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Many North Dakota teachers are considering a career change; what might keep them in a classroom?

Top reasons to leave, according to those surveyed, are burnout and burdensome extra duties.

Grand Forks Central High School
Grand Forks Herald file photo of Grand Forks Central High School
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GRAND FORKS – A survey conducted by North Dakota’s statewide teachers union found that many educators are eyeing the exit.

More than a third of 1,100 respondents to a North Dakota United survey said they were considering leaving the profession or retiring, 8% said they actually would, and only 41% said they could see themselves retiring as a teacher. Top reasons to leave, according to those surveyed, are burnout and “burdensome” extra duties.

“A lot of people say they wish people on the outside of the classroom could come and see what we truly deal with on a daily basis,” Melissa Buchhop, the head of the Grand Forks Education Association, said. “We are expected to produce stellar growth in every student, but we have to constantly deal with kids that don’t have the supports and the resources they need. We don’t have enough programs, counselors, social workers, school psychologists, behavior specialists to really help with all of those who need the help.”

Respect – from politicians, administrators, parents, the community at large – is another issue, and Buchhop said it’s the one she hears the most from her colleagues. Only 7% of survey respondents said they feel respected as an educator, compared to 30% who said they do not. More than half said they feel less appreciated than they did in 2019.

“We’ve all gone to college, we have degrees in education, many of us even have our master's degree in different routes of education,” Buchhop said, “and yet we still feel like they don’t trust us to do what we’re supposed to be doing in our classroom.”

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More than half of survey respondents reported feeling either some pressure or a lot of pressure from politicians and parents to teach a certain way to be less controversial. North Dakota lawmakers last fall voted to bar staff at K-12 public schools from teaching critical race theory , which posits that race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in legal systems and social policy. Nick Archuleta, the head of North Dakota United, told Forum News Service that teachers were caught in the middle of that controversy and the stress weighed on them.

"It's not what they signed up for,” he said.

So what can be done to keep teachers from quitting?

“As much as you hate to say it, it comes down to money,” Buchhop told the Herald. “You can't have the people and the resources without the money, and a lot of that lies with the Legislature and how much they're going to fund public education.”

More acutely, Buchhop said education leaders should take some things off of teachers’ figurative plates so they have more time to work with students, plan future lessons, and so on.

Required training seminars can take up the bulk of the work days Grand Forks Public Schools teachers have without students, Buchhop claimed, and they often forgo their own daily prep time to cover for their sick colleagues.

“They can say ‘take time for yourself,’ ‘if you need to take a day, take a day,’” Buchhop said. “But at the same time you’re like, ‘I really can’t because there’s no coverage, and now my colleagues have to step up and fill in in my room or take half of my kids.’ And so it’s kind of like a no-win situation right now.”

Grand Forks Public Schools' retention efforts

Terry Brenner, the superintendent at Grand Forks Public Schools, said he wouldn’t know if a lot of teachers there are considering leaving the profession without a survey conducted by the district or the local teachers union that Buchhop heads.

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“The weight of teaching in this pandemic environment is heavy, and it’s exhausting,” Brenner said. “But I can’t say people are ready to leave the profession as a result of that. The North Dakota United survey will have to stand on its own.”

Regardless, Grand Forks Public Schools is undertaking several efforts that could help keep teachers on board, according to Brenner.

A “ guiding change ” document for the district’s coming work on its budget, he noted, calls for “an overall competitive compensation & benefits package to attract and retain highly qualified staff.” That’s easier said than done, though, because state lawmakers in Bismarck set the school district’s per-pupil funding formula, which is the financial bread and butter for public schools across the state.

Still, Brenner pointed out several district-level efforts that are poised to bear financial fruit. A tax referendum approved in September by Grand Forks-area voters and the phase-out of the district’s early retirement incentives means officials there will have more money to spend out of their general fund that otherwise would have gone toward building maintenance or the incentives.

The 10-mill tax approved last fall is expected to generate about $2.5 million for the district, and Brenner claimed eliminating the retirement incentive will save between $1.4 million and $1.6 million each year once the phase-out is complete in three to four years.

The school district also has a program in which longer-tenured teachers are paid to mentor newer colleagues to show them “the how-tos of everything when you’re new to a school district,” Brenner said.

And Grand Forks Public Schools leaders have used federal COVID-19 aid to hire more social workers and nurses who can handle some of the duties – contact tracing, for instance – that might otherwise fall to other school district workers.

“That takes some pressure off of our classroom teachers,” Brenner said. But that cash injection is only set to pay for those new jobs through 2024, and Brenner said those positions will not likely be sustainable in the long run. District administrators, for the time being, at least, do not plan to hire more positions.

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So how well does the superintendent think those efforts to retain teachers are working, on balance?

“Time will tell,” Brenner said. “Certainly, the last two years have been a heavy lift for all of our teaching staff and our support staff.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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