This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
We can't say we weren't warned.
Consider this headline from a 2006 Utah State University study "Experts predict Utah teacher shortage by 2016." Or the 2007 projection by University of Utah education professor David Sperry that Utah would face "a severe teacher shortage unlike anything it has ever experienced…"
What's shocking to me is not the fact Utah indeed faces a severe teacher shortage but how astonishingly little has been done to avoid it.
Studies were conducted to discern the underlying causes, task forces assembled to make recommendations, proposals considered to address needs. Yet here we are. After a decade of only dialogue and debate, it's really no surprise the situation has escalated to crisis levels.
A recent tactic to catapult well-intentioned but underprepared people into the classroom with no required teaching experience (called "Academic Pathway to Teaching" by the Utah State Board of Education) does little to address the fundamental root causes of this shortage and may, in fact, exacerbate it.
So what's the solution? The shortage may look a little different in each school district and even in each school, but allow me, as a 26-year teaching veteran, to offer two suggestions that I believe address the underlying causes of Utah's teacher shortage:
First, invest in attracting the best and the brightest to enter and remain in the teaching profession. A recent study conducted by the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute shows the wage gap between teachers and other professionals with similar education and experience has reached an all-time high of 17 percent. In Utah that gap is 30 percent!
Currently only four out of 10 teachers remain in our Utah classrooms after five years. Not only must we find ways to mentor and strengthen our new teachers, we must make the necessary investments so as to make a career in education an attractive, viable option.
Second, reduce the overwhelming workload heaped on Utah teachers. A 2011 report by the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University illuminates the dissatisfaction teachers feel about the ever increasing workload. Teachers are stretched to the limit, and with new initiatives, emphasis on testing and accountability and changing student demographics, that burden increases each year.
Addressing workload must begin with allowing teachers the time needed to reach and inspire their students. But they cannot provide students with the one-on-one attention they deserve when Utah continues to have the nation's largest class sizes ("Ranking of the States," National Education Association). Teachers also yearn for the opportunities that come with autonomy, such as innovation and creativity. Yet, encumbered by the ever-expanding responsibilities and structured accountability systems, we are filled with a sense that important work will never be finished.
We must also recognize that teacher workload is eased by other professionals in the school such as nurses, counselors, librarians, social workers, paraprofessionals and many others who impact the learning of the whole child.
The common denominator in each of these recommendations? Money. Each solution to our teacher shortage requires an investment in the components that lead to the success of our students. For far too long there has been an expectation of return in our Utah schools without the necessary investment.
As stated in the 2011 Wheatley Institute study, "But in the final analysis, the quality and productivity of public education is a matter of public and political will." If we want the return our Utah students deserve, we must have the public and political will to invest our time, our resources and yes, our money, in Utah public education. It's time to stop studying and start acting. Our Utah students deserve an investment in their education and in their future.
Heidi Matthews is a junior high school teacher recently elected by public school teachers statewide to serve as president of the Utah Education Association.