Challenging Times Producing Innovation & Inspiration
Five VCSU alumni share their thoughts on the wins, challenges and hope they see in new teachers graduating from their alma mater
VCSU alum and elementary school principal Sara Schafer, ’89, loves her job.
“I have a front row seat to the greatest show on earth,” she says, laughing. Schafer loves working with students, teachers and parents as the principal at Bennett Elementary within the Fargo Public School system.
In the 33 years she has worked in schools, some things have not changed.
Kids still need a high-quality education and adults who genuinely care about them. Educators still dream of helping every student find their greatest potential and need support from administration and their community to achieve that goal.
But it is clear that education is changing. Filling open positions at schools is challenging. Technology creates opportunities and multiple pressures for teachers and students. Political debates and mental health concerns are all pressures that, at times, rest squarely on teachers’ and administrators’ shoulders.
We spoke with five administrators about their views on education, what they see in new teacher graduates coming from their alma mater and what brings them the most hope on hard days.
IF NOT US, THEN WHO?
Brandon Bata, ’07, started his college career as a basketball player, became a professional as a math teacher and now serves as a high school principal in Oakes, N.D.
Although he has only been in education for 15 years, he has already seen many things change.
“There are a lot more things to be aware of now with mental health issues with students and teachers coming to the forefront,” he said. “The demands on teachers with technology has increased and it is hard to disconnect.”
Finding a balance that offers connection with students, but the ability to disconnect is a narrow path.
“In our district, we are committed to three things: genuine relationships, respect and growth mindset. We have really tried to focus on relationships at the forefront,” Bata said.
Those relationships are strengthened through activities, athletics and being involved. But sometimes it’s not enough, and that has impacts on hiring and retention.
“Hiring has been challenging,” Bata said. “We have been fortunate to fill all of our vacancies, but it’s been extremely difficult.”
Bata said there are numerous stressors being placed on teachers’ shoulders, that could be contributing to the shortage.
“It’s a hard lift and not easy work, but if we are not here doing this important work, then who comes behind us,” he said. “If not us, then who?”
One answer to that question could be in classrooms at VCSU.
“VCSU grads are top notch. They are student-first and want to build relationships,” he said. “They are extremely prepared. It’s one thing to have the skills and another thing to learn how to adapt those skills when changes come up.”
FINDING FANTASTIC PEOPLE
Schafer has also seen the number of applications for open positions at her school decline.
As a principal, she said, the most important job she has is to “hire really great people.”
She said it is encouraging to know that many school districts are all trying to come up with solutions for this issue. One way Fargo Public Schools, including Bennett Elementary, have filled some of those gaps is by having future teachers enter the classroom as substitute teachers.
VCSU offers this opportunity to students and partner schools, which helps students gain experience and schools fill critical substitute teacher needs.
Although the future teachers do not have the necessary coursework, it does give them a clear picture of what life as a teacher is like, Schafer explained.
Schafer has also seen bright spots by partnering with colleagues at VCSU to bring practicum students in for reading or science.
Bringing VCSU students in to help elementary learners not only gives the future teachers experience, but also allows full-time teachers time to participate in professional development and other important activities.
“Teachers are all working very hard and they have kids on their minds and hearts all of the time,” she said.“We are expecting teachers to have an average of 20 to 30 students and be everything for them,” Schafer said.
“You can’t pour from an empty bucket. It’s important to carve out time for your family and yourself to do those things that make you you. You can’t do that if you are doing school 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE, EVERY DAY
As superintendent of South Prairie School District just south of Minot, Wayne Stanley has also experienced the challenge of hiring crucial employees. The district tries to keep pay competitive, as to not lose staff to larger markets like Minot, but things are markedly different from when he first graduated from VCSU in 1992.
“It’s a totally different hiring landscape,” Stanley said. When he graduated, teachers would take jobs wherever one was offered. Now, applicants have the luxury of choosing where they want to be partially because there are so few candidates. He noted they typically get applicants from the region, and rarely beyond.
