Hannah LaBuda comes from a family of teachers. As a child growing up in Pinedale, LaBuda would walk over to her mother’s special education classroom at the end of each school day.
“It just made me have a love for special education and made me want to continue doing what my mom did, my grandmother, my aunts, and then a lot of my cousins do now,” LaBuda said.
The 21 year old decided to pursue a teaching career. Today she is a senior at the University of Wyoming studying general and special education. She hopes one day to teach in her home state, although she’d like to explore other parts of the country first.
Young people like LaBuda — raised in Wyoming and interested in pursuing an education career in the state — are in high demand right now as Wyoming contends with an acute teacher crisis.
“I’ve been asking district superintendents, ‘do you think we’re headed for a crisis or we’re in one?’” said Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder. “And it’s a mixed opinion. About half of them say we’re headed there and others say ‘no we’re already there.’”
Teacher retention and recruitment is one of the Joint Education Committee’s top interim priorities. The Wyoming Department of Education, school districts, the University of Wyoming and other education agencies are also scrambling to alleviate the issue. The Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board and WDE even utilized federal school emergency relief funds to target educators in Central California and Ohio with messages imploring them to “Picture themselves teaching in Wyoming.”
Education experts point to low pay, burnout and other factors contributing to waning interest, but new initiatives aimed at helping attract and retain educators are taking flight. UW is launching a Teacher-Mentor Corps to improve retention rates, and WDE is spearheading an apprenticeship program to grow the state’s pool of educators.
Declining enrollment & low pay
UW graduates make up 46% of the state’s teaching force.
But enrollment in the teaching program is declining — the undergraduate program’s three-year rolling average enrollment suffered a 5.5% decrease and the school’s master’s degree program enrollment plummeted from 74 students in 2017 to 36 in 2020.
Pay and benefit options make teaching a less-than-appealing career for some people, said LaBuda.
“If teaching isn’t something you 100% want to do, it wouldn’t be worth it,” she said.
LaBuda considered working at nonprofit shelters or food pantries, but ultimately her passion for teaching won out. “I decided I might not be getting paid as much or get the good benefits,” she said. “But I feel like it’s just what I’m supposed to be doing.”
In 2010 salaries for Wyoming teachers were roughly 25% higher than surrounding states, according to a monitoring report presented to the Joint Education Committee in early June.
But that changed as salaries across the region rose while Wyoming’s remained relatively flat. In 2020 the average teacher wage in the state was $60,650, a slight increase from 2012 when the wage was $59,268, according to the monitoring report by Christiana Stoddard, an economics researcher at Montana State University. Utah and Nebraska now offer teaching salaries comparable to Wyoming.
As a superintendent whose district encompassed Star Valley, Matt Erickson easily recruited teachers from Utah in the past, but he testified to the Joint Education Committee that last year he could not hire a single educator from the Beehive State.
Teton County School District 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman similarly described struggling to hire qualified educators. Many applicants turned down job offers because there were few affordable housing options in the notoriously expensive region, Chapman noted.
Chapman presented a packet at the Joint Education Committee meeting which included classified ads for other jobs in the area: a painting job paid up to $35 an hour, a receptionist position paying up to $27 an hour and an art gallery position offered more than $100,000 a year.
Competing with high-paying, potentially lower-stress jobs makes hiring more difficult. Superintendents across the state have complained that they used to receive up to 50 applications for a job that might just receive four or five now.
“Potentially, that means the quality isn’t there because you don’t have as many people to pick from,” said Schroeder at WDE.
But low pay is just one factor potentially driving teacher shortages in the state.
Lainey Mekelburg, 20, grew up in the small agricultural town of Yuma, Colorado. She also comes from a teaching family, and decided to attend UW because it struck the right balance of being close to home but far enough away to feel like an adventure.
Mekelburg’s been steadfast in her decision to pursue teaching, but last year she noticed a lot of young teachers on TikTok talking about burnout. She had a frank conversation with her older sister, an early-career teacher near Greeley, about how things were going.
“It scared the heck out of me,” Mekelburg said. “Because I didn’t know what schools were going to look like by the time I graduated in a year and a half, and seeing all the young people resign after just getting out of school really scared me.”
Teachers told WyoFile the pandemic and ensuing back-to-school chaos increased their stress levels and workloads. More kids experienced mental and behavioral health issues and mask debates put classrooms at the center of ideological battles. The combination of these factors made many teachers consider alternative careers for the first time.
A recently published report examining teacher turnover in Wyoming found 12% of teachers surveyed planned to quit at the end of the 2022 school year and 65% said they would quit if they could.
“It’s really hard being a teacher because you’re not getting a lot of credit for the hours and hours of work as well as the emotional strain of really trying to take care of your students,” said Alan Buss, Director of the School of Teacher Education.
