Teacher shortages in rural communities are hitting close to home as districts in Southwest Colorado struggle to fill teaching positions the month before school is back in session.
Reece Blincoe, superintendent of Dolores School District RE-4A, is looking for a fourth-grade teacher, secondary math teacher and secondary English teacher. The district has filled a kindergarten position with a teacher’s aide who is pursuing a certification.
“We’re just going out on a limb just so we can have somebody in that classroom as a teacher,” Blincoe said.
Blincoe spoke of a startling decline in the number of applications coming into the school for open positions.
“Elementary applications used to be a dime a dozen,” he said. “We used to get 20 or 30 every time we had an elementary opening. And now, we have a good job, and we can’t even get an application.”
Mancos Superintendent Todd Cordrey echoed Blincoe’s comments, noting that they are looking for two counselors, a social worker, a special-education teacher and three para-professionals before school starts in August.
Cordrey said starting the school year without filling the positions would be a “very bad situation,” and spoke to the kind of culture professionals would join if they worked in Mancos.
“This place is a great place for people to work. We have a really strong culture of support and supportive students, and it makes for a great environment,” he said.
If teacher positions aren’t filled by the start of school, substitute teachers will be slotted into those positions. Blincoe and Cordrey also said they can hire individuals with a bachelor’s degree to fulfill a teaching position, even if it isn’t a teaching degree, and put them through a program that gives them their teaching certification in the first year while they teach.
As far as counseling staff goes, Cordrey said, “Our administrative team would have to absorb the responsibility of the counseling staff if we’re not able to fill those positions.”
“We would love to see people apply, and we’d love to do what we can to get them in and start them on a career that they could have for 20 or 30 years, a career that’s really meaningful. A career that changes lives,” Cordrey said.
Blincoe and Cordrey both spoke of low teacher pay and high cost of living as a reason teachers may be deterred from moving into the area. Mancos, Dolores and Cortez have all increased teacher salaries this year, but they hope to keep raising that number.
“All of our school districts have been trying to substantially raise teacher’s pay, and we’ve all been successful in doing that, and we’re working toward continuing to do that,” Blincoe said.
Colorado Succeeds reports that 77% of Colorado’s 196 districts are rural, and “they face daunting challenges recruiting teachers.” According to their data, the average teacher salary in rural Colorado ranges from $25,000 to $35,000.
Dolores, Mancos and Cortez’s salaries are higher than the rural average, however.
More that 90% of Colorado school district salaries are lower than the cost of living in Colorado, according to Colorado Succeeds, leading local districts to begin talking about building low-income housing to help take some financial burden off teachers.
The problem with teacher shortages nationwide increased substantially after the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hardest-hit areas are Western states, rural and urban areas and high-poverty areas, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Elementary, art and special-education teachers are among the most difficult to find.
A 2019 study by Rural School and Community Trust found that about 9.3 million public school students across the United States attend rural schools, yet these schools struggle the most to find staff.
The superintendents also said teachers lack public support, which GAO summed up as a “negative perception of the teaching profession.”
Blincoe said it only takes one or two negative and hypercritical parents to make a teacher wonder, “Is this worth it?”
Colorado Succeeds reported that Colorado loses 16% (1 in 6) teachers within their first five years of teaching.
Superintendents Ty Gray in Dove Creek and Chris DeKay from Ignacio also expressed concerns over open positions in an email exchange with Blincoe, Cordrey and Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Tom Burris.
Montezuma-Cortez has more than 15 open positions for teachers in their schools, not including coaches. Burris mentioned in an email to Blincoe and other superintendents in the area that they are looking desperately for an assistant principal.
“We’ve got to get people back to where they want to be teachers,” Blincoe said. “This is a huge problem, and it’s a problem that’s going to keep getting worse if we don’t start addressing it.”