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Our view: North Dakota must work on teacher retention efforts

Will stressed-out teachers leave the profession en masse? And will enough young teachers come through the university system to replace them, and especially in rural areas?

Herald pull quote, 12/12/2020
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The wear and tear on teachers is growing during the coronavirus pandemic. While it’s true the strain exists in numerous professions -- small business owners, for instance -- growing stress among the region’s teaching staff should be cause for concern.

Will stressed-out teachers leave the profession en masse? And will enough young teachers come through the university system to replace them, and especially in rural areas?

When the North Dakota Legislature convenes next month in Bismarck, lawmakers should consider this unprecedented strain and work to avert potential shortages in this important workforce sector.

A survey taken last month by North Dakota United, the state’s teacher union, showed that 65% of respondents had at least considered leaving the profession or retiring. The head of the Grand Forks teachers’ union last week told the Herald that teachers are exhausted.

Grand Forks Superintendent Terry Brenner is among those concerned.

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“Here is a really interesting statistic: 50 percent of our certified staff, almost 400 out of 800 people, are in their first six years in the profession,” Brenner told the Herald in a live broadcast last week. “And we already know what research says about our Generation Z and millennials, that they are likely not going to sustain a profession their entire career, even though we are one of the few professional opportunities that have a pension associated with it. So I think we are going to see some stability with our mid-career and veteran staff. I’m not sure about our teachers in the first part of their career.”

But a ray of hope: Education Week, a K-12 news site that highlights education news nationwide, recently reported that an anticipated surge of retirements and resignations did not materialize. And even the North Dakota United survey showed some second thoughts among teachers who were considering leaving. The polling showed 24% considered leaving or retiring, but then decided to stay.

Problem solved? Hardly. And perhaps the Legislature can help.

North Dakota United, for example, believes a mandatory mentorship program would help reduce teacher turnover.

North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta said research shows teachers who receive mentoring during their first two years on the job are far less likely to leave the profession. The state has dabbled in mentor programs, but making mentorship mandatory among beginning teachers would go further toward reducing turnover, Archuleta said. He said some schools offer no mentoring for new teachers.

Requiring two years of mentorship, he said, could perhaps help “avoid the ups and downs of teachers coming and leaving. This is a long-term investment in the stability of teaching.”

It would come with certain costs -- perhaps $3 million to $5 million over a biennium to pay for mentor stipends and other expenses, for instance -- but if it could help stabilize the state’s teaching pool, it’s worth it.

Teachers are stressed and exhausted. Obviously, higher salaries could help, but that’s not necessarily an option in cash-strapped districts.

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What can be done is providing them not only with the best possible teaching tools -- federal dollars could help with that -- but also providing new teachers with support as they enter the field.

And one more thing might help: Let teachers know we appreciate their efforts during this difficult time.

Related Topics: OUR VIEWTERRY BRENNER
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