Everyone has a story detailing how they landed in their chosen profession. Some follow in the footsteps of their parents, others are intrigued by professions portrayed in the media. But for many, their life’s work began with one thing: an educator. Teachers do far more than convey the mechanics of reading or arithmetic. They inspire and enlighten. They encourage, empathize and guide. There are few things more valuable in our society than a highly effective educator.
By nurturing teachers and growing highly effective educators our communities will flourish. Teachers are a key ingredient in student achievement. For schools, they’re actually the biggest factor in whether a student will succeed. And that impact, whether positive or negative, can be felt for years after a student has left their classroom.
What does it look like today to be a teacher?
There aren’t many professions where employees are expected to spend their own money on work supplies. But teaching is one of them. Teachers spend an average of $459 annually to support their students, which isn’t reimbursed by their employer. Only one in 20 educators don’t spend any of their own dollars on school supplies.
What’s worse, today’s elementary school teachers are making 14% less than in 2001, when adjusted for inflation. Teacher pay in Arizona ranks 49th in the nation. With a median salary of about $45,000, teachers can ill afford to bankroll their classrooms. Arizona’s Roadmap for P-20 Education Funding has identified teacher pay as a key priority for future investments. The state must improve our rank to the national median by 2020, while also providing statewide, meaningful professional development, mentoring and induction that are research-informed and driven by best practices. Despite recent investments, we remain far from that goal. To ensure the long-term health of our communities, we must attract, support and retain quality early childhood and K-12 educators – including teachers, support staff and administrators – by ensuring compensation and benefits are competitive.
Why does teacher recruitment and retention matter?
Arizona has a recruitment and retention crisis, as a result of low pay and lack of support for educators. Most recent estimates by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association show that one in five teacher vacancies in the 2019-20 school year remain unfilled, with nearly half of those occupied by teachers who do not meet the state’s certification requirements. Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute estimates that of teachers hired in 2013, more than 40 percent had quit teaching within three years.
What does this mean for students? It means that a substantial portion of Arizona’s youth are led by a teacher who has less than three years of experience, or worse, no formal training as an educator. Research has shown that teacher effectiveness grows exponentially in the first few years of their career and continues to improve after decades in the profession. Which means Arizona is losing educators just as they’re beginning to significantly impact student outcomes. Educators who both know their subject matter, and how to effectively convey that to students, are invaluable.
Beyond academics, the social-emotional impact of stability in school staff cannot be overstated. Especially for youth in poverty, having long-term connections with caring adults makes them far more likely to work, and to succeed. Schools are small-scale communities and the relationships forged there are formative.
Youth are spending the better part of their waking lives at school. Who do we want in front of their classroom? When a school district has to rely on long-term substitute teachers, or teachers who don’t have an education degree, what’s the impact on learning? How does math, science, language suffer?
Beyond the impact on students, Arizona’s teacher retention crisis is leading to a leadership crisis. As teachers continue to leave the profession early, there remain fewer who can transition into leadership roles, such as content coaches, assistant principals and principals. That shortage is keenly felt in schools, where strong leadership from those who understand classroom mechanics can further aid in professional development for young educators.
Programs that are working
Teacher pay is just one element of recruiting and retaining the best educators. School districts and nonprofits are seeking ways to grow the teacher pool and many of the programs are having great success. For instance, a partnership between Sahuarita Unified and University of Arizona is helping the district to identify and prepare potential teachers who are already part of the community. Efforts like this one are especially valuable in rural areas, where districts are challenged to retain young teachers who are not from the area. But they still require investments from the district.
Other groups are exploring how to engage more minorities in the profession, since students are better able to relate to teachers who come from backgrounds similar to their own. University of Arizona developed the Indigenous Teacher Education Project to grow the number of Native American teachers in the state. This is critically important, since Native Americans remain behind other ethnic groups in academic achievement. These alternative pathways are helping to get more teachers into the classroom, while ensuring they have the preparation they need.
Beyond improved pay, teachers need ongoing support. Amphitheater Public Schools has employed a mentorship program for two decades. Their two-year induction program provides new teachers with effective aid. By matching first-year teachers with Curriculum Instruction Support Specialists, Amphitheater has been able to boost their teacher retention rate above the national average. In a recent school year, only five out of 35 new teachers left the classroom after their first year teaching.
In an effort to boost student achievement, leadership at Mohave Valley Elementary School District created a teacher’s academy. Educators who are new to the district are trained in best practices, which has helped to reduce turnover and improve AzMERIT scores.
On a statewide level, the Arizona K12 Center at Northern Arizona University has taken a proactive role in developing teacher leadership and providing quality professional development opportunities for all teacher, no matter how long they’ve been in the profession. With everything from tech-centric camps to statewide leadership institutes, the K12 Center understands that when teachers succeed, students succeed.
Making an investment in educators
Investments in these types of initiatives may not technically be considered “classroom spending,” but they are certainly having a direct impact on students. Providing high quality professional development helps student achievement, while also inspiring educators to continue in their profession, stemming the tide of resignations. But the state must make the investment. Asking educators to fund their own professional development on their already meager salary is untenable for most. Many school districts have relied on grants to provide these programs, which leaves them unable to continue when the grant ends. Others use Prop 301 or Title II funds, which could otherwise be allocated to student interventions and other programming.
Algebra students in Tolleson Elementary School District used to benefit from a highly effective teacher. She was so good that when her students took AzMERIT last year, every one passed. She loved what she did, and she did it well. Unfortunately, she left the profession for financial reasons. She’s pursuing a career in healthcare, where she can earn enough to leave her parents’ home. Stories like this one play out every day in schools all over our great state. But they shouldn’t.
Schools of today are vastly different from those of years past. Teachers aren’t just expected to relay information – they’re providing social services, standing in for counselors and have more expected of them than ever before. They’re working through diversity, trauma, poverty and a host of other challenges. For many students, they’re the primary stable adult. Despite the varied challenges, schools are being creative, thoughtful and excelling. But they can’t realize their full educational potential without the right team.