Fight or Flight: An Arizona Teacher’s Dilemma

By 8:30 a.m., when her kindergartners file in for class, Tammy Shaw has already been working for four hours.

And the Mesa teacher’s day won’t end when her students file out at three or four.

She’ll spend another hour or two cleaning up the classroom. Then even more time at home that night prepping for the next day.

Shaw was in love with the profession when she first started, twenty years ago. She never minded the long hours, as long as it meant her students were doing well.

She thought she would never leave the classroom.

But that was before the salary freezes. And the scripted curricula. And the overflowing classrooms.

At the end of this school year, Tammy Shaw plans to stop teaching.

And she’s not alone.

Arizona’s educators are disappearing. In September of 2014, 62 percent of district and charter schools in the state reported having open teaching positions, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Education. During the 2013-2014 school year, 24 percent of first-year teachers and 20 percent of second-year teachers were reported to have left teaching in the state.

With budgets shriveled from low funding, district leaders across Arizona are making hard choices when it comes to teacher salaries, with some educators waiting years for a single pay raise.

Yet, money is not the only reason the state is short on educators, current and former Arizona teachers said. Instead, they blame the problem on rigid academic standards robbing them of creative freedoms. But what they say is even more central to the crisis is a systemic lack of respect from lawmakers, taxpayers and administrators alike.

Spread too thin

In 30 minutes, Heather Wallace makes more money playing with one, 10-week-old puppy than she made in an hour teaching 35 surly teenagers.

Wallace left her English teaching job at Maryvale High School in 2011, after six years in the profession. The 33-year-old now owns Lucky Me Pet Care, a dog walking and pet sitting service in the Valley.

Wallace has her master’s degree in teaching – a degree she paid for by working both a teaching job at William R. Sullivan Elementary School in Phoenix and waitressing at Lone Star Steakhouse three nights a week. While at Maryvale, she bartended on weekends.

Just at her teaching job, Wallace remembered working as many as 70 hours and taking home around $500 each week.

Her days would often revolve around test scores while she spent hundreds of dollars out of her own pocket creating elaborate incentive programs to get students, many of whom came from low-income homes, to try.

“All teaching is, is pressure,” she said. Adding, “It doesn’t matter what wonderful lessons you plan, it doesn’t matter that you spent $200 of your own money to buy the supplies for it, all they [administrators and state officials] want to see are the test scores.”

She loved her job but worried if she did not leave, the long hours would transform her into a clichéd, grumpy teacher, as she felt herself getting frustrated more often.

So Wallace left.

These days, she takes home around $800 a week through her pet care business working half the hours she did teaching. She has bought a new car, a new house and has less debt.

Wallace’s salary was not what pushed her out of teaching – but she said what that low salary symbolizes speaks volumes from lawmakers.

“This is what we’re worth to you?” she said. “This is how little you respect us?”

In the 2013-2014 school year, the average teacher’s salary in Arizona was $45,335, ranking 45th in the U.S. for that number, according to the National Education Association.

Meanwhile, class sizes are getting bigger, as are expectations for teachers. From 2009 to 2013, the average number of students per teacher increased by 8.8 percent in Arizona, according to a report from the state’s auditor.

The number on a teacher’s paycheck translates to a lack of respect, said Dr. Teressa Ribbens, the CEO of the Teacher Retention Project, an initiative based in Arizona aimed at keeping teachers in the state.

“Nobody goes into education to become a millionaire, but Arizona does need to increase the pay,” she said. Adding, “Teachers aren’t feeling valued because the state is saying, ‘you’re not valued.’”

Sticking to the script

For 30 years, Dawn Vaughan’s husband Mike Vaughan worked as a teacher and a part-time landscaper.

Both Dawn and Mike worked in the Mesa Public Schools district, and, when both of their salaries were frozen, he went from landscaping two to three days a week to five to six days a week.

“He was tired a lot,” she remembered.

Vaughan, 53, taught for 18 years in Mesa, retiring early in 2012. For the seven years before she left, her salary was frozen at $46,513.

Still, Vaughan was passionate about teaching.

“I absolutely loved getting up and going to work: it was just part of who I was,” she said.

One of the most rewarding parts of the job for her was being able to design a curriculum, having fun with intricately planned reading and math units.

But during her last three years teaching first grade at Entz Elementary, Vaughan noticed the fun started to drain away.

With the introduction of the Common Core in Arizona, a set of academic standards for K-12 students, she found herself with fewer and fewer creative lesson planning opportunities from the state’s Department of Education.

“When they’re changing up everything you teach and they take the creativity – that power away – from your experience as a teacher,” she said. “It’s just ruined your whole feel for it.”

Constantly worrying about test scores and losing connections with her first-graders, Vaughan knew it was time to get out. She felt like she was no longer serving her students.

She believed many ineffective guidelines based on test scores were coming from Arizona Department of Education officials.

