WYOMING SCHOOLS AT A CROSSROADS: Staff Shortages in Wyoming Schools Raise Concern About Students’ Futures

Heavy workloads and feeling undervalued contributing factors to teacher shortage

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Kimberly Amen, a third-grade teacher at Pioneer Park Elementary School in Cheyenne, is now following new computer science learning standards on coding and digital citizenship — without having received any training in these subjects. This extra requirement, coupled with Amen’s regular workload and fewer support staff, adds even more responsibility to an educator whose hands are already full.

“Whenever you’re short staffed, the burden of the extra jobs goes to the rest of you, to the people who are currently working in the field,” said Amen, 52, who also serves as vice president of the Wyoming Education Association.  “It’s stressful having to cover…and they continue to expect more of us and give us less.”

“At this current point, a lot of us [teachers] don’t feel like we’re respected as professionals in our fields,” she added. “It feels a lot like we’re not trusted to do what we need to do in our classrooms, what’s best for kids.” 

Kimberly Amen is a third-grade teacher at Pioneer Park Elementary School in Cheyenne and vice president of the Wyoming Education Association. She said many teachers don’t feel valued as professionals and are expected to do more with less. (Courtesy photo from Amanda Turner)

A burdensome workload, low pay and perceived disrespect — these are just a few possible reasons as to why there are teacher shortages across Wyoming.

Figures from the Wyoming Association of School Administrators show there were a total of 165 unfilled teacher positions in 43 of 48 school districts statewide as of Sept. 20, according to Kevin Mitchell, the association’s executive director.

However, a list from the Wyoming School Boards Association illustrates that school districts are not recruiting for all of those reported vacancies. As of Sept. 20, schools throughout Wyoming are seeking to hire 54 teachers—mostly for English, elementary and special education positions. The majority of the openings are in Fremont County, Laramie County and Natrona County.

“When positions go unfilled, it adds stress to already untenable workloads for our educators,” said Grady Hutcherson, president of the Wyoming Education Association. “This, in turn, has negative impacts on our students. Vacancies impact students daily by materializing as increased class sizes, lack of substitutes and burnt-out teachers. Wyoming is losing its ability to recruit and retain our quality educators. We know that the most important indicator of student success is a highly-qualified teacher guiding that student’s education.”

Hutcherson blamed a lack of education funding for affecting Wyoming’s ability to keep its high-quality teachers in classrooms, therefore, depriving students of the “equitable, quality education that is their fundamental, constitutionally-protected right as Wyoming citizens.” 

Last month, the association filed a lawsuit against the state for possibly underfunding the education system and allegedly violating Wyoming’s constitution.

Student enrollment and teacher pay

The association also conducted a poll earlier this year with Mark Perkins, an independent researcher at the University of Wyoming. The poll, which included responses from over 700 teachers, found that nearly 66% want to leave the teaching profession but stay due to financial or other reasons. Nearly 14% of educators reported that they were either “likely” or “very likely” to quit teaching, the poll shows.

But on a national scale, it’s murky as to whether or not the teacher shortage is widespread. Some news outlets suggest that it is, while others report that vacancies are localized to rural communities in the United States and the Deep South.

What further complicates teacher shortages in Wyoming is that student enrollment is on the rise as the state’s population has slowly grown.

“My understanding is that we have been trending toward a teacher shortage for years, long before the pandemic,” Chad Auer, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the Wyoming Truth. “Additionally, many districts in Wyoming are experiencing growth in student enrollment. Even further, districts are losing experienced teachers to early retirement or career changes.”

The average classroom size in the Cowboy State is about 18 students, a two to three student increase from previously recorded figures, a February report from Wyoming Department of Education states. A 2011 state law recommends an average student-teacher ratio of 16:1 for all classes in kindergarten through third grade.

“Furthermore, when a school is understaffed, the education that children receive is diminished,” Auer said. “Understaffed schools also present safety concerns.”

Teacher salaries also factor into the equation, said Hutcherson of the education association.

“Wyoming’s current education funding model allocates $7,000 per teacher below the actual cost districts pay to fill positions,” Hutcherson said. “The salaries in our funding model have not been adjusted for inflation in more than a decade. Average annual salaries increased only an average of $604 per teacher between 2010 and 2022.”

Rebecca Murray works as a certified librarian at the Casper Classical Academy. She left the classroom, having previously taught as a science and elementary school teacher, because she felt overburdened by the workload. (Courtesy photo from Jennifer Lewis)

However, an April report from the National Education Association lists an average starting teacher salary in Wyoming at $46,826, which exceeds the national average of $41,770 and starting salaries in surrounding states. The association found that a Wyoming teacher with a bachelor’s degree could earn upwards of $55,813, while a teacher with a master’s degree could earn between $51,280 to $67,448. In Wyoming, teacher salaries top out at $74,513.

Auer acknowledged that Wyoming would “certainly benefit” from upping teacher pay to remain competitive in the region.

Other school staff vacancies

Data from the Wyoming Association of School Administration shows a shortage of school staff as well. In addition to teacher vacancies, there were 368 unfilled “classified” positions, meaning jobs that don’t require certification by the Professional Teaching Standards Board, at schools statewide.

The Casper Classical Academy, a middle school, currently has six vacancies: one tech job and five education support professional positions, said Rebecca Murray, 46, a certified librarian at the school.

Prior to taking the library job, Murray taught science for a year at Dean Morgan Middle School and taught at Bar Nunn Elementary School for 13 years. She exchanged the classroom for bookshelves due to the overwhelming workload. On top of her own class, Murray helped manage another class for a teacher who was on family medical leave and had no long-term substitute. As a result,  she created lesson plans and graded assignments for about 270 students. Murray said she easily worked at least 65 hours a week and earned only $59,000 a year—even though she holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.

“The biggest impact is on the students directly,” Murray said about staff shortages. “What happens is we don’t have time to plan quality instruction and deliver quality instruction to students to meet their needs. We’re doing other duties or have no one available to provide those resources…and that takes away from learning.”

At Pioneer Park Elementary School, another first-grade class was added at the last minute because of increasing enrollment, Amen said. She also noted the school district has about 100 fewer substitute teachers compared to the last academic year—and even then, there weren’t enough to meet the need. 

The average pay for a full-time substitute teacher in Wyoming is around $124 per day or $15.50 an hour, according to salary.com. Wyoming’s basic state minimum wage is $5.15 per hour, the lowest in the nation.

Unlike some other educators, Amen plans to remain in the classroom. With only eight years until retirement, she is prepared to stick it out.

 “…I think teachers ultimately stay for their students,” Amen said, “because this is a calling. We love teaching. We love the students. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.”

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