When Alisha Wheeler tells people that she’s a middle school teacher, they invariably say something like, “Oh, you teach middle school? Bless you.”

Wheeler, in her 10th year as middle-level educator, said she is unfazed by the sometimes patronizing and ill-formed comments people make about her chosen profession because she understands that middle school is a critical juncture for students.

“Middle school for me is such a pivotal time in a student’s educational life and their personal identity in every way,” said Wheeler, who teaches language arts at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman.

The adolescent brain is still developing and “they can make weird decisions a lot of the time. But they’re also very open. They’re here. You don’t have very many kids dropping out. You kind of have one last chance to convince them that, ‘Education is for you. You are good at this. You can do this.’ I just think it’s a powerful, powerful age,” said Wheeler.

Middle school teacher Alisha Wheeler poses for a portrait at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman on Friday, April 8, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

It is also an age that churn in the teacher workforce can have a negative impact on middle schooler’s academic achievement.

Retention fosters achievement

In a recent presentation to the Utah State Board of Education, Holly Bell, student and family rights specialist, showed data that demonstrates students excel when they have teachers who are retained for three years or more at an individual school.

In Utah, middle schools or junior highs “are only able to retain 57% of their teachers for three years or more,” Bell said. That’s slightly below the statewide average for grades K-12.

Another concerning factor is that a higher percentage of teachers in Utah’s public middle school or junior high classrooms are deemed “semi-qualified” or “not qualified” than the overall state average — 16% versus 14%.

In terms of state licensure, semi-qualified means someone is enrolled in a teacher education program but has not completed the coursework.

Unqualified means they have no license or they have a Local Education Agency-specific license, which means the teacher has not completed educator preparation and is not currently enrolled in a program. Local school boards or charter school boards can request that the state school board grant LEA-specific licenses to fill a position “if other licensing routes for the applicant are untenable or unreasonable.”

Bell said educational research shows middle-school students need to be proficient in reading, math and science to tee them up for success in high school.

But state data paint a concerning picture.

“One trend that we see is that there is a steep slide in proficiency in middle school,” Bell said.

Significant numbers of Utah eighth graders who were proficient in language, arts and science at the end of fifth grade in 2018 were not so by the end of eighth grade. About one-quarter were no longer proficient in language arts and science while 34% were no longer proficient in math in 2021, according to state data.

Certain subgroups fared worse, particularly in math with 61% of Pacific Island students were no longer proficient by the end of eighth grade, 52% of Hispanic students and 55% of English language learners.

One bright spot were middle schools in which 45% of students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals who were proficient in all three subject areas.

Retention pays dividends

The difference maker was higher-than-state-average education retention in their schools. Two such schools, Lava Ridge Intermediate School in Washington School District and North Sanpete Middle School, had 76% retention for three years or more and 88% of their respective faculties are highly qualified.

“Looking at this data, it reflects that students achieve educational excellence when they are taught by highly effective, fully qualified teachers,” Bell said.

Jeff Ericksen, principal at North Sanpete Middle School, in a video message, said the school district has one middle school and one 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 in each other’s achievements,” he said.

The teacher workforce has been stabilized by cost-of-living raises, changes in insurance plans offered by the school district and teachers who appreciate being able to live in a rural area yet earn a sufficient income.

“Lots of people are scared of this age group. Our teachers actually like them, which is pretty cool. The other thing is that they’re passionate about their subjects, and they care about (professional) improvement,” he said.

Which Western state retains schoolteachers better than any other in the country? The answer may surprise you

Lava Ridge Intermediate School Principal Wade Jensen leads a school comprised of sixth and seventh graders. It serves students from six feeder schools in the Washington County School District and nearly 20% of its students are English language learners.

Educators meet weekly to collaborate on strategies to help students who are struggling but also to share their successes.

“I feel like everybody’s voice is heard. I feel like all teachers can tell us how they’re feeling or what they’re struggling with and we as a team can support them and help them,” he said.

