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Arizona can’t keep qualified teachers in the classroom and it’s impacting our students

by Justin Wing

If your doctor quit their practice and you struggled to find a replacement, would you ask an accountant to fill that void? Not likely, but that’s exactly what we’re doing in education today. For most readers, it will not come as a surprise to learn that Arizona schools are facing a teacher shortage of huge proportions. But until recently, there was little hard evidence of how widespread or impactful this troubling trend had become.

In my role as director of human resources at Washington Elementary School District, I knew anecdotally that many teachers were leaving the profession, and that pay was a common factor. For a number of years, I’d heard that it was next-to-impossible to raise a family on an educator’s salary. But I’m on the front-lines of the crisis and while I understood our issues all too clearly, I knew that many decision-makers, and even parents, were too far removed to understand why teacher pay are such critical issues to our educational system. To help others grasp the challenge, I began asking those who resigned to put their thoughts in a letter. Here are some of the things I received:

  • “Nearly 20 years ago, I left my home in the northwest to attend college at Northern Arizona University… I graduated Summa Cum Laude from NAU with a double major in elementary and special education, and upon graduation in 2001, secured a teaching position… As a mother and a teacher, the current state of education in Arizona has me extremely alarmed. And, as a single mother, raising my son on an Arizona teacher’s salary has become virtually impossible. While I certainly never expected to become wealthy as an educator, I couldn’t have imagined to what extent I’d be forced to struggle financially. Just by moving back to Oregon I will be receiving a $15,000 raise… While teachers in Arizona are continually asked to do more with less, and expected to virtually take a vow of poverty, teachers in Oregon are supported financially, empowering them as professionals… It breaks my heart to see how many of my young teachers work two jobs just to pay their bills and support themselves.”
  • “As a teacher I wanted to inspire children to follow their dreams and to know that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, the same way my teachers did to me. However, after teaching for 9 years, and earning a 2nd Master’s degree in Leadership, I now have my own family to support. I can no longer afford to teach and sacrifice the financial well-being of my family. So, after 9 years of teaching and having built wonderful bonds with students, families and teachers I need to walk away.”
  • “As a family of four, my salary qualified us for W.I.C. Currently, as we are foster and possibly adoptive parents of a third child, I learned that according to the United States Department of Agriculture my gross monthly salary was $6 above qualifying for food stamps and my net salary was only $4 above qualifying. As a professional educator, I find it challenging to reconcile that I am in charge of equipping the generation that will come after me but that the salary I make, according to the state and federal government, places me in or very near qualifying for government assistance.”

Some might assume that these are isolated incidents, perhaps relegated to a few rural districts or only found in low-income urban areas. But beyond these individual stories, we’ve found a widespread challenge to providing the high quality education that all Arizona students need and deserve. To provide the hard data to prove that these aren’t isolated departures, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA) began conducting regular polls of Arizona school districts to gauge the extent of the shortage and identify and specialties or areas of particular need. The most recent poll came in August 2016, and the findings are not encouraging:

  • Among the 130 Arizona school districts and charter schools that responded, there were more than 8,100 teaching jobs that need to be filled for the 2016-2017 school year.
  • A few weeks into the school year, nearly 50 percent of those open positions either remain unfilled or have been staffed by people who do not meet standard teacher requirements.
  • Districts reported that close to 500 teachers either did not report to work at all, or abruptly resigned within the first few weeks of school.

Years ago, schools had a hard time finding special education and music/art instructors. Now administrators struggle to fill even the most basic faculty needs.

What does all of this mean for Arizona students? In the classroom, it can mean different things depending on how a specific school copes with the shortage: Class sizes might get bigger as students are shuffled into other classrooms. Openings might be filled by long-term substitute teachers until a full-time replacement can be found. School administrators might find themselves back in a classroom. At middle and high schools, teachers might forfeit their prep or lunch periods. All of these are solutions that are sometimes necessary, but none are ideal for our budding scholars’ minds and their potential for learning and growth.

Arizona’s median elementary school teacher salary is $40,590. That puts our educators very close to the bottom in the U.S., and among the lowest paid professions for college-educated adults. And salary is impacting our staffing shortage at both ends of the funnel: teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers to seek higher pay in other fields, and students entering college are less likely to pursue education as a career. In fact, colleges of education around the country have seen a 36 percent drop in enrollment in the past year alone.

Arizona is years away from righting this trend, and things might get worse before they get better as 24 percent of Arizona’s educational workforce is able to retire within the next four years.

Few things have greater impact than a highly effective teacher in every classroom. Arizona students would benefit from policies and funding that enable schools to attract, compensate, support, and retain great teachers and principals. In addition, competitive pay and incentives to work in more challenging schools and schools in remote locations might stem teacher turnover and could even encourage more master teachers to work at these schools.

Voters have an opportunity on November 8 to elect candidates who understand this issue and make it a top priority.

justinJustin Wing is the current president of the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA), which represents Human Resource Professionals in Arizona schools. ASPAA provides professional development and networking opportunities to share, support and enhance best practices in human resources and talent management throughout the educational system.

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