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Majors & Degrees

From Teacher's aide to teacher

August 9, 2023

This article was first published on SiouxFalls.Business on Aug. 8, 2023. 

In the 1990s, Dakota State University alumna Becky Fjerstad took a position as a paraprofessional, or teacher’s aide, because teaching positions were hard to come by.

“There were 50 people who wanted one job,” she said. “In those days, you had to get in where you could and work your way through the system.”

That is a far cry from today, where a teacher shortage is a nationwide problem. To help solve this issue, South Dakota has developed an apprenticeship program for paraprofessionals who have not completed their teaching degree. Through the Teacher Apprenticeship Pathway, paraprofessionals will be able to take classes to complete their degrees while remaining in the classroom.

The job of a paraprofessional can be demanding, both physically and mentally, and the experience in that role has helped Fjerstad become a better administrator.

“I’ve always had more respect and appreciation for the position of paraprofessional because of the fact that I experienced it myself once,” she said.

Today, Fjerstad is the principal of Wessington Springs Elementary School, and one of the paraprofessionals at her school recently was accepted into the Teacher Apprenticeship Pathway.

“The new program is a great opportunity to develop the teachers within your own building,” she said.

That is the exact sentiment expressed by Dr. David DeJong, DSU’s dean of the College of Education. “There is no better place to recruit future teachers than our current classrooms in South Dakota,” he said.

The Teacher Apprenticeship Pathway will help develop teachers from people who are already in the classrooms and have formed relationships with students, teachers and administrators.

About the Teacher Apprenticeship Pathway

During the 2022-23 school year, approximately 175 teaching positions remained unfilled in South Dakota. According to South Dakota Teacher Placement Center data from earlier this year, at least 545 teacher openings were unfilled or needed for the 2023-24 school year.

The pilot program was developed as one way to address this shortage. The statewide initiative was a collaboration among the South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation, the South Dakota Department of Education, the South Dakota Board of Regents, the Regional Educational Library, Gov. Kristi Noem, Dakota State University and Northern State University.

Those seeking to earn elementary and special education degrees will complete their courses through DSU. Participants interested in secondary education will complete their coursework through Northern State University.

“The research shows that paraprofessionals are very busy as they work full time and oftentimes have many personal commitments,” DeJong said. “In order to meet their needs, all of their courses will be fully online and asynchronous, which maximizes their ability to balance all of their responsibilities while earning a full 120-credit teaching degree.”

In speaking with professors and instructors at DSU, DeJong repeatedly heard that the best online students are the ones who are paraprofessionals.

“They share so many rich stories about their on-the-job training,” he explained. “The paraprofessionals frequently connect theory to practice quickly because they can implement what they are learning in our online classes with students they serve every day.”

Most of these courses will be available in accelerated eight-week formats, which allow for more flexible scheduling options, increased focus and an opportunity to finish the degree in a shorter time frame.

The Education and Labor departments are covering the majority of the cost for program participants. Each year, participants will be responsible for up to $1,000 in expenses for books, state assessments and tuition.

To add to the excitement of this new program, the governor recently announced that additional funding will be provided for apprenticeship programs, allowing more than 90 paraprofessionals from 50 school districts in South Dakota to earn their teaching degrees.