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For Teachers, Moving Up The Ladder Often Means Leaving The Classroom

Lee Hale
Spencer Campbell, Assistant Principal of Elk Ridge Middle School, helps students cross the street at the end of a school day.

The pay gap between Utah’s teachers and school administrators is significant. Which means educators hoping to advance their career often leave the classroom behind.

A big chunk of Spencer Campbell’s day is spent corralling the 7th, 8th and 9th graders of Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan. He walks the halls, checks breezeways for kids playing hooky and is always ready to answer a call on the radio.


Campbell is one of two assistant principals at Elk Ridge and it’s his first year. Last year he was teaching 9th grade English at a school up the road.


Now his days are much different. In the few hours I spend with him we are moving nonstop. Walking the entire length of the school over and over again.


At one point Campbell was asked to come handle a situation with a disruptive 7th grader. We walk down the hall, turn a corner and see the student sitting with his backpack up against the wall.


“Seriously? We just had this talk," says Campbell to the student. Clearly this wasn't their first run-in.



Campbell's in his mid-30’s and looks the part of an administrator. Dresses well. Brisk walk. But he also talks to the kids on their level.


He cracks jokes with the student as he escorts him to a study room, even teases him about a girl — he insists he doesn't like her — and then helps him get started on some worksheets.


For a moment Campbell gets into teacher-mode, as if he’s about to launch into a lesson. Which is probably what he’d like to do, but he’s got somewhere else to be. And we head back out into the hall.


“The effect that a classroom teacher has on a student is second only to a parent," Campbell says. "And as an administrator I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to have that same effect. And that’s kind of heartbreaking.”


Campbell loved teaching. Before he taught he ran a small business and did very well for himself but he felt drawn to education.


He went back to school for a master’s degree and spent five years in the classroom. But, as the father of seven children and the sole income earner for his family, a teacher’s salary wasn’t cutting it.


“As a teacher I was making $43,000 a year and I had a part time job where I would work another 20 hours a week," says Campbell. "And that wasn’t for the extras - that was just for the basics.”



When he says extras he’s talking about things like braces for his kids, piano lessons, the occasional vacation. Pretty standard desires for a parent. So, he felt like he only had one option: administration.


“There’s not a step in the ladder between teacher and administrator. It’s just teacher and administrator," Campbell says.



That’s not saying Campbell is upset about his job. He likes his job and he’s good at it. It also pays a lot more. He now makes $83,000 dollars a year, nearly double what he made in the classroom.


But, what he does now, it’s just not the same as teaching.



“He was a phenomenal teacher. Phenomenal," says AJ Steele who teachers 9th grade Geography at Campbell’s old school. Their classrooms were next door to each other. “The thing that made him so good is he cared for his student so much.


Steele says Campbell was the kind of teacher that just connected well with students. He’d tell them stories about his life and he’d listen to their stories. Even if it was just a silly middle school breakup, he’d listen.


But he also made his students work. He had high expectations and they wrote a lot of papers. Simply put, he was cut out for the job.


“Anytime someone like that leaves the classroom I think it’s a huge blow," says Steele. "Not just to our little world but the ripple effect, that’s one less amazing teacher a kid has.”


But Steele understands why Campbell left. He also knows that the job of an administrator is critical. Although, he has no plans to move on himself.


Steele loves what he does and he’s a little frustrated that there is such a huge financial incentive to leave the classroom.


“Why is it that the further away you get from kids the more money you make?” Steele says.


“I think it’s an issue across education, across the nation," says JaniceVoorhies, the president of the Jordan District school board where both Campbell and Steel work. She also taught for 25 years herself.


“The problem is that there is a big disparity between what teachers make and a living wage in lots of places," Voorhies says.


As a district, Jordan is trying to address this problem. They recently approved a salary increase that includes an additional 7,000 dollars for beginning teachers.


They are also working on a plan to create a better classroom-friendly career ladder, an opt-in program that mixes teaching, mentoring and administrative responsibilities.


“Another avenue to earn additional money so you can stay in the classroom, be a deep, profound influence on student learning and still feed your family," says Voorhies.


But Voorhies admits she’s not sure how long that will take. Or if they can even pull it off.


Financial incentives like this are often a sticky issue with teachers unions. Because while they fight to increase teacher salaries statewide, they also fight to keep them equal statewide.


So for now, the discrepancy remains. Which leaves some of the most dynamic educators spending their days patrolling hallways.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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