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Professional development a solution to Utah's teacher burnout problem, educators say

Utah is losing hundreds of new teachers every year due to burnout and other problems. But it's a trend state leaders are trying to counteract with more opportunities for professional development.
Utah is losing hundreds of new teachers every year due to burnout and other problems. But it's a trend state leaders are trying to counteract with more opportunities for professional development.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Five years ago, 2,417 new teachers entered Utah's classrooms, but by last year, more than 1,000 of them had left the profession.

About 16 percent of new educators — the largest portion of Utah's five-year teacher attrition rate of 42 percent — left the classroom before their second year of teaching, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

It's a sobering trend considering Utah's education system grows by almost 10,000 students every year.

But it's a trend education leaders and lawmakers are trying to counteract. Friday's portion of the Utah Education Association's two-day convention focused on giving hundreds of new teachers the training and encouragement they need to succeed in teaching Utah's children.

"I think what we're finding with the lack of resources that we have is that the mentor programs are the first things that go. Professional development goes, and those are all the things that brand new teachers need," said UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. "We're hoping to fill that gap and provide them with an opportunity to connect with another educator that can help them."

Ashley Nash said the ultimate reason she goes to work each day as a teacher is to see the small daily victories among her class of third-graders. But as someone in her third year of teaching, Nash sees why some educators are inclined to burn out early.

"As a new teacher, I think a lot of times, it's knowing what support you have. There's support out there, but you're blind to it. You feel very alone in things like that," said Nash, who teaches at American Preparatory Academy in West Valley City. "As you get more experience, you learn where you can get that help."

Sometimes it can be years before a teacher's efforts produce a personal reward. In the meantime, federal and state policies impacting students and teachers can stack up quickly, Nash said.

"You're really trying hard and you're not seeing the return of it. You don't get that 'thank you,' you don't see that student succeed. It comes back around in 10, 20 years," she said. "I think a lot of times, that's the burnout for teachers, as well as the politics, the testing. Those environments can be really stressful and terrifying as a new teacher: 'What does that really mean for me? What do I need to do? This is no longer fun. The fun is gone.'"

An old trend

Utah's teacher attrition rates have held steady for the past several years, give or take about 2 percent with each group of new teachers. Last year, district schools lost 373 new teachers for a one-year retention rate of 85 percent, and charter schools lost 132 teachers for a retention rate of 78 percent, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

Overall, Utah's one-year retention rates range from 83.3 percent last year to 85.7 percent in the 2008-09 school year.

Utah's situation is not unique. Jenny Severson, a national education consultant with the Quantum Learning Network, said teacher attrition has plagued most states for the past two decades, and places with a high teacher turnover often have multiple elements in common.

These can include management problems, student discipline and policies that can be burdensome for educators, according to Severson. But most often, she said, those teachers lack opportunities for professional development and effective mentoring.

"The impact of the training that they get before they start and the ongoing mentoring they get throughout the year is what's going to keep them in the profession," Severson said.

Teacher turnover also puts pressure on local resources, forcing school administrators to turn to para professionals or other substitutes when vacancies can't be filled.

"It's just a major burden," she said. "If you hire 50 new teachers and you have to hire 50 new teachers the next year, it just puts an incredible strain on people's time and attention."

State data does show some good news. Since 2009, the number of new teachers entering the classroom has steadily grown, with an overall increase of 700 teachers. And there's a prevailing question education leaders and lawmakers are asking themselves: How do we keep them?

Emerging solutions

Several initiatives are developing to give new teachers extra support and coaching during their first few years in the classroom. During the past two years, the Salt Lake City School District has been piloting the Peer Assistance and Review Program, where full-time consulting teachers give one-on-one assistance to more than 60 new and veteran educators. The state Legislature this year voted to provide ongoing funding for the program.

Friday's session of the UEA convention featured several workshops devoted to helping new teachers navigate the profession, including classroom management, building professional networks, understanding policy implications and other topics.

"It's about sharing best practices. It's about talking with other teachers about what they've learned in their classroom and learning about how we can help one another," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "It's no different than a doctor who does a residency with an experienced medical doctor. They need the support."

Members of the Legislature's Education Interim Committee have also voted to draft a bill for next year to restore funding for professional development that was cut in 2009 for a weighted pupil unit increase. The bill would award funds to school districts and charters through a qualifying grant program, with money available for all schools that meet certain requirements.

It's unclear how much money lawmakers plan to devote to the initiative.

Severson said while large-scale events, such as the UEA convention, provide opportunities for teachers to network with each other, professional development is most effective when it happens daily in the classroom.

"It helps to have it be job-embedded and for there to be an effective mentoring relationship, whether it's from the leadership of the school or an instructional coach," she said. "It just makes a huge difference for them to actually see it work with their real kids in their real setting."

Angie Marsden is in her first year of teaching fourth-graders at Elk Meadows Elementary in South Jordan after substitute teaching for eight years. She said more could be done to inform new instructors of what professional development opportunities are available.

"The learning curve to learn everything is way curvy," Marsden said. "There's so much information that I just learned here. … There's a ton of stuff out there that I just need to know how to access."

Jessica Christensen is also in her first full year of teaching sixth-graders in the Davis School District. She said the "shell shock" for new teachers can be overwhelming, especially when student performance can weigh heavily on teacher evaluations. But coaching and mentoring from other educators, she said, will help bring daily rewards for her and her students.

"For me, the biggest reward is when I see that student put forth the effort and that they're successful in whatever we're learning," she said. "That's why I teach. I'm not there for praise or social acclaim. I want the students to be successful.

"We'll go back Monday and try to figure things out."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen