Editor's Note: This is the second of an occasional series of stories that will follow Braelynne Shell during her first year of teaching, exploring the challenges and experiences that cause up to half of new teachers to leave the classroom within five years.
It’s a good thing Braelynne Shell is naturally peppy.
The Rattlesnake Elementary first grade teacher is closing in on two months in her first classroom. It’s stressful, but she loves it.
“We’re finally getting into a rhythm,” Shell said.
As she gave the OK earlier this month to start their craft project, the kids scattered, scrambling to grab supplies and take them to their desks. “Clearly a hot mess. It’s totally OK,” Shell said to the side, laughing as the classroom momentarily turned into a zoo.
The 23-year-old teacher has a class of 21 this year; that's one over the class size limit for K-2. It means she gets help from a para educator, Darci Monsos, for one and a half hours a week. Shell, a December 2015 University of Montana graduate, is in her first teaching post. She’s one of 55 new teachers to Missoula County Public Schools this fall, 17 of whom are new to the profession like her.
“It’s been crazy,” Shell said during lunch recently. “It’s a huge learning curve. You think you’re prepared for a lot of things, but then you find that’s not so true.”
You can "have all this zeal" in college, Shell said, but even the most prepared teacher will face challenges in their first classroom.
UM has made strides in getting student teachers into classrooms sooner in their education, said Missoula Education Association president Melanie Charlson.
Student-teaching was a turning point for Shell, who was paired with Franklin Elementary's Bridgette Hoenke last spring. Hoenke made Shell feel like part of the team, rather than a shadow.
“You need to find a teacher that’s willing to help the student teacher succeed,” Shell said.
Other parts of the job, such as parent communication and working in professional learning communities, only improve with experience.
“It’s a lot to juggle while also planning a weekly curriculum,” Shell said. “There’s a lot of hats you have to wear as a teacher.
“But being Type A and a planner, it plays to my advantage. I have 10 extra activities we can do if something doesn’t go well.”
Education leaders across the state are taking that same multi-faceted approach when it comes to tackling Montana's teacher recruitment and retention problem.
"There isn’t going to be a single silver bullet, no singular action that’s going to make a difference," said Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association.
While larger school districts sometimes have trouble finding specialty teachers, rural districts struggle with the core, such as math and science.
“That pool is being demolished by larger districts,” said Kirk Miller, executive director of School Administrators of Montana. “In some cases, there are no applicants for small, rural schools.”
Depending on the job category, Charlson said MCPS gets 30 to 40 applicants for each vacancy.
MCPS’ 55 new teachers this fall are not new positions. They nearly line up with the 61 departures last year: 49 leaving due to retirement, resignation or administrative transfer, as well as three deaths. MCPS also has nine on a leave of absence and three on sabbatical.
This fall, the Montana Board of Regents appointed the Montana University System Rural Educator Recruitment/Retention Taskforce to tackle the issue facing rural schools.
The task force has found that only 30 percent of Montana University System educator prep program students have student-taught in rural Montana. About 75 percent of Montana’s schools are rural.
At last count, there were 90 one-teacher schools in Montana, Parman said, meaning they’re teaching multiple grades at once. That kind of management isn’t typically taught at university.
“The more barriers we can move out of the way, starting at that student teaching level, I think that’s going to be helpful,” Parman said.
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Over the past year, it was one of the key problems discussed by the School Funding Interim Commission, which forwarded a bill draft to restructure the Quality Educator Loan Assistance Program.
Currently, the program provides student loan forgiveness up to $3,000 a year for up to four years to a qualified applicant. To qualify, a teacher must have a valid license, teach in an impacted school (rural, higher percentage of poor students, academic challenges) and teach in an academic area affected by critical educator shortages.
In fiscal year 2015, 171 teachers received one of these loans, totaling $497,017, according to the Office of Public Instruction.
The bill draft proposes upping the maximum possible loan to $3,000 after the first year teaching in an impacted school, $4,000 after the second year and $5,000 after the third year. It also proposes "narrowing its reach" to help "the most isolated schools or schools that are having the most difficulty recruiting not just high-specialty teachers, but any educators at all,” state Sen. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, said at the commission’s August meeting. That would include schools more than 45 minutes from a city of more than 10,000 people, and schools more than 30 minutes from a city of more than 4,300.
“This is a very targeted piece of legislation,” Hansen said.
Once you recruit a teacher, Parman said, the best way to retain them is providing mentorship and support.
“Educator prep programs do what they can to get you ready to get your license and start your career,” he said. “That’s really what their goal is, but it’s the mentoring that comes after that. That’s a major component toward success. If you can get through the first three years with a smile on your face, it’s quite likely you’ll stay there.”
MCPS’ mentoring program includes instructional coaches at every school, with additional support at Title I schools. The district also has two special education instructional coaches.
Charlson hosts new-hire meetings throughout the year to check in with the newbies.
“Traditionally, there was the mindset of shut your door and teach,” she said. “Those days are over. They’re no longer ‘my kids,’ they’re ‘our kids.’ They’re also ‘our teachers,’ looking at how we support each other.
“There’s a lot of stress and additional items on their plate."
Several studies have found that up to half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
While Parman doesn’t doubt that statistic on the national level, he wonders if it’s true when scaled down to Montana.
“There may be some merit to that, but I also think that is an issue of this generation,” Parman said. “I’ve been kicking around in the business 37 years. In my early years, the mantra was ‘go where the work is.’ In this day, there’s a switch. You go where you want to live and if you’re going to raise a family, you go where you want to raise a family. If it’s not meeting your needs, you pick up and move.”
Of MCPS’ 55 new teachers, 17 are new to the profession. The rest come to the district with experience ranging from one year to a decade.
In a survey of 602 Montana teachers and 200 administrators this year by RISE4Montana, 63 percent of teachers said they were satisfied with their career, but only 34 percent said they would encourage graduating high-schoolers to pursue a career in education. RISE4Montana is a joint initiative of education organizations statewide, focused on improving teacher recruitment and retention.
Miller blames part of the teacher turnover on an increasingly negative perception of public education nationwide.
“When you hear that enough as a public school educator, when you have to battle that on a daily basis, that’s part of the dissatisfaction that goes on with this career,” he said.
Charlson believes that overall, Missoula supports its public schools, pointing to the passage of $158 million in bonds last fall to overhaul school buildings.
“There’s such a microscopic eye on us, what we’re doing and critiquing us,” Charlson said. “But there’s so many wonderful things happening in public education.”
Shell has a bright class. One morning, she read "Stellaluna," a book about a bat. What's it called when animals are awake at night? First-grader Willa Bookwalter didn't hesitate: "Nocturnal." The kids knew what echo-location was, and had solid arguments for whether a bat is a bird or a mammal (it's the latter). When they created their own bats, Jada Squires drew some goofy blonde hair on hers. "That looks like Donald Trump!" said Colt Shadwick, leading him and his desk buddies to a discussion about the presidential candidates.
All of the stress is worth it, Shell said.
“I know I’m extremely passionate about what I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t come home burnt out, exhausted and sometimes questioning myself,” she said.