Teacher shortages in rural school districts remain a key focus of work for the Montana University System, Office of Public Instruction and the state Legislature.
A series of programs at Montana State University were highlighted for their work to train and recruit teachers for rural schools during a joint session of the Board of Regents and the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee on Friday.
Alison Harmon, dean of MSU’s College of Education, Health and Human Development, said more than two-thirds of Montana’s teacher vacancies are in rural school districts, with about 96% of districts in the state considered rural.
In 2019, MSU launched its masters of arts in teaching, a one-year program for people looking to get licensed as a teacher in Montana. The program is delivered online, except for a seven-day in-person learning experience on MSU’s campus.
“The aim of this program is to prepare new teachers, which is what we need most,” Harmon said, adding the remote aspect allows the students to stay where they live.
The program has seen slow growth, graduating eight teachers in spring 2020, 20 teachers in spring 2021 and a projected 21 teachers for spring 2022. Harmon said the program could accommodate double its enrollment.
With a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, MSU has also created the Montana Rural Teacher Project to ensure more teachers are learning and working in rural communities.
The program includes rural placements for practicums, living wage stipends for students in the program, a three-year teaching commitment after completing the program and mentorship for the new teachers.
In its first year from 2020 to 2021, the program had 18 students enrolled. Of those, 16 graduated and 14 were employed by rural school districts. Harmon said it is projected to graduate 15 from the program in 2022.
Harmon said mentorship was a key component of the program, with many teachers most vulnerable to leaving their career in their first few years. There were over 100 teachers who volunteered to be mentors.
Alongside a teacher shortage, Harmon said, rural schools are often faced with mental health workforce shortages. She said many schools don’t have their own counselors.
To prepare more counselors and mental health professionals, MSU and the University of Montana received a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education on a collaborative project.
Through a two-year program, students have a rural orientation in their first semester, a rural counselor practicum in their second semester and their second year is a counseling internship in a rural community.
The first cohort of students completed the program in 2021 with nine graduating and now employed in rural schools. There are 10 students enrolled in the program with the two universities recruiting for the third group.
Harmon also highlighted a program the university recently expanded with a $1.5 million grant to encourage undergraduate education students to teach in rural communities.
Following the presentation, one of the legislators asked what role salary had in improving teacher recruitment and retention.
MSU President Waded Cruzado said she felt a profound sense of gratitude to all the teachers but it should not stop there. She recounted a story about an MSU graduate who was a teacher but struggled to get by on what she was paid. Cruzado encouraged the Legislature and governor’s office to do what they could to ensure teacher pay was livable.