Facing the Teacher Shortage

POP QUIZ: Name a millionaire computer scientist. (Easy, right?) Now, name a millionaire business executive. (Take your pick; they’re a dime a dozen.) Millionaire doctor? (Sure.) How about a millionaire musician? (You’re acing this, aren’t you?)

Now, name a millionaire elementary school teacher.

Sorry, trick question. There are no millionaire school teachers. Just teachers who help shape future millionaires. And future leaders. And future social activists. And future engineers, scientists, artists, politicians, bankers, nurses, chefs. And sometimes future teachers… but fewer future teachers than we need, and fewer than we produced 10 years ago.

That doesn’t mean we’re not preparing great teachers in Utah. We are. (And the University of Utah produces some of the best.) But it does mean that we, as a society, have made teaching an unattractive career choice, offering low salaries, shifting expectations, and scant respect. This combination drives away many potential candidates, and of those who do enter the teaching profession, an alarming number bail out in their first few years.

Are there solutions? Great minds at the U’s College of Education think so, and they are dedicated to bolstering the outlook for the teaching profession.


In a 2015 survey of 75 percent of Utah’s school districts, the Utah School Boards Association found that nearly half started the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom. But estimating unfilled teacher positions is difficult. For example, Wayne County School District Superintendent John M. Fahey explains that they currently have a part-time business teacher and a part-time music teacher. “With funding, we would move them both to full time,” he says, because the demand and need are there. However, without funding, the teachers remain part time, and the small district’s records won’t show an opening going unfilled.

Chewed up yellow pencil and eraserSuch hidden deficiencies likely contribute to Utah’s larger-than-average classroom sizes. Many Utah high school teachers report as many as 40 or more students in their classes, indicating where an additional teacher might have been placed had money existed to open a position. The lack of an open position is an uncounted need.

Retention is easier to quantify. The Utah State Board of Education reports that by the end of what would have been their fifth year of employment, more than 40 percent of Utah teachers who began teaching in 2011 had quit. According to Andrea Rorrer, associate dean of the College of Education and director of the Utah Education Policy Center at the U, which focuses on research to inform and influence educational policy and practice in Utah, 11 percent of Utah teachers with one to three years of experience leave the profession every year, compared with 7 percent nationally.

Rorrer says the teacher shortage isn’t spread evenly across subject matters or districts: “We see far more shortages in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] areas, particularly science and math, than we do in other general content areas.” Need is also highest in early childhood classes, special education, and rural areas.

One of the biggest hurdles the teaching profession faces is low compensation. “Pay is really important,” says Fahey. “When kids decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives, they look at the financial rewards of a profession. They want to support a family.” In a 2015 Economic Policy Institute report, the average starting salary across 10 broad categories of majors was $50,556. Teachers settled solidly at the bottom of the list at $34,891, a good $11,000 below the next lowest category, and Utah teachers start even lower at $33,852. And from 1996 to 2015, the weekly wage (adjusted for inflation) of all other college graduates rose by $124, while the average wage of public teachers actually decreased by $30 per week.

The salary level is so low that many families with a teacher as the only working parent qualify for federal reduced or free lunch programs for their own children, explains Donnette McNeill-Waters, Granite School District’s director of Human Resources. “Some of our own teachers are telling their kids not to go into the profession,” she adds. “We have generations of families who are educators, and we have never had our own employees telling their kids not to go into education until now.”

In STEM subjects, teaching can be an especially hard sell. Mary D. Burbank BS’86 BS’87, assistant dean and director of the U’s Urban Institute for Teacher Education, explains, “A person with a math or science degree has so many options that are much more lucrative—particularly people who are underrepresented, who are recruited heavily across fields, and who may choose many other options that are much higher paid.”

As if the financial aspects aren’t discouraging enough, over it all hangs a pervasive feeling that teachers’ work is misunderstood and unappreciated.


Most of us think we know what teaching is, when what we really know is how to be a student. “All of us have been students, but almost none of us have been teachers,” says Kyle Bracken BA’88 MS’11, history teacher and Social Studies department chair at Salt Lake’s Highland High School.

