Splitting their time between classrooms in school districts even a few miles apart takes extra planning for teachers.
Angel Dubro, a speech language pathologist who divides her four-day workweek between the Huron and Iroquois school districts, said she has to think carefully about which school she’s serving first so she arranges her supplies and equipment accordingly.
“Even my kids have to think about it, when I drop them off for school, as far as what car they need to put their stuff in,” Dubro said.
Hiring teachers who are adept at that kind of juggling to work in more than one school has helped some South Dakota districts address the state’s teacher shortage—and if a bill under consideration in the state Legislature passes, more schools might be encouraged to try the same teacher-sharing tactic.
“You’re essentially addressing any sort of teacher shortage head-on, because you have one person filling what would have been two spots,” said Sen. Corey Brown (R-Gettysburg), a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard to explore South Dakota’s teacher shortage and provide recommendations for overcoming it last year. “It also allows you to get a really high-quality teacher, and if the incentives are right, perhaps you can pay that teacher more for the extra duties that they are assuming by having to do that.”
Senate Bill 133, scheduled for hearing on the House floor, sets framework for the Department of Education to create and administer a grant program for school districts that share teaching staff. The bill was sponsored by the Senate Appropriations Committee, at the request of Daugaard’s office, presumably because of recommendations by the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Though South Dakota’s status as home to the lowest-paid teachers in the nation has garnered the spotlight as the biggest cause of the state’s shortage, officials say other factors could be changed to overcome the shortage, too.
“When the Blue Ribbon panel got together, we were tasked with looking at teacher pay, but (also) teacher shortages in general,” said Sen. Corey Brown (R-Gettysburg). “Maybe teacher pay is a part of this issue, but there are other ways that you can address this as well.”
Brown called an incentive program an “outside of the box” idea that would work in some situations—particularly elective coursework in the state’s smaller districts.
“For those school districts that are able to make it work, from a policy standpoint, I’m more than happy to incentivize that,” he said, later suggesting two districts sharing a single teacher should each be compensated at a rate of 75 percent of a teacher salary under a proposed staff-based funding structure.
The 28 recommendations set forth by the Blue Ribbon Task Force have been visible in the 2016 Legislative Session.
“I think nearly every one of those was addressed in some fashion, and a lot of what (Daugaard’s) bills look like are pretty reflective of what the report was,” Brown said. “There were a few things that he addressed differently.”
Sharing educators is saving electives
With declining enrollment and South Dakota’s school aid formula, which has been widely criticized as deficient, hiring full-time teachers for some programs is extremely difficult. Finding part-time instructors can be nearly as challenging.
“With the demand put on our agriculture students coming out of (South Dakota State University), there was just no way that somebody would come to these small districts to work part-time,” said Damon Alvey, superintendent of the Scotland School District.
His school is in its fourth year splitting the costs and services of a full-time ag and shop teacher.
“You had to find someone in your local area, because graduates are snatched up really quickly out of SDSU, to either go out of state or to go to bigger programs,” he said.
Gail Swenson, superintendent at Tripp-Delmont, where the instructor officially is employed, said finding a full-time teacher in some areas, such as agriculture—much less one for each district—often just isn’t possible.
“Every district would love to be able to provide a full-time teacher for every program—tech ed and art and all of those programs that make kids’ educations full and rich,” she said. “We have a good situation right now, where we have a good person who is half-a-day, who is doing great work.”
Leland Tjeerdsma, who retired as special security major at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield in December, is in his first year in the shared position. In this second career and in how he instructs his students, Tjeerdsma follows a motto handed down by his grandfather.
“When I start a project, I like to do it right,” he said. “If you don’t take the time to do it right the first time, how the heck are you going to find the time to fix it later?”
Alvey said Scotland students have a first-year teacher with significant knowledge to share.
“They appreciate that someone is willing to come in and work with them part-time and still be able to fulfill the obligations and what we want this program to be,” he said. “Being in a small, rural farming community, having an agriculture program is essential for us.”
Swenson called the arrangement between Tripp-Delmont and Scotland “a win-win.”
“I don’t see any disadvantage,” she said. “We have a very competent person in, whom both districts love and the kids love.”
Working in two districts can give a teacher a valuable perspective on what equipment works well and what doesn’t. Tjeerdsma, for example, has been able to provide valuable feedback to both the Tripp-Delmont and Scotland school districts regarding equipment purchases.
“He has the opportunity to use the best of both and share with the other one,” Alvey said.
But transporting equipment from one district to another can also be a headache for teachers trying to separate, essentially, two part-time jobs.
Dubro uses separate laptops and iPads for her two school districts, and has a car and a bag of toys that she uses for home visits for the Birth to Three program for Northeastern Educational Services Cooperative, which also is her employer for the time she spends in Iroquois.
“It can be a benefit to be in so many schools, to see what works and what doesn’t,” she said, but “I have to keep in my mind which district I’m working in each day,” in order to fairly earn her paycheck for each and not misuse or misplace her employers’ supplies.
While working in multiple districts presents opportunities for teachers to work with a greater number of people, building meaningful relationships can sometimes be a challenge.
“I’m not in the school very long. I might be there just two or three hours, just to see my kids, and I don’t eat dinner there. … I get here, and I just kind of do what I need to do.”
Most of the time, she doesn’t have recess duty or “most of that ‘extra’ stuff that most teachers take time off and do,” she said.
The windshield time between schools can be tiring, Dubro said, but she recognizes it is necessary.
“South Dakotans are used to (driving), and we’ve just kind of adapted to it, because we have so many schools that are little and far apart and schools that are closing,” she said. “You just do what you can do to do your job.”
For Tjeerdsma, the 25-minute midday drive provides some transition time.
“The commute does not bother me at all,” he said. “In fact, the commute from Scotland to Tripp kind of gives you a chance to think and prepare yourself for the next school.”
Alvey said Tjeerdsma’s adaptability has been key to making a multi-district teaching career work.
“He’s a guy who works well with people and he’s flexible,” Alvey said. “Plus, the school district in Tripp has been good to work with, and we’ve had a good relationship with them in the past. These are the things that make it successful.”
Complementary scheduling, too, is important. Both the Tripp-Delmont and Scotland districts have traditional eight-period days.
“(With) conferences, vacation days—there’s already a lot in the calendar that can pull a teacher away, so it’s important that we’re pretty similar,” Alvey said.
Fringe benefits vary
Though teachers in South Dakota are notoriously underpaid in comparison to those in neighboring states, many do enjoy a healthy benefits package. But, in the case of alternative teacher contracts, working out the details of those benefits can be tricky.
Durbro, who work two part-time contracts, gets some sick and personal days through the cooperative, but the Huron School District does not offer benefits packages to its part-time employees.
“For me, that’s a bad thing, because I don’t get retirement, and I don’t get some of the benefits, but for my family, it was the best thing, because I get to stay home on those Fridays with my kids,” because Iroquois operates on a four-day school week.
Arrangements like the Scotland and Tripp-Delmont districts have worked out—in which one school bills another for the “use” of a teacher who officially is employed by them—present an opportunity for enrollment in the same benefits program the employing district’s other staff can access, though Tjeerdsma pointed out that was not a factor in his decision to teach, because he had retired on the state benefits system through the prison.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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
- Changing the way we educate educators could be one answer
- Mothers can bring experience to classrooms through ‘encore careers’
- Bridging educational gaps with distance education
- OPINION: Promotion, autonomy, compensation are factors in Dakota teacher shortage