Buss spent the last 25 years working with teachers across the state and says Wyoming’s rural nature always created significant recruiting challenges. “Who wants to move to a town where you’re 45 miles from a grocery store? Or, you know, the closest major airport is a two-hour drive?”
Teaching graduates who tend to stay are those who grew up in small communities, understand the drawbacks and benefits involved and want that lifestyle.
These factors make young people like LaBuda and Mekelburg especially attractive — they understand what life in a small town entails and if they do choose to teach in Wyoming, they’re more likely to stay.
Increasing the pool
The Department of Education and PTSB are launching a Teacher Apprenticeship Program, modeled off a similar initiative in Tennessee, this fall to address Wyoming’s teacher dearth.
Phase one will focus on training school district staff with an associate’s degree. Participants will ultimately need to complete all the same requirements and receive the same certifications as other Wyoming teachers, but instead of traditional college, the program will likely be largely virtual and participants will “be trained from day one in the classroom under the auspices of a master mentor teacher,” said Schroeder.
“Once they’re done with the program, they’re debt free,” Schroeder said. “They’ve learned all these skills hands on, in person. Honestly, as a former classroom teacher, I just think it’s a stroke of genius.”
The program is still in its infancy — WDE put out a call for its apprenticeship pilot program and three school districts will be chosen by early July. After the initial three districts go through the process, the hope is to expand to more schools and broaden the pool of eligible participants to those without a degree.
However, simply growing the pool of teachers in the state likely won’t be enough. “Teachers are just more exhausted than they’ve ever been,” Schroeder noted. “They’re more stressed than they’ve ever been.”
“We’re going to lose teachers unless we address some of these problems,” he said.
This summer, UW’s College of Education launched a Teacher-Mentor Corps in hopes of providing more support for some of the stressed, early-career educators in the state by pairing them with more seasoned teachers in their communities.
Colby Gull, managing director of the Trustees Education Initiative, explained the geographic-based pairing is important because the challenges of teaching in Meeteetse are very different from those in Cheyenne. “There are some similarities,” Gull said. “It’s still a new community, a new climate and environment, but you can become more anonymous once you leave school in Cheyenne than you can in Lovell or Lyman.”
There’s been limited research on the effectiveness of K-12 mentoring, he said, but the survey recently conducted by UW professor Mark Perkins on teacher attrition also helped inform the project — one of Perkins’ recommendations included improving “professional development and training on how to handle contentious issues and emotionally charged interactions.”
Gull says the mentorship program won’t focus as much on classroom management or lesson planning, but instead on broader topics like effective communication, what quality teaching looks and feels like as well as work-life balance.
“If we can provide support and training around putting ‘first things first’ and ‘beginning with the end in mind,’ hopefully we can slow some of that stress and strain,” he said.
The first group of mentors met in Laramie in late June and will continue to check in once a month virtually as the inaugural corps group progresses.
Gull says the real reward in teaching is “the opportunity to change lives and make a difference and be a positive influence for kids. To help them be successful, grow, learn, mature and all these wonderful things.” But those rewards can be overshadowed by pressure from legislators, community members, parents and media, he said.
He hopes the relationships and lessons learned through Teacher-Mentor Corps will help educators better cope with that negativity and feel more supported.
An afternoon in a classroom with Alan Buss, who specializes in teaching science and math, is a soothing reminder of what learning felt like before the pandemic.
On a hot day in Laramie, he’s gathered with half a dozen teachers for his math course, which is part of a master’s degree program for working educators.
Everyone seems relaxed and Buss jokes about the perils of letting kids cut out their own paper shapes for geometry lessons. This program — while extra work for all the teachers enrolled — has been a buttress against the hardships of the last few years, they say.
Jenny Taufa, one of the students in the room and a math teacher at Laramie High School, said she struggled to enforce mask mandates during the pandemic. “It was a lot more stressful and not the way I wanted to interact with my students,” Taufa said. “I want my students to come into my classroom comfortable and ready to learn math.”
Despite the stresses of the last few years, she says she never felt like quitting. “I do credit this program for some of that,” Taufa said.
Two of the teachers in Buss’s math course began teaching right as the pandemic hit.
Kaylee Peterson, 25, is going into her fourth year of teaching at Central High School in Cheyenne and says in some ways beginning her career right as COVID-19 hit helped her adapt. “I think it made it easier to kind of roll with the punches,” Peterson said. “I didn’t know a ‘normal.’ I didn’t have a set expectation.”
Additionally, she says she had ample mentorship opportunities — she’d check in once a week with her department chair and faculty would frequently observe her classroom and share tips and ideas. Trying new methods of instruction and continuing to hone her skills kept her motivated to remain in the field.
She understands why so many teachers feel burned out, but her message for how to help early-career educators is simple: “If you’re not going to pay us more, at least support us.”