Research shows that people extrapolate from their own experiences as students to determine what a teacher should be doing. It’s a bit like saying that since you’ve gone to the dentist regularly for 12 years, you’re qualified to tell that dentist how to perform dental procedures, negotiate with insurance companies, and run a small business. Moreover, today’s teaching experience is light years beyond what it may have looked like a generation ago.

To understand the teaching profession in the 21st century, we should examine what teachers really do. First, of course, is content. To teach biology, one should have a good grasp of biology. Unfortunately, a common misconception is that subject knowledge is where a teacher’s requirements end. The second aspect of a teacher’s job is pedagogy, or specific techniques for teaching—sometimes tried and true techniques, and sometimes new or experimental techniques. But teaching doesn’t end there, either.

“If we just look at those two indicators [content and pedagogy], what’s missing is the range of factors that impact effectiveness of pedagogy and impact children’s understanding,” according to Burbank. Today’s teachers are expected to be experts on child and adolescent development and their mental and emotional health. They work with English language learners, children with disabilities, and children from different cultural backgrounds. They adapt curricula to support the community’s needs. They differentiate learning for kids who are struggling, kids who are streaking ahead, and kids who are right on target—all in the same class.

Additionally, educators face long hours, expectations to spend personal time grading papers and “volunteering” for after-school activities, pressures from standardized testing and school ratings, and constant scrutiny from administrators, parents, the media, and seemingly anyone else with an opinion.

Fortunately, many stalwart individuals are willing to embrace teaching, despite what others view as disincentives. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” says Carmen Flores, an honors student working on her elementary education degree at the U. Despite gentle nudging to enter a “big career,” like medicine or law, she found she preferred tutoring elementary students and teaching catechism at her church. “I thought, boy, I really love being with the kids. I really love teaching.” The more she investigated teaching, the more convinced she became that it is what she wants to do. Now she says she can’t imagine going into teaching without the experience she’s gained from the U’s education program.

Kyle Bracken, going on 16 years teaching at Salt Lake City’s Highland High School.

Kyle Bracken, going on 16 years teaching at Salt Lake City’s Highland High School.


“We have to be very thoughtful about how we prepare people who are going to work with children, who will be the future citizens of America. Content isn’t the only thing,” says Maria Franquiz, dean of the College of Education.

To prep and support the 140-plus students who graduate from the U’s education program each year, the College of Education provides strong research-based training, intensive in-classroom teaching experience, and community engagement.

“One of the things we’ve found that increases the likelihood of retention is solid preparation prior to entering the classroom,” says Susan Johnston, professor and chair of the Department of Special Education in the College of Education. Because the U is a Tier 1 Research university, exposure to cutting-edge research and recommended practices is integrated throughout students’ coursework, daily discussions, and field experience.

U graduates also understand Utah’s diverse communities. “One of the things I like about the program at the U is that it touches on a lot of issues with our growing populations of refugees, of English language learners, of diversity, and I feel like that’s key,” says Flores.

Nothing makes all that theory sink in like applying it in a real school. Every education student spends a semester assisting a “site teacher” in a classroom. During their final semester, they take the reins as full-fledged student teachers, responsible for everything from lesson plans to grading.

To help students transition into the real world, the U assigns them to a cohort of classmates, instructors, and site teachers for their junior and senior years. “During my cohort, we were able to debate and discuss the ways kids learn, why they act out, what are the cultural advantages and disadvantages for specific groups,” says Bracken. Cohorts form a community where students compare challenges, brainstorm ideas, and celebrate successes. “I think I might have become a good teacher without the cohort program, but I would not be a great teacher,” he adds.

University of Utah teaching graduates are in demand across the state. “I want to emphasize that the U has a great teacher program, and the teachers we get from them are really good,” says Wayne County’s Fahey. But there are too few to go around, even with other higher education institutions in the state producing teachers as well.

