FARGO – Paul Zens can teach you all about history.

Asian history. European history. American history.

If it’s got a past, he can teach it, the North Dakota State University graduate says.

But French? Pas du tout!

The 26-year-old Alexandria, Minn., native knows zero, zip, non French.

Still, as a substitute teacher, Zens recently had to stand in front of a class of French students at Fargo North High School.

Fortunately, all he had to do was stand, take attendance, then escort the students to another room for a lecture on Scandinavia.

“The only (classes) I don’t substitute in are band or music,” Zens said. “It’s exciting. A different thing every day. Hopefully, it leads me to a full-time job in the district.”

Zens and others like him are getting harder to find in Fargo-Moorhead. There’s a shortage of substitute teachers and paraprofessionals in area districts.

The three big school districts need 100 to 120 substitutes daily for teachers, paraprofessionals and other jobs to cover illnesses, teacher training, emergencies and other absences.

But with the robust economy – and lots of full-time teacher hiring locally – the substitute ranks often fall seven to 15 positions short a day in each district, officials at Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead public schools say.

“It is harder to get the jobs filled, absolutely,” said Kristin Dehmer, executive director of human resources for Moorhead School District. “Everyone is having concerns right now”

Sheryl Lehman, director of human relations for Fargo School District, says enrollment growth is a plus and a minus. More classrooms need more full-time teachers, but that depletes substitute ranks.

“We’re large school districts all competing for the same pool of substitute teachers. That becomes difficult,” Lehman said.

The West Fargo School District expects to add 500 students a year for several years. Fargo expects about 200 students a year for the foreseeable future. Moorhead, too, is planning for growth at all levels, and is preparing to ask taxpayers to build a new elementary school, an addition to Horizon Middle School, and, in time, to either renovate Moorhead High or build a new school.

West Fargo Human Resources Director Robin Hill is deeply familiar with the annual scramble to put teachers in front of classes as it’s opened several new schools and expanded others. West Fargo has hired 70 to 90 new teachers a year for several years, she said.

“We create more demand (for substitutes) by adding staff. And then we do hire a lot of people that have been successful substitute teachers for us,” she said.

“We do struggle on a daily basis. We hope as spring is approaching that there will be fewer absences due to illnesses. It gets to be pretty critical over the winter months,” Hill said.

Widespread shortages

The shortage of substitute teachers is not limited to the F-M area. Minnesota and North Dakota see shortages statewide.

Janet Welk, executive director of the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board, said chronic shortages of substitutes has led to looser licensing requirements.

In 2001, the education requirement went from being a fully prepared teacher to holding a bachelor’s degree and getting a letter from a school district saying it needs the individual as a substitute, Welk said.

A year ago, the rules were relaxed further. Now, a substitute needs just 48 hours of post-secondary credit – two years of college – plus the letter from a school district, Welk said.

Welk said North Dakota is graduating fewer teachers, even as student numbers have grown in the Oil Patch and large cities.

“When I started in this position in 1998, we were issuing right around 800 licenses to in-state grads every year. Now, it’s down to about 600,” Welk said.

In 1994, there were 816 graduates who had completed all the requirements for a teaching degree. In 2013, there were 660, and that was a blip upward. In 2012, there were 588 teaching graduates, and in 2011, 591, Welk said.

Now North Dakota relies heavily on teachers moving here from other states.

This school year, 298 North Dakota grads have been issued two-year teaching licenses, while 301 licenses went to out-of-state teachers, Welk said.

In the 2013-14 school year, 586 teaching licenses went to North Dakota grades, while 590 went to out-of-state applicants.

“We’re expecting 3,000 more students in the Bismarck system in the next five years,” Welk said. “I don’t know where we’re going to get our teachers.”

Minnesota Public Radio recently reported that fewer people are entering teaching in that state, too.

The number of licenses awarded to graduates of Minnesota’s state teacher preparation programs dropped 7 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.

Overall, the number of people who finished teacher preparation programs fell by 723 from 2009 to 2011, a 16 percent drop, MPR reported.

A strong economy and expanding opportunities for college grads in other fields, such as technology, make teaching less competitive, Welk said.

Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead public schools pay $100 a day for substitutes. Moorhead pays $115 a day if a retired Moorhead teacher subs.

Fargo and West Fargo also have bonus systems to reward teachers who take multiple substitute jobs, Hill and Lehman said.

All of the school districts reach out to the region’s colleges to recruit grads with education degrees.

December grads may not get a full-time teaching contract right away, but substitute teaching can pile up experience and show off talent, Lehman said.

Picking up a substitute teaching job can be as easy as picking up a smart phone.

Zens has an app on his phone that puts jobs one touch away. If he likes an offer, one tap on his screen seals the deal.

“Most of the time, my jobs are lined up a week in advance,” Zens said. “You don’t have to do a whole lot of hunting” for work.

Have license, will travel

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For Brandy Haugen, the substitute experience has been good, though she’d much prefer to work full time as a teacher.

After directing a Moorhead High School social studies class to watch a short film, Haugen talked about her substitute teaching experience. She said being licensed in Minnesota and North Dakota expands her options.

But full-time social studies teaching jobs are hard to find. There are open posts for teachers in math, the sciences and some specialty areas, but social studies is a crowded field, the Fargo woman said.

“I’m waiting for something to open,” the 24-year-old said.

“I check Fargo. I check Moorhead. I check West Fargo. I check all the way to Fergus Falls,” Haugen said. “It’s just a waiting game. Everything is ready to go, waiting on that one position.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583