Utah has been grappling with a teacher shortage for over a decade—but, as with almost everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the problem.
As K–12 schools navigate coronavirus testing, hybrid teaching and learning, and the stress of a global health crisis, teachers are leaving the classroom in even greater numbers than they have in previous years. And with all this stress and uncertainty, it’s likely that fewer and fewer college students will decide to pursue careers in education. At the same time, though, it has become even more critical that our classrooms are led by the best, brightest, and most adaptable people Utah has to offer.
Envision Utah came up with a plan for finding and keeping those people back in 2019, before any of us could’ve imagined the turbulent year to come. With a team of education, state, policy, and business leaders—and with a wealth of nuanced data at our fingertips—we set out to answer one key question: In the current market, how do we need to compensate teachers to attract and keep the best possible educators in the classroom so that every Utah child has access to a great education?
“In the current market, how do we need to compensate teachers to attract and keep the best possible educators in the classroom so that every Utah child has access to a great education?”
Over the course of six months, our teacher task force developed eight strategies in response to that question and released them as “A Vision for Teacher Excellence.” The strategies included strengthening teacher induction programs, providing more counselors and paraprofessionals, making the retirement system more competitive, and offering more scholarships for college students who major in teaching. Most importantly, we recommended a statewide teacher salary increase to an average starting pay of $60,000, and suggested that number should grow to about $110,000 by the time a teacher retires.
We had years’ worth of research to back up that strategy, including a survey of 4,100 Utah college students in which 44% of respondents said they’d consider teaching if salaries increased. Equally important, polling in early 2019 showed Utahns want that kind of investment, with 9 in 10 reporting they’d be willing to pay more to support teachers. When we polled Utahns again in Fall 2020—six months into the pandemic—we found that an even greater share of Utahns agreed with that sentiment than did before.
Utahns have an intuitive sense of what education researchers have confirmed to us over and over: that teachers are essential to our students’ success. The chaos of teaching and learning online and six feet apart this past year has made that reality even clearer—and we need more educators who are up to the challenge. That means that rather than rendering our vision obsolete, COVID-19 has made it all the more urgent. We need to offer our new and veteran teachers the best possible support so that they can do their best work for Utah kids. And we need to compensate them not just fairly, but in a way that ensures our schools and our students are prepared for any crisis that might come their way.