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Pandemic Conditions Are Forcing Some Teachers To Reconsider The Profession

Photo of an empty classroom
A 2015 survey of public school districts found that almost half of them began the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom, and 90% said the pool of qualified applicants has been shrinking.

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered education in Utah, when learning was forced from the classroom to the computer. For some teachers, the ongoing challenges of online learning, along with an uncertain health risk come fall, have them questioning if they can stick with teaching. 

Utah is already facing a teacher shortage. It’s a complex problem, according to the Utah Education Policy Center, having to do with working conditions and the perception of the profession and salary, which is especially low in Utah. 

In 2018, the average Utah teacher made $47,604, about $13,000 less than the national average. When adjusted for inflation, average pay in the state has also dropped more than 7% from 20 years ago. 

And now that teachers have been forced to totally redo the ways they do their job — in some cases working longer and harder than ever before — some are looking for other options. 

“I've just thought, well, maybe I'm just too old for this,” said Christy Giblon, a middle school band teacher in Utah County. 

Giblon said teaching music online simply doesn’t work for her or her students, who often sign up because they want to play with their friends. 

With that taken away, she said she could tell they were getting discouraged, even the ones who were making a concerted effort to practice. Many, she said, gave up.

“It took all the joy out of teaching for me,” she said. “The reason I teach is because I like making music with kids, not because I like sitting on my computer all day grading playing tests.”

Beyond the online challenges, she said, she worries for her own health and safety. She has asthma and could face serious complications if exposed to the coronavirus. And because her classes tend to have at least 50 kids, social distancing and sanitizing could be difficult to maintain.

The experience has been a major challenge for kindergarten teacher Jeremy Reynoso, too. He said it’s next to impossible to teach 5 and 6 year olds through a computer. And while it’s been nice to have support from the community, who he said has expressed a newfound appreciation for the difficulties of teaching, that’s also made him feel guilty. 

“It kind of created a sense of anxiety, like, am I even doing enough?” Reynoso said. “Because I hear about these other superhero teachers who are producing these great things for high school students. And yet in my context, I didn't feel there was much I could do.“

He said he also felt that he and other teachers have been on their own in the transition online, with little guidance or support from their districts or the state. 

“I think the real reason that any teacher ever leaves this job is because of poor working conditions,” he said. “And if our profession is degraded by poor working conditions or a sense of isolation or hopelessness, I understand why people would leave.”

He said if he has to keep teaching online for another few years, he would consider changing grade levels or leaving altogether. That is a hard thing to admit, he said, because he loves the job. 

The drive to teach and work with kids is likely still there for most teachers, said Mary Burbank, a professor of teacher education at the University of Utah. Some have probably even found the new work rewarding. 

But she said if people expect teachers to figure out a totally new learning environment and don’t also change how their success is measured, that will push them away. 

No one has definitive answers as to how to do that yet, but Burbank said what needs to happen is to identify what is most important in teaching and how it’s measured, then determine if teachers and students have what they need to be successful. 

“Delivering the curriculum is not the challenge,” she said. “It's working with students and families, understanding individual needs and creating learning that benefits children in ways unique to them. What we cannot do is simply blindly replicate what we've always done out of tradition when everything has changed.”

She said the first step will be to decide what the new classroom will look like in fall. The State Board of Education recently put out its recommendations for how schools can reopen, but stress that districts will have to decide for themselves the best way forward. They have until Aug. 1 to finalize their plans.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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