FILE - Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a press conference and answers questions from the media at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Gov. Herbert, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and the CEO of Envision Utah issued a plea Wednesday to Utah educators currently not teaching to return to the profession to help address the state's teacher shortage.
Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and the CEO of Envision Utah Robert Grow issued a plea Wednesday to Utah educators currently not teaching to return to the profession to help address the state's teacher shortage.

A collaboration with Envision Utah hopes to re-engage former teachers who may be interested in returning to the classroom. They are asked to complete a questionnaire at returntoteaching.org to gauge their interest in rejoining the teaching ranks and to find out what it would take to get them to return to Utah public schools.

"Whether you're a former teacher who left for any reason, if you once thought about being a teacher or you're a current teacher, our students need and deserve you, each student needs and deserves you. We all need you. To those of you who left the profession, I invite you to return," said Dickson.

According to Dickson, there are about 30,000 Utahns who have teaching credentials who are currently not in the classroom.

"The survey will help us determine the reason behind it (not currently teaching) and if there is a desire to come back to the classroom and if they have desires, how we might help mitigate those issues," Dickson said.

Dickson said Utah's Return to Licensure pathway allows teachers to come back into the teaching system without taking additional courses.

Aaryn Birchell, Utah's 2018 Teacher of the Year, said she took a nontraditional path to the classroom. She teaches Advanced Placement English at Uintah High School, which is her alma mater.

After high school, she attended Utah State University in Logan but didn't complete her teaching degree until years later at USU's branch campus in the Uinta Basin.

"I substituted for 12 years while I primarily stayed at home with my kids and taught piano lessons in the afternoons. I renewed my license every three years for 12 years," she said.

She eventually accepted a part-time teaching position at Uintah High School, which later evolved into a full-time teaching job.

It took supportive administrators "who let me have some flexibility as I balanced life demands and navigated my nontraditional path," she said.

Birchell recounted looking out the window of her classroom one day and wondering to herself if she could continue to teach for 20 years.

But as in parenting, the journey cannot be judged by one bad day.

"We find what we look for. We have to look for those star moments in every day," she said.

Creating teaching conditions where teachers thrive will benefit students, she said.

"If we take care of the teachers, the teachers are going to take care of our kids," Birchell said.

Herbert likewise extended an invitation to teachers to return to the classroom, describing teaching as "a noble profession."

His fourth-grade teacher taught him a love of reading "and it changed my life. I love to read and I have a large library because of a fourth-grade teacher," he said.

While there are shortages of other professionals in Utah's growing economy, "the one that's got us most concerned is the shortage of teachers," he said.

"We need to recruit and retain the best and the brightest of society to be those that impact the rising generations and the outcomes of tomorrow. That's teachers," Herbert said.

Forty-two percent of teachers who enter the profession leave within five years, Herbert said.

"More than half leave in eight years. There may be a variety of reasons for that with the culture of Utah. Nevertheless, we need to address what we can do," he said.

Herbert said voters' support of the Our Schools Now compromise ballot question on the November ballot would help provide much needed resources in Utah's education system.

"This is an opportunity for us to make a big bump at one time. We'll continue to grow the economy and add to the resources out there, but this is a one-time opportunity," he said.

Utah voters will be asked a nonbinding question whether they support a 10-cent-per-gallon hike in state gas tax. The revenue would replace general fund dollars currently used for transportation needs and thereby make a corresponding amount available for spending on public education. The Utah Legislature would have to approve any increases in fuel taxes.

Heidi Matthews, president of Utah Education Association, said Question 1 will go a long way to ensure "we have the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms and recruiting, retaining and reclaiming teachers requires resources and those resources are not currently available. We have this opportunity to make a difference by voting for Question 1."

Grow said Envision Utah's "Your Utah, Your Future" effort identified education as their No. 1 priority, according to 52,000 Utahns who responded to the survey.

"It was their top priority and they have ambitious dreams. They want our students to lead the nation. They want the education of our students to be the drivers of a great economy and for our students to become the beneficiaries of that economy. They believe that when every child has a chance for a great education all of our communities benefit," he said.

That takes parents being their children's first teacher, attending preschool, providing the means to help students from every background to succeed and encouraging more students to pursue postsecondary education, he said.

"Finally and most importantly, it means we need to support our teachers, those who are in the classrooms, those within the walls of those schools, who have the biggest impact on all of our children," Grow said.

The returntoteaching.org questionnaire will also connect inactive educators to teaching positions that match their skills or interests.

Matthews said is it highly important that the questionnaire determine why people left teaching and there are targeted efforts to help address those issues.

"If you don't change the conditions that forced them to people leave in the first place, what's going to entice them to come back?" Matthews said.