Arizona rural schools struggle with teacher recruitment

Veronica Howe teaches her 6th grade class at St. David middle school, a rural school located in Cochise County. Photo by Clara Lovell/Arizona Sonoran News

A continuous lack of qualified teachers has forced several Cochise County school districts to become creative when recruiting teachers, relying heavily on a “grow-your-own” strategy.

“There is not much we can do as far as money is concerned, but what we can do are things from the heart,” Cochise County Superintendent Jacqui Clay said. “We let teachers know that they are not just another number out here.”

The Cochise County average teacher salary was $44,370 for fiscal year 2017, according to data obtained from the Arizona Auditor General. That’s a $13,000 difference from the national average of $58,353.

According to a recent study published by the Center for Public Education, rural students often become rural teachers, with 80 percent of teachers staying within just 13 miles of their hometown when seeking employment. However, with fewer Americans choosing to study education and more teachers choosing to leave the profession, rural districts face the challenge of getting teachers into their schools.

In a 2017 national survey of college freshman conducted by UCLA, the number of students who said they would major in education reached an all-time low, with only 4.2 percent planning on studying education, as compared to 11 percent in 1971.

Teachers are leaving for a number of reasons, one being low pay. Cochise County teachers are being offered non-monetary incentives to teach including leadership opportunities, professional development programs and comp time as a reward for achievements.

A 20 percent pay increase for teachers passed in the last legislative session, has not changed the number of teaching vacancies in Arizona. The plan included a 10 percent pay increase this year and plans to increase teachers’ salaries another 10 percent by 2020. According to a recent study conducted by Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, 1,547 of teacher positions remained vacant as of August 2018, and 2,980 vacancies were filled using alternative methods or by individuals not meeting standard teaching requirements.

“There has to be a real want to come here, someone specifically looking for a small district or rural area,” said Veronica Howe, who teaches sixth grade in the St. David Union School District.

St. David has a two-school campus that serves 500 students, from preschool to high school. Howe has been in the education field for over 24 years, and she said rural teachers are often very loyal to their small communities. However, when a teacher chooses to leave, it can become stressful finding someone to take their position.

Source: Center for Public Education- Out of the loop. Visual by Clara Lovell.

As reported by the Center for Public Education, rural schools are more likely to report difficulty in filling vacancies in STEM positions and have an even harder time recruiting faculty for English as a second language programs.

“Being so close to the border, we have a very big need for ESL teachers,” Clay said. “We are constantly looking for bilingual candidates.”

As for STEM programs, many Cochise County districts have taken advantage of the rural surroundings and have collaborated with local colleges and community professionals in providing STEM programs that involve plant and farm science.

Clay said keeping teachers in rural districts involves the whole community.

“When we include all people, it helps make our teachers feel significant … we don’t want them to go away,” she said. “We want them right here.”

Clara Lovell is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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