BILLINGS - Teacher shortages in schools have skyrocketed in Montana since the COVID-19 pandemic, and although this year's report from the Office of Public Instruction shows some improvement, it's still a problem.
Montana teachers say they are getting used to the staffing shortages in the state over the past two years, and Billings Senior High special education teacher Josh Beeman is no different.
“Everybody gets overwhelmed," Beeman said Monday. "It doesn’t matter what department you’re in, and I guess it just comes with the territory."
Beeman is the special education department head at Senior High, and he understands the shortage on a different level.
“Special education is rewarding and amazing to a lot of individuals and those people that are in it, but a lot of other people don’t see it that way,” Beeman said. "So, it can be scary for people to jump into the field."
According to the report released by the state's Office of Public Instruction, the top three critical shortage areas this school year are seen in elementary schools, special education and mathematics.
Elementary schools have the most job openings with 492, special education is in second with 259 openings, and secondary mathematics follows closely behind with 188 openings across the state.
It's a massive problem that Billings Superintendent Greg Upham said is noticeable in the number of students trying to become teachers in Montana universities.
“To say it’s a concern is an understatement," Upham said. "Not only are we just seeing a dip in the total of applications we have, but we’re also seeing less students going into education."
Upham also blames the drop in teachers on the negativity surrounding schools today. School shootings haven't helped, and neither has traditionally low teacher salaries and low starting pay in almost every state.
“I think we in the education profession need to do a better job of marketing that these are great jobs,” Upham said. "They are rewarding from influencing many individual's lives. It's good work."
There is some good news though. Montana's teacher shortage has improved from the 2021-22 school year. Job openings are down from 2,919 in 2022 to 2,700 in 2023, but there are still more openings than in 2021.
Montana Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said the numbers are a reflection of the pandemic and the improvement is positive, but that there is still much more work to be done.
“We have to be mindful that these shortage critical areas still do affect a lot of school districts,” Arntzen said. “I was a teacher in Billings for 23 years, and it’s so important to remember that it is a profession of passion."
And that passion is what makes Beeman hopeful that more will enter the teaching profession, and that students will be drawn to the positives.
“One thing that special education teaches a teacher is that every individual is different," Beeman said. "Our goal is to help the kids that don’t think they’re good at anything to find that passion and find something they enjoy.”