By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
Schools across the country have been having a difficult time recruiting teachers, with some estimates at more than 200,000 teachers leaving the profession annually.
Experts say the struggles to fill positions are real, with fewer graduating to enter the field and a big bloc of teachers poised for retirement.
In Arizona, about 47 percent of teacher positions either remain vacant or are filled by those who do not meet the standard teacher requirements, according to the Arizona School Personnel Association.
In the Peoria Unified School District this problem is not as acute, but Superintendent Dr. Darwin Stiffler said the need for teachers is a real issue in PUSD.
At the end of July, PUSD had 41 certified and 65 classified vacancies, however during roughly the same period, PUSD had retained about 88 percent of its teachers.
Dr. Stiffler said there is a national teacher shortage, and unfortunately Peoria is now feeling the impact in its schools.
“All the research points to the fact that fewer college graduates are choosing teaching as their career pathway. Pay is not the sole reason, but among the many factors that contribute to this choice. With an increase in state mandates, there are less resources available for school districts to pass on to salaries,” he said. “However, our teacher retention rates exceed the state and national averages and we continue to take great strides to increase our retention and reduce the number of teachers who leave our system, but with fewer college graduates choosing education as a profession, this continues to be a challenge.”
With the narrow passage of Proposition 123 in May, the district received $7.3 million for the 2015-16 school year from the state, which was split into two areas — about $4.4 million for compensation to staff and about $2.9 million for instructional resources.
But it is unclear where specifically future funds will go, and the districts only have a limited amount to pay teachers because funding is alloted by the Arizona Legislature.
Dr. Stiffler said that makes it difficult when trying to attract talented teachers from Arizona and elsewhere.
“Sitting across from a recruiter from Texas or Alaska who is offering $15,000 more than I can possibly hope to pay, it is going to make a difference. It’s amazing what some people think of Arizona. They have perhaps some correct perceptions, but they also believe that Arizona is dangerous, that it is redneck. All of those sorts of things I have heard recruiters say,” he said. “Teachers ask, ‘When is the district going to pay me what I really deserve.’ The answer is that the district wants to do that. The real question is: When is the state going to make it possible to pay you what you deserve? When somebody learns about that bit, it changes the conversation and shows where we need to advocate. We can’t distribute what we don’t have. We just can’t.”
Consequently, officials with the district are focusing on the things they can do.
Governing Board member Kathy Knecht said building compensation to a point that is robust and satisfying will mitigate other working conditions. She said teachers are worth more than state funding allows the district to pay them. So, instead, the district needs to focus on other areas that make teachers’ work experience more rewarding, such as more time for genuine collaboration, recognition, promotion, autonomy or any number of things.
The Governing Board is always open to ideas for non-monetary rewards for teachers, she said.
“We should not cease our efforts to increase levels of compensation, internally or by lobbying our legislators, but in the meantime, we should make every attempt to make PUSD a place where teachers feel valued and respected and a place where they want to work,” Ms. Knecht said. “Our challenge is — because we are not given enough state funding for salaries — we need to boost other benefits.”
This includes offering things that will keep teachers in the district.
As of Jan. 1, the Employee Assistance Plan will be fully implemented.
Danielle Airey, a spokeswoman for the district, said the plan will be available to all employees and their dependents as a resource for those who are struggling or need legal or mental health counseling. The internal recruitment program has also been implemented, which rewards employees with gift cards who refer candidates who get hired.
Additionally, teachers receive extra compensation when they give up prep period to cover an unfilled class.
Ms. Airey said the district is working especially hard to attract and retain the best and brightest staff for the classroom and in critical support roles.
“The employee recruitment program shows our current staff that we value their input in the hiring process. Peoria Unified also has a wonderful benefits package and the Employee Assistance Plan, which provides added value to our employees’ families,” Ms. Airey said. “Working to enhance our recruitment and retention makes us that much more competitive as we seek qualified candidates to fill positions.”
Governing Board President Matthew Bullock said PUSD has done a good job of retaining its teachers. About one-third of the staff is in their first three years of employment within the district, and nearly half have been in the district for eight years. Teachers in PUSD average 10.6 years of experience.
He cited a number of reasons why teachers decide to stay in the district — overall school culture, professional fulfillment and a good working relationship with their peers. But appropriate monetary compensations remains a big attraction, he said.
“In talking to teachers, I have asked many of them, ‘Why do you stay?’ The number one reason — and this is a general statement — is because of the Peoria family. That keeps a lot of teachers here. But that can’t be the only reason people stay, because quite honestly, that only lasts so long. If that is the only thing that keeps you here and everything else is not going well, then you are going to leave. The Peoria family only lasts so long,” Mr. Bullock said. “I love to hear that the Peoria family is the gem, and it is why you are here, but I would also would like that you are properly compensated, that you have the resources, training, the department chairs, and everything else, to augment the wonderful castle that is the Peoria family.”