When Cesar Aguirre learned his daughter’s first-grade teacher had resigned in the middle of the school year, he was alarmed.
That turned to dismay as weeks passed and Jasmine — whose speech delay affected her reading ability — started falling behind.
Now a third-grader, Jasmine emerged from the experience relatively unscathed. But Aguirre remains concerned that Arizona has such a tough time fulfilling his modest expectations for his daughter’s classroom: a certified teacher who would stick around all year and could meet her educational needs.
That’s more than many Arizona children can expect. Public schools statewide are struggling to fill vacancies as they attract fewer new teachers and more experienced ones retire or leave the profession for more lucrative careers. Teacher say low pay, long workdays, a lack of professional respect and opportunities elsewhere are luring them away from a field they love.
As a result, thousands of kids may find themselves in classrooms without a certified teacher this fall.
“When you put all of these things together, it’s sort of a perfect storm,” said Cecilia Johnson, a state Education Department executive whose official title is associate superintendent of highly effective teachers and leaders. “We do believe we are in a crisis.”
Tucson-area school districts had 217 vacant teaching positions as of July 17, an Arizona Daily Star investigation found.
Elementary schools accounted for over a third of the vacancies. Teacher jobs in math, science, English, special education, physical education and media arts also went unfilled.
Statewide, districts and charter schools needed special education teachers the most. Thirty-seven percent of respondents in a 2014 Arizona School Administrators survey said they needed special ed teachers. Second on the list was high school math teachers, at 18 percent.
The Tucson Unified School District, the area’s largest, had more than 100 vacancies before the 2015-2016 school year began. The district is trying to find certified teachers for those posts, but for now it is partnering with long-term substitute teachers to provide a semblance of consistency.
Long-term subs, however, can work only 120 days at one site — 60 days short of a 180-day school year. Exceptions can be made if a substitute is highly qualified.
The ideal is to place someone familiar with the subject matter, but if that’s not possible, certified teachers often share or write lesson plans to help. Principals also work to ensure instruction is up to par.
“Having quality adults in front of children is really the core of our business,” said Steve Holmes, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District. “Being fully staffed is mission-critical.”
The district, which had 40 vacant teaching positions as of July 17, works with teaching students earning certification through programs such as the New Teacher Project and through Pima Community College and University of Arizona South, he said.
FLEEING THE PROFESSION
Nearly 4,500 teachers left Tucson-area districts in the last five years, Star research shows.
A key reason is the size of teachers’ paychecks. State Education Department data show that teacher salaries in Arizona and in the Tucson area have not changed much in the past five years. Several local districts froze pay in the face of increasing budget cuts.
That’s part of what has driven away teachers like Lissa Keegan, who taught special education in the Vail Unified School District. She left teaching in May after 15 years and moved to Oregon to take a job as a technology consultant for a school district in Portland County.
The new job comes with a hefty salary jump, she said, not to mention all the resources the district has for students with special needs — something she said she did not have in Vail.
“If you’re a first-year teacher, Hobby Lobby pays more now,” she said. “If you work at Hobby Lobby, you don’t have grading to do after.”
Starting teacher salaries in Tucson average about $32,000 a year, which is higher than it was five years ago for all Tucson-area districts but Tanque Verde, where starting teachers are earning about $200 less than they were.
While the pay has not increased, the workload has. Stacy Haines, who taught English and journalism in the Sunnyside Unified School District, said teachers were increasingly expected to do test preparation and events outside the classroom.
“I represent almost anybody that goes into teaching — having that passion for helping the kids,” said Haines, who taught for 18 years before retiring in 2012. “It’s a shame that it’s being beaten out of them.”
Last school year, the average percentage of teachers who left Tucson-area school districts was 14 — up from 11 percent in the 2010-2011 school year. Of the responding districts, Catalina Foothills had the highest rate of teachers who left and did not return last year at 19 percent — just ahead of TUSD at 18 percent. Tanque Verde had the lowest at 11 percent.
One reason for the high turnover, Keegan and Haines say, is a lack of respect for the teaching profession. A spring 2015 survey of Arizona educators found low job satisfaction and feelings of being underappreciated.
The study, commissioned by Tucson Values Teachers, showed only 48 percent of respondents were satisfied with teaching while 52 percent were undecided or not satisfied. Respect was a key issue for teachers who felt the public respects their profession less than virtually every other profession and occupation with the exception of five: travel agent, child-care worker, stay-at-home parent, retail sales clerk and driver.
Asked whether they would recommend the profession to their children, 19 percent answered yes, 56 percent said no and 25 percent were unsure. Of those who said they would not, 94 percent cited pay, 73 percent mentioned declining parental support, and 67 percent cited lack of community respect.
