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Education

Educators say more support is needed to retain teachers in their first five years

A photo of a empty classroom.
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Utah’s retention rate for new teachers is about 14% lower than the rate overall.

School districts across the country often struggle to find and keep qualified teachers. The result is a long-standing, national shortage that ultimately hurts students.

Utah is no stranger to the problem, with teacher retention rates that appear concerningly low. Just 56% of teachers stay in their jobs, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education. That number falls to 42% for teachers in their first five years.

But Jennifer Throndsen, USBE’s director of teaching and learning, said it’s important to keep those numbers in perspective. Compared to the rest of the country, Utah does relatively well. Retention rates for new teachers across the country range from 17-50%, she said.

Still, the disparity between early career teachers in Utah and those with more than five years of experience is significant, which is why she said the state has increasingly focused on boosting new teacher support and mentoring.

“We have this kind of binary data set of [being] super successful in keeping [teachers after five years],” Throndsen said. “But during those first five years, we're super unsuccessful keeping them.”

Throndsen said survey data shows teachers most often leave their jobs not because of low pay or starting a family, but because they don’t have the support they need to be successful. She said new teachers need mentors and learning coaches who can observe them in the classroom and help them fine tune their lesson plans and classroom management skills.

It’s a strategy the Washington County School District has prioritized and found boosted its teacher retention rates to one of the highest in the state.

“There are tons of studies, anecdotal survey information, all about how important mentors are,” said Kellie May, Utah’s 2019 teacher of the year and a teacher mentor in the Salt Lake City School District. “They have influenced people to stay in the profession that were maybe thinking about leaving.”

Not all new teachers can or even should stay in the field, May said. Some simply try it out to see if they’ll like the job and realize it’s not for them. But for the people who enter the field with a passion and desire to teach, it’s critical to provide resources so that they can be successful.

She said in the past there hasn’t been a lot of institutional support for new teachers in Utah.

The state education board requires districts to pair first-year teachers with a mentor as well as offer training for those districts to use. But May said districts aren’t actually required to use the training and, in practice, there is often little followup to ensure new teachers are getting the help they need.

“It's a rule, but it's been a very informal thing,” she said. “There's no teeth behind anything.”

She said the other challenge is cultural. Teachers with more years under their belts tend to request and get the best schedules, leaving less experienced teachers with more difficult classes and little time to prepare.

Still, May said one thing she’s especially hopeful for is the recently-launched “Grow Your Own” program, which provides nearly $10 million to fund scholarships and mentors for school staff looking to become licensed teachers or counselors. It’s proven a successful model in finding passionate teachers who stay in the field long-term.

The state is also using federal COVID relief funds to pay for nine teaching coaches in several rural districts across the state, Throndsen said, and piloting a mentor training program in 13 districts and charters to study best practices in supporting early-career teachers.

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