AZ education leaders: Where have our teachers gone?
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AZ education leaders: Where have our teachers gone?


A teacher shortage is hitting Arizona hard, with 62 percent of public schools reporting unfilled teaching positions in September 2014, according to an Arizona Department of Education survey.

To make matters worse, 23 percent of Arizona educators will be eligible to retire in the next four years, according to the Arizona State Retirement System‘s October 2014 Fact Sheet.

“Arizona is facing a crisis in education right now,” said Kristie Martorelli, Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. “We have hundreds of unfilled teaching positions in districts and schools all around our state.”

Graphic by Caitlin Bohrer/Arizona Education News Service

Teacher preparation programs say fewer students are enrolling, said Martorelli, professional development coordinator at Dysart Unified School District.

“The teachers who are coming into our profession are not staying, and those who have been here for many years are choosing to leave early,” Martorelli said. “This poses a tremendous challenge for our students, teachers and districts.”

AZ education leaders: Where have our teachers gone? ArizonaTeacherRecruitmentAndRetentionHP

The National Council on Teacher Quality has cited Arizona State University’s student teaching program, iTeachAZ, as exemplary among 2,420 teacher preparation programs it evaluated nationwide. Photo courtesy Andy DeLisle/Arizona State University

The recent Educator Retention and Recruitment Report recommends ways for policy makers, local education agencies and the Arizona Department of Education to help Arizona schools attract new teachers and keep effective ones.

“Our legislators can help education by seeking advice and recommendations from education professionals working in the industry – not just college professors,” said Dr. Christopher Bonn, superintendent/principal of Sonoita Elementary School District in Elgin, a small town along the Babocomari River in Santa Cruz County.

If the teacher shortage continues, “Arizona will not be able to ensure economic prosperity for its citizens and create the workforce of tomorrow,” according to the report by the Arizona Department of Education’s Educator Retention and Recruitment Task Force.

“Regardless of the standards, assessment, curriculum or any other factor we might put in place in education, our students will continue to struggle without a high-quality, caring and committed teacher in every classroom in Arizona,” Martorelli said.

Recruiting and retaining teachers

The shortage of highly-qualified teachers for the past few years has led many Arizona public school leaders to seek candidates from other states and in some cases from other countries.

Right now, all Arizona school districts are currently in a desperate struggle to find qualified teachers for next year, and most new teachers come from out-of-state, said Dr. Frank Davidson, superintendent of Casa Grande Elementary School District.

“It has become much more difficult to attract teachers from other states in recent years,” Davidson said. “That is partly due to the fact that Arizona’s teacher salaries are not competitive with other states.”

“Every year, we lose promising young teachers to other states, because they are discouraged by the apparent lack of commitment to building a strong public education system in Arizona,” Davidson said.

“Regardless of the standards, assessment, curriculum or any other factor we might put in place in education, our students will continue to struggle without a high-quality, caring and committed teacher in every classroom in Arizona,” said Kristie Martorelli, Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2012 Teacher of the Year.

School leaders say it is especially hard to fill teaching positions in special education, math, science, and kindergarten, according to a September 2014 survey by the Arizona Department of Education.

Yet, Lisa Aaroe, director of recruitment and retention for Exceptional Student Services at the Arizona Department of Education, said “Our attrition rate in special education mirrors general education.”

Schools also compete with hospitals to attract occupational therapists and speech language pathologists who work with students experiencing physical challenges that impact their learning.

“In rural areas, it’s really tough to fill these vacancies,” Aaroe said.

Raquel Burton, teacher on assignment/interim administrator of Quartzsite School District’s 240 students two K-8 schools in La Paz County said the schools locations in Ehrenberg and Quartzsite make it difficult to recruit and retain teachers. Ehrenberg is a small town on the Colorado River near Blythe, California, and Quartzsite is a town about 18 miles east of the Colorado River near the Dome Rock Mountains.

“We are very small, and our towns do not have many things to offer new teachers,” Burton said.

