Bobby Bolen is trying to fill around 50 teaching positions at the North Slope Borough School District.
“This is our focus 24 hours a day right now — to get classrooms staffed for students,” Bolen said.
Bolen is the brand-new human resources director at the North Slope Borough School District, which has around 2,000 students in 12 schools, some of which start as soon as Aug. 8. He’s exploring options like long-term substitutes and the prospect of international teachers to round out the district’s usual teaching staff of around 170.
“Our worst-case scenario would be distance delivery. That’s obviously not our goal and that’s not our preference, but you know, we do have some experience with it as a result of COVID, so if we have to revert to it to get some initial schools started, then we’re prepared to do that,” Bolen said.
With the new school year approaching, school districts throughout the state are struggling to properly staff schools and classrooms. The national teacher shortage, which pre-dates the pandemic, is uniquely felt in Alaska, which has historically relied on recruiting teachers from the Lower 48.
“We’re in the worst place with this that Alaska has ever seen,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators.
“What I’m hearing from administrators is that many districts are not staffed. People are working overtime to try to find high-quality educators for our students, and we are at an all-time high in Alaska for turnover at every level,” Parady said.
Other public employers, including the state government, are struggling to fill positions. But the scale of the problem for some school districts is particularly large. According to the Alaska Teacher Placement website, a statewide education job clearinghouse, around 1,100 jobs are open in school districts around Alaska. That includes all areas and levels of school and education staff, from principals, teachers and special education staff to paraeducators, support staff and sports coaches to language teachers, counselors and speech pathologists.
Toni McFadden, manager of Alaska Teacher Placement, said the severity of the issue has been years in the making, “creeping up on us and getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
The trend can be seen in the declining attendance of the spring job fair Alaska Teacher Placement holds every March.
“Back in the ‘80s and even the early ‘90s, there were 1,000-plus candidates looking for jobs. This year, we had about 75 candidates at the spring fair that are looking for jobs,” McFadden said.
“Now, did it go from 1,100 to 75 in one year or two years? No. Every year, it’s just fewer and fewer and fewer. So, this is a problem that’s been going on probably for 15 years or more, but it’s just getting to the point where it’s so severe now that districts are really struggling and they’re desperate to find qualified teachers to put in front of their children.”
A solution from afar
One solution to the teacher shortage in Alaska: hiring teachers from the Philippines.
This past school year, 20 of Kuspuk School District’s 39 teachers were from the Philippines, KYUK reported. The district includes villages along the Kuskokwim River. Gov. Mike Dunleavy last October thanked more than 100 Filipino teachers who came to Alaska to fill positions throughout the state.
The Bering Strait School District started hiring teachers from the Philippines two years ago because there was no one else to fill the vacancies, Chief School Administrator Susan Nedza said. And it’s worked out. Thirty of the district’s returning staff are from the Philippines with J-1 visas, the type of visa given to teachers who are part of a work-based exchange program to the U.S.
“They have years and years of experience, wonderful training. They fit in amazingly. We’ve had no complaints,” Nedza said.
Other districts currently interested in hiring J-1 visa teachers to fill vacancies may have a harder time. The U.S. State Department sent an email in June to sponsor agencies, which facilitate the visa process for the international teachers, saying that teachers placed in rural Alaska “may require additional monitoring and support.”
It said, “exchange teachers may not be fully prepared for the location of their placement” and asked sponsors to ensure “exchange teachers placed in ‘less traditional’ locations are aware of the unique circumstances of those placements, situations they may encounter as a result (e.g., extreme weather, possible challenges in finding certain goods and services, travel considerations, etc.), and who and how to contact sponsor representatives for support and to report any situations affecting their health, safety, and welfare.”
After that email, a few of the sponsor agencies the district works with said they would no longer be placing teachers in Alaska, according to Nedza.
“I’ve asked these companies to, ‘Yeah, go ahead, take a look at the State Department comment. And, of course, you should be monitoring your teachers. Of course, you should make sure that they’re cared for. Of course, you should check on their situation in their job spots. But don’t blacklist Alaska because of some strange misconception,” Nedza said.
“So that’s added a twist this year” to the hiring problem, she said.
Still, Nedza has been able to hire six new J-1 visa teachers from the Philippines for this coming school year. That means 36 of her roughly 250 certified staff members will be from abroad.
Nedza started out with 40 openings going into this school year. She’s down to about three. So, for the moment at least, Nedza is feeling good about staffing. Without those 36 staff from the Philippines though, “I don’t know where we would be,” she said.
(A State Department spokesperson said the department doesn’t comment on leaked internal communication with sponsors, though it “constantly monitors and supports our exchange visitors’ experiences to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all our participants.”)
Candidates ‘ghost’ or turn down offers
Securing someone to fill a position doesn’t guarantee an educator in the classroom. That’s something school administrators — like Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland — have recently experienced for the first time.
“A couple people just didn’t show up. They committed to be with us and didn’t even arrive, didn’t say anything,” Holland said. “It’s a term I’ve heard about now; I guess it’s called ghosting.”
