The two Utah men don’t know each other, but they have at least one thing in common.
Ben Johnson is a first-year math teacher at Alta High School. He loves his job, but it’s exhausting and pays well below what he could make elsewhere with his bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
Marc Elgort is a University of Utah graduate student who researches cell metabolism at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He tried teaching but found it stressful, all-consuming and riddled with bureaucratic frustrations.
Both men’s stories reveal different shades of the same problem: retaining and attracting teachers in Utah, especially in math and science. Utah schools were 173 teachers short – including nearly 20 science and math teachers – on the first day of school in 2007, according to a recent report by David Sperry, a University of Utah professor of educational leadership and policy and Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah System of Higher Education. State education leaders worry Utah’s students and economy could fall behind other states and nations if something isn’t done soon.
Utah voters rejected an ill-thought-out voucher plan in November, but the Utah legislature had no plan B — so Utah’s classrooms are still crowded, there’s not enough money to provide merit increases to teachers who need them, teaching is a grind instead of a calling, and that means it will take a lot more money to get the teachers the students deserve — money the legislature hasn’t appropriated and probably won’t when they get back to the issue early next month, for the legislature’s 30-day budget session.
At some point we will have to stop working for education reform, and start working at education rescue, if these conditions are not changed.
Don’t smirk if you’re not from Utah. I can find a school in your state, probably in your town, with the same problems:
Johnson, like 8 percent of new teachers hired to work in Utah schools this year, came from out of state. Several Utah school districts recruit from elsewhere because Utah colleges and universities trained about 1,200 fewer teachers than schools needed this school year, according to Sperry’s report.
Johnson made most of his contacts at a job fair in Michigan.
“Every person that found out I was a math teacher pulled me aside,” Johnson said. “You could see how desperate they were.”
He said he interviewed with several school districts and received an offer from each one. He ultimately chose Jordan.
That’s where the easy part ended.
On a recent school day about three months into his career, Johnson invited juniors to the board to work with polynomials.
“Let’s take a look at a couple of things first. What do you see that we can cancel right away?” Johnson asked of one problem.
Several groups of students chatted and laughed among themselves.
“Guys, listen up,” Johnson said. It was one of many times he had to remind students to pay attention.
“It’s really tough,” Johnson said earlier. “I have to be really firm. They’re talking all the time.”
Holding on to the dream: Johnson said classroom management has so far been his biggest challenge – his largest class has 37 students. Utah has some of the largest class sizes in the nation.
“There’s no way I can keep an eye on every single student,” Johnson said.
Utah appropriated a cool half-billion dollars to encouraging teachers in shortage areas, like math, in schools that desperately need them. What does that look like on the ground?
Johnson also puts a tremendous amount of time into teaching. As a new teacher, he is building curricula for several of his courses with help from the district.
“Just building that curriculum takes hours and hours outside of the classroom,” Johnson said. “So does correcting papers.”
Johnson said he has about 180 students. If he gives one assignment or test per class a week, and it takes him five minutes to correct each one, that’s another 15 hours of work.
Johnson makes just over $30,000 a year and estimates he works about 65 hours a week. That boils down to about $13 an hour for the weeks school is in session.
“My wife and I get by, and that’s all I can expect,” Johnson said.
Schencker’s story lists ten bills in the Utah legislative hopper designed to hammer at the problems.