For the past six years, Shari Daniels has tried to be the person she wishes she had in her life as a student.

This story also appeared in The Hechinger Report

Daniels grew up on the Fort Peck Reservation, home to about 6,000 members of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, in northeast Montana. Now 48, she struggles to remember the name of even one of her teachers, and she has no memory of making a personal connection with any of them. Raised by her grandmother, Daniels said she can’t remember ever seeing a report card sent home.

“They always treated us like we were another number, especially the Native American students,”  said Daniels, who is Dakota Sioux from the Fort Peck Reservation. “It felt almost like they passed you [to the next grade] to get you out of their eyesight before they packed their bags.”

More than two decades later, the teaching ranks of the Poplar School District, which serves about 900 students, 96% of whom are American Indian, look quite different than when Daniels was a student there. About a third of its teachers identify as Native American, including Daniels. But high turnover remains a problem.

Poplar schools lose about a fifth of their teachers each year — more than double the national attrition rate — and principals have struggled to fill vacancies across most grade levels and subjects. For about 1 in 10  positions there, the district last year reported hiring people with no formal training who needed an emergency waiver from the state to teach. The problem is the same across Montana — where 65% of rural schools in remote settings reported difficulty filling vacancies, compared with 35% of non-rural schools. This school year, with the pandemic making it even harder to import teachers from elsewhere, education leaders in the state issued the highest number of emergency waivers — 122 — for unlicensed teachers to work in classrooms since at least 2005.

Poplar Middle School volleyball players stretch in preparation for after-school practice. After wrapping up her day as a kindergarten teacher, Shari Daniels transitions to volleyball coach. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

Long before the coronavirus made the situation bad enough to break a record, rural — and especially tribal — schools had trouble finding and keeping qualified teachers. Principals in small towns across the West regularly import teachers from afar, even from abroad. They hire unlicensed teachers and stop offering specific courses. Elementary, fine arts and special education teachers are especially hard to find, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of state education data.

And though the communities hit hardest by the teacher shortage are small, the problem is large. Across the U.S., about 9.3 million public-school students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all students in the country — attend a rural school, according to a November 2019 report from the Rural School and Community Trust. At just below 75%, Montana has the highest share of rural schools of any state.

For many reasons, including low pay, isolation and scarcity of housing, hanging on to local talent is an especially acute problem in Montana. The state actually produces roughly six times as many teachers — 1,600 a year — as the labor market can absorb, according to data from the Montana Department of Labor & Industry. Still, Montana principals reported hiring nearly 400 people without full credentials over the past three years to lead classrooms, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

Sheryl Kohl, who is white, was ready to teach when she moved to Daniels’ hometown in 1983. She didn’t expect to still be teaching there nearly four decades later.

“People arrive here, and they can’t deal,” said Kohl of the many teachers who come for a few years but don’t stay. “Yeah, the mountains are beautiful, but they’re nine hours away. If you want to fly anywhere, you drive 325 miles to Billings.”

What convinced Kohl to stay? Her husband, an associate member of the Fort Peck Tribes, whom  she met when he was making repairs on a friend’s home. And the 55 kids the couple has fostered over the years. But arranging marriages to locals isn’t a particularly practical plan for keeping out-of-town teachers in classrooms.

Teacher Sheryl Kohl runs through a checklist of past due homework with one of her students. Kohl, who is white, first moved to Poplar to teach in 1983 and didn’t expect to stay there for nearly four decades. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

“The question comes up every 10 years or so: How do we recruit people to come here, and then how do we get them to stay?” Kohl said. “Pretty much the only thing anyone can come up with is there’s pretty good hunting and fishing, but it’s also 30 below in January and 110 in the summer.”

One idea is to stop recruiting people to move and just focus on getting them to stay. Many of the recently funded government efforts have been aimed at convincing people who grow up in these towns to stay and teach. It’s harder than it sounds, since rural areas tend to produce fewer people with the education levels necessary to become teachers. Those who do earn advanced degrees can be loath to return. And there’s little evidence to say how well “grow your own” efforts work.

