Nyibol Bior, an overworked Longmont teacher, applied last April to the rural Dolores School District hoping for a fresh start. But she balked when a job offer as a special education teacher for the district meant a pay cut and moving to a small town where Bior, a South Sudanese refugee, would stand out.
She turned down the job. But then she changed her mind.
“I didn’t go into teaching thinking I was going to make a lot of money,” she said. “I just want to make a difference.”
Bior’s struggle is one shared by many teachers in Colorado, where salaries are among the lowest in the nation and have contributed to a chronic teacher shortage that has forced schools to cut subjects, make classes bigger and never fill some positions. But teacher shortages and low salaries have particularly plagued rural districts like Dolores, where schools can’t attract teachers to remote areas without competitive pay.
Bior took a pay cut in exchange for a school where she feels appreciated. But she pays for it by picking up extra coaching and teaching jobs to augment her low salary.
“I’m having to work extra to make ends meet,” Bior said.
The state estimates Colorado’s schools are short 3,000 teachers, a shortage that is almost entirely concentrated in rural districts where salaries are the lowest and budgets are small. One rural school went without a math teacher for four years, while others routinely have no applicants apply for open positions. In southeastern Colorado, the salary of an experienced teacher with an advanced degree taps out at $38,000 a year. Communities like Cortez and Dolores regularly lose teachers to nearby Durango, where they can make thousands more.
“This is a crisis of proportion now in Colorado,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.
Todd is among a group of lawmakers trying to lure educators to rural schools with new programs that offer stipends, professional development and loan forgiveness to young teachers. The hope is that, with financial support, teachers will see the benefits of working in a small district – such as smaller class sizes and a greater connection with the community – and chose to stay.
A handful of bills this legislative session are targeting teachers where they need the most help. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, has sponsored a bill that offers $5,000 of loan forgiveness every year for five years to teachers who spend a year in a school with a teacher shortage. Todd has sponsored a bill that would offer student teachers or teachers seeking a new certification a $4,000 stipend to work in rural districts, an expansion of a program that has offered a $2,800 stipend to 60 teachers. And Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, chairwoman of the House Education committee, has sponsored bills that offer stipends to school psychologists and professional development for school principals. All bills have been approved by education committees and are working their way through the Legislature.
But none of the bills address the main problem – low salaries – a longtime issue for teachers and one that is exacerbated in Colorado, where constraints on state revenue prevent more money from flowing in the education budget.
“At the end of the day, you know, they are trying to make do with whatever they can with those 3,000 openings every year that go unfilled,” Zenzinger said.
Nationwide, fewer young people are choosing to enter the teaching profession as they face the prospect of high student loans, poor salaries, little professional support and more complex teaching jobs. In Colorado, those who do teach flock to Front Range communities, where there are hundreds of applicants for teaching jobs and higher salaries, leaving rural communities without a single applicant for crucial positions like math or science teachers.
Dolores doesn’t have the budget to compete with urban school salaries, so it must market what else the district has to offer, said Dolores Elementary School Principal Gary Livick.
The Colorado Department of Education classifies the Dolores School District as “small rural,” meaning it has fewer than 1,000 students. The average salary is $40,051.
But while its salaries are lower, smaller class sizes are a draw, as is the district’s requirement that every high school student have a laptop, Livick said. The beauty of Southwest Colorado attracts outdoors junkies as well, he added. As more prospective teachers opt out of traditional credentialing programs, Dolores is also considering alternative certification paths.
In neighboring Mancos School District Re-6, another small rural district in Montezuma County with 497 students, Superintendent Brian Hanson says the alternative licensure program has attracted new teachers to the district. In an effort to fill positions, the school district implemented a four-day school week – a big draw, Hanson said.
But teacher retention is another struggle. Younger teachers can afford “a vow of poverty,” Livick said, but as employees age, other considerations arise, like family or mortgage payments. Some may leave because of retirement or a spouse taking a job elsewhere, but Livick said many quit teaching.
The demands on teachers have changed, particularly in rural areas struggling with poverty, mental illness and substance abuse, making the job harder to do, said Robert Mitchell, former director of educator preparation at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
“We put this onus on the teacher to really become the de facto parent,” Mitchell said. “That’s not what they are prepared to do.”
Mitchell says a teacher’s first priority is student safety, not just education, which means knowing how the students are feeling, if they are eating and what their families are like. Teachers often have to help kids manage those obstacles before they can take on math, reading and science, Mitchell added.
As teaching becomes more complex, demanding more training, certifications and resources, rural school districts are struggling to keep up. Mitchell says offering stipends to help cover the cost of living and loan forgiveness are benefits that will ease the challenge of taking jobs in rural areas. But offering higher salaries remains the sticking point for teachers.
“If we could pay every teacher in the state $65,000 a year as a minimum, our teacher shortage problem would go away immediately,” he said.