Alternative routes to becoming a teacher, which bypass formal education in favor of on-the-job training, bubble to the surface in a swirl of controversy from time to time, primarily because they attempt to address the teacher shortage without lawmakers committing additional state money, which in Utah is already famously the nation’s lowest. But school districts say their priority is always a university-educated teacher, though they view alternative routes as an option when preferred teachers aren’t available. “A person with some qualifications is better than a long-term substitute in the classroom,” says Fahey. But while alternative licensure pathways are, in general, well-intentioned solutions to the shortage problem, they still don’t address the underlying disincentives of the profession.

Carmen Flores is gaining experience as a student teacher at Valley Crest Elementary in West Valley City.

Carmen Flores is gaining experience as a student teacher at Valley Crest Elementary in West Valley City.


At the College of Education, faculty know that even if they can’t control the financial rewards or many other aspects of the teaching profession, they can continue to seek other ways to recruit teaching majors and benefit not only their graduates but also Utah’s education landscape.

Over the last decade, the U has stepped up recruitment of teaching students, with outreach programs for underrepresented communities, people exploring career changes, special education para-educators who are already assisting in classrooms, and high school students. In addition, the U has streamlined the education curriculum, added online and evening courses, and increased advising and mentoring support to help students complete the program efficiently.

Chewed up yellow pencil and eraserEarly in the program, students are introduced to teaching’s realities, ensuring they are ready to accept the challenges. “If they understand what they’re getting into, we can mentor them through the first few years of the profession,” says Fahey. After graduation, students benefit from the U’s community involvement and ongoing mentoring within the districts.

The U has a number of scholarships available to students who are pursuing degrees in the College of Education and is constantly striving to increase education scholarships. However, says Johnston, “Given that most teachers are not wealthy, it is often difficult for College of Education alumni to donate scholarship dollars.” Businesses tend to donate scholarship dollars for students in their own industry, and it can be hard to convince companies that donating to an education student instead may help create an entire generation of future employees. The addition of much-needed scholarships, stipends, and tuition waivers would help attract more students.

The College of Education has partnered with Granite School District to create a handful of paid internships for student teachers, which help offset some tuition costs for a semester. But the number of internships is limited.

“If I could have a magic wand for the profession, I would do what we did decades ago, which is provide programs with real financial supports: scholarships or debts that are forgiven if you serve in particular districts. We would attract a lot more people into the profession,” says Franquiz. Such programs might bring more underrepresented candidates into education. “A really important goal would be to change the demographic of teaching populations for the good of our very diverse population,” says Bracken. While limited federal debt-forgiveness programs exist for educators working in specific situations, Utah does not provide the state support needed to make a real impact in our areas of greatest need.

Flores sees an evolution in her own vision of teaching since she began the program. She’s not just teaching a subject. She’s teaching students how to critically think about that subject. “If I hadn’t come to the U, I would have been this teacher who had a teacher’s edition, just taught from the book, and never did anything different,” she says. “But now that I have this post-secondary education, I know that I don’t want to be that teacher. I want to be a teacher who collaborates, who differentiates, who does service learning.”

Can the economic outlook for teachers in Utah be improved? It can, Franquiz believes, with the right research, strategies, and commitment from higher education institutions, school districts, the community, the State Board of Education, and the legislature. “Together we certainly have the creativity and the expertise to work better as a community in really addressing how to educate our future citizens for Utah and America and the world.”

—Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah.

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Click here to read “A Day in the Life of a First-Grade Teacher.”

Cultivating Political Passion

Most days, the sun hadn’t risen yet. But that didn’t stop Connor Yakaitis BS’16 from starting legislative business at the Utah State Capitol at a time when many of his fellow University of Utah classmates were still hitting the snooze buttons on their alarms.

During the 45-day legislative session last year, Yakaitis, then a senior at the U, arrived at 6 a.m. for work as an intern with Sen. Jim Dabakis. Days spent watching the legislative process from a front-row seat fascinated Yakaitis, and often, he stayed at the capitol until nearly 10 p.m., soaking up the experience of life as a policy maker. Each day brought a new challenge, but also many rewards.

