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School Districts Scrambling From Teacher Shortage

School is back in session this week for many districts across the state, but not all of them have as many teachers in the classroom as they’d like. The Arizona Department of Education says 60 percent of district superintendents report openings during the school year, and that the annual average retention rate is 65 percent.

“It’s a huge burden on administrators to have to handle a one-third of your staff turnover every year — imagine a business leader, if you’re a CEO, a third of your entire employee base starting over again. It’s an untenable strategy,” said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of the group Expect More Arizona.

Esau says principals are spending a lot of time both over the summer and during the school year trying to hire people — which means they’re not spending time on things like observing their staff.

Esau says it’s fair to say Arizona has a teacher shortage, and Tahlya Visintainer agrees. She’s the Administrator for Human Resources, and oversees hiring for the Peoria Unified School District, which started classes on Wednesday. She says between high school and K-8 grades, the district has more than 40 openings.

“I know we will fill them, so I would say that I’m confident that they will be filled. Will they be filled with highly qualified and properly certified teachers? All of them – no. We’re most likely going to be opening with several long-term substitute teachers in those positions,” Visintainer said.

Visintainer said she’s seen a dramatic change over the last few years.

 “My first year, I started in 2009, and we started the school year with possibly three to four openings, and so you can see in five years the dramatic change that’s happened — and it’s been a definitely changing landscape in education as well as for our district,” Visintainer said.

Visintainer says her district isn’t alone. And, she puts at least some of the blame on a shrinking pool of candidates. She says her district had to look out-of-state for more educators this year.

“In the past when you’d go to Michigan to recruit teachers, there’d be two districts from Arizona, so we were unique, you stood out and you could attract candidates. This year, there were at least 22. So, it’s a demand that we’re all feeling and I just think we’re having an issue with attracting people, really, to the profession,” Visintainer said.

Connie Pangrazi is welcoming a group of incoming freshmen on a recent morning. She’s assistant dean for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers’ College at Arizona State University.

“We’ve had a little dip in the last couple years, but we’re on the upswing right now. I think there’s more of an interest in teaching again, and more of a focus on quality teaching,” Pangrazi said.

Pangrazi said she hears from districts which are always looking for highly qualified teachers, especially in areas like math, science and special ed. She says her program tries to give prospective educators a sense of what it’ll be like in the classroom.

“Our teachers, our pre-service teachers, understand the rigor, they understand the expectations, they know what they’re getting into,” Pangrazi said.

That also includes pay. Pangrazi thinks her students understand teaching is not a great way to get rich.

Visintainer said while it’s not the only factor, it is a prominent one.

“As a district, we did not provide salary increases for, I believe it was, eight years. And, last year was the first year we gave an increase. The most generous increase we were awarded was two percent. Well, two percent doesn’t make up for eight years of being frozen,” Visintainer said.

But educators say there’s also a bigger issue – how the public views teachers.

Kathy Christie with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said teacher shortages are not unique to Arizona, but are uneven across the country and in different subject areas. And, she says, it’ll likely get worse in the coming years, as Baby Boomers leave the classroom.

“Teachers who started about the same time as I did, many of them have probably already retired, and there will be much larger numbers coming in the next five years. So, I wish I was reading more about states keeping an eye on that,” Christie said.

Visintainer agrees the current shortage may not be alleviated in the near future. But Esau said that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on peoples’ minds.

“We know that this has been coming and this is growing, and I think it’s very important for the public to begin to increase their awareness around this issue and for our policy makers and our elected leaders in this state to really consider how we’re going to grow a sustainable pipeline of teachers, particularly in our rural areas,” Esau said.

Esau said in addition to recruiting new teachers to the state, Arizona has to do a better job of keeping the teachers it already has.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.