Facing the Teacher Shortage
Why Utah struggles to keep educators, and what the U is doing to help.
POP QUIZ: Name a millionaire computer scientist. (Easy, right?) Now, name a millionaire business executive. (Take your pick; they’re a dime a dozen.) Millionaire doctor? (Sure.) How about a millionaire musician? (You’re acing this, aren’t you?)
Now, name a millionaire elementary school teacher.
Sorry, trick question. There are no millionaire school teachers. Just teachers who help shape future millionaires. And future leaders. And future social activists. And future engineers, scientists, artists, politicians, bankers, nurses, chefs. And sometimes future teachers… but fewer future teachers than we need, and fewer than we produced 10 years ago.
That doesn’t mean we’re not preparing great teachers in Utah. We are. (And the University of Utah produces some of the best.) But it does mean that we, as a society, have made teaching an unattractive career choice, offering low salaries, shifting expectations, and scant respect. This combination drives away many potential candidates, and of those who do enter the teaching profession, an alarming number bail out in their first few years.
Are there solutions? Great minds at the U’s College of Education think so, and they are dedicated to bolstering the outlook for the teaching profession.
LET’S START WITH SOME MATH
In a 2015 survey of 75 percent of Utah’s school districts, the Utah School Boards Association found that nearly half started the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom. But estimating unfilled teacher positions is difficult. For example, Wayne County School District Superintendent John M. Fahey explains that they currently have a part-time business teacher and a part-time music teacher. “With funding, we would move them both to full time,” he says, because the demand and need are there. However, without funding, the teachers remain part time, and the small district’s records won’t show an opening going unfilled.
Such hidden deficiencies likely contribute to Utah’s larger-than-average classroom sizes. Many Utah high school teachers report as many as 40 or more students in their classes, indicating where an additional teacher might have been placed had money existed to open a position. The lack of an open position is an uncounted need.
Retention is easier to quantify. The Utah State Board of Education reports that by the end of what would have been their fifth year of employment, more than 40 percent of Utah teachers who began teaching in 2011 had quit. According to Andrea Rorrer, associate dean of the College of Education and director of the Utah Education Policy Center at the U, which focuses on research to inform and influence educational policy and practice in Utah, 11 percent of Utah teachers with one to three years of experience leave the profession every year, compared with 7 percent nationally.
Rorrer says the teacher shortage isn’t spread evenly across subject matters or districts: “We see far more shortages in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] areas, particularly science and math, than we do in other general content areas.” Need is also highest in early childhood classes, special education, and rural areas.
One of the biggest hurdles the teaching profession faces is low compensation. “Pay is really important,” says Fahey. “When kids decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives, they look at the financial rewards of a profession. They want to support a family.” In a 2015 Economic Policy Institute report, the average starting salary across 10 broad categories of majors was $50,556. Teachers settled solidly at the bottom of the list at $34,891, a good $11,000 below the next lowest category, and Utah teachers start even lower at $33,852. And from 1996 to 2015, the weekly wage (adjusted for inflation) of all other college graduates rose by $124, while the average wage of public teachers actually decreased by $30 per week.
The salary level is so low that many families with a teacher as the only working parent qualify for federal reduced or free lunch programs for their own children, explains Donnette McNeill-Waters, Granite School District’s director of Human Resources. “Some of our own teachers are telling their kids not to go into the profession,” she adds. “We have generations of families who are educators, and we have never had our own employees telling their kids not to go into education until now.”
In STEM subjects, teaching can be an especially hard sell. Mary D. Burbank BS’86 BS’87, assistant dean and director of the U’s Urban Institute for Teacher Education, explains, “A person with a math or science degree has so many options that are much more lucrative—particularly people who are underrepresented, who are recruited heavily across fields, and who may choose many other options that are much higher paid.”
As if the financial aspects aren’t discouraging enough, over it all hangs a pervasive feeling that teachers’ work is misunderstood and unappreciated.
TEACHING IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Most of us think we know what teaching is, when what we really know is how to be a student. “All of us have been students, but almost none of us have been teachers,” says Kyle Bracken BA’88 MS’11, history teacher and Social Studies department chair at Salt Lake’s Highland High School.
Research shows that people extrapolate from their own experiences as students to determine what a teacher should be doing. It’s a bit like saying that since you’ve gone to the dentist regularly for 12 years, you’re qualified to tell that dentist how to perform dental procedures, negotiate with insurance companies, and run a small business. Moreover, today’s teaching experience is light years beyond what it may have looked like a generation ago.
To understand the teaching profession in the 21st century, we should examine what teachers really do. First, of course, is content. To teach biology, one should have a good grasp of biology. Unfortunately, a common misconception is that subject knowledge is where a teacher’s requirements end. The second aspect of a teacher’s job is pedagogy, or specific techniques for teaching—sometimes tried and true techniques, and sometimes new or experimental techniques. But teaching doesn’t end there, either.
“If we just look at those two indicators [content and pedagogy], what’s missing is the range of factors that impact effectiveness of pedagogy and impact children’s understanding,” according to Burbank. Today’s teachers are expected to be experts on child and adolescent development and their mental and emotional health. They work with English language learners, children with disabilities, and children from different cultural backgrounds. They adapt curricula to support the community’s needs. They differentiate learning for kids who are struggling, kids who are streaking ahead, and kids who are right on target—all in the same class.
Additionally, educators face long hours, expectations to spend personal time grading papers and “volunteering” for after-school activities, pressures from standardized testing and school ratings, and constant scrutiny from administrators, parents, the media, and seemingly anyone else with an opinion.