“There were a lot of policies being made by people who had no clue about teaching,” she said.

Shaw, too, despises the constant focus on data at her school, Ida Redbird Elementary in Mesa.

She often must cope with tears from five and six-year-old kindergartners crying over rigorous new lessons, including one requiring five-year-olds to properly note-take.

“I just see tears in their eyes when I go, ‘you have to know this, you have to do this, you have to write this,’ because that’s our job now,” Shaw said.

For Shaw, daily life in the classroom does not feel like teaching anymore, but constant documentation and scripted lessons. In her kindergarten class, there’s less time to sing and play.

Arizona’s Department of Education even has actual scripts on its website for teachers to follow for certain curriculums, mapping out exactly what a teacher must say in third grade math and reading lessons.

It is unclear whether the more militant approach is working. In 2015, a majority of Arizona students did not pass the new AzMERIT test in reading or math, according to scores from the state Department of Education.

When the scores came out, state Board of Education officials defended the scores and new standards in the press, arguing that the tests were more difficult than the AIMS exams they were replacing.

Ribbens supports higher standards for students, but points to scripted lessons as a major problem in keeping top teaching talent in the state.

“That doesn’t lead to empowerment for top teachers, that they can’t create their own lesson plan,” she said.

“Living and breathing that every day is difficult”

Naomi Varga no longer teaches in Arizona. The former Tucson Unified Schools teacher now makes $60,000 a year teaching third grade in Kansas City, Missouri.

She came to her new district with 27 years of experience, and was credited with ten from the district in determining her pay.

In the spring of 2014 in Tucson, her last salary was $46,500 — $13,500 less than her new yearly pay, despite being credited with 17 more years of experience.

Before she left Arizona, Varga had not gotten a pay raise in ten years. One year, she remembers having to take a pay cut.

Even when teachers were still getting raises, she remembers the incentives for professional development were minimal.

“I got my master’s degree in 1994 and got a whopping $850 dollars for a degree that cost me $10,000,” she said.

But Varga believes frozen salaries suggest a bigger epidemic facing teachers in Arizona – one that has to do with respect.

“You do feel kind of slapped in the face as a teacher,” she said.

While Varga would not have moved to Missouri if it were not for her grandkids, she does see stark differences in how communities and lawmakers respect educators in Kansas City and Arizona.

Namely, she found less hostility towards teachers from both the press and lawmakers – as well as more support from her new community in general.

Varga remembered the perception of teachers was turning toxic during her last few years in Tucson.

“If you were sitting in jury duty, you didn’t want to tell someone you were a teacher,” she said.

Experts on teacher retention echoed Varga’s thoughts.

“Our teachers are isolated, the community doesn’t support education, our state doesn’t support education,” Ribbens said. “Living and breathing that every day is difficult. It creates early burn-out.”

Many teachers said they believe lawmakers and parents don’t understand how much work they put in every day, blaming them for every child’s academic shortcomings. Meanwhile, many of those educators are just as frustrated.

Because of that, Varga said, more young teachers are leaving the profession.

“That’s not why they became a teacher, to test kids to death,” she said. “They wanted to make a difference and their hands are tied behind their back.”

The challenge of creating a supportive environment

Dr. Howard Carlson wants to support his district’s teachers with more financial incentives. But the Wickenburg Unified Schools superintendent also wants to fix rusty busses with leaking air conditioners.

In his small district, the teacher shortage has become a critical problem, where he said one middle school even recently experienced 100 percent turnover in its math and science staff.

But the district’s capital funds – the money that keeps roofs from caving in – are also quickly draining.

“In the end, you are dealing with competing needs,” he said.

Carlson and Wickenburg Unified School District officials have worked up a plan to try to combat the shortage. The district is bumping the starting salary for all teachers from $31,775 to $33,775, which will go into effect by 2016, according to the proposal.

Carlson and his team are also trying out a few unconventional methods to attract new candidates, like starting a vanpool from nearby Surprise to help teachers save money on gas and establishing partnerships with local organizations to provide cheaper housing.

But the superintendent thinks it will take more than just the changes in his district to fight the shortage plaguing the entire state.

“Teachers do not at all feel supported publicly,” Carlson said. “At the legislative levels, they clearly don’t see support.”

Arizona’s Department of Education acknowledges that the shortage has reached a critical point. Officials created a task force to try to combat the problem and superintendent Diane Douglas recently lobbied for $400 million to raise teacher salaries.

Douglas did not get her wish – and will likely settle for less – or even nothing at all.

In May of 2016, after another school year has passed for many Arizona schools, voters will decide whether to inject around $300 million to teacher’s salaries, according to a spokesman for the state’s Department of Education.

But in all of the talk about getting educators to stay, Shaw – and other current and former teachers around the state – thinks Douglas and those at the Arizona Department of Education have left them behind.

“I just wish that they would talk to us,” Shaw said. “No one ever comes and asks us what’s going on.”

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