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Commentary: How to Address the Crisis in the Teaching Profession in Utah

Three Westminster College Experts Lay Out Problems and Solutions in Education

This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune and is reprinted with permission.

Student with hands raised in a classroom

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School in 2017.

A crisis is defined as a time of intense danger when important decisions must be made. It can’t wait!

A few days ago, we read with frustration an article in The Salt Lake Tribune about the substitute teacher crisis in Utah—a direct result of Utah’s severe teacher shortage. The substitute statistics were staggering. Granite School District needed 518 subs at the end of September and couldn’t fill 194 of those positions.

Fatigue. Exhaustion. Frustration. Burnout. Working conditions for teachers are so challenging that leaving the profession (or not entering it) becomes the better option. The teacher shortage crisis was present before the global pandemic and has only been exacerbated. This urgent situation will only worsen — and at great cost to students — unless systemic issues are addressed.

Right now, the educational attitude toward teachers is “do more with less”—instruct more students with fewer resources, teach the most diverse student body ever while mandating scripted curriculums, address duties that aren’t a part of teaching contracts daily. This harsh reality acts as a deterrent to those who may be interested in the teaching profession.

We offer five root causes (underlying causes of a situation) in the teaching profession and effective ideas to help address them. 

Root cause No. 1: Teaching is not viewed as a highly respected profession.

Idea: Envision Utah says that learning to view and talk about teachers with more respect will help attract Utah’s best students into the profession. We should support teacher candidates in highly effective programs through more state-funded scholarships. Research shows that well-educated and prepared teacher professionals often obtain licensure in high quality teacher preparation programs. They are equipped with a multitude of tools to address students’ needs, work more effectively, and stay in the profession longer.

Root cause No. 2: Teachers are shouldering much of the social, emotional, and psychological burdens of their students. These stressful working conditions are taking their toll, so teachers and staff are taking more mental health days. They need these, but it puts extra pressure on everyone in the school.

Idea: We need to fund more social workers and school psychologists so that they can have an active presence in schools. We need to invest in social-emotional learning opportunities for all school professionals as well as students, including learning opportunities around trauma-responsive and restorative justice practices for teachers.

Root cause No. 3: Utah was recently ranked as having the most crowded classrooms in the nation.

Idea: Research shows that differentiating classroom instruction to ensure every student can learn is imperative. In Utah, large class sizes—often between 30-40 students—are common. For teachers to create engaging, student-centered classrooms and meet increasing students’ needs, class sizes need to be reduced.

Root cause No. 4: The push for standardization has put immense pressure on students and teachers. The state requires more tests for students which inhibits the ability to engage in creativity, critical thinking activities—necessary skills in our complex, ever-changing society. In addition, teachers are also required to take more tests.

Idea: Reduce reliance on corporate, standardized tests both in the classroom and for teachers. Allow for a variety of ways to show accountability beyond standardized tests for both students and teachers. Currently, elementary school teachers are required to take at least three standardized tests to earn a license and, in many cases, take more tests within their first years in the classroom

Root cause No. 5: Teacher pay must be increased—along with professional opportunities for teachers. Utah ranks 49th out of 50 states for lowest teacher pay.

Idea: We need to offer teachers the kind of compensation and opportunity that will draw people into the profession and enable them to stay long-term. While a higher salary is one kind of incentive, ensuring that teachers do not have to cover classroom and learning expenses is vital. Investing in teacher continued education—whether through continued educational opportunities, sabbaticals or research opportunities—also send teachers the message that they are professionals and essential academic workers.

How can we address the above problems?

The fantastic news is that Utah has a budget surplus this year. According to a Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, more than one-third of Utahns say education should be the Utah Legislature’s top priority, and we couldn’t agree more. We believe that this crisis should compel more Utahns and their representatives to invest in education — an essential resource for the future of our children and our state.

Marilee Coles-Ritchie, Ph.D., is professor in the School of Education at Westminster College. She has over three decades of education experience in K-12 and higher education settings focusing on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion especially related to multilingual learners.

Melanie AgnewEd.D., is dean for the School of Education at Westminster College. Her scholarship focuses on higher education leadership, organizational change and equity, access, and inclusion in education.

Anneliese CannonPh.D. is an associate professor in the School of Education at Westminster College. She has more than two decades of education experience in K-12 and college settings and specializes in literacy instruction and teaching linguistically diverse learners.


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Melanie Agnew

Westminster College