Many school districts focus on recruiting the best teachers for their classrooms, and they struggle to bring in a diverse pool of candidates. Even when they’re successful, some can’t retain the teachers they’ve hired. Donald Easton-Brooks, the Dean of USD’s School of Education, says the challenge is about more than money.
Before Donald Easton-Brooks pursued a career in education, he was a counselor at a residential treatment facility in Denver. He says something about the job didn’t feel right.
“What I saw was that kids kept coming back to the system," he remembers. "The feeling was that if you can reach one out of eight kids, you were successful. To me, that didn’t make sense.”
As an African American professional, he noticed most of the kids he worked with were Black boys. And Easton-Brooks worried he was part of a broken system.
“After about six years of doing that, I just felt like, ‘What in the world am I doing? Am I contributing to a system that’s holding kids back? There has to be another way, there has to be something else.’”
So he looked back on his own experience growing up in a high-crime Houston neighborhood. He realized what made the difference for him: his mother had a focus on education for her children and for herself. She was one of 13 children, and she sometimes worked multiple jobs to attain her associate’s degree in nursing. She was also very involved in his education--always volunteering for school functions.
“So for me, you know, even though she wasn’t a teacher, she showed the value of that place and the value of what it could do," says Easton-Brooks. "I got to see her life and what she was able to do with her associate’s degree, and what her siblings who did not have an education were doing.”
Easton-Brooks eventually got his master’s in early childhood special education, and later his PhD in educational leadership.
Easton-Brooks says he entered this career path for the same reason many other people of color become teachers: a sense of civic responsibility.
"It’s more of, ‘How do I impact my community? How do I help growth in my community in a way that battles against poverty, that battles against injustice, that battles against challenges that our kids are facing?’” he explains.
But he knows once teachers join the profession, the real trick is helping them stay.
For many, recruiting and retaining teachers can appear to hinge on finances. South Dakota ranks 48th in the nation for teacher pay. That’s up from last place after a legislative package in 2016 included a half-cent sales tax increase to fund teachers salaries. And while Easton-Brooks says money is a factor, it’s not the deal-breaker that many might expect.
“Well, there was a study done using data from teachers from across the country that showed that was one of the least reasons teachers left the field," he explains. "Teachers left the field mainly because they were dissatisfied with leadership.”
He says this is especially true of teachers in hard-to-fill positions like special ed, as well as teachers who work in high-poverty communities. Teachers in some of these areas leave the profession at a 30% to 50% higher rate than others. Easton-Brooks says he faced resistance as a special education teacher when he wanted things to change.
“Did I get in trouble a lot? Absolutely. Was I in the principal’s office a lot? Absolutely. But the option was to either let me go or let me do my job, and they chose to let me do my job."
But the stress and frustration can still linger.
To Easton-Brooks, the solution is required at all levels: from educating future teachers to policies at the state level and beyond.
“How do we really kind of work together as university systems, as a state, as school districts to really find out ways to train our teachers more effectively, ways to incentivize these teachers who are really choosing to work with more of these challenging populations so that we don’t burn them out, and [make sure] we do show them that we value the work that they’re doing?” says Easton-Brooks.
For some educators, student teaching is the way into a job and a district. Dean Easton-Brooks says teachers are more likely to remain in communities similar to places they student teach. For example, two people who student-taught in Todd County through USD are now teaching there full-time. But Easton-Brooks notes the community helped that transition by providing housing for the student-teachers and paying them as substitutes.
“So they showed value in these teachers even before they started student teaching with them,” he says.
Another challenge comes with changing demographics in the state’s largest districts. Jamie Nold is the Assistant Superintendent for the Sioux Falls School District. He says the district is now 40% students of color--up from less than 5% 20 years ago.
“Then we look at our staff," says Nold, "You know, 20 years ago it was roughly at that 98% Caucasian to minority [level]. And we move ahead 20 years and it has not changed much at all if any.”
Nold says in the past few years, the district has averaged 160 open teaching positions a year. There are currently about 60 teachers of color on staff in Sioux Falls schools. Their goal is to increase that number to 70. A new strategy to bring in diverse teachers is the district’s Teacher Pathway program. It’s a partnership with the USD School of Ed to train culturally responsive teachers starting in high school, and it guarantees participants a student-teaching position in Sioux Falls.
Nold says the district actively pursues teachers from a variety of backgrounds through job fairs and a new teacher internship program. That offers a chance to experience a classroom setting while earning master’s level credit.
“We’re looking at two things with that teacher internship," he says. "Hard to fill areas--so special education would be one of those, some other maybe hard to fill areas with science in chemistry and physics--and then also diversity.”
Assistant Superintendent Nold says three of the six interns from last year’s pilot group joined the district as early hires. But he admits when it comes to dedicated retention efforts, the district has room to grow. Administrators are talking with teachers about ways to improve job satisfaction and make the district more attractive to a diverse pool of applicants.
Initiatives like these make Dean Easton-Brooks optimistic about the district’s future.
“The beauty of what’s happening at least in Sioux Falls is that the super there is really trying to be proactive in thinking about the type of communities that they have in their schools and how to engage in those communities in a way that those communities can be successful,” he says.
Easton-Brooks says its essential for school leaders to listen to their teachers. He says if leaders fail to recognize the value of teacher input, then they’ll fail to honor the work those teachers are able to do for their students and their community.
And a teacher who feels valued and respected is much more likely to stay.