SHERIDAN — Results of a survey available on the Wyoming Education Association website shows 65 percent of Wyoming teachers would quit if they could, researcher Mark Perkins said.
During an interim meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee May 31, Perkins — the assistant professor of educational research at the University of Wyoming’s College of Education — gave legislators a preview of the survey, which was conducted jointly between the Wyoming Education Association and the University of Wyoming.
The survey includes responses from roughly 670 teachers from across the state, Perkins said. And many responses were from teachers who were discouraged and thinking seriously about quitting.
“Of the non-retiring educators in the state of Wyoming, 12 percent reported they were quitting teaching altogether,” Perkins said. “However, when given the prompt, ‘If I could, I would quit, but I choose to stay for financial or other reasons,’ 65 percent agreed or strongly agreed.”
This desire of educators to leave the profession is not unique to Wyoming, Perkins said. According to a January National Education Association survey of 3,621 teachers across the nation, 55 percent were thinking seriously about leaving. This rate increased by 18 percent in five months, according to the NEA.
Perkins said there were three main factors that came up again and again in the survey results about why Wyoming teachers were discouraged. The first was mental health.
“Anxiety and depression strongly correlate with the desire to stop teaching,” Perkins said. “And I think COVID (contributes) to that…We often focus on the mental health of children… but if the teacher is not taken care of as well, it can affect the classroom.”
A perceived lack of professional support was also a key factor, Perkins said.
“Teachers who felt supported within their buildings and within their (districts) were less likely to report wanting to quit,” Perkins said. “…It appears that what is more relevant to teachers is what is closer to them. So we’re talking about support from parents, support from students, support from their principal, support from community members. Those items really seem to factor well in (the results).”
Lastly, teachers expressed concerns about student assessments, feeling it stifled their ability to teach and appropriately meet the educational needs of students.
“Almost 90 percent of teachers agree or strongly agree that assessment does not help student learning,” Perkins said. “…(Even) teachers who want to stay don’t see the value of it.”
The survey results point to issues at the heart of the state’s longstanding teacher attrition issues, Perkins said. Currently, the state of Wyoming needs a base of roughly 7,500 full-time equivalent teachers to meet its K-12 educational needs, said Scott Thomas, dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. The state experiences an average of 825 teacher departures annually, Thomas said, and only 500 new college graduates start teaching in the state each year.
Pete Kilbride, Superintendent of Sheridan County School District 1 said teacher retention remains an issue across the state and the nation and — to a lesser extent — in his district. Kilbride said roughly 12 teachers exit the district for a variety of reasons each year, including retirements, pursuing a new job opportunity, or supporting their spouse as they pursue a new job opportunity.
Kilbride said the district generally has an easier time retaining existing teachers and recruiting new ones due to the “desirability of living in Sheridan County.” He said he hasn’t had teachers raise concerns about issues like mental health and lack of professional support, but he said the district remains concerned about those issues.
“We have not heard about those issues specifically from our teachers, but we do realize those are issues across the nation and the state,” Kilbride said. “...We’ve always put a lot of effort into letting our teachers know they’re appreciated. We allocate money to each principal specifically to let teachers know they’re appreciated, whether that’s through providing them with cards or a special lunch or dinner. We know that if our staff doesn’t feel appreciated, they’re probably not going to stay.”
Addressing attrition is not an easy issue and will likely require some additional research and thoughtful discussions, Perkins said.
“We have to think about educator attrition as more than a binary ‘left or stayed,’” Perkins said. “We have to think about how they’re doing as educators and as caretakers of our children.”
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, agreed and said he felt the problems faced by teachers today were solvable, but a workable solution may take time and effort.
“We often don’t know how to handle all this stuff, right?” Sommers said. “It’s actionable, but how do you do it?...I think there’s some really good things in here, but we just have to think about how to make them actionable in a meaningful way.”