Florence Unified School District Superintendent Amy Fuller said that 43 percent of teachers left Pinal County last year.

“Florence Unified loses several teachers per year because we have not been able to give raises and because we are in a rural area,” Fuller said.

The governor’s proposed cuts to non-classroom areas, including support services, and speech therapists also affect the district’s ability to attract and retain teachers, Fuller said.

“Why would teachers want to stay if they have no resources available?” Fuller asked. “No one or less people to help them with special education students, English Language Learners, high behavior students and low motivation students. All of the proposed  cuts will affect children directly and teachers negatively.”

Recruiting a physical education teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a reading specialist for a school in Elgin that serves 118 students has been hard, because “most qualified people aren’t willing to commute over an hour a day,” Bonn said.

Yet retaining teachers is not difficult, because “we pay well, and our class sizes are small. Our community is Small Town USA, and families still value education and support the schools,” Bonn said.

While 39 percent of schools seek mostly Arizona teachers, 32 percent hire both in- and out-of state educators, 13 percent recruit only in Arizona, and 11 percent recruit mostly out of state, according to the ADE survey.

“The out-of-state candidates have been friends of current employees,” one public school leader said.

The report recommends that school leaders review salary and benefits, develop marketing materials and form regional consortiums to recruit teachers.

Many Arizona teaching graduates are snatched up right away, Aaroe said.

But Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts and other states have more new teachers and less vacancies so the Arizona Department of Education sends brochures highlighting Arizona’s cost of living, weather and diversity to universities across the country, Aaroe said.

“When we go to recruitment fairs, we talk about the cost of living and they can’t believe it,” Aaroe said. “They see Los Angeles or Chicago and we’re so much cheaper.”

Of the schools who recruit teachers from outside Arizona, 38 percent do so for quantity and quality of teachers and 35 percent say there are not enough candidates to choose from in Arizona.

“We find most Arizona teachers are not interested in working in rural Arizona,” wrote an education administrator in the survey.

Another said, “Many in-state candidates prefer to work in larger cities.”

About 48 percent of educators recruited outside of Arizona stay for three to five years, 41 percent stay up to two years, and 11 percent stay more than five years, according to the ADE 2014 survey.

“We would prefer in-state as we have had many out of state candidates return home after a year or two,” said a school leader who took the survey.

In Quartzsite, “new teachers tend to stay for about two years,” Burton said.

Teacher salaries

Another of the report’s recommendations is to support a statewide increase in funding to raise K-12 teacher salaries.

“Teachers are leaving the profession because they are making approximately the same money as they made 10 to 15 years ago,”  Bonn said. “Our teachers stay, but in my former schools, I had graduate level teachers leave to work at call centers to make more money or as assistant managers at McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Walmart because they had better benefits for their family.”

The average salary of a new teacher in Arizona is $31,874, ranking the state 44th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“The leading reason teachers leave is the salary in Arizona,” Burton said. “Policy makers can help increase salaries for teachers, and communities can give incentives for teachers or assist with housing.”

The largest obstacle to hiring out-of-state teachers is salary, followed by Arizona state certification, the costs associated with obtaining Arizona certification, and moving costs, according to the ADE survey.

“We had three candidates this summer who initially took the job, then looked at their budget and declined,” said an education leader in the survey.

“Until we can start paying teachers, people are not going to want to go into the profession,” said Dr. Jim Lee, superintendent of Paradise Valley Unified School District. “Our candidate pools are decreasing every year, and we still have vacancies in our district – 26 at last count.”

Often young teachers cannot find affordable housing, struggle to pay off student loans and take on additional jobs, according to the Educator Retention And Recruitment Report.

Those stresses, along with the demands of teaching, are often too much for new teachers and they leave the profession, according to the National Education Association.

Half of districts and charters said between one and five educators broke their contract or resigned during the 2013-2014 school year, and 42 percent said the primary reason was to pursue higher-paying careers outside education.

