This is the final article in the series: “The State of Education in Utah County.” All stories can be found here.
In the looming shadow of teacher shortages across the country and in Utah, officials at school districts in Utah County say the greatest challenge they face is not a lack of teachers, but trouble retaining them.
More than 2,000 local educators recently told researchers at the University of Utah study why they decided to become teachers.
The overwhelming majority said they wanted to teach because they want to make a difference in the lives of children and contribute to a greater societal good, the study reported.
But the biggest reason why they moved positions or left their careers entirely was due to emotional exhaustion, stress and burnout.
In response to the high turnover, Provo, Nebo and Alpine school districts each developed and strengthened two commonplace solutions: finding teachers through university internship programs and hiring coaches to support and mentor those teachers.
Recruiting teachers through internship programs
Utah County school districts pull largely from two major local colleges: Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. With about 850 teachers, the majority of new hires at the Provo City School District come from teachers from the university education departments, said Caleb Price, spokesperson for the district.
“We don’t really seem to have a shortage when it comes to working with the universities,” he added. “Our teachers are very motivated to help kids learn. Everything the district does, everything the teachers do, is centered around helping those kids get to the next grade level.”
Provo is just one of several districts who interview and choose university interns for positions in one of the 18 elementary or secondary district schools.
On average, nearly 100 students from UVU are hired every year to teach in elementary or secondary schools at 10 different school districts, including Alpine, Nebo, Canyons, Granite, Jordan, Wasatch, Park City and North or South Summit.
“We feel fortunate to partner with universities such as Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University and their teacher preparation programs,” said Lana Hiskey, spokesperson for the Nebo School District. “Nebo provides many intern and student teaching opportunities for new teachers who eventually become Nebo educators. We believe these outstanding universities are why Nebo didn’t have any unfulfilled teacher positions this past year.”
As an intern, selected students get the chance to teach in a classroom for an entire year under the supervision of the district and the university.
If the student is hired as an educator in Utah at the end of the internship, that year of teaching is counted as their first year of teaching.
“The districts love our students, they just beg for more,” said Stanley Harward, associate dean of the UVU School of Education. “At the end, most of our interns get jobs.”
For more than a decade, the university has worked with both seniors and juniors to fill the demands of the internship program.
Although all interns are required to meet certain state requirements to apply, the hiring decision is left up to the districts as to who to hire, where to place the students and how many interns to hire.
“We’ve found that our UVU students are really quite good,” Harward said. “They’re really strong students, hard working, homegrown, most from our area. They want to get a job, they want to succeed.”
When the internship program began at BYU nearly 40 years ago, the university only had about 25 students who volunteered.
Now, more than 110 are hired every year by either Alpine, Jordan, Nebo, Provo or Wasatch districts, said Lynnette Erickson, the associate dean of the David O. McKay School of Education.
“The vast majority of these students are very successful, and if they’re staying in the area, then typically they are hired by their districts,” she added. “For those students who have the opportunity to stay here, it really is to their advantage.”
Students go through the same hiring process as if they were applying for a full-time teaching position, and the program offers every intern half the salary of a regular teacher.
After hiring, all curriculum planning, classroom management is all on the student intern, though onsite mentors are always available for students to turn to for help.
The internship program is more popular in elementary schools, where students often rotate through the same teaching position, such as a spot in a grade level with a strong set of veteran teachers.
In secondary schools, the districts usually hire students to fill empty space, like if a school is short a math teacher.
“It’s kind of a nice way to groom new teachers,” Erickson said. “It’s a nice way to bring them in, prepare them, supervise them, support them and groom them for their districts for the next year when they might be looking for a job.”
At both universities, students also have the option of student teaching for half a semester rather than teaching in a classroom for an entire year. Both programs are great opportunities, school administrators stressed, and one option isn’t better than the other.
“We add as much help as we possibly can to these students going out and starting out in the classrooms,” Erickson explained.
Retaining teachers with instructional coaches
More than 4,000 teachers are employed in elementary or secondary schools around Alpine School District. Of those teachers, 660 were hired this year.
“We’re fortunate to be in this valley where they are producing so many wonderful teachers,” said David Stephenson, spokesperson for the Alpine School District.
Only about 40 percent of those recently hired teachers are starting their careers, he added. The other 60 percent are returning to teaching after raising kids, completing graduate school or transferring over from another school.
The district opened two new elementary schools this year, one in Lehi, bringing in 750 students and another in Eagle Mountain, with nearly 1,200 students.
That brings the total number of students enrolled in the district to 80,000, the largest student enrollment in Utah.
“It doesn’t matter what teacher a student gets, because the student is really a student of all of the teachers,” Stephenson explained. “We’ve put great effort into collaboration and helping teachers experience collaboration rather than teaching in isolation.”
To combat high turnover, Alpine School District began hiring more instructional coaches.
Kristie Wheeler began working as an elementary school teacher after her youngest child started going to school. Before long, Wheeler turned to work as an instructional coach, and for the past seven years, she’s been training educators in the Alpine School District.
“An instructional coach just mentors teachers,” she said. “It’s our job to support and retain them. We want to make them come back to work the next day.”
Coaches work with teachers on any number of issues. A veteran teacher may want help looking through test data and setting goals for the coming year. A new teacher may seek advice in managing a rowdy classroom.
It all depends on the needs of the teachers, Wheeler explained. Instructional coaches are there to support and help instead of evaluating or judging.
“Alpine School District has really put a lot of time, money and effort into this cause, hoping to retain and make teachers feel supported,” she added. “It’s hard but it’s such a rewarding job.”
Five years ago, the district had one instructional coach for every ten schools. Now, there is a coach for each one of the 88 district schools.
Provo City School District also employs nearly a dozen coaches who work especially closely with new or Alternative Route to Licensure teachers.
In elementary schools, instructional coaches are assigned to work with each teacher at the school. Middle and high schools are mentored by coaches as part of a Professional Learning Community, or PLC for short.
PLC coaches are usually teachers who split their time between a classroom and coaching fellow teachers. They work with specific departments, like math or English, in setting goals or providing support.
“The best way to support a teacher is to give them the time and resources necessary. And I think that’s what instructional coaches and PLC coaches do,” Wheeler said.
The district also recently began hiring Innovative Learning coaches who help teachers incorporate technology into their teaching.
Dave Horan worked as a fourth-grade teacher for a decade before the Alpine School District hired him as one of the first Innovative Learning coaches. While each district school has an on-site technician to help with hardware problems, Horan and the other coaches encourage teachers to use technology to elevate student learning.
“A good, highly qualified teacher is more important than ever so that we can truly reach every single student,” he explained. “If you’re really using technology the way it should be used, it takes away a lot of that busy work, some of that grading time and some of that instructional time.”
In the past, elementary schools have been equipped with one student computer lab and a laptop for every teacher. Other technology was provided at the discretion of the principals.
That disparity created a kind of “educational lottery” in the different schools as to what technology students would be able to access, Horan said.
Now, in next two years, the school district plans to provide every elementary school with one Chromebook per two students in grades four through six. The district will also hire innovative learning coaches to help teachers utilize the technology.
“It’s awesome that the Alpine School Board is prioritizing teacher support and coaching,” Horan said. “That’s really what it’s all about: good teaching so that we have great student learning.”