Teacher recruitment and retention is an ongoing battle for public schools in Utah. According to recent data nearly 50 percent of Utah teachers leave the classroom in the first five years. But outside of public schools there are some teaching jobs that never face a shortage.
Go to basically any high school in Utah and close by will be a little brick building with students trickling in and out all day. The sign out front will say “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Seminary.”
Most Mormon teenagers attend seminary, an hour long religious class, in the early morning hours before school but in areas with a high LDS population high school and junior high students can opt to take a class during the school day.
At the West High School seminary building in Salt Lake City, students start off their Wednesday morning class with a hymn and then they jump into test prep.
The teacher Damon Kenrick guides the students through a review sheet. The test won’t count for any high school credit, but it will be graded. The topic this year is the Book of Mormon. The students pair off and review some scriptures, including some about the fall of Adam and Eve.
One student, Kaitlin Rogers, attempts to articulate a central Mormon doctrine.
"People kind of blame Eve for [the fall] and say she fell into temptation and it was a horrible thing but if it never happened we wouldn’t be here," Rogers says.
Aside from the subject, this classroom looks like any public school classroom. There are some rowdy kids, a group that always huddles together in the back, a few that keep to themselves. Same typical challenges for any teacher. But for Damon Kenrick, this is a dream job.
When Kenrick hit his late 30s, he decided his career in tech needed a shakeup. He enjoyed teaching Sunday school to the youth in his congregation and thought seminary might be the right fit. After some training, to his surprise, he got a job offer.
Kenrick says he'll stick with the job as long as he can. "It's a fun job. I love what I get to do."
“We really don’t do a lot to recruit other than to make people aware of those opportunities," says Chad Webb, the administrator for all seminaries for the LDS Church.
Webb says his job causes him to loses sleep at times, but not because he worries about finding enough teachers.
“We stay up at night feeling sad that we have to say no to really great people because we have more quality people than we have positions available," says Webb.
The church employs 1400 full time seminary teachers in the U.S., primarily in Utah, Idaho and Arizona. Historically, seminary teachers work about 30 years before retiring. Each year the church turns away hundreds of hopeful candidates because teachers simply don’t want to leave.
Why do they want to stay?
For one thing, seminary teachers are paid more. The exact numbers aren’t available, but the church hires teachers for a full 12-month contract rather than the traditional 9-months public school teachers work. Also, administrative responsibilities rotate. You could be tapped to be a principal for a few years and then go back to full-time teaching. Webb says pay increases are based on education and time in the classroom, not position.
There are a few quirks. Male teachers aren’t hired unless they’re married. Because they’re supposed to model a righteous lifestyle to their students, which includes marriage. Also, for a long time, women with young children in the home couldn’t teach full-time. That has skewed the profession to be predominantly male. That policy has since been removed, and more and more women are showing interest.
At a job fair on Brigham Young University camps, sophomore Kaytee Johnson is eyeing the seminary booth. She says ever since her mission to Baton Rouge she's realized how much she loves teaching.
The seminary booth is pretty plain, no eye catching display, just an enthusiastic professor in a suit.
“The way that this process works to teach seminary is that you first take Religion 471, it’s just right over at the Joseph Smith Building," says Shawn Hunt who teaches the class also known as "seminary pre-service."
After taking the mandatory class, prospective teachers are put in front of students for two weeks. If it goes well, they’re invited back part time until they graduate.
As Hunt make his pitch to students, one point in particular seems to resonate.
"The good thing about it is that you can pursue this while you’re working on your degree and you can let that be plan A and let this be plan B,” Hunt says.
Students don’t have to major in seminary teaching. In fact, they can’t. Everyone is a candidate. Accounting students, pre-med, psychology.
“We want to make sure that we kind of sell the package," Hunt says. "We want them to know that this is a great job and you really ought to look at it.”
Hunt adds that a big pool makes for a competitive hiring process. Most people who apply won’t get jobs.
"You may find out that the Lord had something else in store for you," says Hunt.
That idea, the influence of the Lord, is perhaps the unfair advantage in recruiting that seminaries have over public schools. Most teachers see their profession as a calling but seminary teachers take it a step further.
This job is another way to do "the Lord’s work" — almost like a second Mormon mission. And it just so happens to come with a pretty good benefits package