November 18, 2022
Five VCSU alumni share their thoughts on the achievements, challenges, and hopes they see in new teachers graduating from their alma mater
VCSU graduate and elementary school principal Sara Schafer, ’89, loves her job.
“I have a front row seat at the biggest show in the world,” she says, laughing. Schafer loves working with students, teachers and parents as the Principal of Bennett Elementary within the Fargo Public School system.
In the 33 years that she has been working in schools, some things have not changed.
Children still need a quality education and adults who really care about them. Educators still dream of helping every student reach their greatest potential and need support from government and their community to achieve this goal.
But it is clear that education is changing. Filling vacancies in schools is a challenge. Technology creates opportunities and multiple burdens for teachers and students. Political debates and mental health concerns are burdens that sometimes weigh squarely on the shoulders of teachers and administrators.
We spoke to five administrators about their perspectives on education, what they see in new alma mater graduate teachers, and what gives them the greatest hope during tough days.
IF NOT US THEN WHO?
Brandon Bata, ’07, began his college career as a basketball player, became a professional math teacher, and now serves as the Principal of Oakes, ND
Although he has only been in the education field for 15 years, he has seen many changes.
“There are a lot more things to consider now when mental health issues come to the fore among students and teachers,” he said. “The demands on teachers with technology have increased and it’s hard to disconnect.”
Finding a balance that offers a connection with students but the ability to separate is a narrow path.
“In our district, we are committed to three things: real relationships, respect, and a growth mindset. We really tried to focus on relationships at the forefront,” Bata said.
These relationships are strengthened through activities, sports and engagement. But sometimes it’s not enough, and that affects employee hiring and retention.
“Hiring was a challenge,” said Bata. “We were fortunate to have all of our positions filled, but it was extremely difficult.”
Bata said teachers are burdened with numerous stressors that could contribute to the shortage.
“It’s hard work and not easy work, but if we don’t do this important work here, who will come behind us?” he said. “If not us, then who?”
One answer to that question might be in the classrooms of VCSU.
“VCSU graduates are top notch. They’re students first and they want to build relationships,” he said. “You are super prepared. It’s one thing to have the skills and another to learn how to adjust those skills as changes arise.”
FIND AWESOME PEOPLE
Schaefer has also seen the number of applications for open positions at her school drop.
As a principal, she said her most important job was to “recruit really great people.”
She said it’s encouraging to know that many school districts are all trying to find solutions to this problem. One way Fargo Public Schools, including Bennett Elementary, has filled some of these gaps is by having prospective teachers come into the classroom as substitute teachers.
VCSU offers this opportunity to students and partner schools, allowing students to gain experience and schools to meet the urgent need for substitute teachers.
The prospective teachers lack the necessary study work, but it gives them a clear picture of life as a teacher, explained Schäfer.
Schafer has also seen bright spots when he worked with colleagues at VCSU to invite interns for reading or science.
Involving VCSU students to help elementary school students not only gives future teachers experience, but also gives full-time teachers time to participate in professional development and other important activities.
“The teachers all work very hard and have children on their minds and hearts all the time,” she said. “We expect the teachers to have an average of 20 to 30 students and do everything for them,” said Schafer.
“You can’t pour from an empty bucket. It’s important to make time for your family and yourself to do the things that make you you. You can’t do that when you go to school 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE EVERY DAY
As the superintendent of the South Prairie School District south of Minot, Wayne Stanley has also experienced the challenge of hiring key employees. The district is trying to keep pay competitive so as not to lose employees to bigger markets like Minot, but things are markedly different from when he first graduated from VCSU in 1992.
“It’s a completely different hiring landscape,” Stanley said. After graduating, teachers took jobs wherever they were offered. Now applicants have the luxury of choosing where they want to be in part because there are so few candidates. He noted that they usually get applicants from the region and rarely beyond.
This has prompted counties like South Prairie to prioritize investments in people, infrastructure and building a strong sense of community. There’s no main street, but they’ve worked hard to build a strong culture, Stanley said.
