GREAT FALLS — Like many districts across the Treasure State, the Great Falls Public School District is battling a teacher shortage.
Jayson Wanner seems like a natural as he leads a lesson for his 5th grade class at West Elementary. The 22-year-old soon to be UM-Western graduate is a first-year teacher. Not bad for someone who doesn’t even have his teaching license.
“I was hired on a kind of an emergency basis,” said Wanner, a graduate of Great Falls High. “I've not yet finished student teaching at the University of Montana Western. That is one thing that I have left to fulfill, to finish my degree in elementary education.”
For the past several years, the Montana Office of Public Instruction has granted the Great Falls district emergency authorization to hire. It’s meant for students, like Jayson, who are ready to do their student teaching.
“We're able to put them into a classroom where they're able to be paid instead of just being in there observing,” said Great Falls Public Schools Human Resources Director Luke Diekhans. “There's pluses and minuses to both sides that they get the opportunity to get paid, but they also miss out on some of that mentoring.”
“So it is definitely a very unique situation. I would say it's not one that most have the opportunity to have,” said Wanner, who also gained experience working for six years at St. Thomas Child and Family Center in Great Falls. “And again, it's not ideal for the school district, but I am definitely taking every opportunity I can to take advantage of it.”
To help with the transition, the district has put added emphasis on academic coaches and other mentor figures to build the capacity of young teachers.
“That first couple of years is so key in their development,” said Diekhans.
For Jayson, he’s already benefitting from the added help of his fellow teachers and coaches.
“The support that I've had from my fifth grade teaching partners here at West has been definitely not going unnoticed,” said Wanner. “They are so supportive of me. They're helping me to get lessons planned. They're helping with the planning. And so they have definitely helped this transition.”
Some districts in Montana are attracting and retaining teachers through the TEACH, or Tomorrow's Educators are Coming Home Act.
GFPS says it looks good on paper because it gives first, second- and third-year teachers an additional $3,700.
But in larger districts, it must be based on 70% of the average teacher salary, making it a costly proposition.
“With a district like Great Falls Public Schools, we value the education, years of service,” said Diekhans. “That puts our average salary up there quite a bit higher than the smaller schools. And because of that, it just doesn't make it financially sound.”
Diekhans says ten of 11 emergency authorized teachers from last year are still with the district and this year there have been four emergency authorizations.
He adds that with more than a dozen openings at the beginning of this school year, the district has had to condense some positions.