An ongoing teacher shortage has dominated headlines across the state for the past few years, leaving many wondering what solutions could be put in place to address the intricate problem.
But finding solutions for the shortage is not one size fits all, said Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction.
“The reasons people leave teaching are far more diverse than most might anticipate,” she explained. “Responses vary from concerns about the time commitment to a lack of resources and minimal compensation to burnout and stress with numerous reasons in between.”
Dickson, Gov. Gary Herbert and Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow held a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday to discuss ways to retain current teachers and recruit new professionals.
This included a plea for help from those who are new to the career and Utah educators who left the profession.
“Consider becoming a teacher,” Herbert said. “It is a noble profession. If you want to impact the world for good, there probably is not a better profession to go into.”
Utah teachers want to make a worthwhile difference in the lives of children, Dickson explained. They feel a sense of purpose and a desire to contribute to the greater good but face challenges like feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
For rural communities, the shortage comes from the need to recruit new teachers, as many teachers with roots in rural towns are likely to continue being teachers. Dickson suggested one solution is to “grow your own” teacher, or incentivizing other community members to become teachers and give back to their communities.
In other school districts, the challenge is more about retaining new and current teachers. This includes creating a support system of social workers, nurses, mentors and counselors who can assist both students and teachers, Dickson said.
“Teachers matter, and they matter a lot. And we don’t have enough of them,” she added. “Whether you’re a former teacher who left for any reason, if you once thought about being a teacher, or if you’re a current teacher, our students need and deserve you.”
In a collaboration with Envision Utah, state leaders encouraged returning teachers to complete a questionnaire at http://www.returntoteaching.org and find out what it takes to come back to Utah public schools.
“We need to recruit and retain the best and brightest of society to be those that impact the rising generations and the outcomes of tomorrow. That’s teachers,” Herbert continued.
Nearly 45 percent of teachers leave their classrooms after five years of teaching, Herbert said. That number increases after eight years to include at least half of teachers.
But this year’s Utah Teacher of the Year, Aaryn Birchell, is hesitant to label those leaving as being “burned out.”
“It implies that the teacher couldn’t cut it. That’s not true,” she said. “It’s the fact that we don’t have enough support system. It’s the demoralizing of teachers, of not elevating the profession, asking them to take on the societal problems and try to fix them in the hour they are in your classroom. That is not the teacher’s fault.”
Another solution could be a higher gasoline tax known as Question No. 1. The 10-cent-per-gallon tax increase on state motor and special fuel rates will provide additional funding for public education, Herbert said. The tax on gasoline has not increased for the past 10 years, so money for maintaining Utah roads has come from the general state fund.
“It’s an emotional issue, it’s an emotional place to put the money,” Birchell said. “It’s a small investment for a really important message.”
According to Herbert, nearly $320 million will be available for technology, teacher salaries and other education funding if Utah voters approve the tax increase in the upcoming election.
“We need to adjust the gasoline tax so that our roads are not stealing money that should be going into education,” Herbert said.