In yesterday’s local paper, there was a front page article headlining the coming teacher shortage in Utah, to which I wanted to reply, “How could there not be?”
The beginning salary for a Utah teacher in most systems is not far above the poverty level for a family of four, and the average Utah teacher’s salary is the lowest in the United States. Utah spends the least money per pupil in primary and secondary schools of any state in the United States. Nationwide, anywhere from twenty to fifty percent of newly certified teachers drop out of teaching in five years or less [depending on whose figures you trust], and that rate is even higher in Utah. In 2015, half of all newly hired teachers in Utah quit after just one year. Yet studies also show that the longer teachers teach, the more effective they become. Add to that the fact that Utah has on average the largest class sizes in the United States. The academic curriculum leading to a teaching degree has also become more demanding [at least at the local university], and it often takes even the best students more than the standard four years to complete a course of study that leads to teacher certification, especially if they have to work to help pay for their studies.
Despite the often dismal salaries, study after study shows the comparatively poor level of pay is down the list for why teachers walk away from teaching. Almost all prospective teachers know that teaching isn’t a high-paid profession. What they don’t know is just how effectively hostile the teaching environment is to a healthy and balanced life.
Here in Utah, for example, there are state legislators who complain about pampered and lazy teachers. They’re obviously unaware of the unpaid after-school, weekend, and evening workload required to support an eight-hour teaching day. Or of the number of parents who complain about their darling children’s grades – such as the one who wanted to know how his son could possibly flunk an art class [which turned out to be the fact that said son failed to attend most of the classes and never did a single art activity]. Or about the increasing reliance on testing to determine teaching effectiveness [when the testing itself reduces instructional time, when the test results determine teacher retention and ratings, and when the tests tend to measure factoids, and fill-in-the-blank skills, rather than thinking or being able to write even a coherent paragraph].
It also doesn’t help when the local papers are filled with pages and pages about the sports activities of the local high schools, with seldom a word about academic achievements or other more academic successes, such as plays, concerts, success in engineering competitions and the like.
Nor is it exactly encouraging when school administrators offer little understanding or support of their teaching faculty. That’s more commonplace than one might realize, although national surveys show it’s a significant factor in contributing to teacher drop-out/burnout. Certainly, a number of former students of my wife the university professor have mentioned this as a difficulty in their middle school or high school teaching positions.
And finally, in the end, what’s also overlooked is that it’s actually more expensive to continually replace a high number of departing teachers than to take the necessary steps to cut the teacher drop-out rate. But based on the current public view of education and the unwillingness to make meaningful changes, I don’t see this problem changing any time soon. In fact, it’s only going to get worse… far worse.