New Teachers Fielding Multiple Job Offers as Workforce Shrinks

May 26, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Brooklyn Stara.jpg
Brooklyn Stara writes up tasks for her Fairbury Junior-Senior High students on the last day of school in the Spring 2022 semester. Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News.

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The decorations are coming down in Brooklyn Stara’s Fairbury classroom. The 22-year-old new teacher tucks away a framed picture with a bright bumble bee. It reads, ‘I bee-lieve in you.’

“I remember I had a countdown on my board for the last day of school. It’s crazy that it’s already done. I started it at Day 60,” Stara said while sliding half-packed boxes around.

Now with one semester in her back pocket, the Doane University grad will be entering her first full year of teaching. Stara graduated from Doane University in December with an opportunity lined up immediately at Fairbury Junior-Senior High.

This month, about eight hundred college education grads got their degrees to teach, and many, like Stara, already have teaching jobs lined up in and out of Nebraska. The state has more than a thousand open education jobs right now and may stay open before classes reconvene this fall.

Art in Stara's classroom reads, 'I bee-lieve in you.' Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News.

Miss Stara turns to the whiteboard to write up tasks for her students to finish before the last bell.

Clean bookshelves. Pull down decorations. Disassemble the cube stand.

The David City native said she felt right at home in Fairbury’s smaller school district.

Some highlights included her speech assignments, where one student took the class to the school’s automotive shop and explained how to change the oil in a truck. Another student brought in a griddle and flipped up a lesson on how to make the perfect pancake.

As students got more comfortable, Stara did too. She squeezed in a lesson that grew out of a disagreement in class.

“Two of my students were arguing about whether 'Friends' or 'The Office' was a better TV show. And I said, 'Okay, next we're going to do a debate, and you guys will debate this,” Stara laughed.

Just five months ago, she was pretty nervous about her first semester. She checked into school each day well-ahead of the first bell. She mapped out thorough class assignments. She immediately returned emails for students who were out sick.

But none of those were the toughest part of Stara’s semester.

A sign in Brooklyn Stara's Fairbury classroom reads, 'May 22. Is it summer yet? - Everyone' on the last day of the Spring 2022 school semester. Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News.

“It was very shortly after I started here that I was told that a position had opened up Beatrice Middle School, where I student taught, and I love Beatrice schools,” Stara said.

What kept her up at night was choosing between job offers from two school districts she loved – Beatrice and Fairbury.

“I had to make this decision of, 'I've only been here a couple of weeks, am I going to go somewhere else?' And then I was like, 'Do I want to miss out on Beatrice?' That was really, really stressful.”

After weeks of mulling over the decision, she chose to head back to Beatrice. A shorter commute to Lincoln was what ultimately drove her decision.

Deficit Expected to Widen

The vast amount of open education jobs mirrors a similar teacher exodus that’s happening across the country. Nebraska’s Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the workforce deficit may widen in the next school year.

“About eight, nine years ago, we were looking at about 120 to 170 unfilled positions – meaning that they were unfilled with the appropriately qualified staff. Fast forward to right before the pandemic, we were seeing unfilled positions as high as 300,” Blomstedt said.

Blomstedt said the past 2021-22 school year accumulated 482 unfilled positions. 68 were left vacant.

“That will actually be a little bit over double from what it was the prior year,” Blomstedt said.

The largest education gap is with special education teachers. In the fall of 2021, at least 86 special education roles weren’t filled with appropriately trained staff. Eight positions in the state were left vacant. Language arts and elementary education are the next least-filled positions.

Blomstedt said the entire education system needs to be examined to attract more teachers throughout the state. The commissioner pointed to a bill – LB 1218, or the Teach in Nebraska Today Act – that recently passed in the state legislature. It would provide financial assistance and student loan forgiveness to teachers.

Blomstedt said while education’s health care and retirement benefits are typically robust for state jobs, younger teachers are searching for a bump in pay.

