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Non-licensed community experts assist school districts in need of teachers

Every year, music teacher Krista Bernstein holds her breath. In August, the Plummer, Minn., teacher prepares like anyone else. She sets up her bulletin board, organizes her classroom and narrows down songs her elementary students will sing in upc...

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Krista Bernstein, a music teacher at Red Lake County Central Elementary School, teaches Karena Melby and Kia Bachand the saxophone on Thursday, Jan 22, 2015, in Plummer, Minn. Berstein teaches at the school with a community expert license. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Every year, music teacher Krista Bernstein holds her breath.

In August, the Plummer, Minn., teacher prepares like anyone else. She sets up her bulletin board, organizes her classroom and narrows down songs her elementary students will sing in upcoming months.

But for nearly a decade, she's been teaching at Red Lake County Central Elementary without a degree. And each year, she doesn't know if she'll have a job.

Bernstein teaches in Plummer through a non-licensed community expert agreement with the state Board of Teaching. Districts unable to hire teachers can hire community experts, who can teach without a full license as long as they're working toward their license.
Bernstein, the only one in the elementary school with this arrangement, wants to keep building the music program. She lives with her family in Oklee, Minn., and she plans to teach at the school for good, she said.

"I have my own kids here and I want us to have a good program," she said.

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Rural teacher shortage

The district of 375 students has sometimes struggled to find highly qualified and licensed teachers for various reasons, said Superintendent Jim Guetter.

"We're currently in a little bit of a shortage," he said. "Last year, we had a couple elementary positions open and had about 22 applicants when we'd probably have 50 or more."

English language arts and math teachers are the hardest to attract to the district, he said.

Area superintendents said even graduates with appropriate schooling can struggle to get their license, in part because they must take at least five basic, pedagogical and content-area tests. Studies have also shown fewer students have been entering the teaching field, too, and that also hasn't helped, Guetter said.

That's why the community expert agreement has worked well for the district. Two teachers there also have the same permission from the state board.

Schools must advertise these jobs statewide each year and fill out an application to be approved by the state.
The experience can be a bit of a nail-biter -- although Bernstein finds out from the school in July or August if she's hired, the Board of Teaching doesn't decide until September, she said.
Superintendent Jim Guetter said the community has responded warmly to Bernstein.

"I think for the most part, our community knows if someone is doing a good job or not, and that's the only thing they're concerned about," he said.

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In Goodridge, Minn., a small district 20 miles east of Thief River Falls, the district hired two teachers under the same arrangement. It's worked well, said Superintendent Galen Clow.

The shop teacher has an extensive background in construction and the math teacher has a master's degree in business, he said.

"The students respond well and the community's fine with it," he said.

Varied background

Bernstein had a bit of a professional music background before she was hired.

She had already been playing piano in church, teaching piano at her home and providing accompaniment for high school choir. She has a degree in dietetics and also worked part-time for a trucking company.

But she was invested in the community and had shown her interest in music, she said. She'd grown up playing piano, French horn and drums in band.

Once she started working part-time, she started accruing credits toward her music education degree, which she'll be able to finish in the next few years, she said. She has been working full-time at the school for several years now.

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At first, she wasn't sure how everyone would react, she said. But after several years, her dedication has paid off.

"When you've been here awhile, you get to know the students, what their strengths are, their weaknesses," she said. "If you come in and you're here one year, you have to start from scratch."

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Krista Bernstein, a music teacher at Red Lake County Central Elementary School, teaches at the school with a community expert license on Thursday, Jan 22, 2015, in Plummer, Minn. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Related Topics: EDUCATIONMUSIC
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