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Teachers cite family, moving as main reasons for leaving, but other stresses remain

September 3, 2018

Students and parents walk to Brookhaven Elementary on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in Eagle Mountain.

Bridget Varner knew teaching would be hard, at least at first. She assumed the first year or two would be the worst, but that things would get easier by the fourth year.

Six years in, she’s questioned if her plans to teach for forever will last.

“I want to do this forever and I haven’t always stayed that enthusiastic because now I’m like, I don’t know if I can make it 30 years,” said Varner, a second-grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills.

There are several factors that made that enthusiasm fluctuate. Part of it is the housing market and that at six years into her career, she can’t afford a townhome. The other part includes stresses that include additional requirements without allocated time to complete them.

Her situation isn’t unique. In Utah, half of teachers will leave the classroom within five years, and while teachers commonly cite the stresses of teaching for the reason they leave, those aren’t the answers they give school districts in exit interviews.

Exit surveys

Answers departing teachers give districts about why they leave, or exit surveys, are consistent throughout Utah County.

About a third of teachers tell the Provo City School District they’re leaving for family reasons — which includes staying home with children or taking care of a family member — and another third tell the district they’re moving out of the area, according to Jason Cox, the executive director of human resources for the Provo City School District.

Those answers didn’t surprise him.

“It confirmed the things we had believed prior,” Jason Cox said.

The survey results confirmed his suspicions about why half of the district’s teachers were leaving by the five-year mark. But it also meant that the main reasons they were leaving aren’t things the district can impact.

“They aren’t leaving us because they hate us,” Cox said. “They aren’t leaving us because they’re angry, because there’s poor communication or service. They are leaving for positive reasons.”

Other categories people would mark, but not as high, include pay and concern over the lack of autonomy in their classrooms. Teachers could mark multiple reasons.

Those top reasons — moving and family — are also marked as the top reasons for leaving in the Alpine and Nebo school districts.

Those aren’t things that can be changed with incentives, according to Kevin Cox, the administrator of human resources for the Alpine School District.

“Those are life changes people are going to go through whether they stay with us or not,” Kevin Cox said.

Difficult subjects

Special education and tested subjects, such as science and math, have higher teacher turnover rates and are harder to fill than teachers for other classes.

Other classes, like band, are positions teachers are likely to remain in for their entire career.

Jason Cox said that might be because positions to teach elective classes typically have fewer job openings because there is only a few spots for that subject per school and therefore fewer opportunities for movement.

“Our band teacher might want to stay around for their career,” he said.

In the math and science fields, the challenge to getting teachers to fill these positions is that there’s already a small pool of applicants to choose from. That could be because STEM teachers have to choose between pursuing a career in teaching or using that same education to enter a more lucrative field.

For those who enter teaching in the STEM fields, it’s because they want to be there. That was the case for Steven Phelps, who teaches math at Lakeridge Junior High School in Orem.

Phelps became a teacher later in life and has found passion for teaching through his own educational experience.

“Most of my teachers wrote me off,” Phelps said. “I never had that inspirational teacher or anything else, so I decided to fill that void.”

He understood math. He could explain it. He also knew it’s a unique topic where he can teach students how to overcome their struggles during a difficult time in their life. But he also has to fight people who don’t understand that the purpose of math has changed from being all about calculations to how to apply math to solve problems. He said while math is all about application, testing hasn’t caught up, and teachers will end up teaching the way students are tested.

That background also means he knows math teachers see education systems differently.

“We look at efficiency and we see a system that is wholly inefficient,” Phelps said.

Of the five people who graduated with Phelps from Utah Valley University to teach mathematics in 2009, Phelps said only half are still teaching.

Finding a job was easy. He received an offer almost immediately, and when he went to switch schools this summer, kept receiving phone calls weekly from schools asking if he was still available.

He said math teachers are leaving the field because they don’t feel respected by policymakers, administration and parents. He said that people are seeing how math is taught as political due to the Common Core curriculum.

“They’re frustrated, they’re exhausted,” Phelps said. “They’re beat up and they look at their salary and benefits and say this isn’t worth it anymore.”

He’s also frustrated by the phrase “it’s for the children.”

“That phrase dismisses a lot,” he said. “It allows teachers to be allowed to be paid less. It allows teachers to work more.”

It’s a phrase that Wendy Rush, a special education instructional facilitator with the Utah Virtual Academy, also hates. She said she always wants to tell teachers that they also matter and that things need to work for them, as well.

“I feel like it is emotionally manipulative to a teacher to look at someone who is that overburdened and say this isn’t about the pay, this is about the kids,” Rush said.

