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The Disappearing Teacher: How to Keep Our Teachers Engaged


Editor’s note: Johnathen Duran has, at the time of writing, been an employee of Denver Public Schools as a substitute Early Childhood Education Paraprofessional.

Colorado is facing a teacher shortage. It’s not the first time the alarms have been rung. Education funding cuts starting during the great recession in 2008 that tightened belts and created downward pressure on teacher salary, a reduction of in-class and professional supports, and a scramble to retain teachers in increasingly competitive districts. The issue is statewide. Boulder County has both suburban and rural districts, with a majority of Colorado’s school districts being classified as rural. Boulder County has the benefit of higher property values, the taxes of which help with school funding, in addition to the added Mill Levy Override (MLO) funding.

Throughout Colorado we are seeing a combination of pay inequities, reductions in reward for pursuing a career in teaching, and increased teacher stress, that are creating retention struggle. This is a multi-faceted issue.

Colorado schools SchoolView Data Center is a public facing data site. The staff overview says, in part, “The Federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers teaching in core- academic content areas meet the requirements for being designated as ‘Highly Qualified’, no later than the end of the 2006-2007 school year.” Despite this requirement, tracking data from 2012-14 show that there is not one year where Colorado has achieved 100% but, rather, the trend is downward.

A Closer Look at CO Education Spending

Colorado cannot retain HQT’s and graduate its students consistently when it participates in a local funding model that creates statewide funding imbalances. Douglas Bisonette, Elizabeth School District Superintendent, stated unequivocally that, “No one’s challenged the data.”  It seems that, “it’s ok, in general…it’s ok to struggle in rural America… [but] the issue is really fundamental in terms of public education’s obligation to provide every student a high quality education, regardless of their zip code.” Zip code, he points out, is a way of talking about suburban v rural schools and children living in poverty.

Boulder County

Boulder County is in the enviable position of being one of the areas that benefits from the mill levy funding system. Statewide, 81 percent of districts are without a mill levy override, while 100 percent of districts paying teacher salaries above the state average have one.

Destination District

Randall Barber, from the Boulder Valley School District Communications Department, and Interim Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Mike Gradoz, spoke with me on the issue. Barber called BVSD a “Destination District”, a designation that makes sense given the affluence and community ability to invest in local education. BVSD is one of the highest paid school districts in the state.

“It’s not uncommon as we go to recruiting fairs that they’re lining up for Boulder Valley…” Gardoz informed me about the 3-4 recruiting fairs they attend yearly (including 1 out of state for bilingual candidates). The candidate pool has shrunk and “300 [candidates] with 178 districts is not a lot of candidates” Gardoz said,. However, BVSD does exceptionally well. He chalks BVSD’s success up to a few major reasons.

First, BVSD understands the impact of salary, so the decision was made that, in order to attract quality teachers and anticipate a teacher shortage, they’d have to reorganize their salary schedule. “We flipped it,” Gardoz told me. “We moved dollars over to the column so it’s a higher rate to begin with.” Higher starting pay is an important factor in attracting talent.

The district also organized an induction program to take care of the orientation needs of new teachers. Specifically, BVSD works on “how to acculturate [new teachers] into an environment that’s really gonna help kids.”

Gardoz highlighted aspects of methodology and support. It’s an area that has also seen a reduction in dedicated dollars. “We have .support services for teachers who really need support and need help.  there’s instructional coaches, mentors that will go out and spend time with teachers, particularly in their first five years.”

Teachers are most prone to leave the profession in their first five years, citing support factors, Gradoz points out. “It’s not so much about the pay…” he said, though this would seem to contradict his earlier point about offerings for higher starting salaries  being a primary reason for attracting and retaining new talent.

School districts in Boulder have been fortunate enough to give some form of raise to teachers every year the between 2010-2015, while Elizabeth School District, for example,had to  implement a pay freeze, Denver Post reported. Elizabeth School District lost 26 percent of its teachers going into the 2015-16 school year while Boulder saw losses of no more than 10 percent.

Are we seeing an economic cause and effect in our teacher retention goals? The answer appears to be yes. Turnover rates go from 22 percent in the bottom 10 percent of salary paying districts to 10 percent in the top 10 percent. (10 percent turnover is relatively standard, for numerous reasons, including having families, following partners to new areas, changing to different classifications within a district, etc.)

