When Alisha Wheeler tells people she’s a middle school teacher, they invariably say something like, “Oh, you teach middle school? Be blessed.”
Wheeler, in her 10th year as a middle-level educator, said she was unimpressed with the sometimes condescending and ill-formed comments people make about her chosen profession because she understands that college is a critical time for students.
“For me, middle school is a pivotal time in a student’s educational life and personal identity in every way,” said Wheeler, who teaches language arts at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman.
Teenage brains are still developing and “they can make weird decisions most of the time. But they are also very open. They are there. You don’t have many children who drop out. You kind of have one last chance to convince them that “education is for you”. You are good at it. You can do it.’ I just think it’s a powerful, powerful age,” Wheeler said.
It is also an age when the turnover of teaching staff can have a negative impact on the academic success of middle school students.
Retention promotes success
In a recent presentation to the Utah State Board of Education, student and family rights expert Holly Bell showed data that shows students excel when they have teachers who are retained for three or more years in an individual school.
In Utah, middle or high schools “can only retain 57 percent of their teachers for three years or more,” Bell said. That’s slightly below the state average for K-12 grades.
Another concerning factor is that a higher percentage of teachers in Utah public middle and high school classrooms are considered “semi-qualified” or “unqualified” than the overall state average – 16%. against 14%.
In state licensing terms, semi-qualified means a person is enrolled in a teacher training program but has not completed the coursework.
Unqualified means they are unlicensed or have a specific license from the local education agency, which means the teacher has not completed educator preparation and is not currently not enrolled in a program. Local school boards or charter school boards can ask the state school board to grant specific licenses to the LEA to fill a position “if other avenues of licensing for the candidate are untenable or unreasonable.” .
Bell said education research shows middle school students need to master reading, math and science to prepare them for high school success.
But state data paints a worrying picture.
“One trend we’re seeing is that there’s a big drop in college skills,” Bell said.
A significant number of eighth graders in Utah who were fluent in language, arts, and science at the end of fifth grade in 2018 were no longer fluent by the end of eighth grade. About a quarter were no longer proficient in language arts and science while 34% were no longer proficient in math in 2021, according to state data.
Some subgroups did less well, notably in math with 61% of Pacific Islander students no longer proficient at the end of eighth grade, 52% of Hispanic students, and 55% of English learners.
A bright spot was middle schools where 45% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals were proficient in all three subjects.
Retention Pays Dividends
The difference factor was higher-than-state-average academic retention at their schools. Two of these schools, Lava Ridge Intermediate School in the Washington School District and North Sanpete Middle School, have recorded 76% retention for three or more years and 88% of their respective faculties are highly qualified.
“Looking at this data, it shows that students achieve educational excellence when taught by highly effective, fully qualified teachers,” Bell said.
Jeff Ericksen, principal of North Sanpete Middle School, in a video message, said the school district has a middle school and a high school. The district serves just over 2,500 students.
“We care about each other. We really share each other’s struggles and we share each other’s accomplishments,” he said.
The teaching staff has been stabilized by increases in the cost of living, changes in insurance plans offered by the school district, and teachers who appreciate being able to live in a rural area while earning a sufficient income.
“A lot of people are scared of this age group. Our teachers really like them, which is pretty cool. The other thing is that they’re passionate about their subjects and care about (professional) improvement. ) “, did he declare.
Lava Ridge Middle School Principal Wade Jensen leads a school of sixth and seventh graders. It serves students in six feeder schools in the Washington County School District, and nearly 20% of its students learn English.
Educators meet weekly to collaborate on strategies to help students in difficulty but also to share their successes.
“I feel like everyone’s voice is heard. I feel like all the teachers can tell us what they’re feeling or what they’re struggling with and we as a team can support them and help them,” he said.
Parent and community involvement is also important, he said. “They are very aware of what is happening here and with their support, and with their help, we are seeing great success,” Jensen said in a video message.
Nathan Elkins, director of human resources for educators and other licensed employees of the Salt Lake City School District, said teacher retention in schools in the capital is aided by relatively high salaries — only the Park City School District pay more. The district’s decade-old initiative, which pairs new teachers with an instructional coach, has also paid off.
Peer review and assist coaches observe an educator teaching each week and provide feedback.
“They give you tips and strategies on how to improve yourself and your practice. They will sit down and work out a lesson plan with you. Sometimes they even teach the lesson for you and you can watch them and you can learn and grow together. So it’s really that kind of collaborative coach that’s there every step of the way with you during your first year of teaching,” Elkins said.
In the teacher’s second year, “we kind of do a gradual release,” he said. Teachers still receive mentorship, but this has diminished since their first year.
“The goal is to be in your third year provisionally, you’re ready to rock and really dive into the profession and be yourself. But this PAR coach is there every step of the way,” Elkins said. .
Wheeler, who teaches for the Jordan School District, also coaches other teachers to help them improve their teaching practices and learn how to better manage their classrooms.
She said she believes mentoring, coaching and just having a sounding board are key to teacher retention.
“One of the most important things is to have strong teacher leaders, to have teachers who are going through this, maybe more experienced, who can problem solve and problem solve with them,” Wheeler said.
But there has to be dedicated time and space for that to happen, she said.
Wheeler said she was often approached by teachers who needed her help and was willing to help, but teachers found it difficult to book time already scheduled for grading tests and assignments, program development and other responsibilities.
“It’s like a constant negotiation of time,” she said.
Wheeler, who received her bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University and her master’s degree from Western Governors University, said her professional credentials and teaching students gave her a solid foundation when she entered the education.
Learn on the job
Still, you learn a lot on the job when it comes to classroom management and middle school student energy management.
“The vast majority of them are good kids. But then you have this kind of outlier group that can be really difficult,” she said.
People who enter the profession without the benefit of college pedagogy or child development courses face a more difficult challenge.
“You know, who really bears the burden of this is the teachers,” she said.
“If someone comes to my department – I’m the head of the department – and if you don’t have a teaching certificate and you have gaps in your basic knowledge of how to run a class, which going to happen is you’re going to end up in my class in tears because you need support,” she said.
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the shortage of educators is getting worse, which means more and more students have teachers who weren’t trained in teacher training programs. college or university teachers.
“We have so many people learning on the job,” she said.
Highly qualified teachers deserve earnings that reflect their advanced education and the importance of their work “but it’s so much more than that. This is the size of our classes. It’s the workload. It was bill after bill after bill that was introduced during the legislative session that attacked the integrity of our professionals in our classrooms. … We really have to pay attention to all of these things in order to keep people in our classrooms and, you know, be the best they can be for our kids.
Matthews, a former high school teacher who moved on to college where she felt she was a more effective educator, said “teacher retention is the best recruitment” for educators.
“Any plan to address the educator shortage must recognize the tremendous efforts of our veteran educators who have stayed the course. Give them time and compensation to mentor. Increase mental and emotional health supports for students – for students and adults in our schools,” she said.
Wheeler said she came from a family of educators and always knew she wanted to be one too. She can’t imagine teaching another class and she feels a great responsibility to help students and other educators reach their highest potential.
“I love education and I love college,” she said. “I am a lifelong educator.”