Burnout leading Utah teachers away from the classroom

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Editor’s note: This story pairs with “Help for the teacher crisis? Utah Ballot Question 1 may offer assistance”

Dustin Grady is no longer the leader of the band.

Instead of teaching 5th–12th graders how to play various instruments and performing as maestro at school concerts, Grady can be found hosting social media events and networking to build his new clothing retail business.

The decision to stop teaching wasn’t an easy one for Grady.

Jefferson Jarvis
Dustin Grady left his position as Band Teacher at American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork to pursue his personal business. (Dustin Grady)

“I love teaching. I loved connecting with students. It was just a lot of fun every day,” Grady said.

But teaching didn’t seem sustainable for the band teacher- turned-entrepreneur.

“The burnout was always there on the teaching side, running my own business helped me see how much teaching demanded,” Grady said. “It was like, ‘Man, it demands so much, and this is all I get in return?’”

Teachers like Grady are leaving schools in droves. According to schools.utah.gov more than half of teachers leave after only seven years on the job. Grady taught at the American Leadership Academy, a charter school in Spanish Fork, for only five years.

Jason Cox, the director of human resources for the Provo School District, said many teachers leave even sooner than the seven-year time frame.

”The first three to four years there is a lot of turnover,” Cox said. “We have a lot of mixed reasons why people don’t make it through those first years, but some of them are (that) financially they’re having a very difficult time because of the pay, and they know they could be doing something else.”

The average high school teacher in Utah makes $55,746 per year according to a study by the Utah Taxpayers Association.

Other jobs that also require bachelor’s degrees make much more money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median salary for a computer programmer at $82,240. A civil engineer’s median salary is $84,770. Overall on the Bureau of Labor Statistics listings, teachers’ median salaries are ranked 114th out of 174 occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree.

Cox said teacher availability often correlates with the economy.

“When the economy is great, less people are coming out of high school and choosing education as their field of study,” Cox said. “When the economy is down, that’s when the education departments fill up and we get a lot more students wanting to teach.”

Grady said although money is a big part of the problem, it’s not the only reason teachers like himself are leaving.

”I don’t think there’s a silver bullet; people say ‘pay more,’” Grady said. “But I’ve often said over the last few years it wouldn’t matter if you paid me more, what I’ve been doing is just too stressful.”

Terry Young, an associate chair in the department of teacher education at BYU, said part of that stress comes from a “lack of respect that a lot of teachers feel” from society.

“(People) feel that education is kind of a second-class degree, but I think that education is one of the most important fields there is,” Young said. “A good teacher is worth a whole lot more than they’re compensated for.”

Unfortunately, when teachers leave the classroom, it can put more stress on the remaining teachers as class sizes grow.

“Utah has a few things against it,” Young said. “One is that often the class sizes are larger and the schools often spend less per pupil than other states.”

In addition to having larger than average classroom sizes, teachers in Utah are expected to work with a much smaller budget than their peers in other states.

The most recent information from the United States Census Bureau ranks Utah dead last in annual spending per student, with the state paying out $6,953 per student in 2016. In contrast, 13 states spent more than $14,000 per student in the same year.

“We aren’t highly funded in the state of Utah compared to other states, but our students perform fairly well,” Cox said. “So if we’re getting a little bit more money, then maybe our students will perform even better.”

In a study titled “The effects of working conditions on teacher retention,” researchers found that “schools where teachers rated their working conditions as more satisfactory had lower attrition rates.”

The study also concluded that the types of students in the classroom didn’t affect teacher retention as much as working conditions.

Unfortunately for Utah, classroom budget and size are large components of working conditions for teachers.

While much can be done to improve teacher retention, recruiting new teachers is another issue altogether.

At BYU there are a specific set of challenges in the department of teacher education. The numbers in the program took a dive in 2012 with the missionary age change and, according to Young, the program hasn’t quite recovered yet.

“Frankly, quite a few of them don’t plan on teaching at all,” Young said. “They plan on being stay-at-home spouses and mothers.”

Young said he guessed about a third of students in the program don’t plan on teaching professionally after college.

Recruiting enough of the right kinds of teachers can be difficult and certain subjects are often harder to find qualified teachers for than others. Cox said math teachers are particularly hard to find, so the Provo School District turns to people who didn’t necessarily plan on becoming teachers in the first place.

A program called Alternative Route to Licensure helps people who didn’t go to college to be a teacher become certified to teach on the job.

“Anyone who has a degree can start teaching right away,” Cox said. “The state assesses what they are qualified to teach and then assigns them certain courses to become licensed and they enroll in those while they are teaching.”

Grady was one of those people who didn’t plan on teaching after college, but found it to be a good fit at the time. Like half of his fellow teachers, he didn’t make it to the eight-year mark.

Grady still helps out at American Leadership Academy because music is a passion.

“Because of loyalty, I didn’t want to abandon my students,” Grady said. “So I offered to help. The guy that took my place is a friend of mine and welcomed the help. I still get fulfillment out of it.”

Because the teacher shortage is a problem in America and especially Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a public statement in September, inviting retired teachers to come back.

But Grady said it will take more than someone asking nicely.

“You need to sit down and ask the teachers why they’re leaving and ask them what it would take to make them come back,” Grady said. “Don’t ask them to come back, ask them what it would take to get them back. I’ve got a laundry list, and I imagine the others do as well.”

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