A 2016 press release from the Colorado Department of Education  outlines the situation in stark terms: “This is the sixth straight year the number of people joining the workforce as teachers and administrators has dropped—a 24.4 percent decrease since 2010.” Not only are less people starting as teachers, the number of people applying for teacher training programs and completing those programs has drastically dropped at Colorado institutions of higher education.

The Durango Herald recently called the educational situation a crisis, pointing out another critical factor in the teacher retention struggle: the imbalance of retention between destination and non-destination districts. There are less people willing to work along the I-25 corridor and specifically in rural areas, says Robert Mitchell, director of Educator Preparation for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. ‘“It’s really hard to find qualified and licensed teachers to go and work in some of those districts.” Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 120 are classified as rural, or nearly 70 percent.

How Rural Affects Urban

University of Northern Colorado Dean of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Eugene Sheehan, who oversees the UNCO Colorado Center for Rural Education, and CCRE Director, Dr. Harvey Rude, spoke to me about three major issues with attracting new teachers overall.

First, speaking from a national trend perspective, there’s an overall decrease in new teachers nationwide. Causes for this decline, Sheehan said, include salary (though this was downplayed as a major cause).

We have already seen that teachers without pay raises leave while those who are compensated stay.  It’s not so easy to dismiss pay as a prime issue. Also of concern in the salary debate is pay inequality.

Bisonette pointed out that there are 110 districts in the lowest paid 10 percent of teacher salaries (5,200 teachers, affecting 80,000 students), with the top 10 percent (5,500 teachers) experiencing “a $30,000 pay difference,” from $39,000 average at the bottom (as low as $23,000) to $69,000 average at the top per year. This is a life changing differential.

Sheehan elaborated on negative aspersions, or bad mouthing, that comes with teaching. Statements such as, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” impact the prestige ascribed to both the occupation and those who practice it, which,  Sheehan claims, negatively impacts the willingness of potential teachers to enter the field. Sheehan referenced the movie, Bad Moms. After  Amy Mitchell (played by Mila Kunis) is kicked off her soccer team and considering the prospect of failing to get into a prestigious university, Kunis’ onscreen daughter Jane (played by Oona Laurence) says with disgust, “I may as well just become a teacher.” These are the kinds of things, Sheehan said, that impact the choices of young people considering their professional trajectory.

Sheehan also pointed out the increased workplace stress teachers endure. There are many valid points of concern here, including, according to Sheehan, that “teachers are being measured and assessed…constantly.”

CO S.B. 191 adds layers of assessment on to teachers, with student performance accounting for half of a teacher’s performance review. Reviews can be good, Sheehan is quick to point out, “because of accountability and you won’t find teachers who think their performance shouldn’t be measured.” However, pointing out the peculiarity of assessment within education, he said, “there’s no other job on the planet where one person’s performance on the job is dependent on the performance of somebody else.”

The consequences of student performance fall on the teachers. The National Education Association agrees, pointing out that the feeling of having no control over outcomes and the real life consequences on livelihood is fraying the nerves of teachers.

Additional stress factors come from other areas also, including considerations of socializing opportunities, dating pools, nightlife, and more. Attracting and retaining teachers has to take into account the breadth of a teacher’s life and not just their work life. This works in favor of “destination districts” and other urban spaces where these amenities are available.

An Expert Weighs In

Douglas Bisonette is a 15 year serving superintendent, a committee member for HB 1003 (Strategic Plan To Address Teacher Shortages), and a committed researcher on teacher retention.

His data is  intriguing. The Colorado Legislative Council, said Bisonette, is required by law to submit data on cost of living by district. The unexamined assumption that the teacher pay differential between suburban (higher) and rural (lower) is reasonable based on cost of living expectations, it turns out, is incorrect. The assumption may be fair that cost of living is different, but when you factor in pay in relation to cost of living, a different picture emerges.

In actuality, the bottom 10 percent of teachers (on average) are paid 22 percent below the cost of living for their districts while the top 10 percent of teachers (on average) are paid 28 percent above the cost of living for their districts, according to the 2015 CLC School District Cost of Living Report. “It’s unsustainable,” Bisonette said. 

Sources claimed that exiting teachers cite inadequate classroom and district support as major causal factors for leaving districts, seemingly ignoring or minimizing the impact of teacher pay. Bisonette pointed out that the prevailing line of thought is, “let’s not talk about money.” It’s a consequence of an occupation being held up as a passion profession. Teachers aren’t expected to want to get rich or, apparently, make living wages.

