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Weeks before school starts, Northwoods schools struggle to fill open positions


Teachers, students and school administrators are all counting down the days until school starts.

But this year, that’s not all they’re counting.

School administrators across the Northwoods are also counting up the number of open positions that still need to be filled.

A new survey from the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance shows that nearly 70 percent of rural Wisconsin schools still need to hire at least one teacher.

It’s a statistic that includes many schools in northern Wisconsin.

Northland Pines, for example, is still looking for a speech pathologist.

The School District of Rhinelander needs a counselor.

Merrill has three open teaching positions.

Antigo has about a dozen.

“It’s something that’s on my mind every waking minute of the day and, in fact, often it wakes me up at night as well,” says Dr. Julie Sprague, the superintendent of the Unified School District of Antigo. “Every time I feel like we are making headway and getting close to covering our vacancies, we have resignations. That makes it very difficult. It’s like a continuous cycle where we just aren’t finding the end.”

Sprague says the situation is like a double-edged sword.

On one hand, people who have worked in schools for a long time are leaving. And at the same time, fewer applicants are coming in to take their place.

According to the National Education Association, more than half of teachers are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned.

Kelley Griesbach was one of those teachers. After careful consideration, she did leave.

“I think part of it has been this growing lack of respect for teachers from the general public,” she says. “Instead of the responsibility laying on the student or the family, it’s just entirely on the teacher. Anything that goes wrong at school is the teacher’s fault.”

On top of that, Griesbach says the workload of teaching is intense, easily eating up more than eight hours each day.

Pandemic policies added to that workload. Griesbach felt she was expected to work longer and longer hours to serve her students, but she was not compensated for the extra time.

Add to the mix teachers becoming the target of political rhetoric, and Griesbach made the difficult decision to leave teaching.

“Most teachers who leave teaching, it’s not because we all of a sudden hate the profession and hate the district and hate the schools,” she says. “It’s more of a breakup, like a really difficult break up, where you just have to say this isn’t working for either of us.”

When teachers like Griesbach leave, finding replacements has become increasingly challenging.

“We’ve seen a steady decline from 20 years ago where you’d have 75 applicants for an elementary teaching position to now five applicants, maybe 10, maybe,” says Kevin Genisot, superintendent of the Hurley school district.

He’s articulating a problem that five other local superintendents also mentioned — a decline in the number of people graduating with degrees in education.

“My concern professionally speaking for our district and across the state is you get candidates in the classroom, whether they’re teaching or substitutes, that are less educated. It doesn’t always work out so great,” he says. “Sometimes you’re left with a person in the classroom that isn’t the best for kids, but that’s the best we can provide.”

That’s the case for Antigo right now. With less than two weeks left before the start of the school year, the district still needs to hire nearly a dozen certified educators.

“We are looking to recruit folks who are outside of education,” says Superintendent Julie Sprague. “I would encourage anyone listening, especially if you have a degree in something outside of education, give us a call. We’d love to take a look and see what a good fit would be.”

Sprague says there are expedited pathways to license people with work experience who decide they want to teach.

“It’s streamlined, it’s convenient and we’re all for it because we need instructors in front of our students,” she says.

If the school can’t find those instructors by the time school starts, Sprague is left with limited options, like making classes larger and cutting electives.

“It’s like choosing the best terrible option,” she says. “What would be best would be to have a full schedule and have qualified, effective teachers in front of every student at all times. That’s just not our reality. The bottom line is we need more people to choose education as a profession. I know that won’t happen overnight, but I do hope it is on the horizon.”

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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