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Across Michigan, school districts large and small struggle to put teachers in classrooms

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Michigan school districts are still racing to fill teaching positions before the new school year starts.

The Michigan Department of Education hosted a teacher hiring fair in Lansing last week.  Around 100 public school districts and charter schools attended, as did around 475 job-seekers, said Rebekah Emmerling, manager of the educator evaluation and professional growth unit at MDE.

“We felt that that was pretty indicative of the need that was out there,” Emmerling said. “We’ve been hearing a lot from our districts out in the field that they are having a difficult time finding excellent educators to put in front of our kids.”

Teacher shortages have plagued some Michigan districts, notably the Detroit Public Schools Community District, for years. But many other districts are also struggling to put staff in classrooms.

David Mustonen, communications director for Dearborn Public Schools, said that district attended the MDE hiring fair “looking for a variety of different teachers at all grade levels.”

Mustonen said that as a combined result of turnover, teacher retirements and growing enrollment, Dearborn—a larger district with over 30 schools--has hired about 470 new teachers in the past three years.

“I think for this school year we’re in good shape. We’ve hired about 70 or 80 teachers for this year alone,” Mustonen said. “But there will always be a need for some of those specialty areas, the math and science teachers at the high school level, [and] special education teachers.”

On the other end of the district-size spectrum, Livingston County’s Fowlerville Community Schools also attended the MDE fair. Superintendent Wayne Roedel said they were “fortunate” to find several qualified and experienced teachers to fill vacancies, and as of this week the district was fully staffed.

Roedel said this was the toughest year he’s ever seen in terms of hiring teachers.

“We just aren’t seeing nearly the number of qualified candidates to fill our positions,” Roedel said. “In the last two weeks we’ve hired seven teachers, which is an incredible number of teachers for us to have to hire in August. All but two of those folks had experience, which means they’re coming from another district.

“I can just tell you there’s a little bit more mobility with teaching staff now. It’s very competitive. So if some teachers in high-needs areas can change school districts and receive more pay and benefits, then they’re moving. Then there’s kind of a ripple effect.”

As the number of new teachers prepping to enter the field decline, that “kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario,” where one district’s gain is another’s loss, is one that education leaders are now hearing about frequently, said the MDE’s Rebekah Emmerling.

Emmerling says she’s “optimistic” that a number of state and local efforts to cultivate and retain teacher talent will pay off in the long run, but that many schools do face a crunch for now.

“I’m definitely concerned at the state of the state at this moment, in terms of making sure we have high-quality professionals who want to work with our kids, have the capacity to work with our kids and are prepared to work with our kids,” Emmerling said.

Dearborn schools’ David Mustonen says that district is considering starting an early college program to train the next generation of teachers. In the meantime, recruiting has become a year-round effort, one that puts a strain on district resources. “When you’re adding 70, 80, 100 or more staff members every year, that really does keep our human resources department very, very busy,” he said.

As for what the future holds: “I hope it’s not the new normal,” Mustonen said. “I hope it’s just a cycle that we’re going through.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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