More people enrolled in teacher preparation programs during the pandemic
Zach Asay had long been interested in becoming a teacher. His father, Brad Asay, taught for decades and later became the president of the teacher’s union AFT Utah.
But as he was entering his final semester in his teaching program at Weber State University, he began questioning if he’d be able to support himself and his family. His wife recently got pregnant and he knew he would not be able to work in his last semester with the classes and student teaching he’d have to take on.
He started crunching the numbers and estimated he’d be making about $18 an hour in his first year teaching, assuming he’d be working 40 hours a week. That’s when he decided to try something completely different. He dropped out and enrolled in an electrician apprenticeship program, which he’s been doing for over three years.
“I grew up with my dad being a teacher and, I mean, you definitely don't work a 40 hour workweek,” he said. “You don't get any overtime pay, So working 70 hours, being away from family and only getting 18 bucks an hour, it's a little daunting. And it scared me away for sure.”
That others will follow the same path as Asay away from teaching has been a consistent worry over the last few years in Utah, as the challenges brought on by the pandemic and the current political climate could encourage teachers and school staff to leave for better paying or less stressful alternatives.
But the numbers available so far show Asay’s experience is not the norm. In fact, data compiled by KUER and the Utah State Board of Education found that enrollment in teacher preparation programs has mostly gone up during the pandemic.
During the 2020-21 school year, 12,769 people were enrolled in teacher preparation programs compared to 7,311 the year before. It was the highest enrollment level at any point in the past decade.
Most of the increase came from future teachers attending Western Governors University. It’s an online school based in Utah, but most students don’t live in or end up working in the state.
Still, the majority of Utah programs had more students enrolled during the 2020-21 school year than the year before.
“That’s very, very interesting,” said Malia Hite, a license coordinator with USBE who analyzed the data. “That there are more people enrolled in programs right now than the year before.”
While the most recent data does not contain completion rates, she said she would assume those numbers would rise as well. Historically, roughly a third of enrolled students complete in a given year.
She cautioned, however, that data from the current school year is not yet available and there are many local variations that can make it difficult to draw statewide or even national conclusions.
She also noted students enrolled in teacher preparation programs are not teachers yet, so they may decide they want to try something else once they start working in schools. On average, Utah struggles to retain teachers in their first five years.
But so far in the state and nationally, the pandemic does not appear to have led to a major exodus of teachers. In 2020, Utah had its highest retention rate in five years. There was a slight dip in 2021 but it was on par with previous years, Hite said.
The overall education workforce nationwide, though, declined by 9.3% at the onset of the pandemic and remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
Hite and others also worry this year could still be a different story.
“This year has been widely touted as the worst year for the pandemic impacts,” she said. “I know that anecdotally, for example, I have many friends who've been teachers for 20 years and some have walked out of their classroom and have never gone back. And some have thought really hard about it, had the keys in their hand in the middle of class and haven't [left].”
She said that data won’t be available until June. For now, she said state officials and education leaders should keep an eye on stress levels and burnout — the most common reasons teachers leave. But even if those factors don’t lead to an exodus, they are still important issues to address.