Substandard pay also popped up when rating the reasons teachers leave the profession. Educators reported dipping into their own pockets for classroom supplies, while 54 percent reported paying for training and 20 percent purchased home necessities for students.
In an effort to see whether teacher perceptions lined up with those of the community, a survey of Tucson residents found that 75 percent of respondents rated road repair as the biggest issue they and their families are facing. Most also voiced an interest in the quality of Southern Arizona schools, though respondents with no children felt it did not matter.
Asked whether teachers are doing a good job, more than one-third said they were, 57 percent were neutral and 7 percent felt they were doing a bad job. Fifty-five percent believed teachers should be paid the same as other college-educated professionals and more than a quarter argued for higher pay, saying a teacher’s job is more important than most.
Dan Ireland, a TUSD teacher for 12 years, understands the struggle all too well. Last year, Ireland gave up his planning period to teach an additional class. Between that, tutoring and other efforts like coaching, he was able to earn an extra $10,000 to $12,000.
“It’s always tough when you look at the bills and look at the money you’re bringing in and how it’s not going up. It’s hard,” he said. “I teach economics so I had the forethought to know what to do — it’s lifestyle changes: I don’t go on vacations, I don’t go to the movies often, there are things you just can’t do. I’m thankful that I neither smoke nor drink coffee.”
For many people, the decision about whether to teach comes down to “dollars and cents,” said Johnson, of the state Education Department.
“Can I make more money in another state?” she said. “Right now, yes.”
Arizona ranked 45th in a 2014 National Education Association study with an average salary of $45,335. The national average was $56,610.
Ireland said even though he dislikes the low pay, the profession’s challenges go beyond money.
“There is a need for accountability, but it seems a lot of times the rules are being made by people who aren’t teachers,” he said. “When you throw that on a young person with options, it’s easy to go elsewhere.”
Casting a wider net
With teacher shortages rampant throughout the Tucson area, recruiting does not end once the school year begins. TUSD seeks out families that move into town throughout the year and ramps up hiring efforts around university winter graduations.
The district has found it pays to stay local as the tenure of out-of-state teachers tends to be shorter, said Janet Rico Uhrig, TUSD director of talent acquisition. But with fewer teaching graduates to draw from, it is extending its reach to neighboring states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and California.
When TUSD hires out-of-towners, it connects them with the community and mentors to help build relationships and support systems in hopes of retaining them longer.
“Tucson is a great place to fall in love with, so we make sure that happens,” Rico Uhrig said.
When it comes to tough-to-fill positions like math, science, special education and dual language, TUSD offers new teachers $2,500 stipends.
It also has taken steps to speed up the hiring process. A fast-track hire used to take 45 days; now it takes 14. Finally, the district is trying to hold job fairs earlier in the year and issue contracts before other area districts, she said.
To retain those new hires, TUSD launched a low-cost early learning center for employees, has not laid off any teachers in two years and has committed to salary increases to boost morale.
As districts hunt for teachers, the University of Arizona is doing its part, sending recruiters around the state to promote teaching and working with a search firm to attract career-changers who can share their expertise, said Renee Clift, associate dean of the College of Education.
Despite the efforts, the UA College of Education saw enrollment dip by nearly 20 percent between 2009, when 1,135 students enrolled, and 2013, when enrollment barely cracked 900. And nearly half of those are out-of-state students who tend to leave Arizona after graduation, compounding the teacher shortage, Clift said.
“Nationally, the discourse about teachers and teaching is a strange phenomenon,” Clift said. “There is universal agreement that teachers are important and they make a difference but that doesn’t lead to ‘they should be honored, compensated well and supported.’ Instead it leads to monitoring and how we can get rid of incompetent teachers. It goes quickly into punitive language.”
Legislators recognize the problem, said Chris Ackerley, a Republican state representative from Sahuarita who also teaches high school math and physics in the Amphitheater School District.
There is an obvious barrier to solving the teacher shortage issue, he said: resources, as in money. And that money needs to reach the classrooms.
“We have got to get more resources into the system,” he said. “We have got to free school districts up to have more autonomy in their decision-making. And that decision-making has to be pushed down to the school level and to the classroom level.”
Spending money today to hire good teachers will help ensure a better tomorrow for Arizona, said Jason Freed, president of the Tucson Education Association.
“We have to have an understanding that the kids in our schools now are the workforce for tomorrow,” he said. “If we’re not providing the resources to make sure educators provide every opportunity to make kids successful, we will have young adults who are not prepared a decade from now. These will be our neighbors, our taxpayers, the people fixing your car and repairing your AC.”