Elizabeth School District approached figuring out the teacher retention issue by hiring Mountain States Employment Council to survey teachers and to speak with former employees about retention.

Bisonette allows that, “We could have a crappy district…that we don’t treat people well, our principles are inexperienced and mean, and this is just a bad place to work.” Their surveys, however, found that the main reason people left was salary. Teachers stay because of the supports. But social  issues – wanting to start a family, buy a home, send a child to college – often factored into wanting to switch districts. That is, higher pay buys a “broader quality of life.”

This is reflected, as shown, in the turnover rates between Elizabeth and Boulder, even if Boulder officials cited the supports – professional development, mentoring – as primary reasons for reduced turnover. Clearly both are important but, again, “There has to be a salary solution,” Bissonette concluded.

The cost-benefit analysis presents itself: when barriers to entry (i.e. cost of higher education) were low and reward to risk (i.e. career stability, social prestige, comparatively high income, uplifting moments) was high, teaching flourished. As young people graduate today, massively in debt, the idea of going into a low paying job with reduced career stability and ubiquitous negative aspersions becomes a much higher risk.

Possible Solutions

Based on what we’ve found, retaining teachers comes down to a few measurable and manageable points:

First, salary. Pay teachers what they’re worth. Increase competition by increasing wages, as we do for other industries, said Rude. If we remove the need for district based incentivizing, that frees up local monies. We also need to review and revise teacher pensions. TeacherPensions.org reports on the “unreal” pension situation in Colorado, concluding with, “Teachers would be better off in a different system.”

An immediate salary fix for those teachers in the bottom 10 percent is to authorize a CDE controlled pay supplement to address pay equity while other options are explored.

Eliminating property/local tax funded education would help equalize education funding and outcomes. We would eliminate the pockets of educational poverty and educational opulence predicated on unequal educational funding so all students get the high quality public school education they have a right to, to echo Bisonette.

We need to recognize that most school districts, especially rural ones, are already operating at bare bones. There is no fat (regardless of some political rhetoric) in education funds that can be cut.

A more robust project, though impractical in the current political environment, is to remove the need for local funding by fully socializing education funding. A fully federally funded education system, as is common in Europe, would open monies for civic works, arts programs, and more.

We need campaigns of positive narration and to increase benefits and perks, including reaching out to students at a younger age to increase the “teacher pipeline” such as “‘teacher cadet or future teachers’ clubs,” said Rude.

Rude also proposed increased ‘grow your own’ strategies” to bring people back home to teach. Countering the “Bad Moms” image of teaching, of educators as failed professionals, would be beneficial to reducing the negative impact on young people considering teaching.

We should also utilize “the provision of stipends and other benefits to teacher candidates who commit to complete their student teaching in a rural school,” Rude referenced as well as increasing housing subsidies.

Increased support across districts, where available and necessary, like Rude’s “communities of practice” are valuable for professional development. Professional development, especially for rural districts, is limited in the current environment. A first grade teacher can’t grow in their profession if the nearest first grade teacher is a day’s drive away.

Gradoz said BVSD encourages top applicants who they don’t hire to “hit the eastern side of Colorado to give the small rural districts the opportunity to have the candidates that we have.” BVSD has partnerships across the Northeast and Southeast and with various groups and districts across Colorado. He added, “I wouldn’t say ‘share the wealth’, but we’re trying to share the resources.”

Reducing workplace stress is also critical. We should take a serious look at reducing the evaluation system (SB 191), which adds to teacher shortage by increasing stress and reducing career stability.

Additionally, we should also work to find further, progressive policy solutions. In the last legislative session, many pieces of legislation were proposed and were signed by Governor Hickenlooper. HB 1003, HB 1176, and SB 267 all work to reduce the teacher shortage and address future needs.

Finally, we need to continue to listen to the folks in the classrooms and respond accordingly.

We don’t have to listen to the experts, but we risk ending up in an educational dystopia of isolated pockets of educational affluence and poverty where the bulk of our children are unprepared for the world of tomorrow.

We need to support educators so they’re top notch in every classroom in our state. Our teachers need us to step up for them. Otherwise, we’ll continue to bleed teachers and the shortage will continue. That’s not a future Colorado wants to see.

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