Rush said special education teachers have specific responsibilities teachers in a general education classroom don’t have to juggle, which leads to special education teachers burning out and leaving the profession.

“It’s too hard,” Rush said. “It’s full-time teaching, plus full-time paperwork, plus full-time meetings.”

The job includes the stress of knowing a parent can sue if they don’t think a teacher has provided the services outlined in their student’s individual education plan. It hasn’t happened to Rush, but it has happened at schools she’s taught at.

Growing up, Rush always wanted to be a teacher. She created a make-believe school in her bedroom and taught her brothers to read. Teaching makes her feel energized, and watching a student who has struggled finally have a breakthrough is a powerful moment for her.

But since she got her degree in 2006, all the stresses of being a special education teacher have taken an impact, she said.

She said having to stay extremely organized, having to spend so much time away from home and not being able to pay bills or going on a trip is exhausting. But moving to another field isn’t so easy.

“We went to college for this,” Rush said. “This is what we trained to do. Some of us are still paying off our loans.”

Moving to a virtual school meant there is someone who handled the paperwork and large amount of notices she’s legally required to send out.

“If I was not a virtual teacher right now, I would not be a teacher,” she said.

Group reinforcement from administration is not helpful to teachers, she said, and teachers need specific comments about what they’re doing well, along with the proper time to do what is required of them.

Everyday pressure

Brian Preece started teaching 30 years ago because he wanted to be a coach and saw teaching as an avenue to that dream.

When he started, his only mentor was a teacher next door who helped him. Mentoring for new teachers has improved since then, but he’s also seen the amount of paperwork and policy increase in the 30 years since — and the impact that has had on the new teachers he sees.

“I would say most younger teachers don’t last,” Preece said.

At Provo High School, where Preece teaches social studies, there is a large gap in teacher demographics.

“In our school, it is kind of the old joke,” he said. “We have nearly-deads and the newlyweds.”

He’s used to the pay and class sizes, which Preece said haven’t changed throughout his career. But, he said he’s seen medical insurance coverage get worse, seen fewer benefits, the cost of living increase as salaries remain mostly the same and less-appealing retirement packages.

He wants better analysis of what teachers are asked to do and the value those things have on education.

“In the 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go,” Preece said. “A lot of things really don’t improve anything, or don’t improve things enough to justify things, and a lot of times they make things worse for a variety of reasons.”

For Varner, teaching at the early elementary level means knowing students click with the material at different ages. Parents begin to get worried in the second grade if their students aren’t grasping the material, which can put stress on teachers.

“The parents are either super supportive, or sometimes I think parents are so focused on sports that I don’t have any support,” Varner said.

Many of the friends she graduated with from Southern Utah University have stopped teaching. She said some got married and stayed home with kids, but that the issue of teacher retention goes deeper than women who want to stay home with children.

Varner suggests teachers could benefit from having to do year-long student teaching, or could be helped from doing student teaching during the first few months of the year so they see how to build a classroom.

Working toward solutions

Like Utah County’s other school districts, the Nebo School District sees many teachers leave in their first five years.

“A lot of those are moving and are having a family,” said Lana Hiskey, a spokeswoman for the district.

She said Nebo School District is a leader on training and helping teachers. Hiskey points to collaboration time on Monday afternoons for teachers that have gone well.

In Provo, the district has worked to raise teacher pay across the board.

“We want to make sure we are doing as much as we possibly can to compensate people fairly,” Jason Cox said.

He said the district also looks at benefits, paid time off, class size and other factors that contribute to the work environment in addition to the base salary.

He said the district has yet to start a school year with a teacher shortage, and the district is working on things that can be done to improve the culture — such as reducing workload and increasing communication to eliminate redundancies — to make the job easier.

When it comes to the phrase “whatever is best for the kids,” he said the district understands that happy, good teachers lead to better outcomes for students.

“I hear that and that’s why we need to be looking at the whole picture,” Jason Cox said.

Alpine School District had openings going into the school year, but Kevin Cox said that’s typical.

“With over 3,600 teachers, there is always something open for us,” Kevin Cox said. “We are not in any different shape now than we usually are.”

Of those 3,600 teachers, more than 720 were new to the district for the start of the 2018-19 school year. Kevin Cox said the district typically hires 600-700 teachers a year.

He said the district wants teachers to feel engaged with their schools and that the district has made an aggressive effort to hire more coaches and give teachers access to more training. He also sees networking with undecided college students as key to attracting more students into the profession, along with raising pay to make it more competitive as a profession.

Kevin Cox said teacher numbers tend to fluctuate, and that he’s optimistic that in a few years the amount of teachers in Utah will be greater.

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