By Tasi Livermont, for Dakotafire
with additional reporting by Doug Card, The Britton Journal and Wendy Royston, Dakotafire Media
Should future teachers have to spend as much time sitting in desks to earn the right to stand at the front of class? Some think the answer to South Dakota’s teacher shortage at least partly lies in reducing education expectations put on educators.
“Kids are smart and savvy people, and they can go to Lake Area Tech for a two-year program and come out making $50,000 to $60,000 a year with just two years of expenses,” said Monte Nipp, Langford (S.D.) Area School superintendent. “I think it was summed up by a couple of high school students from Watertown who were all gung-ho and wanted to become teachers. After a year, they came back home and told the principal they had to change their major.”
Already $12,000 in debt, the students found it difficult to justify a nearly $50,000 investment for a bachelor’s degree, in order to earn the average teacher’s starting salary, which according to the National Education Association was just under $30,000 for South Dakota three years ago, 17 percent below the national average of just over $36,000 for the same year.
“Kids are being realistic about it,” and often changing their career plans, “even if they have a desire to be a teacher,” Nipp said.
But Rob Monson, executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, said he’s hesitant to decrease expectations for teachers as a whole.
“We want them to be considered professional and certainly have a good base to teach from. Taking that from a four-year to a two-year (education) just to get people in the pipeline would be just a step backward in our profession,” Monson said. “We want the best quality teachers we can for students, and I don’t think … watering down the program creates quality teachers. … Especially when you’re talking about those lower, formidable years. Those need a four-year program for sure,” though bringing a professional with a bachelor’s degree into a high school classroom that fits their other training—such as an engineer instructing mathematics—shouldn’t necessarily warrant an additional four years of schooling.
Nipp said raising teachers’ salaries is not going to be enough incentive to combat the teacher shortage, but that the cost of becoming one must also decrease.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want teachers to be trained. But maybe we should take a lesson from the tech people and get down to the nitty-gritty right away,” Nipp said. “Maybe teaching degrees shouldn’t be a big four-year program,” but rather two years of classroom instruction, followed by a year of student-teaching.
The idea of shorter-term and/or lower-cost teacher training is not new. At the turn of the 20th century, young adults—particularly young women—attended teaching colleges for a fraction of the cost and a portion of the time now required to become a teacher.
But, at that time, teaching was viewed as temporary women’s work, meant to fill a time void between childhood and motherhood, rather than to fill a fiscal void in a family’s finances, and the expectations of students have evolved as well. From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s days in a one-room schoolhouse to today, teaching somehow has lost prestige—a change that may be just as detrimental to recruiting teachers as low pay.
“Teaching is not portrayed as a good profession anymore for some reason,” Nipp said. “It is a very tough job, but doesn’t seem to be respected. There’s that attitude out there that it’s not the child’s fault—it must be the teacher.”
Sen. Corey Brown (R-Gettysburg) said it’s important to note that South Dakota is not the only state facing a teacher shortage.
“Fifty out of the 50 states have a similar problem,” he said. “If the teacher shortage issue were strictly limited to South Dakota, then I would think maybe we’re doing something wrong, and it’s something that we have to address solely here. but when we’re seeing it across the entire nation, that tells me that whether we like it or not, we’ve got a dynamic and a trend that we need to adjust to, so there has to be other ways to adjust to this.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on South Dakota’s teacher shortage. Read about the following other installments here:
- Some S.D. schools have given up on filling teacher vacancies 
- Mothers can bring experience to classrooms through ‘encore careers’ 
- Bridging educational gaps with distance 
- Educators go extra miles to keep programs on the road 
- OPINION: Promotion, autonomy, compensation are factors in Dakota teacher shortage