Shannon Fulton was pushing 30 when she got bit by the teaching bug helping out in her daughter's kindergarten class. Soon, weekend classes at St. Catherine University earned her teaching license and three years of substituting for other teachers paid her dues.

Then two years ago her dream job came along -- a classroom of her own with 26 kids in grades four, five and six at Valley Crossing Community School in Woodbury. Now comes the reality -- Fulton is one of hundreds of teachers statewide who were laid off for budgetary reasons.

Like many young, committed and now laid-off teachers, Fulton was devastated.

State education officials don't track layoffs, but Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, estimates 500 to 800 teachers lost their jobs when their contracts expired at the end of June. And they also expect far fewer of those teachers to be called back to their jobs, as they often are in normal years.

The two-dozen teachers laid off by the South Washington County District, including Fulton, are a drop in the statewide bucket. The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, laid off 160 teachers to close a $15.8 million budget gap. The St. Paul School District, Minnesota's second largest, laid off 142 teachers as part of a $25 million budget-cutting package.

What's more, with the exception of math, science and special education areas, Minnesota already is overloaded with teachers. The state grants about 10,000 new teaching licenses a year, while retirements have averaged barely 1,500 annually in this decade, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Teacher retention in the state is high. While almost half of all teachers nationally leave their jobs during their first five years, in Minnesota only 30 percent do so. Some job openings result from teacher sabbaticals, leaves of absence and promotions as many teachers move, become principals or take other administration jobs, but state officials don't otherwise explain the big imbalance.

A critical time

Labor agreements between school districts and the teachers union require the districts to lay off untenured teachers such as Fulton first. New teachers typically have to work in a district for three years before earning tenure. The result is that some of the youngest, most promising educators won't have a classroom job this fall.

(Technically, teachers who work on one-year contracts aren't laid off, but "non-renewed." The effect is the same in that they're collecting unemployment benefits rather than a paycheck.)

"It's probably been a decade since we have non-renewed this many people," said Teresa Rogers, executive director of human resources for the St. Paul School District. "We want to have high-quality teachers in the classroom."

It's all coming at a critical time, too, as school districts and policymakers look for ways of raising student achievement in general and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students in particular.

All those factors are forcing hundreds of people to ask themselves why they became teachers and whether they still want to be one.

Fulton has a quick answer to that question. "This is my passion," she said. "I can't imagine doing anything else with my life."

Finding a secure teaching position has always been difficult, but it has gotten more so, said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota. Dooher, a former classroom teacher, recalls being laid off three times before landing a full-time job. "I really wanted to go into teaching," Dooher said. "I don't think that everyone is that dedicated. It's not every profession that you have to fight and claw your way into."

Aside from personal fortitude, Dooher suggests that the government leaders invest more in public education. "It's the state's responsibility to make sure our educational institutions are sufficiently funded," he said.

For this year, though, a ray of hope comes from Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget-balancing moves, which could leave districts with more money to hire a few more teachers and from federal stimulus funds targeted at raising educational performance of low-income students.

Math skills A+

Another possibility for aspiring teachers is moving into high-demand areas. That helped Jessica Bro, an Oakdale math teacher who learned in late May that she was to be laid off from St. Paul's Harding High School. She spent the Memorial Day weekend polishing her resume and applying for jobs online. She had a job interview before school ended and has signed a contract to teach math in the South St. Paul School District next year, after which state rules say she will be eligible for tenure.

Minnesota had roughly the same number of people licensed to teach math last year as in 2002, and about 20 percent fewer science teachers, according to Department of Education figures.

"I went into math for the security of it," Bro said. "Everybody needs a math and science teacher. You're basically guaranteed a job."

Yet throughout Minnesota, teachers face mounting challenges with more students in the classroom and the unrelenting need to raise their performance. Administrators and educators say that will be difficult but inescapable.

"Our number one priority is focusing on student achievement," says Sarah Kriewall, a human resources executive for the Anoka-Hennepin district. "That guides everything we do."

Fulton doubts she'll ever quit being a teacher. She laments driving past Lakshore Learning, a store for teaching materials, and past Half Price Books. "I'm always thinking of what can I get to use in my class," she said.

Even if the need to have a job takes her outside elementary education, "it will have to be something with kids," she said.

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287