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A recent survey indicated that a majority of Wyoming teachers would quit their jobs if they could

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A joint survey conducted by the University of Wyoming’s College of Education and the Wyoming Education Association indicated that 65 percent of the state’s teachers would quit if they were able to. This comes after teachers nationwide have had to contend with the effects of the pandemic, low pay, and increasingly aggressive behavior from students and parents, among many other issues.

“Teachers that go into the profession, and the same is true with all the education professionals, are passionate about the students they work with and their jobs,” said Grady Hutcherson, President of the Wyoming Education Association. “It’s really disheartening when we find out that 65 percent are considering leaving the profession if they could.”

The reasons for quitting or wanting to quit are many, but some of the major ones identified in the survey were depression, anxiety and mental health concerns in addition to concerns about student assessments and meeting the educational needs of students. And while 12 percent of survey respondents said they intended to exit the teaching profession at the end of the school year, this doesn’t include the 65 percent who indicated they would quit if they could. Financial obligations were often listed as factors that prohibit them from doing so.

The survey findings were combined into a report authored by Dr. Mark Perkins, Assistant Professor of Educational Research Methods at UW. The report stated, “A teacher’s day is filled with uncountable social interactions with a variety of emotional contexts. One moment may require a teacher to be empathetic and caring for a child in crisis, while another might require them to react to disorderly behaviors. Teaching is a mentally, physically and emotionally taxing endeavor.”

UW’s College of Education has also graduated fewer teachers in previous years needed to fill an increasing number of vacancies in districts statewide.

“Because of that gap in terms of what the University of Wyoming is producing as new teachers versus the demand of vacancies that exist in the state, it’s surrounding states and universities [that have provided for additional educational professionals],” Hutcherson said. “For example, if you think about the eastern side of our state, Chadron, Nebraska [Chadron State College], a lot of their graduates pursue teaching positions within Wyoming.”

There are 13 colleges and universities that regularly educate teachers for service in Wyoming schools, which include higher education institutions from surrounding states. But Hutcherson said that online education is becoming more popular, increasingly competing with traditional in-person learning. Institutions such as Western Governor’s University (WGU), an online university, grants both undergraduate and graduate degrees, including in education fields.

Hutcherson said if Wyoming had something working in its favor, it’s been high teacher pay compared to other states. However, it’s a factor that’s not as strong as it once was.

“When we look at teacher salaries, it wasn’t that long ago, Wyoming teacher salaries were some [of the] top in the nation, and we were attracting teachers from across state lines,” Hutcherson said. “Sadly, over the past 10 years, those salaries, and the purchasing power, based on those salaries, is down like 12 and a half percent compared to the national average of 3.8 percent. So, we’ve seen this loss of power with our salaries because of stagnant teacher salaries. And we are currently ranked 12th in the nation for average starting teacher salary.”

Hutcherson said this problem is compounded further by neighboring states, such as Utah and Colorado, having significantly raised teacher pay. He described how teachers from Utah used to come to Wyoming to teach but that the trend has since largely reversed itself.

“It wasn’t that far back when we could attract teachers because of our salary from other states,” he explained. “And now we’re losing that. We’re seeing other states who are starting to take teachers away from the state of Wyoming.”

The lack of teachers and qualified applicants has led the Wyoming Department of Education to experiment with giving professionals outside of education the opportunity to gain teaching credentials for some vacancies, though these tend to be more focused on specific areas of instruction.

“We’ve heard from the State Superintendent of [Public] Instruction, talk about an apprenticeship model that he's looking at, to try to start increasing the number of teachers for the state of Wyoming through his apprenticeship program, but I know that still in its early development,” Hutcherson said.

Currently, a permit can be obtained by those who don't have a background in education to provide instruction in grades 6-12 for specific area(s) of study. This grants a certification to teach only in those areas for a period of five years.

“An example might have been a high school who was offering a course in auto mechanics, for example, and somebody who had previously worked as an auto mechanic and had that career experience, if they were interested, they could then pursue an opportunity to, to teach at the school through an alternative certification route,” Hutcherson said.

But as the number of vacancies increase and with fewer qualified applicants to fill them, as well as other states compete for a shrinking pool of teachers, students will inevitably feel the impact. This will include increased class sizes or in reduced or eliminated course offerings. Notable issues also exist when it comes to filling specialist positions, such as special education teachers, which have proven even more difficult to attract.

“It’s about our students and their future,” he added. “And we have to address the recruitment and retention issue related to educators across the state of Wyoming.”

Educators receive both praise and criticism for their work in the classroom. But Hutcherson wants to remind parents and the public that teachers are only human.

“If a teacher is feeling supported within their school building, for example, they're much more satisfied with their job,” he said. “Sadly, we often see this constant blaming of teachers if there are any problems in our society, and it really takes a toll on educators.”

Corrected: June 15, 2022 at 9:55 AM MDT
The original story stated that a lack of support from administrators was a finding of the report issued by Dr. Perkins. It has been corrected to clarify that Perkins didn't include that as part of his report, which stated "community and professional support correlate with desire to quit with professional support showing stronger effects." He didn't link it specifically to administrators.

The story also includes a quote from Hutcherson that stated that an apprenticeship program is in the development phase. A clarification has been and text included about the state's Professional Industry Career (PIC) Permit, which is currently utilized to fill vacancies for specific instruction areas that are taught by those who aren't education professionals.
Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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