Fortunately, many stalwart individuals are willing to embrace teaching, despite what others view as disincentives. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” says Carmen Flores, an honors student working on her elementary education degree at the U. Despite gentle nudging to enter a “big career,” like medicine or law, she found she preferred tutoring elementary students and teaching catechism at her church. “I thought, boy, I really love being with the kids. I really love teaching.” The more she investigated teaching, the more convinced she became that it is what she wants to do. Now she says she can’t imagine going into teaching without the experience she’s gained from the U’s education program.
THE U’S APPROACH
“We have to be very thoughtful about how we prepare people who are going to work with children, who will be the future citizens of America. Content isn’t the only thing,” says Maria Franquiz, dean of the College of Education.
To prep and support the 140-plus students who graduate from the U’s education program each year, the College of Education provides strong research-based training, intensive in-classroom teaching experience, and community engagement.
“One of the things we’ve found that increases the likelihood of retention is solid preparation prior to entering the classroom,” says Susan Johnston, professor and chair of the Department of Special Education in the College of Education. Because the U is a Tier 1 Research university, exposure to cutting-edge research and recommended practices is integrated throughout students’ coursework, daily discussions, and field experience.
U graduates also understand Utah’s diverse communities. “One of the things I like about the program at the U is that it touches on a lot of issues with our growing populations of refugees, of English language learners, of diversity, and I feel like that’s key,” says Flores.
Nothing makes all that theory sink in like applying it in a real school. Every education student spends a semester assisting a “site teacher” in a classroom. During their final semester, they take the reins as full-fledged student teachers, responsible for everything from lesson plans to grading.
To help students transition into the real world, the U assigns them to a cohort of classmates, instructors, and site teachers for their junior and senior years. “During my cohort, we were able to debate and discuss the ways kids learn, why they act out, what are the cultural advantages and disadvantages for specific groups,” says Bracken. Cohorts form a community where students compare challenges, brainstorm ideas, and celebrate successes. “I think I might have become a good teacher without the cohort program, but I would not be a great teacher,” he adds.
University of Utah teaching graduates are in demand across the state. “I want to emphasize that the U has a great teacher program, and the teachers we get from them are really good,” says Wayne County’s Fahey. But there are too few to go around, even with other higher education institutions in the state producing teachers as well.
Alternative routes to becoming a teacher, which bypass formal education in favor of on-the-job training, bubble to the surface in a swirl of controversy from time to time, primarily because they attempt to address the teacher shortage without lawmakers committing additional state money, which in Utah is already famously the nation’s lowest. But school districts say their priority is always a university-educated teacher, though they view alternative routes as an option when preferred teachers aren’t available. “A person with some qualifications is better than a long-term substitute in the classroom,” says Fahey. But while alternative licensure pathways are, in general, well-intentioned solutions to the shortage problem, they still don’t address the underlying disincentives of the profession.
At the College of Education, faculty know that even if they can’t control the financial rewards or many other aspects of the teaching profession, they can continue to seek other ways to recruit teaching majors and benefit not only their graduates but also Utah’s education landscape.
Over the last decade, the U has stepped up recruitment of teaching students, with outreach programs for underrepresented communities, people exploring career changes, special education para-educators who are already assisting in classrooms, and high school students. In addition, the U has streamlined the education curriculum, added online and evening courses, and increased advising and mentoring support to help students complete the program efficiently.
Early in the program, students are introduced to teaching’s realities, ensuring they are ready to accept the challenges. “If they understand what they’re getting into, we can mentor them through the first few years of the profession,” says Fahey. After graduation, students benefit from the U’s community involvement and ongoing mentoring within the districts.
The U has a number of scholarships available to students who are pursuing degrees in the College of Education and is constantly striving to increase education scholarships. However, says Johnston, “Given that most teachers are not wealthy, it is often difficult for College of Education alumni to donate scholarship dollars.” Businesses tend to donate scholarship dollars for students in their own industry, and it can be hard to convince companies that donating to an education student instead may help create an entire generation of future employees. The addition of much-needed scholarships, stipends, and tuition waivers would help attract more students.
The College of Education has partnered with Granite School District to create a handful of paid internships for student teachers, which help offset some tuition costs for a semester. But the number of internships is limited.
“If I could have a magic wand for the profession, I would do what we did decades ago, which is provide programs with real financial supports: scholarships or debts that are forgiven if you serve in particular districts. We would attract a lot more people into the profession,” says Franquiz. Such programs might bring more underrepresented candidates into education. “A really important goal would be to change the demographic of teaching populations for the good of our very diverse population,” says Bracken. While limited federal debt-forgiveness programs exist for educators working in specific situations, Utah does not provide the state support needed to make a real impact in our areas of greatest need.
Flores sees an evolution in her own vision of teaching since she began the program. She’s not just teaching a subject. She’s teaching students how to critically think about that subject. “If I hadn’t come to the U, I would have been this teacher who had a teacher’s edition, just taught from the book, and never did anything different,” she says. “But now that I have this post-secondary education, I know that I don’t want to be that teacher. I want to be a teacher who collaborates, who differentiates, who does service learning.”
Can the economic outlook for teachers in Utah be improved? It can, Franquiz believes, with the right research, strategies, and commitment from higher education institutions, school districts, the community, the State Board of Education, and the legislature. “Together we certainly have the creativity and the expertise to work better as a community in really addressing how to educate our future citizens for Utah and America and the world.”
—Kelly J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah.