Not so long ago, Tri-County Public Schools would get close to 100 applications when a teaching position opened up in the rural northwest Minnesota district not far from the Canadian border.
These days, Superintendent Ryan Baron is pleased when he gets a half-dozen — and then immediately grows anxious.
"You play a game of competition against your neighbors," he said. "You get seven applications, those seven have already applied at places nearby, and if you don't hurry up you may lose them."
Across the state, school districts are finding it harder to fill open teaching positions and keep new teachers in the classroom — a trend educators worry may be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new report from the state's licensing board found that the teacher shortage spans public schools in urban, suburban and rural communities and is the result of multiple factors. Among them: Just half of Minnesota teachers with a professional license are working in the classroom, and there's been a significant dip in the number of new teachers entering the profession. The problem is so widespread that more than a third of districts reported they were unable to fill teaching positions they'd budgeted for in the 2019-20 school year.
The detailed look at supply of and demand for teachers is the first since Minnesota overhauled its teacher licensing program more than two years ago, creating a "tiered" system meant to provide a clearer path into the profession for people without traditional credentials.
Alex Liuzzi, executive director of the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), said the report shows the change has not yet helped fill the gap between the number of teachers schools need and the number willing to fill those roles.
"It's just as stark as before," he said.
The report is based on data from the 2019-20 school year, gathered before the pandemic hit Minnesota. At that time, there were more than 57,300 teachers with professional licenses not working in the classroom — roughly 50% of the state's corps of licensed teachers.
It's not clear how many of those teachers were still working in education at other levels, like as a principal or district administrator, and how many had left the field entirely. Also unclear: exactly when and why teachers had decided to leave the classroom, or why so many teachers seemed to be leaving in the first stage of their career. About a third of new teachers leave within the first five years on the job, a long-term trend that shows little sign of waning.
Liuzzi said PELSB hopes to gather more information through teacher surveys and from school districts, but has been limited by budget constraints and other issues. The public agency is asking the state Legislature to help pay for a statewide teacher survey, which it estimates would cost $25,000 to $50,000.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union, said she'd like to see the state collect and track more data about teachers coming and going from the field. She said she expects the findings would turn up some common themes.
"Minnesota just has to do a better job attracting and retaining people who are willing to make teaching their career," she said. "Low pay, high stress, lack of respect — those are the things driving out many teachers, particularly teachers of color."
Bringing more teachers of color into the workforce and ensuring that they stay is a top goal for many districts and education groups who want the state's teachers to better reflect the backgrounds of the students in the classrooms. Josh Crosson, executive director of the education advocacy group EdAllies, said it should also be seen as a top strategy to solve the state's teacher shortage.
EdAllies has been a prominent supporter of the licensing overhaul, a move the group says will provide more opportunities for teachers of color to get into education.
"Retention alone isn't going to curb teacher shortages that exist," Crosson said.
Markus Flynn, a fifth-grade science teacher at Prodeo Academy, a charter school in Columbia Heights and executive director of Black Men Teach, said teachers of color often leave the job because they feel isolated and unsupported by their schools and co-workers. But even more would-be teachers may never even start because they didn't think it was an option, couldn't bear the burden of educational debt, or were wary of entering a field where they may not feel welcome.
Flynn entered teaching after several years of graduate school in epidemiology, using the new tiered licensing system meant for people with nontraditional credentials. He said he was warned that getting into teaching and staying there as a teacher of color in Minnesota would be tough.
"It's hard," he said. "They told the truth."
The pandemic's impact on the size of the teacher workforce remains unclear. Fears that it would prompt a surge in teacher retirements have so far not panned out.
Data from the Minnesota Teachers Retirement Association shows that fewer teachers retired in 2020 than in each of the previous two years, and January 2021 retirements were on par with typical numbers for that month.
But Specht, with Education Minnesota, said she's worried the stress of the pandemic will compound the stresses that were already pushing teachers to leave the job or seek other professions.
"I think the state of Minnesota and school districts absolutely have to use this pandemic as a wake-up call," she said. "This was an issue before the pandemic and it's going to be greater now."