Parental and community involvement is important, too, he said. “They’re very aware of what’s going on here and with their support, and with their help, we see great success,” Jensen said in a video message.

Coaching matters

Nathan Elkins, human resources director for educators and other licensed employees in the Salt Lake City School District, said teacher retention in the capital city’s schools is helped by relatively high salaries — only Park City School District pays more. The district’s now decade-old initiative that pairs new-to-the-profession teachers with an instructional coach has paid dividends, too.

Peer Assistance and Review coaches observe an educator’s teaching weekly and give them feedback.

“They give you tips and strategies on how to get better and improve your practice. They’ll sit down and lesson plan with you. Sometimes they’ll even teach the lesson for you and you can watch them and you can learn and grow together. So it’s really this sort of collaborative coach that is there every step of the way with you your first year of teaching,” Elkins said.

Into the teacher’s second year “we sort of do a gradual release,” he said. Teachers still receive mentoring but it’s stepped down from their first year.

“The goal is on your third provisional year, you’re ready to rock and roll and really dive into the profession and be your own self. But that PAR coach is there every step of the way,” Elkins said.

Middle school teacher Alisha Wheeler talks to eighth grade student Storie Shovan during her class at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman on Friday, April 8, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Wheeler, who teaches for the Jordan School District, also coaches fellow teachers to help them improve their teaching practice and learn to better manage their classrooms.

She said she believes mentoring, coaching and just having a sounding board are critical to teacher retention.

“One of the biggest things is having strong teacher leaders, having teachers who are going through it, maybe more experienced, who can problem-solve and troubleshoot with them,” Wheeler said.

But there must be dedicated time and space for that to occur, she said.

Wheeler said she is often approached by teachers who need her help and she’s willing to assist them but teachers are hard pressed to set aside time already scheduled for grading tests and papers, curriculum development and other responsibilities.

“It’s like a constant negotiation of time,” she said.

Wheeler, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University and her master’s from Western Governors University, said her professional degrees and student teaching gave her a solid footing when she entered teaching.

Learning on the job

Still, much is learned on the job with respect to classroom management and dealing with the energy of middle schoolers.

“The vast majority of them are good kids. But then you have this like, group of outliers that can be really challenging,” she said.

People who enter the profession without the benefit of college pedagogy or child development courses face a steeper challenge.

“You know, who really carries the burden of that are the teachers,” she said.

“If someone comes into my department — I’m the department chair — and if you don’t have a teaching certificate and you have deficiencies in your background knowledge of how to manage a classroom, what’s going to happen is you’re going to end up in my classroom in tears because you need support,” she said.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the educator shortage is compounding, which means more students have teachers who were not trained in college or university teacher education programs.

“We have so many people who are learning on the job,” she said.

Highly qualified teachers deserve incomes that reflect their advanced education and the importance of their jobs “but it’s so much more than that. It’s our class sizes. It’s the workload. It’s the bill after bill after bill that was introduced during the legislative session that attacked the integrity of our professionals in our classrooms. ... We have to really pay attention to all of those things in order to keep people in our classrooms and, you know, having them be the best they can be for our kids.”

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Matthews, a former high school teacher who switched to junior high where she felt like she was a more effective educator, said teacher “retention is the best recruitment” for educators.

“Any plan to address the educator shortage must acknowledge the enormous efforts of our veteran educators who have been holding things together. Give them time and compensation to mentor. Increase student mental and emotional health supports — for students and adults in our schools,” she said.

Wheeler said she comes from a family of educators and always knew she wanted to be one, too. She can’t imagine teaching any other grade and she feels a great responsibility to help students and fellow educators reach their highest potential.

“I love education and I love middle school,” she said. “I am a lifelong educator.”

Middle school teacher Alisha Wheeler talks to eighth grade student Jenna Yates during her class at Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman on Friday, April 8, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News
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