A number of factors are driving the national teacher shortage — burnout, fewer people going into the teaching field, low pay — all of which were exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It’s kind of magnified in Alaska,” said Alaska Teacher Placement’s McFadden. Some Alaska-specific factors include harsh climate, vast geography and isolation, and a lack of amenities.
Since Alaska has relied on recruiting from other states, “people coming from outside of Alaska, the change is just very different for them,” McFadden said.
Florida educator Wayne McKnight, who is 62 years old, was looking for something different when he almost accepted a teaching job in Teller. He has spent 35 years as a behavioral specialist and isn’t ready to retire.
“I was looking for an adventure. I was looking to continue to make an impact on students and I wanted a different kind of experience,” McKnight said. “Alaska definitely appealed to me.”
He was “very excited” when he got the offer letter. To make an informed decision, he talked to returning staff in Teller, who he said “had wonderful experiences.” Ultimately, McKnight didn’t think he “could withstand the weather” and didn’t want to risk the possibility of not being able to fly back home for the holidays due to weather-related travel issues.
He said it was a “difficult decision” to turn the offer down. Unlike some others, McKnight did not ghost anyone. He communicated that he would not be accepting the job.
What the state is doing about the problem
There was another reason McKnight didn’t accept the teaching job in Teller. A day after receiving the offer, he contacted Alaska’s teacher certification office and learned for the first time that he’d be required to take a test and specific courses. His credentials, training and experience from 35 years as an educator in Florida weren’t enough.
“Quite frankly and bluntly, I was not willing to take the extra steps to meet the Alaska requirements that they subjected their employees to, especially when someone’s coming from out of state,” McKnight said, though he added he understands the reasons for the requirements.
Senate Bill 20 changes requirements for testing. It awaits transmittal to the governor.
“In the instances of those individuals coming to us fully licensed with a regular certificate, one of the things that was required was to go through some additional testing,” said Sondra Meredith, administrator for teacher certification at Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
“We’d have teachers with numbers of years of experience who would need to go back and do additional testing. Senate Bill 20, when it’s fully implemented, will provide a faster route and those testing requirements will be removed,” Meredith said.
Another legislative effort, House Bill 19, which also passed and is awaiting transmittal to the governor, “will open up additional opportunities for world language speakers and Native language speakers to be able to be given more responsibilities in our language immersion schools,” Meredith said.
The state also continues to issue emergency licenses to provide districts “maximum flexibility” when it comes to hiring individuals who may not have all the teacher preparation requirements but have an inclination to teach and the district feels confident having in front of a class, Meredith said.
“At the state level, in the certification realm, we’re trying to find ways to maintain rigor, but also to lessen the barriers,” she said.
The two required courses that McKnight mentioned — Alaska studies and Alaska multicultural coursework — are currently still a requirement.
Alaska used to be more competitive in attracting teachers
Administrators and education experts alike mentioned lack of a pension as a hindrance to recruiting teachers. Those experts include Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss.
“Alaska used to be super attractive to educators because we had a really good retirement system. That’s not the case anymore. Our retirement system is just not up to speed,” Weiss said.
The state no longer provides pensions to newly hired teachers. Instead, it offers a defined-contribution retirement plan. House Bill 220, which would’ve reopened the state’s closed pension programs for teachers, got some traction in the Legislature but didn’t pass.
In an effort to improve teacher retention and recruitment in Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy formed a working group to identify the root causes of the issues and propose solutions. Based on survey results of Alaska teachers, the group recommended restructuring retirement options as one of its six action plan items.
The other items include strengthening working conditions, developing leadership, enhancing recruitment efforts and opportunities, creating pathways to develop paraprofessionals who work alongside teachers and school administrators, and streamlining certification and recertification.
Some of this work is already happening.
Several districts, including in the Kenai Peninsula and Bering Strait, already have ‘grow your own’ programs that allow districts to fill positions from within, in an effort to become less reliant on recruiting from outside Alaska.
Holland, superintendent in the Kenai Peninsula, said his district, which has 23 open teaching positions, is helping paraeducators pay for teacher preparation college courses.
“I think the state needs to start looking at some funding. That would be one of our legislative priorities — can there be an allocation to support programs like this?” said Holland.
Even with these kinds of efforts, Juneau superintendent Weiss doesn’t think it’s enough.
“I think that all those efforts are going to be for naught if we cannot compete with our retirement system,” Weiss said.
In Fairbanks, North Star Borough School District Chief School Administrator Karen Melin said she’s not worried about filling the 70 vacant teacher positions.
“I’m not worried because I’m pretty convinced we’re not going to be able to fill them at this point. This is our current reality. We’re going to start the school year short of positions,” Melin said. “So, how do we successfully deliver an excellent education to our students given our current reality?”
That brainstorming is happening now. Ideas include contacting retired teachers, looking at substitute lists, and only offering classes at one high school if it’s close to another.
Melin said the teacher shortage is a symptom of a larger problem.
“The greater problem is the way that we do public education. We’re not able to sustain ourselves as a public education system. So what does that mean for what we have to do different? That to me is the bigger question,” she said. “Yes, we will always need to have teachers. But I think fundamentally, the occupation has shifted, and so fundamentally, as a larger system, we need to think about how we shift with it.”
Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.