“Growing your own is a really good, very bright concept,” said Sun Young Yoon, with the research organization Education Northwest. However, she added, “there’s not a lot of empirical evidence looking at the impact on student or teacher outcomes.”

Policymakers haven’t entirely ignored the problem. In recent years, Montana has funded a patchwork of solutions, including so-called “grow your own” programs that recruit high schoolers to consider a career in education and student loan forgiveness for teachers who commit to working in critical shortage areas. The U.S. Department of Education has also chipped in, last year awarding $27.9 million in five-year grants to boost the preparation, recruitment and retention of teachers in rural schools. Some of that money has also gone to programs aimed at keeping local talent in local schools.

Driving east along the two-lane highway that bisects her hometown, Daniels passes an “Entering Poplar” sign just before arriving at the K-12 school complex she once attended. A few trees dot the main road, on which several businesses have shuttered in recent years. But Poplar still boasts  two grocery stores, one restaurant and its namesake river, where ice fishers brave below-zero wind chills in the winter.

“It kind of almost looks like a ghost town,” Daniels said. “You wonder who all lives here.”

With no clear academic guidance as a student, Daniels hoped to escape to Rapid City, South Dakota, where she could train to become a flight attendant and travel the world. She graduated high school, got as far as Bismarck, North Dakota, and then returned home to care for her sickly grandmother. Daniels’ own diagnosis with an autoimmune disease kept her in Poplar even longer. She took temp jobs as a teacher’s aide in special education and early childhood classrooms to pay the bills. And then, in 2015, Daniels noticed an opening to teach special education. The elementary school principal, however, wondered if she’d rather lead her own kindergarten classroom.

Daniels went for it.

“I never thought I’d become a teacher,” Daniels said. “It was never a calling or anything like that.”

Shari Daniels helps a student get out of his wheelchair during recess at Poplar Elementary School. Daniels worked with students with disabilities as a teacher’s aide before completing formal training to teach in her hometown. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

She soon earned a degree in elementary education from Rocky Mountain College in Billings. At first reluctant to take the kindergarten job — “I honestly wondered, ‘Am I capable?’ ” — Daniels realized the importance that kindergarten would play in the lives of children in her community.

“It’s such a strong foundation of what these kids will learn forever,” she said. “I want to give them the encouragement I never got.”

For school leaders in rural areas, finding people like Daniels more than once in a great while is no small task. That’s why some states and districts have started thinking about how to nudge homegrown talent into the classroom and how to create more reasons for imported teachers to stay.

It’s still unclear how much the pandemic will increase the rural teacher shortage, and there’s a sense among some advocates that no one cares.

“We send a lot of our least prepared teachers to rural places, and then once they get that experience, they move on,” said Veronica Womack, executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College & State University. “And for the teachers already there, the mental toll of having to deal with COVID, the lack of broadband internet at home and then your pay still is not the best … it’s not like everyone will walk away, but enough of them probably will.”

Low pay is part of the problem in Montana, according to Ann Ewbank, director of accreditation and operations for the Department of Education at Montana State University. She noted the average starting salary for teachers falls just below $31,500. Better salaries can help. In neighboring North Dakota, which reported a teacher shortage of just under 4%, recent graduates can start their teaching careers earning almost 20% more than in Montana. And in Wyoming, which issued emergency waivers for fewer than 2% of all teachers, starting pay tops $45,000.

In January, newly elected Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, unveiled a two-year budget that called for $2.5 million in incentives for schools to raise new teacher pay. Although the National Education Association ranked Montana No. 45 in average teacher salaries in 2018-19, Gianforte has said his state had the absolute lowest starting pay.

“It makes it hard to recruit starting teachers,” he said in announcing his budget. “The salary forces teachers to leave. We must do better.”

