No, Idaho’s teachers aren’t quitting in droves

I started doom-scrolling job listings on my classroom computer in 2015.

I’d come to love certain aspects of teaching. The kids were great — most of them, anyway. And teaching high school English in the town I grew up in had perks. My mentor teacher, Marty Earley, was a beloved former football coach who helped me that first year in ways he’ll never know.

Hat tip, Coach.

But a few things had taken a toll a few years in. That big stack of papers that took hours to grade was always staring right back at me. And a lot of the work wasn’t what I’d expected:

  • Disciplinary issues.
  • Shaping my classroom instruction around rooms full of 30-plus learners with vastly — and I mean vastly — different learning capabilities and interest levels.
  • NCLB, IEPs, 504s (teachers, you know what I’m talking about).

But the biggest issue was my take-home pay compared to the hours I was working. Years of recessionary cuts had hobbled teacher paychecks across the state by 2015, and the landscape wouldn’t start to change until I jumped ship.

I took a second job managing a county-owned park with several RV parking pads, public restrooms and a sea of grass. It was grammar lessons and literature by day, fussing with a sketchy in-ground sprinkler system by night.

The extra income and change of scenery on my riding mower helped, but it wasn’t enough. I turned in my classroom keys in late spring of 2015.

I’ve covered education issues for EdNews ever since, and I’ve thought often about teachers who stick it out — especially these past two years, with COVID-19 and cries of social-justice indoctrination adding to the list of challenges.

One lawmaker last month pointed to thousands of Idaho teachers who, like me, are certified but not teaching. We’re out there. But here’s the thing: by and large, Idaho’s teachers are sticking it out, pandemic and all.

At least that’s what state numbers show. Idaho’s 2021 teacher-retention rate: 90.8%. And it’s hovered around that number since 2018. The rate falls in line with the 2020 national average of 92%.

That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t tiring out, or doom-scrolling other jobs during their prep periods.

“Where do I start?” one teacher told me last week when I asked about challenges tied to the pandemic and concerns about critical race theory being taught in Idaho’s schools.

Meanwhile, Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly told KTVB last month that 51% of teachers his organization recently polled are either considering retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

And, of course, averages are averages. Despite that 90.8% state average, at least 21 Idaho districts and charters saw their number drop below 75%. (Watch for more on retention rates this week at idahoednews.org.)

Successfully retaining teachers also varies from community to community, and it has for years. In 2016, Madison School District’s then-assistant superintendent, Randy Lords, said his district was experiencing more than a teacher shortage. “It’s a teacher famine,” he said.

Madison’s 2021 retention rate was 84%.

Issues can also boil down to filling positions. When I taught, a special education position down the hallway went unfilled for months. Administrators have lamented certain harder-to-fill jobs in certain parts of the state for years.

Still, I was surprised to see the statewide retention number where it is, despite COVID-19 and the rise of other controversial issues in K-12.

Teacher pay hikes may have helped hold the needle. Idaho’s made big investments in teacher pay since I left. In 2015, lawmakers passed the five-year teacher salary “career ladder,” a $250 million plan to successively boost salaries statewide, especially for teachers at the outset of their careers.

By 2020, average salaries had jumped by 12.5% since the career ladder began. Idaho’s minimum teacher salary had climbed to $40,000 after the 2019 Legislature’s approved Gov. Brad Little’s two-year plan to boost starting teacher pay.

My salary never surpassed $34,000.

Veteran teachers also became eligible for $12,000 each in master teacher premiums, something that thousands had earned by 2021.

Still, critics say rising inflation wipes out the increases. And some estimates support the claim.

Teacher pay in Idaho remains lower than the inflation-adjusted levels seen before the Great Recession, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy wrote in a 2021 study.

Another teacher friend who told me he’s been contemplating a changeup pointed to three reasons for sticking around: June, July and August.

“Summers are hard to let go of,” he said of the classic perk tied to the profession.

Whether it’s the pay, the kids, the summers off or something else, I’d love to hear about your experience in the classroom in recent years, and what’s kept you around — or not. Email me at [email protected]

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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