By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Tom McGuire needs only one word to describe the current teacher shortage.
“Everybody needs teachers,” said McGuire, a middle school principal in Sioux City, Iowa.
When he graduated from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in December 1990, there were 70 to 80 candidates competing for the same job, according to McGuire, who’s held teaching and administrative positions in Millard, Columbus and Central City.
“Now we’re lucky if there are four or five candidates,” he said, “and we might have three positions.”
Amid a worsening shortage intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the country are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers.
That’s what brought McGuire back to his alma mater this week. A sign of the times, he made the four-hour drive from northwest Iowa to central Nebraska to attend UNK’s annual Education Opportunities Fair.
Organized by UNK Academic Advising and Career Development, Thursday’s event gave school administrators and recruiters a chance to meet face to face with dozens of future teachers while promoting their districts, communities and job openings.
“My goal today would be to get 50 teachers to say, ‘Hey, we’d love to come to Sioux City, Iowa.’ I’d get their names, call references on the way home and have them hired in two weeks when our board meets,” McGuire said with a laugh while setting up his table inside the Nebraskan Student Union.
He was only half-joking.
Sioux City Community Schools started the academic year almost 40 teachers short, according to McGuire, who had a list of 14 different positions the district is currently trying to fill.
“To be honest, if I can get three or four people who are interested in coming to Sioux City, that would be awesome,” he said. “We just have to keep looking.”
McGuire wasn’t the only one willing to travel a few hundred miles to network with UNK students. More than 70 school districts and educational organizations from seven states were represented at the career fair, the highest number in at least a decade.
Recruitment tables filled the Ponderosa Room and spilled into the hallways, visual evidence of the strong demand for teachers right now.
Nearly 500 teaching positions statewide remained unfilled in fall 2021, according to a Nebraska Department of Education survey that garnered responses from 324 of the 438 public and private school systems and Educational Service Units. This includes positions that were left vacant and those for which fully qualified personnel were not hired.
There’s a need across all grade levels and most endorsement areas. Language arts, math, science, special education and world languages have been designated as shortage areas each of the past 15 years.
Although the statistics are alarming, they also signal an opportunity for anyone who wants to make a difference in young people’s lives.
“I believe children are one of our most precious resources, and we are in such high need of excellent human beings to be part of their growth and development,” said Chandra Diaz, an assistant professor, associate dean and interim chair of UNK’s Department of Teacher Education. “If you want a career where you get immediate rewards, this is one of them.”
Enrollment in UNK’s teacher preparation programs remains strong, with 890 undergraduate students majoring in a teaching field as of fall 2021. An additional 233 people are enrolled in the Transitional Certification Program, which provides an alternative pathway for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher who want to become certified teachers in Nebraska. That program includes a mix of online courses and field experiences, allowing students to start working in a classroom while earning their state certification.
To encourage more people to enter the profession, state lawmakers introduced multiple bills this session that would forgive up to $30,000 in student loans for teachers who agree to work in a Nebraska school. The state Department of Education already offers forgivable loans for preservice and in-service teachers who meet certain requirements, and the federal government has a loan forgiveness program for teachers who spend at least five years in a low-income school or educational service agency.
Students attending UNK can apply for the Bilingual Educators Scholarship, which covers room and board, and other financial assistance. The Nebraska Promise program covers tuition for in-state students from low- and middle-income families, and the New Nebraskan Scholarship reduces tuition to the in-state rate for all U.S. undergraduates studying on the UNK campus.
With a 100% job placement rate, students in UNK’s teacher education programs are almost guaranteed to land a full-time position before graduation.
“You can be picky right now because there’s such a demand for teachers,” said UNK senior Bailey Branson. “There are plenty of job opportunities.”
Branson was among the nearly 180 students who attended Thursday’s Education Opportunities Fair. He already has an interview scheduled for next week, but this was a chance to get his name out there and “see what pops up.”
The Mitchell native gained classroom experience in Kearney and Minden, and he’s currently student teaching at Pleasanton Public Schools. He wants to teach 7-12 social studies at a smaller western Nebraska school after graduating in May.
“UNK overprepares teachers, which is a good thing,” Branson said. “I don’t feel overwhelmed by anything that I’ll be doing in the real world. I feel like I’m very well prepared. The classes here were great. All of my professors were super nice and helpful. It was a great experience here at UNK for sure.”