Why retaining middle school teachers is critical to student success

When Elisha Wheeler tells people she’s a middle school teacher, they always say something like, “Oh, do you teach middle school? For health.”

Wheeler, in her tenth year as a middle school educator, said she is not surprised by the patronizing and unformitated comments that sometimes people make about the profession she has chosen because she understands that middle school is a critical junction for students.

“Middle school for me is such a central period in a student’s educational life and in his personal identity in every way,” said Wheeler, who teaches language arts at Cooper Mountain High School in Hermanus.

The adolescent’s mind is still developing and “they can make strange decisions for a long time. But they are also very open. They are here. You do not have many children who drop out. You have one last chance to convince them that ‘education is for you’. You are good at it. You can do It.’ I just think it’s a strong and powerful age, “Wheeler said.

Middle school teacher Elisha Wheeler poses for a portrait at Copper Mountain High School in Hermanus on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Mangshin Lynn, Talking News

It is also an age where abandonment of teachers ’workforce can have a negative impact on middle school academic achievement.

Conservation fosters achievement

In a recent presentation to the Utah State Board of Education, Holly Bell, an expert on student and family rights, showed data demonstrating outstanding students when they have teachers who are retained for three years or more in a single school.

In Utah, middle schools or middle schools “can only keep 57% of their teachers for three years or more,” Bell said. This is slightly below the national average for K-12 grades.

Another worrying factor is that a higher percentage of middle school or Utah middle school teachers are considered “semi-qualified” or “unqualified” than the overall national average – 16% versus 14%.

In terms of a state license, a semi-graduate means that someone has enrolled in a teacher training program but has not completed the courses.

Ineligible means they do not have a license or have a specific license for the local education agency, meaning the teacher has not completed preparation for an educator and is not currently enrolled in the program. Local school councils or wage school councils may request the state school board to grant LEA-specific licenses to fulfill the role “if other licensing pathways for the applicant are unreasonable or unreasonable.”

Bell said educational research shows that middle school students need to be proficient in reading, math and science to be successful in high school.

But state data paints a worrying picture.

“One trend we are seeing is that there is a steep decline in middle school skill,” Bell said.

Significant numbers of eighth-graders in Utah who were proficient in language, arts and sciences at the end of fifth grade in 2018 were not like that until the end of eighth grade. About a quarter were no longer proficient in the arts and sciences while 34% were no longer proficient in mathematics in 2021, according to state data.

Some subgroups did worse, especially in math, with 61% of Pacific Islanders no longer proficient by the end of eighth grade, 52% of Hispanic students, and 55% of English learners.

One bright spot was the middle schools where 45% of students are entitled to free or discounted school meals, who were proficient in all three professions.

Saving gives dividends

The difference factor was the preservation of higher-than-average education in the country in their schools. Two such schools, Lava Ridge Middle School in Washington District and Middle School in North Senate, have received 76% retention for three years or more and 88% of their respective faculties are highly qualified.

“Looking at these data, it reflects that students achieve educational excellence when they are taught by highly effective, fully qualified teachers,” Bell said.

Jeff Eriksen, principal at North Sanpete Middle School, in a video message, said the school district has one middle school and one high school. The county serves just over 2,500 students.

“We care about each other. We really share each other in struggles and we share each other’s achievements,” he said.

The workforce of teachers will be stabilized by rising cost of living, changes in insurance plans offered by the school district and teachers who value the ability to live in a rural area but earn a sufficient income.

“A lot of people are scared of this age group. Our teachers really like them, which is pretty cool. The other thing is that they are passionate about their subjects, and they care about (professional) improvement,” he said.

Leva Ridge Middle School principal Wade Jensen leads a school made up of sixth- and seventh-graders. It serves students from six feeding schools in the Washington County School District and nearly 20% of its students are English language learners.

Educators meet weekly to collaborate on strategies that will help struggling students but also share their successes.

“I feel like everyone’s voice is heard. I feel like all teachers can tell us how they feel or what they are struggling with and we as a team can support them and help them,” he said.

Parental and community involvement is also important, he said. “They are very aware of what is happening here and with their help, and with their help we see great success,” Jensen said in a video message.

Training is important

Nathan Elkins, director of human resources for educators and other licensed employees in Salt Lake City School District, said retaining teachers in the capital city is aided by relatively high salaries – only Park City School District pays more. The district’s decade-long initiative, which combines new teachers in the profession with a teaching coach, has also paid dividends.

Counseling and peer review coaches review an educator’s instruction weekly and give him or her feedback.

“They give you tips and strategies on how to improve and improve your practice. They will sit and do lessons with you. Sometimes they will even teach the lesson for you and you can watch them and you can learn and grow together. So it really is that kind of collaborative coach who is there at every stage with you in the first year. In your teaching, “Elkins said.

In the teacher’s second year “we are making a gradual release,” he said. Teachers are still getting mentorships, but it has dropped from their first year.

“The goal is your temporary third year, you’re ready for rock ‘n’ roll and really diving into the profession and being yourself. But this PAR coach is there every step of the way,” Elkins said.

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Middle School teacher Elisha Wheeler talks to eighth-grade storyteller Stubborn during her class at Copper Mountain High School in Hermanus on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Mangshin Lynn, Talking News

Wheeler, who teaches for the Jordan School District, also trains other teachers to help them improve their teaching methods and learn to better manage their classrooms.

She said she believes mentoring, coaching and just a sounding board are critical to teacher retention.

“One of the biggest things is that they have strong teacher leaders, that they have teachers who go through it, maybe more experienced ones, who can solve problems and solve problems with them,” Wheeler said.

But there must be a dedicated time and place for that to happen, she said.

Wheeler said she is often approached by teachers who need her help and she is willing to help them, but teachers are pressured to set aside time already set for marking tests and assignments, curriculum development and other responsibilities.

“It’s like constant negotiation over time,” she said.

Wheeler, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah and her master’s degree from Western Governors University, said her professional degrees and student teaching gave her a solid foundation when she entered teaching.

Learning at work

Still, a lot will be learned in the work regarding classroom management and dealing with the energy of middle schools.

“The vast majority of them are good kids. But then you have such a set of exceptions that can be really challenging,” she said.

People who enter the profession without the benefit of college pedagogy or child development courses face a steeper challenge.

“You know, the ones who really bear the burden of it are the teachers,” she said.

“If someone walks into my class – I’m the chair of the class – and if you do not have a teaching certificate and you have deficiencies in your background knowledge of how to run a class, what is going to happen is that you end up going to my class in tears because you need support,” she said.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the shortage of educators is growing, which means more students have teachers who have not been trained in college or university teacher training programs.

“We have so many people learning at work,” she said.

High-skilled teachers deserve income that reflects their advanced education and the importance of their work “but it’s much more than that. It’s our classroom dimensions. It’s the workload. “In our classrooms … we really need to pay attention to all these things to keep people in our classrooms, and you know they will be the best they can be for our children.”

Matthews, a former high school teacher who moved to middle school where she felt she was a more effective educator, said the teacher “conservation is the best recruitment” for educators.

“Any program to address the shortage of educators must recognize the tremendous efforts of our veteran educators who have done things together. Give them time and compensation to guide. Increase student support for mental and emotional health – for students and adults in our schools,” she said.

Wheeler said she came from a family of educators and always knew she wanted to be like that. She can not imagine teaching any other class and she feels a great responsibility to help students and education members reach their highest potential.

“I love education and I love middle school,” she said. “I educate for life.”

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Middle school teacher Elisha Wheeler talks to eighth-grader Jenna Yates during her class at Copper Mountain High School in Hermanus on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Mangshin Lynn, Talking News

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