By Aly Cantor/El Inde
The preschool teachers arrive at 7 a.m. They sit and wait patiently until the classroom is filled with enough kids to clock in. Once all 16 kids arrive, it’s time for diapers. For every eight 2-year-olds, there is only one teacher.
There is no typical day for preschool teachers: They may see the same children, but the lesson plans, the drama and the struggle to keep up with the system is challenging.
As she walks through the door of Panera Bread in her dark, grunge, skater-like outfit, Isabel Jenson sports her dark red lipstick, multiple nose and lip piercings with a smile on her face, carrying along with her a vegan soup and salad order.
At 20 years old, she shows a great passion for teaching and her kids. She grew up in Tucson but left to go work at a preschool in Michigan for two years before moving back home.
She has worked at the Open Arms Preschool in Tucson for about 10 months. Her preschool is privately funded, yet it still faces some of the struggles of an Arizona public school. There are unqualified yet certified teachers in every classroom, the administration must leave their desk jobs to help in the classrooms and extra supplies come from the teachers’ personal money.
“Even though I may work 12 hours a day, changing eight diapers every two hours, the school tries not to pay overtime,” Jenson said. “We can’t start the day until we have enough kids in the classroom and we can’t leave until all the kids are gone. So if one week a teacher is close to reaching overtime, they will be dismissed earlier, and other teachers will have to take over their classroom.”
This can get exhausting and overwhelming for many teachers, who often end up spending more time with the kids in their care than the actual parents do. They are wholly responsible for the kids during the 12 hours they are together.
By the time Jenson gets home, she does not have the energy to plan her lessons for the next day or think about grading work. She is exhausted and sometimes doesn’t even have the energy to eat. She finds herself getting home by 7:15 p.m. during the week and going straight to bed — only to do it all over again the next day.
Arizona demands a lot from its teachers but struggles to pay them the median pay rate of about $50,000 yearly. The state ranks Arizona at 49 out of 50 in the elementary median teacher pay rate in the country.
Tucson Values Teachers, a local non-profit, has been around for 12 years. Its mission is to help schools and districts attract, retain and support the very best teachers for K-12 classrooms in Tucson while raising awareness of the teaching profession. It is the only nonprofit in the state of Arizona that directly supports teachers.
Andy Heinemann, CEO of Tucson Values Teachers, has spent the last three decades in education. He has personally witnessed how the needs have drastically changed over the years.
“Our job is to paint a realistic picture so that we can create an environment in our community to elevate the profession,” Heinemann said. “Hopefully, it can motivate people to promote more funding for education, because we know the most important critical factor for student success is having an effective teacher in every classroom.”
In 2018, the Arizona state government implemented a plan to slowly increase teachers’ pay each year, and ultimately by 20% by this year. But even with this year’s increase, Arizona is still one of the lowest-paying states in the country for teachers.
Jenson has witnessed a lot of teacher turnover at her school.
“You have a full staff, three of them leave — you have to be able to fill in those spaces,” Jenson said. “We have floater teachers that will work to take potty breaks and give breaks and stuff like that. Then those floater teachers become the main teachers in the classroom. And then you have fewer teachers on your list to help break the main teachers. Those floaters could be in the office doing paperwork or giving tours to enroll other children and stuff like that.”
As of Aug. 30, 2019, 69% of public school teacher positions either remained vacant or were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administration Association. On top of that, 144 teachers abandoned their position by failing to show up to work or abruptly leaving their job within the first four months of this school year. This means the class sizes are either increasing or the spots are being filled by unqualified candidates.
Dominique Coccio works at Open Arms Preschool alongside Jenson, except she’s on the administration side. Many teachers at her school only get paid minimum wage.
“The teacher shortage had to do a lot with underpaying,” Coccio said. “The state expects us to teach so much and do so much with kids but doesn’t offer any resources to help us do that or pay enough.” “A lot of teachers at my center are making minimum wage but also don’t have any formal education. I think it would help for preschool if the state required some type of formal education to work at a center.”
Dick Morgan, the Public Information Officer for the Arizona Department of Education, recognizes that more funding would alleviate a lot of the state’s education challenges.
“We need to secure funding, not only for teacher salaries, but ensuring that every student is able to access tools they need to succeed,” Morgan said. “We can draw in more teachers by making salaries regionally competitive. For example, Utah educators make approximately $10,000-$20,000 more a year than an Arizona teacher. We need to ensure that our educators make wages they deserve.”
Because of a lack of teachers, Arizona has the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the country. A public school teacher can see 180 students a day. That is over 15 hours of work they would have to then take home with them, which involves grading papers and lesson planning.
Heinemann’s goal is to have zero vacancies at Tucson schools to make sure every classroom has a highly qualified teacher.
“We want to elevate the profession, increase the pay, give teachers the resources they need to be effective,” Heinemann said. “We want to change the culture of how people perceive teachers. Teachers should be honored and supported.”