You know there is a shortage of teachers for rural areas in Colorado, but did you know how critical it is?

You know there is a shortage of teachers for rural areas in Colorado, but did you know how critical it is? At Wednesday’s Las Animas meeting for the Strategic Plan to Address Educator Shortages, Dr. Robert Mitchell said in six years’ time, 2011 through 2016, we have lost 2400 teachers, mostly in rural areas. To add to the problem, one-third of the teachers now working in public education are eligible for retirement or will be in the next three years. Applications are down even in affluent areas such as Cherry Creek. The shortage of science and math teachers is critical; teachers in the fields of special education are hard to find and specialty services such as audiologists and speech pathologists are extremely rare. Despite the prevalence of Spanish speakers in our area, trained bilingual teachers are also in short supply and high demand.

Mitchell and his co-presenter Mary Bivens, Director of Educator Development for the Colorado Department of Education, have as their task to create a plan to do something about the problem. Facilitating their input, they are having a series of Town Hall meeting with educators and community members to get their ideas. This is the 11th in the series, said Bivens, and they have two more to go.

The key issues involved in the impact in the number of young people interested in careers as educators have been defined as follows: 1. The external perception of what teachers do and how they work; 2 The limited salary offered to educators. 3. The increasing costs of a college degree and the required return-on-investment. The reasons most often cited for leaving the profession are building climate and leadership, and poor pay and large workload.

Some interesting input came from the participants, including several superintendents, some school board members, teachers and professors both emeritus and acting, and one student, Mitchell’s son, Alex. Supt. Rick Lovato, Jr., of La Junta, said we need to treat teaching as a profession, not just a job. Also, the age of accountability heaps a lot of blame on the classroom teacher. “They need support, not blame,” said Lovato.

Andy Goettel, a retired teacher whose wife, Susie, does the STEM program at Otero Junior College said we need to change the perception of teacher to a professional, teach the lifestyle of education as a profession. Perhaps state training internships would help. “We need to pay student teachers,” said Goettel. “As if college isn’t costly enough already, we make them pay to work."

Partnerships with retired teachers or mentors was suggested as a way to support new teachers, make them feel not so alone and have someone to talk with. Twenty-five percent of teachers leave in the first four years. “You can’t be perfect when you’re just starting,” said Lovato.

Students in the elementary grades want to be teachers, because they love their teachers. As they grow older, they begin to see what is really involved in the profession day to day. Teachers often do not urge them to enter the profession, and may even talk it down, depending on their experiences.

Testimonials to the importance of teaching as a profession can sometimes help. “How about a teacher of the year for every community?” suggested one superintendent.

“Why aren’t there clubs like 4H for farmers and FBLA for business careers for future teachers?” The answer, according to a representative of the Colorado Department of Education, is that there are a couple such clubs, but they are just getting started. “Why haven’t we heard of them?”

Susie Goettel said the colleges need to set up a course of study centered on rural education. “The rural school is unlike the city school in many ways. You may be called on to fill more shoes — you may have to drive a bus.”

“Face it,” said Mitchell, “most of the problems we have can be traced back to money.” Salaries in the teaching profession are not competitive with salaries of other professions requiring the same amount of education. It doesn’t make sense to spend a hundred thousand on education and begin at a starting salary of $28,000. He sometimes thinks $65,000 a year would solve most of the problems. But in areas like Cherry Creek and Boulder, where teachers do average $67,000 a year now, it doesn’t mean much when the average home costs $1 million.

“It’s obvious we need a new way to finance schools,” said Goettel. One experienced school board member said, “The state needs to give the schools their fair share. Eighty-eight percent of them won’t fund education. Las Animas needs the money. We are a stepping stone for bigger schools; our teachers move on.”

The Strategic Plan to Address Educator Shortages program will produce a report by December 2017. If you have ideas that may help to recruit and retain good teachers for our children, Mitchell and Bivens would like to hear from you.