First in a series on teachers and what they do during the summer: More than a year after the #RedForEd rally at the Capitol, many of the challenges that teachers face in the classroom and in raising a family on a teacher’s salary continue as shown in the documentary “Teaching in Arizona.”
The film, screened for audiences around the state, followed Tia Lei Tsosie-Begay, a fourth-grade teacher at Los Ninos Elementary School in Sunnyside Unified School District, Nathaniel Rios, a history and government teacher at Flowing Wells High School in Flowing Wells Unified School District, and Janet Acree, a math specialist at AmeriSchools Academy of Tucson.
“Economically, teaching is really challenging when you have a family,” said Nathaniel Rios, who supplements his teacher’s salary by working at an ice cream shop. “With retirement, social security, and unemployment, my paycheck doesn’t break $1,000 and that’s every two weeks. I’m not far off from where I’ve started.”
“Teaching in Arizona” film trailer
Part of the film showed Rios, who’s taught for more than 12 years, interviewing at a school district in Olympia, Wash., where he would have earned more money to help him better support his wife Tori Rios, who’s taught for more than 10 years, and their three children.
“We have gone from 20-somethings with no kids and no house, to a family with three kids, but it’s been increasingly difficult every year to exist in sort of an American Dream sense and also teach, which is really discouraging for us,” Rios said.
After careful consideration, Rios decided to stay in Flowing Wells, but said that he may have to consider other opportunities for his family at another time.
“We will continue to seek out opportunities for our family until we feel like our American Dream is sustainable as educators in Arizona,” Rios said.
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What inspired the film
“Teaching in Arizona” by filmmaker Lisa Molomot and sponsored by Tucson Values Teachers shows the realities of teaching in the state ranked 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding, and the documentary film recently won Best Arizona Short Film at the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival and the Arcosanti International Film Carnivale.
“One of the goals of the film is to inspire a cultural shift that brings awareness to the importance of teachers and the teaching profession in our communities and the impact they have on the economy prosperity of our region,” said Katie Rogerson, chief operations officer of Tucson Values Teachers.
“We want to build public will to support teachers and education, and influence voters and decision-makers to support funding and policies that positively impact the teacher workforce,” Rogerson said.
During a screening of the documentary in Phoenix hosted by Expect More Arizona and Tucson Values Teachers, Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation, said “This film is a part of their efforts that each and every one of us understand the challenges that Arizona teachers are facing.”
“We know from decades of research that the teacher in the classroom is a critical factor in students’ success,” Luna said. “We know and understand and believe in the importance of teachers and the work of teachers in the classroom. And I know that we need to work as a community to support our teachers.”
Panel discusses teacher recruitment & retention
During a panel discussion, Molomot said she felt this film could help bring about change, and she admires the teachers who took part in the film.
“The thing that really stands out to me about these three teachers is how open and honest they were about their struggles. They let me into their classrooms. They let me into their lives,” Molomot said. “They never seemed put out. They always seemed like they were just being themselves.”
One student whose Mother teaches with Rios at the high school, told him that when she saw the documentary it helped her understand what her Mother is going through and how it’s affecting her.
Rios said that when their students saw the documentary film, “we were overwhelmed with the amount of tears and supportive words from our students.”
Rios said afterward he and his wife talked about, “what are our kids going to see and get from us, because we pour so much into school.”
“When we support teachers, we support Arizona’s children,” said Kathy Wiebke, who runs the AZK12 Center for Professional Development and was Arizona’s first National Board Certified Teacher. “We train experienced teachers to mentor beginning teachers.”
Those mentors have helped create “an 80 percent teacher retention rate, far surpassing the state average in some of our most urban, high-needs communities,” Wiebke said.
Last year, Chandler Unified School District hired 329 new teachers, but the turnover seen around the state means that half the district’s teachers have been there less than five years, said Dr. Camille Casteel, superintendent of southeast valley district that serves more than 42,400 students.
Why teacher pay is important
Dr. Casteel said the current teacher shortage has made recruiting teachers challenging, even for her district which has 30 years of growth in student enrollment providing the district with additional state funds.
With the Chandler Unified Governing Board’s guidance, the extra state funds were put into increasing teachers’ salaries and reducing class size over time, Dr. Casteel said.
“I think teacher pay is very important,” Dr. Casteel said. “We have been able to build a fairly strong salary schedule with a starting salary of $44,000. Our average salary is $59,000 and our median salary is $57,000.”
Another way Chandler Unified recruits new teachers is to offer contracts to the top 10 to 15 percent of their student teachers each year, Dr. Casteel said.
Building support for K-12 education
But paying teachers a living wage they can support their families on isn’t the only thing to focus on, Rios said.
“But the other part of it is: How do we get schools and communities that support all that goes along with education? How do we get every school to have a successful marching band, how to we get a drama department, how do we get kids out into the community and volunteer?” Rios asked.
Part of the solution would be “living in a state where you – as an educator – feel that they’re funding education because they want to, not because they have to,” Rios said.