“I would constantly go back and forth between the floor of the Senate and the office to discuss current bills and votes with Senator Dabakis, often running full speed through the halls of the capitol,” recalls Yakaitis, whose internship placement came with help from the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “I became well connected with many political figureheads and even got to sit in on weekly briefings with Governor Gary Herbert.”

Yakaitis’ political internship, like those of hundreds of other U students, is just one example of several initiatives—both formal and informal, and inside and outside the classroom—facilitated by the U to educate students on the political process and help them become a part of it.


One of the most visible places on campus that connects students to political opportunities is the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Jason Perry JD’99, himself a former face in Utah politics, took the helm of the Hinckley Institute in 2015. And before he became a leader of one of the preeminent political institutes in academia, he too was a Hinckley intern.

A young Perry interned with Sen. Orrin Hatch in Washington, D.C., an experience that inspired him to later attend law school at the U’s S.J. Quinney College of Law and go on to work in the public sphere. He served as chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, where he helped the governor with a landslide victory in the November 2010 election. He joined the U as vice president for government relations in 2011.

Now, he also oversees the Hinckley Institute, the U’s flagship center for immersing students in the political process. Established in 1965 through funding from the Noble Foundation and Robert H. Hinckley (one of the founders of television network ABC), the institute dedicates itself to teaching students respect for practical politics and the principle of citizen involvement in government. During 2014-15, the institute observed its 50th anniversary by hosting a record-setting 116 political forums. And earlier this year, the institute made international headlines when Mitt Romney visited Gardner Hall for a discussion on the state of the 2016 presidential race.

The Romney event, although particularly high-profile, is emblematic of the institute’s well-known series of political forums, designed to enhance students’ learning opportunities and foster discussion and critical thinking about political issues in the world, says Perry. “All of our programs at the Hinckley Institute—from the forums to the voting initiatives to the internships themselves— are aimed at getting students exposure to the political process, and hopefully a respect for it and a desire to stay committed to it for their entire lives.”

The Hinckley Institute has coordinated more than 5,500 internships since its inception. Current U students Hunter Howe and Tanner Holcomb recently interned at the White House and with the campaign of Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, respectively. Any student at the U can work with the institute’s internship program, regardless of major, and former interns have gone on to work in government agencies, pursue impactful careers in the private sector, and, of course, hold public office.

Well-known names who got their start in politics through the institute include Karl Rove ex’71, former deputy chief of staff and senior advisor to President George W. Bush. And the Hinckley Institute’s Hall of Fame reads like a who’s who of Utah’s political elite: inductees include former U.S. senators Wallace Bennett BA’19, Bob Bennett BS’57, and Frank Moss BA’33, as well as past governors Norman H. Bangerter ex’60, Scott M. Matheson BS’50, Calvin Rampton JD’39, and Olene Walker PhD’87.

Dozens of other local government leaders served internships through the institute, and a host of up-and-coming leaders cite Hinckley as a starting block for their political aspirations. Over the summer, Don Willie BS’11 MPA’14 ran for a city council seat in the newly established city of Millcreek in Salt Lake County. Although he didn’t advance out of the June primary his first time around, he will likely be back for a future election.

“While my education gave me the academic knowledge to excel in the public sector, it was amplified by practical experiences through my involvement at the University of Utah,” says Willie.


Kendahl with Chaffetz

Kendahl Melvin BA’15 with Congressman Jason Chaffetz, whose office hired her as a legislative assistant after her 2015 internship with the House Oversight Committee.

This year, the Hinckley Institute is partnering with the newly established Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, an arm of the David Eccles School of Business, to produce a series of election products that will help Utah voters make educated choices.

Called “Informed Decisions 2016,” the collaboration aims to identify the most important issues on voters’ minds and host engaging and informative candidate conversations. The project includes creating election briefs that explain why an issue is important, what was learned from focus groups convened to gauge public opinion on issues, what the data teach us about the issue, and the policy options voters should consider. Initial snapshots explore infrastructure, taxation, and education. Candidate debates through November offer the public a chance to see candidates square off on differing viewpoints.

Elsewhere at the U, the master of public policy (MPP) and master of public administration (MPA) programs are also offering unique opportunities to learn how to shape public policy and opinions, and the programs have earned a reputation for producing students who earn top honors at the national Policy Solutions Challenge competition.

