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With balloons and ball caps, some school districts are ramping up the excitement around teaching

teacher signing day 2.jpg
Suzanne Perez
Rae Gabrielle Cruz dons a Wichita school district hat during a ceremonial Signing Day. With teachers in short supply nationwide, some Kansas districts are planning events to ramp up enthusiasm around teaching.

As Kansas faces an ever-worsening teacher shortage, some districts are trying new strategies to build more excitement and enthusiasm around teaching.

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

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

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

In November, Cruz signed an open contract with the Wichita school district — a pledge to teach somewhere in the district after she completes her education degree. She was one of about two dozen teachers who celebrated the start of their careers at the district’s first Signing Day.

At a table decorated with the Wichita school district logo and its omnipresent slogan — “Dream, Believe, Achieve” — Cruz signed her contract. Then, like a hotshot athlete signing a letter of intent, she put a school district ball cap on her head and smiled for the cameras.

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

teacher signing day 1.jpg
Suzanne Perez
New Wichita teachers pose for a group photo during a ceremonial Signing Day last fall. Nearly two dozen people signed open contracts with the district during the event, pledging to teach at a Wichita school after receiving their education degrees.

As Kansas faces one of its worst teacher shortages ever, schools are competing for a smaller and smaller pool of applicants. So some districts are employing new strategies, like signing bonuses and ceremonial signing days, to ramp up the excitement and enthusiasm around teaching.

“Going into teaching is still a very honorable career path,” said Stan Reeser, president of the Wichita Board of Education. “But we’re just hoping to be creative and (have) more excitement 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 U.S. public schools are understaffed. More than two-thirds say they have a hard time finding candidates for open positions.

A task force appointed by the Kansas Board of Regents says the state needs to raise teacher salaries and offer student teachers a paycheck. But pay isn’t the only problem.

“You add to that working conditions that are challenging, a public that is rather critical, the dictating of curriculum,” said Rick Ginsburg, dean of education at the University of Kansas. “And so what you end up with is something that is awfully challenging for us.”

New research shows that about three-fourths of teachers complain about frequent stress on the job. More than half say they’re burned out and want to leave the profession altogether.

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Suzanne Perez
Brent Allan signs a teaching contract with the Wichita school district during a Signing Day event last fall. Allan earned his teaching degree recently from Friends University.

Rachel Kersey has heard those reports.

“I am not unaware of the troubles that are happening in the education system, but that’s something that’s motivated me,” Kersey said.

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

“The moment my brother could sit up, I was teaching him how to write. I was playing with my stuffed animals, teaching them how to read. It was always my dream,” she said.

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

“You guys are modern-day heroes, so thanks for everything you do,” Reeser, the school board president, told Kersey, shaking her hand. “And welcome to the team. You’ll enjoy it.”

“Thanks, I’m looking forward to it,” Kersey said, smiling.

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

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

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.