Jon Portie was on the path to law school when his summer work as a counselor at the Heritage School steered him instead toward a high school classroom.
Portie had always thought about becoming a teacher, and when the Provo school advertised an opening for a high school geography teacher, Portie decided to follow that dream.
One obstacle stood in his way — a state teaching license.
A new program at Utah State University, however, was able to put that license in Portie's hand and put Portie into a classroom immediately. The alternative route to teacher licensure program got Portie enrolled in pedagogy classes in January and allowed him to start work as a teacher while earning his master's degree.
"Every day I go to work and I love it," he said. "Law school is a more prestigious route, but I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I'm sticking with it."
That alternative route to becoming a teacher is part of a new program at USU to attract more professionals into the classroom, bringing real-world experience in tow.
Recruiting those teachers is one way education leaders are working to fill the gap as Utah's aging teacher work force retires and the student population continues to grow. According to national estimates, nearly one-third of public school teachers are 55 or older. At the same time, Utah education officials estimate public schools could see a 30 percent increase in the number of students by 2016.
That scenario has caught the eye of leaders at the Utah System of Higher Education, who have started a push to recruit more teachers into Utah's classrooms. David Sperry, former dean of the college of education at the University of Utah, is spearheading the system's efforts to get more university students interested in teaching.
"What we want to try to do is avert a serious shortage of K-12 educators in Utah. We don't want to end up like nursing and other fields with massive personnel shortages," Sperry said. To get more teachers into education training programs at colleges throughout the state, Sperry is focusing on several factors including pay, retention and recruiting in key areas like math and science.
An infamous deterrent for teachers, salary levels may need to be adjusted to get more college students considering education as a career, Sperry said. With engineering and business wages surging, Sperry said education will have to compete for talent.
"This is a shortage nationwide, and a number of math teachers graduated out of the U. have simply been recruited to other states where they are paid more handsomely," he said.
While Sperry said teacher salaries will likely not jump dramatically anytime soon, Utah colleges could do a better job of combating the low pay with vamped-up recruitment campaigns. Better counseling to guide students toward teaching could be the first step, he said.
"You don't see ads on TV calling for people to go into teaching, and we may just need to do more to bring the benefits of being a teacher to the attention of younger people," he said.
At the U., instructor Mary Burbank is trying to get high school students deciding now to be teachers. A new program with Highland High allows students to get classroom experience and begin taking pedagogy courses early.
"We're trying to encourage teachers who may not normally come into the field," Burbank said. "We hope to provide our students with experiences that don't have too many surprises in the first few years in the classroom."
Sperry is also looking toward alternative licensing to lure qualified professionals into schools.
At USU, Peggie Clelland is also trying to tap the professional arena for talent with the university's alternative route to licensure program. While several Utah schools offer classes to help professionals gain a teaching license, USU's program is unique because students earn a master's degree instead of a second bachelor's.
Clelland's first crop of licensed teachers graduated this year after the two-year course. All of the students were able to teach during that time as long as they were making progress toward a license.
"They have the content background, they have the experience. They bring world views to the classroom. They're knowledgable in their field," she said. "Where they need help is in classroom management and how to present that material to students."
Clelland added that having USU track the students takes a burden off principals who are often wary of hiring teachers who aren't fully licensed.
"They feel like they have a grounding, and that's what Utah State offers them," she said. "There's that two-year support where someone's tracking you. That's very different than someone just expected to find courses on their own."