Teacher Sheryl Kohl helps line up a ruler as her student works on an art project. A 37-year veteran of the Poplar school district, Kohl said it’s difficult to find and keep enough teachers to stay there. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

Some rural teachers have had to stretch their low pay even further this year — to cover out-of-pocket purchases of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other pandemic essentials. The pandemic also has heightened the solitude of working in isolated settings, making it harder to build a sense of community and belonging.

Yoon, with Education Northwest, and her colleague Ashley Pierson have studied teacher turnover in four Western states — Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Washington. They found higher turnover rates in rural schools in Alaska and Montana, with some rural districts losing teachers to urban and suburban neighbors. Turnover was especially high among Alaska teachers trained out of state.

“Both short- and long-term ideas might help, but it can be challenging to invest in all of these at once,” Pierson said.

The pandemic upended many of the long-term solutions that federal and state policymakers had begun to invest in. Some of the federally funded partnerships crumbled due to budget cuts in local school districts. New teacher residency programs, specifically designed to help rural schools, scaled back or delayed their plans to train future educators as most instruction went remote. Principals have barely been able to find enough substitutes to fill classroom vacancies and in some cases, simply closed their schools after too many teachers entered quarantine at once.

Vikki Howard, a professor of special education at the University of Montana Western, found that the pandemic affected even her plans to expand a successful “grow-your-own” teacher program from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation along the state’s northern border with Canada to the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana. Since 2016, more than 90% of tribal members recruited in the Blackfeet program’s inaugural group have continued teaching in local schools, she said.

But a shoestring budget and courses shutting down due to unreliable internet on the reservation hampered the expansion of the program to the Crow community. While Howard initially hoped it would take just five years for the share of locally recruited teachers who are Indigenous to match student demographics, she has readjusted her goal to 10 years due to the pandemic.

“The teacher shortage may be especially intractable in the near future,” she said. “Teachers have already left in droves and many more are likely to leave after this year. This is particularly the case in tribal communities, which have experienced great loss of life and significant disruption in schools.”

Most of those residing on The Fort Peck Reservation are either Assiniboine or Sioux. About 96% of students who attend the neighboring Poplar school district are Native American. A roundabout on the edge of town is adorned with bison skull sculptures. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

Although participants have filled over 60 teaching positions since Howard’s program first began, “the demand remains significant,” she said.

Back in Poplar, school superintendent Dan Schmidt has tried many ways to attract and keep teachers in his community. The district offers a $1,500 signing bonus. It also starts new hires at a third-year salary level and even owns 16 housing units to keep rents low for transplants.

The most successful effort in Schmidt’s estimation, however, is a different version of a grow-your-own program that allows prospective teachers to study at the local Fort Peck Community College before transferring to Montana State University-Northern and earning their classroom experience in Poplar.

“You have to be really from the area to want to come back,” said Schmidt. “I’ve given up going to recruiting fairs in Bozeman and Missoula just because there’s no interest from teachers unless they’re from here. And if they are, I probably already know them.”

As for Daniels, her tenure in the school district may have an expiration date. She soon will start studying to earn her master’s degree in early education, but ultimately wants to become an instructor at Fort Peck Community College.

And while Daniels acknowledged her own departure from the elementary school will contribute to the rural teacher turnover, she remains committed to helping her hometown schools.

“I could maybe end up teaching my own replacement,” she said.

For her work to make a difference in the rural teacher shortage, she’ll need to train more than just one new teacher. She thinks she can, especially if she and other leaders work on better getting the message to local, Native young people that they are capable of being great teachers. 

“We don’t help them see the strong points in their life and how they can contribute to a community that’s so desolate and so far from everything,” she said of Poplar students. “We have to offer a future for students who can’t or won’t go away.”


This story about rural teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Neal Morton

Neal Morton is the Western education reporter for The Hechinger Report, covering 10 states in the West: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.