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As Teacher Shortage Grows In Arizona, Districts Look For Ways To Keep Teachers In Classrooms

Published: Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 3:28pm
Updated: Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 10:45pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Kara Dellisanti is an English teacher at Thunderbird High School in north Phoenix and she’s been teaching for four years now. But, the first one wasn’t easy, she said.
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Camille Whiting taught in public schools for seven years in all.
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Jonathan Parker is an AP U.S. History teacher at Thunderbird High and the president of the Glendale Union Education Association.

Kara Dellisanti can describe her first year of teaching in one word: chaos.

“It really is chaos,” she said. “It’s a lot like building the plane while you’re trying to fly it.”

She’s an English teacher at Thunderbird High School in north Phoenix and she’s been teaching for four years now. But the first one wasn’t easy, she said.

To Camille Whiting, who left teaching around the same time Dellisanti started, the first year on the job was “terrible.”

“I’m not even kidding,” she said. “I mean, you feel pretty prepared coming out of school, but rarely do the things you create while you’re in school or while you’re student teaching apply to the actual job you get.”

Whiting taught in public schools for seven years in all. Nationally, nearly half of new teachers don’t make it to five. A statistic, she said, she found to be completely true.

“By the time I left, I was like this unicorn,” she said. “There were a bunch of first- and second-year teachers, and then just several teachers saying I’m hanging on for retirement.”

Why? Whiting can list the reasons. First, she said, there was a lack of funding.

As an English teacher, she said she didn’t have enough books for all of her students and spent several hundred dollars out of her own pocket every year on classroom supplies.

“The biggest one I can remember is paper. They started rationing paper,” she said. “And you literally got to the point where you could make like one page copy per student per week.”

Then there was teaching to standardized testing. She said her students had some of the top test scores in the state, but she felt like a robot.

“It was almost like, ‘This week of the year, you will teach this this way,’” she said.

And, of course, there was the issue of salary. “As time went on, more and more, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m never going to retire,’” she said. “I watched
retirement get cut, I watched benefits get cut, paid leave, you know, all the incentives for any kind of money were just evaporating every year.”

There was also district politics, demanding parents, long hours, and, in the end, Whiting said all of the things she loved about teaching were outweighed.

“When I got to the point when about nine days were really awful, like pit in your stomach, ‘I don’t want to go back to work,’ awful, and one was good, that’s when I said this profession just isn’t for very many people anymore,” she said.

Jonathan Parker is an AP U.S. History teacher at Thunderbird High and the president of the Glendale Union Education Association, the teacher’s union in his district.

“There’s going to come a time where great teachers aren’t going be able to continue to come to public schools in Arizona,” he said.

He said with economic disincentives like more standardized testing and declining salaries, and with fewer teachers entering the profession, it’s no surprise the state is experiencing a severe teacher shortage.

“That collision of events has created a spectacular crucible for a teacher retention crisis in Arizona,” he said.

At the beginning of this school year, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association surveyed 130 school districts and charter schools across Arizona and found that 465 teachers either abandoned or resigned their position within the first month of school. Now, there are more than 8,100 teacher openings needing to be filled this year.

The Arizona Department of Education has formed a taskforce to find solutions to address the teacher shortage, and money from the passage of Prop 123 has largely gone to teachers, but, in the last year, the numbers have only gotten more dramatic.

“It’s not the kids, usually, they love the kids,” Parker said. “They grow weary of the paperwork or the meetings or the compensation or the absence of autonomy or false measurements.”

Parker is also a mentor for new teachers as part of the Glendale Union High School District’s teacher mentor program. And, over the years, he’s seen many talented teachers leave.

“Personally, it’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard to be at a place where you’ve invested so much and you care so deeply about the place, when you lose good people and you can’t stop the bleeding, that’s tough.”

Many school districts around the state have programs like this mentor program, aimed at keeping new teachers in the profession and helping them as they find their footing.

The Arizona Educational Foundation started a mentorship partnership for new teachers that spans across the state, regardless of district, and focuses on a teacher’s career goals and work/life balance.

“The conversation is always, ‘OK, what can you control?’” he said.

His job, he said, is to build a relationship of trust, and help them navigate some of the pitfalls that are inevitable in the classroom.

“I always knew that, if I was just truly struggling, they were a text away,” Kara Dellisanti said of the teacher mentor she had her first three years of teaching. “So, I got to team with her and work with her and she really helped me put a lot of those chaotic, ‘Oh God, Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ moments into perspective.”

She said that teaching is her calling, and she’s sticking with it. But, she doesn’t begrudge anyone who leaves.

“It’s hard for me to imagine burning out on this job, but at the same time I can look back to my first or second year teaching and think of some moments that I felt like I don’t know if I can do this for 20 years,” she said.

Dellisanti, Whiting and Parker all said the kids are the best part of being a teacher. They each had a story about a note a student wrote them that they kept.

“And those are the things you live for,” Whiting said.

But, for Whiting, and hundreds of other teachers in Arizona who are leaving public schools, it wasn’t enough.

“You see those positive things so little compared to all the negativity,” she said, “I think that’s why most people are leaving the profession.”

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