“For folks that are coming right out of college, they need those supports on income, and hopefully we can find ways [for] additional income for teachers – instead of them having a different summer job outside education,” Blomstedt said.

Even before receiving her degree, Stara heard a handful of warnings – the top one being lack of pay.

The salary of first-time Nebraska teachers ranks 47th in the country at $36,491, according to the National Education Association. The state ranks 31st in the overall average salary when it comes to teacher compensation.

“It wasn't necessarily like, ‘I don't know if you'll be able to handle students.’ It was more along the lines of, well, you know, you're not going to make a lot of money,” Stara said.

It was a recurring warning from others about the profession.

“There are people who say, ‘Well, maybe I'll go into something else,’ but there's just nothing else I could ever see myself doing,” Stara said.

Doctor Mark Reid, the Dean of Education at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, knows that feeling. Thirty years ago he taught science in Mount Pleasant, Texas.

“One of the discussions I had often with my colleagues was we kind of felt like this was a mission for us. This was a calling for us, helping to try to prepare these young people for their lives," Reid said. "And those opportunities to work with those young people, to see those light bulb moments when they suddenly get it – I think that is just an amazing opportunity.”

Reid said teachers undoubtedly should feel valued in their compensation.

The UNK dean spent years researching and working on keeping teachers in Texas classrooms. The Nebraska Department of Education, the legislature and Nebraska colleges are all trying to make it easier and more attractive for people to become teachers. However, Reid said there also needs to be a greater emphasis on keeping teachers, like Miss Stara, from exiting the workforce in just a few years.

“Let me be perfectly frank, teaching is a tough, challenging profession. There is no doubt, it is a job where the bright lights are on at 7:30, 8 o'clock in the morning until 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon. You will get a short break during there, and hopefully, some time to eat your lunch,” Reid said.

It’s common to see teachers exit their careers three to five years after they begin, but from research he sees, pay isn’t the top reason teachers leave.

"A really good in-school community"

A big push comes from stress and lack of support.

“If they get a good grounding, if they get a good education, they will be there long, long haul, they'll be there five years and beyond. And that's what we need to make sure we continue to provide for our schools,” Reid said.

Sherri Jones agrees. She runs the College of Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the largest university in the state. Both UNK and UNL graduated 159 education students each this semester, which is on par with their education graduation averages.

“We are graduating the same number of teachers today as we did seven years ago,” Jones said.

She would like to see school districts expand resources to teachers, especially those just starting their education journey.

“We shouldn't be fearful of trying a variety of things. Perhaps, we might ask teachers what would be helpful to them and be very thoughtful about what they might tell us,” the UNL dean said.

Jones believes the need for appreciation doesn’t stop within school walls.

“What we need is the ever-increasing support and perspective that values teachers and the work that they do. They are awesome. They are important. They just have a tremendous amount of knowledge about development and learning," Jones said. "I would like to see our communities really be supportive of teachers. They're our most treasured profession. No one gets to be anything without a teacher.”

Fairbury teacher Brooklyn Stara writes up tasks for her study hall students on the last day of the Spring 2022 semester. Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News.

While wrapping up the last of her classroom’s books, Stara said that sense of support is what made Fairbury and Beatrice her top two choices.

“I would say what makes a really good school district is just a really good in-school community where you can go to any teacher," Stara said. "If you're like, 'I'm having this problem or ‘Hey, I tried this as a classroom management strategy, and it didn't quite work. What advice would you give me like what do you do in these situations?’”

Stara is stowing away a lot of lessons learned in her first semester. She’s all smiles as she cleans up a stack of thank you notes left behind from students on the last day.

One sits on top – a hand-folded piece of paper with writing in thick purple marker.

Stara starts to read, “Dear Miss Stara. She wrote ‘Mrs.’ then she crossed out the ‘R.’ That’s funny.”

"She says, ‘You are wonderful to have as a teacher and your class was always a nice refreshing period that helped my days run smoother. And then she drew little stick figures of people smiling with thumbs up, and it says ‘us having a lot of good days together.’'”