UNK teacher education focused on filling statewide need | 1340 KGFW

UNK senior Joselinne Carrizales plans to start her teaching career in central Nebraska after graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and an English as a second language endorsement. (Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications, Courtesy)

KEARNEY – On the Nebraska Department of Education website, there’s an interactive tool that allows people to look at PK-12 job openings in the state.

From border to border, the map is covered with pins promoting these positions.

Alliance Public Schools is looking for math, special education, physical education, English, business, social science and elementary teachers. Crete Public Schools is hiring fine arts, science, English language arts, elementary and information technology teachers. And South Sioux City Community Schools has openings for elementary, preschool, English language arts, math, science, social studies and special education teachers.

The list goes on and on, with current and future needs in almost every county.

“The teacher shortage in Nebraska is a real thing,” said Loomis Public Schools Superintendent Sam Dunn. “It’s as bad as I’ve seen it in my 38 years in education.”

According to the Nebraska Department of Education’s annual Teacher Vacancy Survey, more than 900 positions in public school districts, Educational Service Units and private schools across the state were either vacant or filled by personnel who weren’t fully qualified last fall. That survey, which included 310 of the state’s 436 school districts/systems, identified a lack of applicants as the main concern.

A decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon for Lexington Middle School to receive 30 or more applications for a single opening, Principal Scott West said. Now, some positions only draw interest from two or three people.

“It’s definitely shifted,” West said. “Within the last five to seven years, there’s been a serious lack of applicants coming through on a consistent basis, especially in the areas of math, science, special education, just to name a few. They are few and far between.”

To address this issue, many Nebraska school districts have implemented more aggressive recruiting strategies. They begin looking for staff replacements earlier in the academic year, offer educators higher salaries and entice applicants with sign-on bonuses.

“Because of the competitive environment that we’re in, the salaries in schools are going up all the time,” said Mark Reid, dean of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s College of Education.

A former high school teacher, Reid recognizes the urgent need to recruit and train more students who will serve the state as PK-12 educators. And he believes the ongoing shortage can actually be a selling point.

“The jobs are there,” Reid said. “It doesn’t matter what your discipline interest is. It doesn’t matter what age group you want to teach. The jobs are there.”

Nearly 900 undergraduate students are currently enrolled in UNK’s teacher preparation programs, and most of them will have one or more job offers before graduation. In January, representatives from more than 60 school districts in five states were on campus for the annual Education Opportunities Fair, further demonstrating the strong demand for these professionals.

“We need to get out there with a big megaphone and tell people about all the benefits of a teaching career,” Reid said. “And those are many, including having an impact on a young person’s life.”


That impact inspired Joselinne Carrizales to pursue a career in teaching.

“Growing up, I had a lot of good teacher role models who I got really, really close to,” she said. “Those connections were really beneficial to me, and I want to create the same experiences for my students.”

A Lexington native and Kearney High School graduate, Carrizales is a senior at UNK, where she’s studying elementary education with an English as a second language endorsement.

She called the UNK teacher education program “very intentional,” with courses and field experiences that apply directly to the profession.
“It’s not just a passive program. Obviously, their goal is to get you into a school after graduation, and they do a great job of preparing students through classes and other opportunities,” she said. “Multiple times I’ve read something in my textbook one day and saw it in person the next.”

Experiential learning is a strength of the UNK program. Students start observing classrooms in cooperating K-12 schools as early as their freshman year and continue participating in field experiences until it’s time to student teach.

“One of the things that we’ve really been pushing from an education perspective is that you’ve got to get your students into the classroom. We don’t want their first experience in a classroom to be their student teaching experience,” said West, who serves on a teacher education advisory council at UNK.

“I think UNK has done a great job of doing that,” he added. “They’re getting their students out into the classrooms, and that’s wonderful.”
This partnership is mutually beneficial. It allows students to choose an educational path that fits their interests and passions and gives schools a chance to connect with prospective employees earlier in their academic careers.

“We get a chance to see students firsthand,” West said. “We get to watch them teach and see what they’re capable of. It’s also a good way for us to provide a snapshot of what life would be like working here in Lexington.”

As an added incentive, Lexington Public Schools started paying student teachers this academic year, and the Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill that would provide 100% tuition waivers for students from the NU or state college systems during the semester or semesters when they’re student teaching.

Ultimately, school administrators hope the relationships they’re forming now lead to long-term careers down the road.

“We’re blessed to have an institution like UNK in our area,” West said. “If you look at the UNK teacher education program, they do a really nice job of getting people prepared and ready for the teaching world.”

Dunn, the superintendent at Loomis, agrees.

“UNK is a top-notch college for producing teachers, and that’s huge for all the small schools in central and south-central Nebraska,” he said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate to get students from UNK.”

Both administrators refer to education as a rewarding career with benefits that extend well beyond a paycheck.

“If you want to stay young at heart and young at mind, this is the career for you,” Dunn said. “When you’re working with students and working with our future, there’s no better feeling than that.”

“I’m a firm believer that we are here for a purpose, and part of that purpose is service. It’s to serve others,” West said. “I have a servant’s heart, and I think most educators do. And there’s no better service that you can provide for an individual than a quality education.”

Carrizales shares the same beliefs. A message on her laptop reads: “Every child deserves a champion – someone who believes in them.”

“When you have rough days, I think that’s what motivates you,” she said. “And that’s the impact I want to have, to be the person students can rely on.”

Currently student teaching at Kearney Public Schools, Carrizales will graduate from UNK in May with plans to begin her teaching career in central Nebraska.

“Both districts that I grew up in were great, and I look forward to giving back to something that got me here,” she said.

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