As a Deseret News survey of public education clearly showed this week, Utah school teachers are increasingly unhappy in their jobs. Three out of every four would consider leaving teaching for a job in another field.
That is a sobering statistic. It raises serious questions about the future of Utah schools, the people who will occupy the classrooms, and the eventual impact on school children.A national study released this summer by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching showed Utah teachers at rock bottom on the question of morale. The Deseret News survey was done to find out the reasons.
Two reasons outweighed everything else by a wide margin - classroom size and salaries. Nine of every 10 teachers mentioned these two items as the major causes of their discontent.
In the Carnegie Foundation report, 57 percent of teachers said their salaries were lower than five years ago, due to inflation, having to shoulder more of the cost of their own employee benefits, and having to use their own money for school supplies.
These figures meant Utah teachers were ranked 49th in the nation in their perception of their salary standing over the past five years. This year marks the third year in a row that most Utah teachers have not had any cost-of-living or merit pay increases.
Up to a point, the teachers have plenty of company; all sorts of other workers also think they deserve more money. But not many others would abandon their jobs at a nearly 75 percent rate if they had the opportunity.
Most of Utah's 17,000 teachers feel that class sizes have grown too large - ranking largest in the nation; that they are being asked to shoulder more work for less money; that bigger classes mean less time to do a good job; that they lack public support, and even worse, that they lack public respect and are being made the scapegoats for troubles in the education system.
The budget difficulties surrounding Utah schools aren't there because teachers are greedy or have it easy. People who have occasion to spend time in a classroom watching a teacher at work usually walk away saying they are glad they don't have to do that for a living.
The real problems in education arise from the fact that thousands of additional students pour into the school system each year. Trying to cope with them costs more money, even though Utah already puts a bigger percentage of its budget into education than any other state.
That constantly growing burden - due to continue for several years yet - coupled with what has been a stagnant economy, has led school districts to cut programs, make classes bigger, and not give raises.
Despite problems, new teachers are better trained, standards are higher for would-be teachers, they must earn a degree in a specific subject rather than just "education," and certification is tougher.
Utah school children continue to perform well on standardized tests and continue to graduate from high school and go on to college at rates near the top in the nation.
What all of this seems to mean is that Utah so far has survived growing numbers, and budget and education challenges with the help of dedicated teachers. But that dedication may become shaky if things don't get better.
The attitude of teachers should be of deep concern to all Utahns because teachers hold the future of this state's children in their hands. In fact, Utah's children are its future.