a younger, less experienced employee just starting out their career. Feedback is also taken from surveys on training opportunities to address other staff needs within the district, Slack said.

Mauston and Reedsburg also have similar mentor programs. Burkel said the peer mentorship program at the School District of Reedsburg wasn’t anything the district had when she started teaching and finds it a helpful program for new teachers.

The Wisconsin Dells School District has also changed the way it advertises jobs, not only reaching out through the internet and social media, but attending career fairs at different colleges campus throughout the state to inform students about the district and create awareness of what it offers its staff, Slack said.

Mauston School District Superintendent Joel Heesch said the district has been more aggressive and proactive in looking for applicants. Even conducting interviews with students at college campus who have applied to jobs and broadening its search to create awareness about the school district even before an opening is posted. So far, it’s worked. However, Heesch said he’s worried about the future if the trend keep spiraling downward.

“My concern is if these trends continue what it’s going to look like in five years if we continue to see less and less applicants?” he said. “I’m not sure what our response can be in five years from now.”

Sauk Prairie School District Superintendent Jeff Wright said turnover at the district for the last three years has been at about 7%, the same or lower numbers compared to other districts. Wright said the new teachers hired within the last few years at Sauk Prairie have about five to 15 years of experience and looking for a new place to work.

While turnover is low, there are some challenges Sauk Prairie’s had to overcome. In February, the Sauk Prairie Eagle reported the average teacher salary was not keeping pace with the cost of housing in the area. To address the issue, Wright said the school district is working with the chamber of commerce and the municipality to address housing affordability.

In May, the Sauk Prairie School District board approved a new educator pay plan to become more competitive with salaries for those who want to live and work in the Sauk Prairie area, he said. The average salary changed from $37,900 to $41,000 with a seven tiered compensation model capping at $71,000.

Addressing the issue

DeGuire said the Department of Public Instruction has examined the issue and what is keeping people from going into teaching. He said the results showed the required standardized testing was preventing potential candidates from going into the field and it created additional ways for teachers to demonstrate their content knowledge proficiency with a content based portfolio or grade point average. The Department of Public Instruction has also created ways for already licensed teachers to add subject areas in addition to one they are already licensed in, he said.

Personally, one of the ways Burkel said she’s dealt with the stress of being a teacher is going back to school. In 2016, she took part in a wellness program called Breathe for Change, a wellness and yoga program for teachers. She teaches yoga to the teachers at the school district and volunteers teaching yoga at the Community Learning Center at Pineview Elementary School to manage their stress management. It also helps manage her own stress, she said.

Burkel, whose president of the Reedsburg Educators Association teachers union at the school district, feels the school district supports its educators, with administration meeting regularly with the teachers union and having open communication. One aspect Burkel said administration could do better is recognize additional prep time or time for teachers to plan lessons.

Mauston School District participates in Educators Rising, a student organization for students interested in becoming teachers. Students interested in education in high school can earn college credit by taking classes like Child Development and Overview of Special Education, complete job shadowing and tutoring opportunities.

Heesch said the goal of the program isn’t to only to provide a pathway to those interested in education, but also for the district to stay in contact with those students so they can come back one day and teach at Mauston.

Mauston High School Spanish Teacher Leah Luke, State 2010 Teacher of the Year, is a local and state-level teacher leader for the program. She said the program went from one club in the state in 2016 to 40 registered schools in 2018, she said.

Luke said the club at the school district, Teach to Inspire to Teach, meets once a month with about 25 students at the high school hearing guest speakers who work at the school district from administrators, elementary school counselors and speech and language pathologist to give an idea of other education jobs outside the classroom.

She said another aspect of the club is creating a supportive network for those who want to become teachers.

“The club and the program helps them build that armor to pursue their passion and to pursue their dream of becoming a teacher,” she said.

The Sauk Prairie Eagle contributed to this report.

Follow Erica Dynes on Twitter @EDynes_CapNews or contact her at 608-393-5346.

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