Professional development

The report also recommends developing and funding evidence-based multi-year induction programs for new teachers and targeted professional development for all teachers.

While new teachers need training and mentoring, several years of budget cuts have reduced or eliminated many programs, and there is no state support for this critical component of teacher retention.

“We have all this research saying that teacher mentoring and induction programs are really powerful,” Aaroe said. “If you have a mentor and an induction program, you don’t feel so isolated and so overwhelmed.”

Seventy-three percent of Arizona schools have a mentoring program for new teachers, and 60 percent offer veteran teachers a stipend to mentor new teachers, according to the ADE survey.

Sixty-eight percent of schools have an induction program for new teachers, and the cost of one is about $6,000 per teacher.

Data shows that half of all special education and general education teachers leave the field within two years, Aaroe said.

“If we don’t give them mentoring and induction programs on the front end, we’re going to lose them,” Aaroe said. “We’re looking to increase those efforts here.”

Meeting teachers training needs throughout their career is important.

As educators we know that the effective cycle of learning applies to all learners, not just our students,” Martorelli said. “For this reason, many districts in our state, including mine, have moved to a more personalized professional development model.”

For first-year teachers, this means mentoring and induction programs tailored to their needs with a high level of support, Martorelli said.

For veteran teachers, there are “opportunities to engage their voice and shape their profession around their areas of passion as teacher leaders,” Martorelli said.

“It is crucial that we move from a one-size-fits-all model of professional learning to one that honors the differences and means of our educators,” Martorelli said.

Other recommendations

The report also recommends streamlining teacher certification, revising requirements and implementing an online certification application system.

A task force looked into trends in special education certification, and presented changes the State Board of Education adopted in 2013 that will take effect in 2016, Aaroe said.

“We realized there were more states moving away from how we currently certify here in Arizona by area, and they’re moving more towards level of severity,” Aaroe said.

Since instruction is based on the level of support the child needs, certification will be for teaching students with mild to moderate or severe to profound disabilities, Aaroe said.

“Our new certification will hopefully open up reciprocity with other states, because now our certificate will be in alignment with two-thirds of the other states across the nation,” Aaroe said.

Educators should advertise openings on state and national websites like the ADE’s Arizona Education Employment Board.

“We have an employment board where school districts can post their vacancies, and Teach In AZ where out of state applicants can find a job in Arizona and it has links to certification,” Aaroe said. “It’s basically a one-stop shop. We try to make it really easy and seamless.”

Other ideas include developing and sharing an online state repository of best practices in educator retention and publicizing debt forgiveness criteria for teachers in Title I schools.

Educators should also develop and expand grow-your-own programs to help instructional aides take the next step to become certified teachers.

The Arizona Department of Education has several ways to help people become certified teachers in special education.

“One is the Paraprofessional Tuition Assistance Grant that’s for paraprofessionals who want to go back to school to become special education teachers,” Aaroe said. “We also have a new grant that if you already have your general education certification and you want to go back to get your special education master’s we pay for half the tuition.”

There also is tuition assistance for occupational therapy assistants and speech language pathology assistants who want to become full-fledged occupational therapists and speech language pathologists.

“We work closely with Northern Arizona University’s speech language pathologist program,” Aaroe said. “We offer and help support a summers only program where 60 students who are becoming speech language pathologists take very condensed course work. ADE pays their tuition with the contingency that they serve at least three years in an Arizona public school as an SLP.”

With the new certification requirements, state universities are talking to each other more about their teacher preparation programs, what they’re doing to better equip students and be in alignment with certification changes, Aaroe said.

Bonn is working with Sonoita district’s governing board to start a grow-your-own program.

“Until recently, our district hasn’t had many vacancies,” Bonn said. “When one periodically appeared, the staff had already recruited individuals to apply, bragging about our pay, our class sizes and the respectful nature of our community.”

“As our staff begins to mature, there will be more hard-to-fill vacancies,” Bonn said. “If I can just get teachers here, I know they will stay.”