This has led districts like South Prairie to prioritize investing in people, infrastructure and building a strong sense of community. There is no main street, but they have worked hard to build a strong culture, Stanley said.
“We pride ourselves on being community-oriented. Our expectations are high and we have a good support system of parents,” he said. “That is what can make or break a school system. The adage about ‘it takes a village’ is true.”
Part of Stanley’s village includes maintaining ties with VCSU. Last school year he was asked to supervise a VCSU student teacher. He agreed instantly. “The world of education requires a level of support within and for each other,” Stanley said. “It requires networking between superintendents and colleges.”
This type of partnership allows a school to see a student teacher in action with a classroom before potentially offering them employment.
“We see how prepared they are,” Stanley said. For Stanley, one of his VCSU student teachers was “hands-down our number one choice.” “What she came out of VCSU with was above and beyond,” he said.
PROMOTING EDUCATION AS A CAREER
Retaining new teachers and changing the conversation about education as a profession has been a top priority for fellow superintendent Dr. Michael McNeff, ’04.
“Recently there has been this push to talk about education and why people are leaving. We must do a better job talking about why we are staying in education,” McNeff said. “We have to think about how we are promoting education as a career.”
McNeff has led Rugby Public Schools for more than a decade and described how the district uses a grant to offer instructional coaching and mentors. Building a team approach to help everyone improve has worked well.
That team mentality can also help others working in the school, like paraprofessionals, find the support they need to go back to school and get a degree to become a full-time teacher.
This fall, VCSU announced a grant-funded scholarship program to help individuals working as substitute teachers or paraprofessionals in North Dakota schools return to college. The online education courses would help those individuals get their teaching degree.
Creating pathways for more potential teachers is important, but ensuring they have knowledgeable, experienced and caring professors is critical.
“There are several people I think of still like Al Olson, Dave Bass, and many people I have served on various committees with,” McNeff said. “When we have hired VCSU graduates they do very well in the classroom.”
McNeff also acknowledges that first-time teachers have a different set of pressures when approaching a classroom than when he started as a social studies teacher at Dakota Prairie High School in 2004.
“Educators have a challenging environment to navigate,” McNeff said. “Our top educators are working year-round to create a great atmosphere for every student.”
That atmosphere creates opportunity for all students, regardless of background. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without a great public education,” McNeff said. “Education gives everyone an opportunity to be whatever they want as long as they work hard and have supporting individuals.”
BUILDING STRONG COMMUNITIES
Building a community with a strong network of support is what Greg Dobitz, ’05, is trying to craft at Oakes Elementary.
“First-year teachers are required to have a mentor,” he explained. “Mentors can help with the little things and that is important.”
Oakes, located about 60 miles south of Valley City, has multiple VCSU alumni on staff.
“Our first-year teachers from VCSU are very well prepared,” he said. “Valley City does such a great job not just with student teaching, but with other practicums and requiring their students to be in classrooms. The more teachers can be in the classroom during their college preparation, the more they will learn because of the practical application.”
Graduates with classroom management skills because of their undergraduate student teaching or substitute teaching can help them succeed in their first few years as a professional.
Keeping a new teacher is also a part of the community network Oakes has been building.
To recruit and retain teachers, Dobitz explained Oakes has a retention bonus written into their contract.
Even with incentives, sometimes it is not enough.
“Last year we had a teacher leave halfway through the year and the students finished online,” Dobitz said.
Some of the pressures he sees teachers facing include the need for help with overall staffing, mental health and special education support.
“We need more resources to handle complex situations,” Dobitz explained. Planning is important, but sometimes the best plan can be sidelined.
“Sometimes as a teacher you think you are prepared on Monday for the whole week but by 9 a.m., what you planned is totally out the window,” he said laughing. Winging it is sometimes required to be adaptable, all in the name of helping a kid “get it.”
“It’s that bright spot and why I want to be a teacher,” Dobitz said. “It’s what keeps you coming back, that moment the lightbulb turns on. When you can help facilitate that, there is nothing better, and that hasn’t changed.”