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A 'perfect storm' is driving teachers from classrooms, former Fargo teacher says

As teachers continue to leave the education industry, a former public school teachers says soon the public may be begging for teachers.

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Scott Klimek stands Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, outside his former school, Clara Barton Elementary in south Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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FARGO — Before Scott Klimek left his job as a teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School, he tried to raise the alarm about a phenomenon he believes may lead to a greater exodus of public school teachers.

“A day in teaching is tougher than doing manual labor. Physically? No. Mentally exhausting? Yes," said Klimek, who taught within Fargo Public Schools for 16 years. "The public is not begging for teachers yet, but districts are. At some point, if this pathway does not change, the public will also be begging for teachers.”

The trend has already begun, Klimek said, and the coronavirus pandemic is merely exacerbating the problem.

Once before the Fargo School Board, and later in a research paper he wrote in 2019 called “ Prestige, Status, and Esteem and the Teacher Shortage ,” Klimek argued that the rising number of untrained and inexperienced teachers, inability to retain competent teachers and a lack of regard for the industry is putting the education of many children at risk.

“There is compelling evidence that demonstrates the quality of a nation’s education system depends on a professional teacher workforce that is highly regarded,” said Klimek, now an assistant professor and data analyst at Valley City State University. He taught virtually in 2019 before leaving the district.

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With a total of 2,162 regular and part time employees, 141 teachers and staff resigned from Fargo Public Schools from July 1, 2021 to Jan. 1, said Doug Andring, director of human resources, during a recent school board meeting.

“And you’ll see that is about double from what we had last year from teachers and educational support,” Andring said, adding that most of the people who resigned were between 25-49 years old, and a majority were teachers and paraeducators.

Additional data he provided to the school board during a presentation on Tuesday, Jan. 25, showed 18 additional staff members retired during the same time period.

Previous years' numbers for the same time periods include: 2020-2021: 71 resignations, 25 retirements; 2019-2020: 68 resignations, 30 retirements; 2018-2019: three staff, 68 support staff resignations and eight support staff retirements, according to district data.

Exit interviews provided to The Forum by Fargo Public Schools for last semester showed many teachers loved their jobs, but some of those who recorded reasons for turning in their resignations said money or better financial opportunities were the main reasons for leaving.

An employee in the district office gave his resignation notice in October 2021 and said he left because he was told that, although his responsibilities changed a little, his pay would remain the same.

“This is the defining factor that made me apply elsewhere because, like in the military, I was seen just as a number,” he wrote in his exit interview.

A staff member at Bennett Elementary gave her resignation notice in November 2021 saying that although she enjoyed her nine years working for the district, she was unhappy with the 23-cent raise she received, calling it "a real slap in the face” in her exit interview.

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A Fargo North High School staff member turned in her resignation notice in December 2021, saying, “If I got paid more I would stay in a heartbeat. Sadly, everything is so expensive and I cannot keep up with it on this salary. I absolutely love this job but if it paid $18+ life would be easier."

Teachers in Fargo and across the nation are tired and are experiencing a lack of morale, said Kim Belgarde, the Fargo school district’s union president.

And as school districts' needs increase, retention is becoming more difficult, making alternative professions attractive to those who once wanted to be teachers.

“It’s very troubling. I think it’s due to so many high demands put on teachers and then there is nothing taken away. ... It’s not just a COVID issue; it was continuing in this pattern before COVID, and we also don’t always feel supported by our state legislators and their funding decisions,” Belgarde said.

With an annual budget of about $197 million and an average per pupil cost of $14,491.29, Fargo Public Schools obtains its funds from the state, local property taxes, the federal government and grants.

Any significant change to salaries or curriculum is confined by laws set by the state Legislature. However, the district's board members have frequently brought up the issue of hiring and retaining teachers and acknowledged change is needed.

One recent suggestion by school board member David Paulson was to break away from a "gentleman's agreement" with Moorhead and West Fargo public schools and offer substitute teachers more money.

“The needs of our students and the need to add more faculty and support is increasing, and the production of teachers is decreasing. We have a perfect storm of people not wanting to go into the profession, and then you have a retention problem,” Klimek said.

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In countries such as China, South Korea and Finland, teachers are highly respected, but esteem for the profession is decreasing in America, Klimek said, adding that low salaries and mistreatment reflect the lack of esteem.

He argued changes can be made to bring esteem back to the profession starting with the state Legislature, school leaders working directly with school boards, and administration working toward ridding schools of hostile work environments to change negative narratives that are shared with local and national media.

“Society has not valued the teacher, and I question how much society values education," he said.

Schools are starting to — and need to — reform to changing technology and societal demands, Klimek said. Teacher salaries need to be competitive with other industries, he added.

“School districts might need to start looking at their budgets and reprioritize how they spend their money," he said.

Another way to start easing the pressure on teachers is to reduce class sizes, which would help with disruptive student behavior and tenuous teacher-parent meetings, he said.

“For years, people have said we have loved our teachers and the idea of giving us a candy bar to show appreciation, but that’s not going to cut it," Klimek said. "Sometimes, I wonder if that’s the biggest component rather than pay — value and respect, that is such a big component."

Related Topics: EDUCATIONFARGO
C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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