Insufficient pay, exhaustion and workload contributing to low teacher retention rate in Utah

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Teacher shortages are spreading like wildfire throughout the country and the state of Utah. On April 26, the National Education Association ranked Utah 50th in the nation for spending per student. (Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash)

The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a massive teacher shortage in public schools throughout the country leaving teachers burned out, overwhelmed and lacking passion for their careers. 

According to an audit on teacher retention in Utah released by the Utah Legislature in December 2021, the U.S. will likely face a shortage of “200,000 teachers by 2025 if policy makers and public education leaders do not act.”

The audit included interviews from 212 teachers throughout Utah and showed that most teachers are concerned with “stress, workload, administrative support and salaries.”

“We’re just really exhausted and tired,” said Michelle Mickelson, a 4th grade teacher from Draper who has been teaching for 17 years.

Early this year, schools in Utah were scrambling to find substitute teachers. They asked counselors, custodians, librarians and even parents to step in, to help with the lack of teachers due to stress and the rise of the omicron variant.

“On my team there are five of us and three of the five are leaving next year,” Mickelson said.

The core problem of retention lies in the upcoming generation of teachers, both a lack of young people choosing to pursue the profession and the amount of new teachers who prematurely leave teaching.

“I have thought about leaving,” said a first-year special education teacher who was not comfortable being named due to fear of losing her job. “I have many responsibilities that I don’t have enough hours in the day to get done. I teach all day and then am responsible to do paperwork on my personal time which I am not compensated for.”

The average teacher turnover in Utah during new teachers’ first five years of working was 42% for the 2016 cohort of teachers, the audit reported. The audit pointed out that this is higher than the national average which ranges from 17% to 46%. 

The Utah Legislature’s audit shows that both professionally licensed teachers and those who entered the field in a non-traditional way have had an increasing turnover rate over the past 5 years, with the non-professionally licensed teachers yielding a much more severe percentage.

According to data from a Utah Legislature audit on teacher retention, the teacher turnover rate of the first five years of teaching is increasing each year in Utah’s public education system. The numbers are lower for professionally licensed teachers, but the rate is still increasing. (Graph made in Canva by McKell Park with data from the Utah Legislature’s Performance Audit of Teacher Retention Within Utah’s Public Education System)

Utah schools are hiring growing amounts of non-professionally licensed teachers, a concern noted in the document. The audit asserts that if this trend continues “retention of teachers may become more of a concern.”

Utah’s officials say after reviewing the audit they are working to make teacher retention and funding a priority in the state. 

“We look forward to working with the Utah State Board of Education as the legislature and USBE focus on efforts to retain teachers in their first five years of service,” said Ben Dalton, president of the Utah School Superintendents Association, in a letter responding to the audit. 

Budget and Teacher Pay 

In an Envision Utah survey, 4,000 college students were asked why they were were not pursuing a career in education. About 41% said a higher salary would make them reconsider becoming a teacher. (Unsplash)

Although the pandemic sparked a surge in teacher shortages, retention has been an issue in Utah for many years, the audit noted, because of concerns with pay.

In an Envision Utah survey, 4,000 college students were asked why they were were not pursuing a career in education. About 41% said a higher salary would make them reconsider becoming a teacher.

“Sometimes if I’m home and my husband is working I just think ‘wow he makes so much more money than me and he does just one thing at a time’ and teachers do like four or five things at a time,” Mickelson said. 

In March, the Utah Legislature increased the education budget by $383 million and also approved $10 million in teacher bonuses in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although a positive step to improve funding for education, the bonus was less than substantial according to Mickelson.

“We got $300 before taxes, after taxes it was $200, and they’re talking about this on the news?” Mickelson said. “I mean that’s like a week’s worth of groceries.” 

Teacher’s salaries are lower than many other professions’ compensation, however, some teachers have no problem with the pay because they are passionate about teaching.

“If you go into teaching for the pay, you are not in the right profession,” high school teacher Molly Marchese said. “The pay does not bother me.”

Along with teacher salary, lack of funding for schools also contributes to teachers’ stress and hinders educators from having all the required resources. 

On April 26, the National Education Association released a yearly report of teacher salaries and spending per student throughout the country. The report said when adjusted for inflation, the average teacher salary has declined by 3.9% over the past decade.

With an average of $8,968 spent per student, Utah ranked 50th in the nation in per student spending, according to the National Education Association’s yearly report. This number is calculated dividing all expenditures made throughout the academic year by the number of students.

Although there is enough money for classroom supplies at her school, Mickelson noted that more funding for people in the classroom, including aides who can act as an extra set of hands, could be beneficial.

“We could have help with some of the harder kids if every teacher had an aide,” Mickelson said. “We could use them to help with correcting and helping students who need behavioral help.”

Some Utah organizations such as Envision Utah are working to find solutions to the problems schools and teachers are facing.

Envision Utah launched their “Teacher Initiative” in 2017 after only 34% of new teachers came from Utah’s academic teacher prep programs, compared to 58% in 2007. The organization is passionate about building the future of education in Utah and believes education is “the key to improving their quality of life and creating better communities for themselves and for future generations.”

Studies show teachers are essential for creating successful students and playing a pivotal role in how well kids perform in the classroom.

“I spend more time with my kids than their parents do,” Mickelson said. “Teachers are so important so if we can show them that we value them by giving them extra support and a little bit more money, then they are going to be happier.”

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