For three years in a row, U students have won the national championship at the competition’s final round in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, Fatema Ahad MPP’16 and Annette Harris, both then students in the MPP program, were challenged to propose policy solutions for the lagging rate of college completion in the U.S. Harris continues in the MPP as well as master of public health program. Ahad, who graduated over the summer and aspires to a career in social policy as an analyst, praised the relevance of the knowledge and skills she gained in the MPP program.

“For instance, I learned about policy analysis, research design, best practices of research, and cost-effectiveness analysis exercises from the core classes of the program,” says Ahad. “Every class I took, my professors were there to inspire me. Every time I felt the pressure of grad school, they got me going.”

Beth Henke, program manager for the MPP program, says the U has established itself as a top institution of public policy through a strong and innovative academic program. “Most traditional public policy programs teach all of their courses out of one department. Our students pick electives from all over campus, providing them with the best experts the area has to offer,” Henke says. “I think this is what has allowed us to take top prize in the past three years on such diverse topics as employment for younger workers, drinking water supply, and increasing the national rate of college completion.”

“The three-peat is such an unprecedented achievement because it requires one program to be able to create innovative solutions to vastly different social problems,” she adds. “It requires a creativity and fluidity in problem solving that will allow our graduates to serve our country well as they tackle finding public policy solutions to issues facing our nation.”



Associate Professor Lina Svedin and MPA students share a lighthearted moment in their Governance and the Economy class—one of the core classes in the program’s innovative curriculum.

At the heart of the U’s efforts to inspire students to participate in the political process is its Department of Political Science, which collaborates closely with the Hinckley Institute. Along with classic coursework in comparative politics, political theory, and government, the department has introduced a new area of emphasis called community involvement and nonprofit leadership. Now, besides the fundamental poli sci courses, students may enroll in classes such as “Neighborhood Democracy” and “Democratic Activism and Social Change.” The emphasis fits with the U’s mission of fostering student engagement with the community and preparing students for careers in the nonprofit and public service sectors, says Mark Button, chair of the department.

“What we’re doing is trying to rethink the way political science curriculum can address the kind of changes we can face locally as well as nationally,” says Button. “A lot of universities see the educational benefits of designing what we call transformative learning experiences. Students who get excited about their learning retain more and achieve more.” He adds, “We want to bring students into the classroom and develop their skills as civic advocates.”

The department has also added new courses to keep pace with current news and the changing political landscape. For example, Assistant Professor Jim Curry is teaching a course on political polarization this fall, exploring a topic that is highly visible in the presidential sparring on the campaign trail. Professor Ella Myers introduced a course on the politics of inequality.

And the learning opportunities aren’t only for full-time enrolled students. For 23 years, U political science instructor Tim Chambless has led a weeklong class titled “Capital Encounter” in Washington, D.C., which has been open to nontraditional students and others unable to pursue a traditional Hinckley internship in the District. This year, the course was offered through the U’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, for learners age 50 and older. Twenty community member students went with Chambless to the nation’s capital, where they toured the National Mall, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives, and C-SPAN, and visited the Supreme Court Building.

“It’s a chance for full-blown U.S. government immersion,” says Chambless, who will continue to lead future excursions. “Our group experienced wonderful lectures and receptions.”


By the time Yakaitis, the former Hinckley intern for Sen. Dabakis, graduated from the U last spring, he’d landed his current job as communications director for Charlene Albarran’s campaign for Congress in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

He’s been campaigning with his boss across the district, using skills he sharpened through both his senate internship and studying political science (with a minor in campaign management) at the U—opportunities for which he’ll always be grateful, he says.

“I have a full-time job in my major. I cannot thank the Hinckley Institute enough for getting me in the fast lane to a successful future,” says Yakaitis. “The whole internship experience was transformative.”

—Melinda Rogers is a PR/communications manager and writer at the University of Utah.

Web Extra: Two alumni competing in the same race share how the U has helped them and offer advice for others aspiring to political office in the short feature here.