Mary Sheehy Moe: Underfunded schools are losing teachers at alarming pace

Mary Sheehy Moe

When I pondered where to student teach back in 1972, I chose Great Falls. I didn’t know a soul there, but I knew this: Great Falls was the most desirable place to teach in Montana. Enrollments were burgeoning. Teachers were in high demand. Salaries and benefits were among the best in the state. The reputation of the school district and, equally important, the community’s support for its schools, was stellar.

The years since have not been kind.

Although the community passed a $99 million bond initiative to address crumbling facilities in 2016, funding ongoing operations has been a challenge for many years. Between 2008 and 2019, voters approved only two operational levies. What began as a belt-tightening exercise in 2009 has now whittled the school district down to an anorexic shadow. Praise-worthy programs have either been cut or cut back. Classrooms are overcrowded. Drop-out numbers, cut in half through creative initiatives earlier in the decade, are on the rise again. Most importantly, we’re losing teachers.

Teachers don’t just “get lost.” They leave in one of three ways. The first way is the simplest to explain: They get laid off as part of the reduction in force budget constraints bring on. Great Falls has cut 102 teachers and 4 librarians since 2008. 

The second way is more complex in cause, but the result is evident enough. Teachers quit. They take a teaching job elsewhere or they leave the profession entirely. This year, Great Falls lost more teachers to resignation than to retirement. Some are willing to take sizable cuts in pay to teach elsewhere. Others are simply tired of living entirely in the world of children and want adult work in an adult work environment. 

The third way is even more complex in cause, in no small part because the fact that the teacher has quit is less obvious. The teacher is still on the payroll, still going through the motions of teaching. But her (or his) heart isn’t in it any more. The creativity is gone. Individualized attention has diminished. Each day begins without anticipation and ends without fulfillment. We’re seeing signs that the number of these “lost in place” teachers is growing in Great Falls, but for obvious reasons, it’s impossible to quantify.  

Losing teachers is not just a Great Falls anomaly. It’s a state and national problem that is worsening all the time. However, a number of factors make the problem more pronounced in my hometown and its causes more obvious … or maybe it’s just that, having known this school district and this profession so well for so long, I’ve been paying more attention than most folks do.

As a campus CEO, one of the things I found most confounding about higher education was how hard it was to get college people to stop obsessing about recruitment and start focusing on retention. There’s not much point in putting a bunch of new apples into your basket, I’d tell them, if half of the apples you’ve already picked fall through the hole in the bottom. 

The same is true of the teaching profession. Yes, colleges are having trouble getting young people to sign up for teaching majors. Yes, this country is having trouble recruiting teachers. But equally important – probably more important – is that we’re also having trouble keeping them.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons for we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.