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With balloons and hats, some school districts are building enthusiasm for teaching

Rae Gabrielle Cruz wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduating from Wichita East High School and starting college at Newman University.

Then she took a course called “Introduction to Teaching”.

“I love working with children and have just decided that teaching is best for me,” Cruz said. “I just look at kids, especially since the pandemic, they’ve lost so much, and it’s easy to see how much impact teachers really have.”

In November, Cruz signed an open contract with the Wichita school district, committing to teach somewhere in the district after completing his education. She was one of about two dozen teachers who celebrated the beginning of their careers at the district’s first Signing Day.

At a table emblazoned with the Wichita School District logo and its ubiquitous slogan — “Dream, Believe, Achieve” — Cruz signed his contract. So, like a successful athlete signing a letter of intent, she pulled on a school district baseball cap and smiled for the cameras.

“I’m a little nervous, I’m getting a big girl job,” Cruz said, laughing. “Overall super happy and proud of myself.”

As Kansas faces one of its worst teacher shortages ever, schools compete for fewer and fewer applicants. So some districts are employing new strategies, such as signing bonuses and ceremonial signing days, to increase enthusiasm and enthusiasm for teaching.

“Getting into teaching is still a very honorable career path,” said Stan Reeser, president of the Wichita Board of Education. “But let’s just hope we get creative and (have) more enthusiasm about it.”

Kansas districts reported more than 1,600 teaching vacancies last fall, an increase from previous years. A national report showed that more than half of US public schools are understaffed. More than two-thirds say they have difficulty finding candidates for open positions.

A task force appointed by the Kansas Board of Regents says the state must increase teacher salaries and offer student teachers a stipend. But pay isn’t the only problem.

“Add to these challenging working conditions, a critical audience, dictation of the curriculum,” said Rick Ginsburg, dean of education at the University of Kansas. “And so what you get is something that’s terribly challenging for us.”

New research shows that around three-quarters of teachers complain of frequent stress at work. More than half say they are exhausted and want to leave the profession altogether.

Rachel Kersey has heard those reports.

“I’m not clueless about the problems that are happening in the education system, but this is something that has motivated me,” Kersey said.

He signed an open contract with the Wichita district in hopes of teaching third, fourth or fifth grade in the district.

“By the time my brother was able to sit up, I was teaching him to write. I was playing with my stuffed animals, teaching them to read. It has always been my dream,” he said.

Kersey invited her parents to the ceremonial signing day, where they ate snacks and mingled with other teachers and district leaders.

“You kids are modern day heroes, so thank you for all you do,” she told Kersey Reeser, the school board president, shaking her hand. “And welcome to the team. You’ll have fun.

“Thanks, I can’t wait,” Kersey said, smiling.

Reeser said recruiting teachers is a priority. But convincing them to stay is even more important.

“We’ll do the ceremonial stuff here, but we’ll also do the hard work behind the scenes to make sure they feel supported,” she said.

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