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Taylorsville • Erika Williams circled her second-grade classroom at Westbrook Elementary on Tuesday, placing papers on top of empty desks.
She hoped to be done working around 4 p.m., but every time she thought she was finished, she remembered one more thing to do.
"It was very overwhelming last week, because I still had a lot of chaos in my brain," Williams said. "The more organized I get, the better I feel."
Just outside the school, in a portable double-wide trailer, Brittnee Hinton was putting the finishing touches on her fifth-grade classroom.
"I'm really close," she said. "I came in the first week of August and have been here at least five hours a day since then."
Williams and Hinton will start their careers as teachers Wednesday, when the school year begins for Granite School District.
Both are recent graduates of the University of Utah and student-taught at Westbrook as part of their studies.
That familiarity with the school and its staff, as well as preparation time during the summer, eased some of their fears ahead of the first day of school.
"I'm excited," Hinton said. "I already know I'm not going to get any sleep tonight."
But some teachers won't have the benefit of weeks or even days to set up for the school year.
With the clock running down on summer break, Utah school districts still are working to fill open teaching positions.
On Tuesday, Canyons School District was looking for four elementary teachers and a part-time Spanish teacher, with students set to arrive Wednesday morning.
"The four elementary classes will [start with] a substitute," Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook said. "Sometimes we just have to search a little longer to find the right fit."
With one week before classes begin, Jordan School District still had 22 job openings, including nonteachers. Salt Lake City School District was working to fill four full-time teaching positions.
And while Williams and Hinton were finishing up at Westbrook, Granite administrators were interviewing candidates for two full-time teachers and one part-time position.
Despite having little time to spare, district spokesman Ben Horsley said the district had been in worse fixes.
"Even a month out," he said, "we've had as many as 60 to 80 positions still open in the past."
In Utah and around the country, educators and administrators report a teacher shortage as schools work to staff their classrooms for the year.
Enrollment in education-degree programs has fallen, prompting some states to recruit novice teachers with incomplete teaching credentials to fill open positions.
Between 2012 and 2013, the most recent years for which statewide figures are available, the number of students studying to become teachers fell at Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, University of Phoenix, University of Utah, Utah State University, Weber State University, Westminster College and the Utah State Office of Education's Alternative Route to Licensure program.
An increase of 400 would-be teachers enrolled in the online Western Governors University offset the state's overall loss, but the downward trend is expected to continue beyond 2013 as students look past education to other careers.
"You have to ask yourself: Would you want to go into a profession that's under constant attack?" Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
There are several factors contributing to the teacher shortage, she said.
The recent push for accountability, she said, which grades schools based on test scores and ties teacher pay to student performance, have diminished the appeal of the profession.
And teachers are feeling beleaguered and disrespected, she said, after years of managing large classrooms on low salaries the result of Utah's status as the lowest-funded public education system in the country in terms of per-student allocations.
"As with any business," she said, "in order to attract and retain teachers, or any employee for that matter, you need to be able to offer them a competitive wage and a livable wage."
Besides political and economic pressure, the potential teacher pool also changes with the economy.
As marketplace conditions improve, Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said, low-paying jobs like teaching become less attractive.
"When the economy is good, there's lots of other jobs out there," he said. "Our number of people we have to hire from goes down."
The district logged a number of retirements and resignations that were announced late in the summer, Olsen said, adding to the stress of staffing schools.
"That left us scrambling a little bit through July and through August as well," he said.
Horsley said Granite district recently implemented a $500 signing bonus and insurance incentives to attract new teachers. Those changes were made with the teacher shortage in mind to make the district more competitive in a shallow candidate pool.
"When you're in a tough market condition," Horsley said, "you're going to lose teachers who jump districts to get another step or two."
Nationally, about half the new teachers abandon the profession within their first five years in the classroom.
Williams said she was told that statistic on her first day at the U., but it didn't discourage her from pursuing a career in education.
The 36-year-old mother of three said she loves teaching and was excited to have a work schedule that mirrors her children's schooling.
"I'm in a point in my life where I know what I want to do," she said, "and I'm going to stick with it."
Teaching is not for the faint of heart, Williams said. But for those who are serious about education and children, it can be a rewarding career.
"You're here for the kids at the end of the day," she said. "That's really why you go into teaching."