How one university is creatively tackling the rural teacher shortage

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Like many states with a large number of rural schools, Wyoming desperately needs more teachers.

Take the case of the Teton County School District, in Jackson, Wyoming. Located near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the area is well known as a vacation spot. Despite the alluring landscape, for full-time residents the extremely high housing costs are daunting.

That makes it difficult to retain staff. The average tenure of a teacher is just four years.

“Primarily, people come out here and they are going to be a ski bum for a while,” said superintendent Gillian Chapman.

Setting aside the sky-high cost of housing, which they can hardly control, district leaders are thinking creatively about perks they can use to entice staff to stay. They decided to take part in a new University of Wyoming project, the Master Educator Competency Program, to help give teachers meaningful support and professional development.

“It’s not always about paying people more,” Chapman said. “It’s about respecting the profession.”

“This is super cutting-edge work and radical for higher ed now,”

Adam Rubin, a founder of 2Revolutions, education consulting firm partnering with the University of Wyoming

Many states are grappling with this problem. Keeping teachers in classrooms is a complicated issue that involves a balance of competitive pay, meaningful work and helping teachers become masters at their craft so they feel like they can make a difference. The university’s new Master Educator program is one part of a statewide effort designed to address that last point, as a way to help districts retain their teachers.  

If Wyoming could cut in half the number of teachers who quit, the state wouldn’t be struggling to find enough educators, Scott Thomas, dean of the University of Wyoming College of Education, pointed out. They’d have a surplus. And increasing the number of experienced teachers, rather than simply trying to increase the ranks of novices, is good for students, too.

Related: To fight teacher shortages, some states are looking to community colleges to train a new generation of educators

Thomas’s college of education offers the state’s only teacher preparation program. The first part of the plan will give teachers the meaningful professional development they need, to prevent them from leaving the profession. A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work, he said. Although many of Wyoming’s schools have a lot in common, the challenges in each locality differ.

To figure out what teachers needed on a local level, the university faculty and leadership left campus and went to the schools.  

“Let’s bring the University of Wyoming to the state of Wyoming,” Thomas said. “We are going to come out and listen.”

Thomas came here in 2021 by way of Vermont, and, although he thought he understood rural education, he quickly discovered he had a lot to learn about schools in the vast open spaces of the West. The university partnered with 2Revolutions, an education consulting company that has worked with other states to redesign teacher education, and together with faculty members and college leaders, they went on a road trip to do interviews and hear directly from educators about what they need. They determined that teachers needed courses that helped them solve real-life problems they encountered in the classroom. And the professional development should be practically minded so that people could immediately put it to use and get feedback on how it’s going in real time.

 “It’s not always about paying people more. It’s about respecting the profession.”

Gillian Chapman, superintendent, Teton County School District in Jackson, Wyoming

Nationally, the $18 billion professional development industry for K-12 teachers is not widely known for its quality, said Adam Rubin, a founder of 2Revolutions. The partnership with the University of Wyoming is notable because the education will be job-embedded, with small modules that can be adapted to the needs of the teachers.

“This is super cutting-edge work and radical for higher ed now,” Rubin said.

And, importantly, teachers need flexibility to take those classes with online instructors, because in a wide-open space like the Cowboy State, it’s not realistic to expect teachers to commute to campus.

Related: Waiting for the traveling teacher: Remote rural schools need more hands-on help

For the Teton County School District, for instance, it’s a seven-hour drive to most institutions where district staff could work on a master’s degree or get high-quality professional development. And the planning process with 2Revolutions and the University of Wyoming, which included in-depth interviews with teachers to map out coursework relevant to issues they see in the district, helped the superintendent gain deeper insight into the needs of her staff.

“Feedback that our team shared with the university was really powerful for me, what was on people’s minds and what they were thinking about,” Chapman said. “Frankly, I don’t have the time to ask these important questions. Success for me, well, we have already reached one piece, because [teachers] have provided me with information that will make me a better superintendent and provide better professional development.”

This story about teacher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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