K-12 education in Wyoming is facing immediate cuts on the state level and President Trump’s federal budget proposes cuts to education too. There’s even talk in Washington of dismantling the U.S. Department of Education. This got me wondering how University of Wyoming education students were feeling about their future in teaching.
The question prompted a nice spring stroll across the University of Wyoming’s campus. Our studios are just across Prexy’s Pasture from the College of Education.
Outside elementary schoolers from the Lab School were playing, and inside I found Dr. Leslie Rush, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the College of Education and a professor of secondary education. She’s been with the college for 15 years. "When I first came most of our students who graduated could get a job in Wyoming if they wanted, " she said. "But over time as the salaries of classroom teachers have increased we saw the competition for our students being a little bit steeper."
That’s because Wyoming salaries were attracting experienced teachers from out of state. Now there’s uncertainty if districts will be doing any hiring at all. Rush offered a recent teacher career fair as an example: “This year there were not as many Wyoming districts represented as in previous years. Now what that leads me to believe is that there is some lack of certainty in the school districts about whether or not they’ll be able to hire.”
But if salaries shrink with budget cuts that could air in new teachers favor. Rush explained that when schools do have openings, “they’ll have less salary to put behind those openings and so they might be more likely to hire a brand new teacher.”
But I wondered if lower pay has dissuaded students from wanting to pursue teaching? Rush said no. She thinks that a passion for the profession is what drives most.
From there I went in search of students. I found a group of mostly 2nd and 3rd-year students waiting for their class on Diversity and the Politics of Schooling to begin, and I asked them how they’re feeling about the cuts to education.
Brooke Karm told me: “It’s scary but I mean I think it’s something that we are super passionate about. I think it’s super important to us so I think as future educators, of course, that’s in mind but the broad spectrum of things is the children. I’m excited about that.”
Across the table was Maci Evans. Her focus is arts education, and she knows arts programs are often the first to receive cuts. When I asked how that was factoring into her decision making she said, “I mean it didn't’ actually. I started my process before I guess all this happened. Not going to switch because I might not make money I guess.”
Evans said even before the budget cuts teachers warned their students: “You’re not going to make any money. So you get out now or do it for another reason other than money.”
But what about students hoping for a good salary in Wyoming?
“I’m looking at going out of state and then coming back when this is hopefully over,” said Baxter Heinert. She’s hoping for on another boom in the oil and gas industry. “I wasn’t planning on leaving until this starting happening. But it’s looking more and more appealing to get out of her for awhile.”
It’s appealing to Gabrielle Kramer too. She’s worried that as classroom size increases and support staff diminishes that she’ll be overwhelmed with work. She said, “I think burnout is going to be a real thing.”
When I asked if scarce resources were making anyone feel more devoted to teaching, Alison Searls piped up. “I would say that I am because now even less people are motivated to be teachers. So there’s going to be less good teachers coming out of education programs so that just makes me want to be the best teacher I can be to help students because they’re going to have less resources.”
Searls said being the best teacher for her students also means staying engaged with policy.
So how engaged are these future teachers? At this point, Professor Angela Jaime was in the room and her class was about to start. So I quickly asked the whole group for a show of hands if they felt like they knew how education in Wyoming was funded. I gave them a second, but not one full arm went up. I saw about 5 half-raised hands.
That’s when Professor Jaime jumped in to remind them of the chapter they read on it four weeks ago, and that’s when I decided I’d caused enough trouble and that it was time to go. On my way out I bumped into Ken Hilton. This Casper native is getting a masters in school counseling. He said that his cynical side was worried, “that we won't be able to recruit or retain quality teachers, or people to work in any capacity in schools.” But his positive side thinks that great people chose to be in Wyoming because they want to be here.
“I grew up here. I value the community and it’s a good place to raise my daughter.” He added, “I think that is kind of a glimmer of positivity. There will be some people willing to take lesser paying job because it’s the place they want to be.”
Hilton who loves Wyoming’s mountains was off to the climbing wall and I went back to get Professor Jaime’s read on her students general willingness to make things work even in a tough economic climate for teachers.
As she packed up from class, she told me that after she saw their response to my questions about cuts, that she gave them an extra homework assignment to look at the state and federal education funding models.
She said her students weren’t happy about the extra homework at first, but she feels it’s important to tell them the truth about how hard this job is and to do what she can to help them grasp how broader policies will impact their work in the classroom.
“They know they want to be teachers. They love kids. They are passionate about learning; passionate about curriculum. But it’s not real for them yet.”