“We pride ourselves on being community oriented. Our expectations are high and we have a good parental support system,” he said. “It is what can make or break a school system. The saying ‘It takes a village’ is true.”
Part of Stanley’s village involves maintaining ties with VCSU. Last school year he was asked to mentor a VCSU student teacher. He immediately agreed. “The world of education requires a certain level of mutual support,” Stanley said. “It requires networking between superintendents and colleges.”
This type of partnership allows a school to see a student teacher in action in a classroom before potentially offering them employment.
“We see how well prepared they are,” Stanley said. For Stanley, one of his VCSU student teachers was “undeniably our first choice.” “What she brought out of VCSU was outstanding,” he said.
PROMOTE EDUCATION AS A CAREER
Retaining new teachers and changing the conversation about education as a profession has been a top priority for fellow Superintendent Dr. Michael McNeff, ’04.
“Lately there’s been this urge to talk about education and why people are leaving. We need to talk better about why we stay in education,” McNeff said. “We have to think about how we promote education as a profession.”
McNeff has run rugby public schools for more than a decade and described how the district uses a bursary to provide instructional coaching and mentors. Building a team approach that helps everyone improve has worked well.
This team mentality can also help others who work in the school, such as paraprofessionals, to find the support they need to get back to school and graduate to become a full-time teacher.
This fall, VCSU announced a grant-funded scholarship program to help individuals who work as substitute teachers or paraprofessionals in North Dakota schools return to college. The online educational courses would help these individuals to obtain their apprenticeship degree.
Creating avenues for more potential teachers is important, but making sure they have knowledgeable, experienced, and caring professors is crucial.
“There are several people that I still think about, like Al Olson, Dave Bass, and a lot of people I’ve worked with on various committees,” McNeff said. “When we hire VCSU graduates, they do very well in the classroom.”
McNeff also acknowledges that first-time teachers face different pressures when approaching a classroom than when he was a social studies teacher at Dakota Prairie High School in 2004.
“Educators must navigate a challenging environment,” McNeff said. “Our top educators work year-round to create a great atmosphere for every student.”
This atmosphere creates opportunities for all students, regardless of their background. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without a great public education,” McNeff said. “Education gives anyone the opportunity to be whatever they want, as long as they work hard and have people to support them.”
BUILDING STRONG COMMUNITIES
Building a community with a strong support network is what Greg Dobitz, ’05, is trying to do at Oakes Elementary.
“First year teachers need to have a mentor,” he explained. “Mentors can help with little things and that’s important.”
Oakes, located about 60 miles south of Valley City, has several VCSU alumni on staff.
“Our first graders from VCSU are very well prepared,” he said. “Valley City does a great job not only teaching students but other internships and requiring their students to be in classrooms. The more teachers can be in the classroom during their college preparation, the more they will learn through practical application.”
Graduates with classroom management skills from their undergraduate student teaching or substitute teaching can help them succeed in their early years of the workforce.
Keeping a new teacher is also part of the community network Oakes has built.
To recruit and retain teachers, Dobitz explained that Oakes included a retention bonus in their contract.
Even incentives are sometimes not enough.
“Last year we had a teacher’s vacation mid-year and the students graduated online,” Dobitz said.
Some of the pressures he says teachers face include the need for help with general staffing, mental health and special education support, among others.
“We need more resources to handle complex situations,” explained Dobitz. Planning is important, but sometimes the best plan can be sidelined.
“Sometimes as a teacher you think that on Monday you’re prepared for the whole week, but by 9 a.m. what you’ve planned is completely out of the question,” he said, laughing. Winging it is sometimes required to be adaptable, all in the name of helping a child have it.
“It’s that bright spot and why I want to be a teacher,” Dobitz said. “It’s what keeps you coming back, the moment the lightbulb turns on. If you can contribute, there is nothing better and that has not changed.”