Bridgette Nichols and Michela Tongish share a lot in common.
The Concordia University seniors are both aspiring elementary school educators student teaching in Lincoln Public Schools. Later this fall, the college roommates will head to Memphis, Tennessee, for more student teaching experience, too.
And, like most soon-to-be college graduates, they're looking for a job.
Nichols and Tongish were among the more than 50 LPS student teachers who took part in a symposium Tuesday at the Don Clifton Professional Learning Center that gives prospective candidates a leg up in landing a position in the district.
The symposium, held in the fall and spring, is a chance, too, for the district to connect with area college students who will soon be entering the workforce. Student teachers also get a chance to apply for future positions and take part in an interview fair with district administrators later in the month.
"I think it’s a really great opportunity to see kind of what the next steps are for us as teachers and what resources are available for us to prepare those next steps, since it’s all so new," said Nichols of Crete.
When Nichols and Tongish graduate in December, they want to start their careers at LPS, and in an age of teacher shortages, the feeling is mutual.
"It's a win-win for both of us," said recruiting coordinator Erik Witt at Tuesday's symposium, which featured both morning and afternoon sessions. "We get to preview prospective candidates, but they also get to have an experience where they're interviewed by an administrator at LPS, and they get to practice that and get feedback and help that process."
At Tuesday's event, student teachers got a chance to learn more about the district, network with their peers and learn best practices when it comes to interviewing. They even got a sneak peek at some of the questions they might get asked.
"We get to pull the curtain back a little and tell them what teaching at LPS is like," said Eric Weber, associate superintendent of human resources.
Nichols, who is student teaching at Fredstrom Elementary School this fall, said coming from a small town, she didn't know what to expect when applying at a bigger district.
The interview and application process can be daunting for many, to say the least. The symposium helps alleviate that stress, Nichols said.
"Putting a face with names that we’re going to be in contact with, and just kind getting familiar with those people (makes it) so it’s a little bit less scary when we get into that interview process," she said.
The need to recruit teachers has never been more pressing.
School districts across Nebraska and the country are stretched thin by teacher shortages and unfilled substitute spots fueled by a weak labor market and the pandemic.
"The number of students going into teacher education, it's probably as low as I've ever seen it," Weber said. "That puts a tremendous challenge on all school systems."
While Weber said LPS has all but a handful of teaching positions filled this fall, there are some positions that went unfilled because of a lack of candidates.
LPS' main hiring push comes in the spring when enrollment and budget considerations are better known, but December graduates can help the district fill positions midyear.
Some of those graduates can also come on board as teacher associates -- basically long-term subs -- for one semester, Witt said.
The need for those positions, which are funded through federal coronavirus relief money, is great given the number of unfilled substitute spots each week, forcing teachers to use planning time to cover classrooms.
"Teaching is always going to be valuable, and it's always going to be important, but it's even more critical right now," Nichols said.
The advantage of a symposium, compared to career fairs LPS participates in at area colleges, is that it allows prospective candidates who have already been student teaching to make deeper connections, Witt said.
"This is just kind of the icing on the cake where we allow them to know, 'Hey, I want to be part of LPS and how do I make that happen,'" Witt said.
Tongish, who is from Lincoln and is helping teach English Language Learners at McPhee Elementary, has known she wanted to be a teacher since she was little. When she was in high school, she was part of the inaugural class at The Career Academy, a career and technical education school for juniors and seniors at LPS.
"That just affirmed that teaching was what I wanted to do, because my two years I was there, I think I had 90 hours in a classroom before I’d even started college where I was getting the opportunity to teach," she said.
Now, Tongish and her roommate Nichols are ready to put their education and experience student teaching into full-time practice.
They'll have one more thing in common, too. As part of a scholarship, Nichols and Tongish plan to teach at Title I schools for at least four years to start their teaching journey.
Tuesday's symposium was just one more step to getting there.
"Just the support is what I love about LPS," Tongish said. "Everybody there to help each other."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @zach_hammack