Deseret News
FILE: A first-grade teacher gets her students from recess at South Jordan Elementary School..

SANDY — With a couple hundred teaching positions to fill by late summer, Steve Dimond is racking up frequent flier miles.

As the human resources director of Canyons School District, Dimond and his colleagues are traveling "coast to coast" to job fairs in search of candidates for hundreds of teaching positions that are open due to retirements and worsening rates of teacher retention.

At the same time, Utah's public school population continues to climb, expected to exceed 654,000 next fall.

Last year, more than a third of the district's new hires came from out of state.

"You name a place and we're willing to go there to find great teachers," Dimond said.

Some Utah school districts have been recruiting new teachers out of state for a decade but there is greater urgency now that fewer students who attend colleges and universities in Utah are graduating with teaching degrees.

"We're not anywhere even close to being able to produce the number of teachers that we need within our local universities. There's not enough kids going into education. So we've got to go outside to places where they are still producing more teachers than what they have jobs," Dimond said.

This coming school year, starting salaries for teachers fresh out of college are expected to be around $40,000 a year, about a $5,500 increase from a year ago. Even then, it's less than what some surrounding states such as Wyoming offer. Many districts there pay recent graduates of teacher education programs in the $50,000s.

But Utah's quality of life, ease of travel by air and outdoor recreational opportunities help entice people who ski, hike, mountain bike and climb.

"We sell Utah before we even look at selling the district," Dimond said. New graduates who might not have considered moving to Utah are intrigued by the prospect of having an "adventure," he said.

It helps, too, that Utah has professional sports teams, a lively arts community and an increasingly diverse capital city.

Dimond said some teacher candidates he meets out of state would like to relocate to the West, but many want to teach in more rural settings. After meeting one such candidate, he escorted the student to the Tooele School District's table at the same fair. If he couldn't land the prospect, another Utah school district should benefit, he said.

While Utah's strong economy and a sizable increase in the state education budget appropriation approved by lawmakers in the recent legislative session gave school districts more resources to offer better starting wages, retaining teachers is equally important.

A sizeable number of teachers who had planned to retire but felt they couldn't until the effects of the Great Recession were over are now finishing their careers, Dimond said.

"We'd love them to stay. They're great teachers who have great skill. We always hope we can keep them a little longer," he said

In addition to filling those positions, Utah school districts are also dealing with lower rates of teacher retention, particularly among younger, less experienced teachers.

More than half — 56 percent — of the public school educators who started teaching in 2008 left the profession by 2015, according to a recent report by the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah.

University researchers say they are still exploring why so many new teachers leave the profession after just a few years in the classroom.

Salaries are a consideration, as are workplace expectations, he said.

But results of Canyons School District's latest exit survey suggest teacher turnover can be attributed to many factors.

More than a quarter of teachers said they were leaving the district due to family reasons, such as caring for a child or parent or relocating because of a spouse's employment or education.

Ten percent said they were leaving due to a career change, while nearly 9 percent said they found a position out of state.

Another 10 percent cited “other” reasons, which ranged from a “lack of support from administration,” “workplace indifference” and “relocating to help parents.”

One educator reported they had accepted a professorship and another said the exit was due to returning to their home country.

One respondent said he or she “took over out-of-control classes of a school that had run off three teachers already."

While Canyons has about 200 teaching positions to fill, other Utah school districts are laboring to fill twice, if not three times that many openings.

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That means Dimond frequently sees human resources directors from other Utah school districts at job fairs across the country where they may be among 250 school districts nationwide attempting to recruit upcoming graduates.

Many new graduates prefer to remain in their home states, but others are willing to consider other options. He's met some students whose first teaching experiences were international, such as a young women he met who taught English in China.

"I tell them, 'Come to Utah. Great adventure awaits you.'"