Natalie Lyon teaches third grade at John Colter Elementary school in Jackson in 2017. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

When Kim Amen had a chance to tell state lawmakers what it’s like to be a Wyoming teacher these days, she didn’t hold back.

Opinion

“We feel so overwhelmed that the joy has been sucked out of our day on a pretty regular basis, and our physical and mental health is suffering,” said Amen, a Cheyenne third-grade teacher and vice president of the Wyoming Education Association.

What’s making conditions so dire in Wyoming’s K-12 system, and creating serious problems recruiting and retaining teachers in many school districts? Amen, who’s been teaching since 2006, said it’s a combination of increased workloads and static or shrinking time and resources, driven by the Legislature’s decisions.

“They just give us more mandates,” she said, listing new language curriculum, safe schools training, and statewide technology standards as a sample of time-consuming, recently added duties. 

The Legislature passed a law requiring teachers to integrate contributions of Native American tribes to Wyoming in their lessons. Amen said while she wholeheartedly embraces these standards, teachers received no actual training to implement them. The state Department of Education lists some teaching resources, but she said it still takes “an enormous amount of prep time” to use them.

The Joint Education Committee, which met in Casper last week, didn’t have to take Amen’s word alone about how some legislative decisions have negatively impacted teachers. Members heard the same assessment from representatives of a governor’s education task force, the State Board of Education, University of Wyoming professors, a school district superintendent and the Wyoming School Boards Association.

“I think we need to do the math on how much time it takes to get through all of the standards that we have created at that early [education] level and let’s see if it’s actually doable,” said John Masters. He chairs Gov. Mark Gordon’s advisory group, Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education. 

Mark Perkins, assistant professor of educational research at the University of Wyoming’s College of Education, said teachers feel they lack community, administrative and government support. A UW-WEA survey earlier this year found nearly two-thirds of Wyoming teachers would quit their jobs if they could, but choose to stay for financial or other reasons.

It was as much of a “Kumbaya” moment as you will find at any legislative meeting where experts gather to dissect a problem and craft solutions. Even members of the committee chimed in, expressing reservations about the pressure they have added to teachers’ lives.

But the panel’s co-chair, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), was having none of it.

“Frankly, I think there’s not enough pressure,” Scott said. “We’ve got to get those kids to learn how to read.”

Scott, who will mark his 40th year in the Legislature in January, is the longest serving lawmaker in the state’s history. He has made valuable contributions to state education, most notably his early advocacy for the Wyoming Hathaway Scholarship Program.

In recent years, though, Scott has worked overtime to reduce funding for K-12, never missing an opportunity to try to cut millions in education funds. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee he’s used his bully pulpit on school issues to constantly clash with the more education-friendly House.

In fact, it is that ever-present tension between the two chambers that is largely responsible for the WEA’s inevitable lawsuit against the state. The union claims the Legislature is not meeting its constitutional mandate to fund a fair, equitable education for all Wyoming students. Laramie County School District No. 1 recently joined the lawsuit.

Last year, Scott led opposition to a House attempt to compromise on school funding, leaving the Legislature to use federal COVID-19 relief funds and state savings to cover education costs. Wyoming lawmakers must find a permanent, non-minerals school funding source.

Tate Mullen, WEA’s government relations director, said teachers are upset at legislative attempts to “target education either through curriculum directives, devastating budget cut proposals [and] the promotion of charter schools.”

Mullen blasted legislative efforts to ban “critical race theory,” the far-right’s school boogeyman for 2022, and target LGBTQ+ students “who are the most at-risk and in need of protective policies, not exclusionary ones.”

Amen said budget cuts have reduced essential staff, and a severe substitute teacher shortage is putting a strain on all faculty. “Teachers feel they can’t take time off for professional development, to go to a conference, for illness, their family or their own mental health,” she said.

The teacher said one state standardized test is required, but many districts opt for more. “I’ve already had to give my third-graders no less than four standardized tests,” the preparations for which limit other learning opportunities, Amen said,.

Scott listened to more than three hours of testimony, then offered his personal, surprisingly simplistic view of the state’s public school woes. “We don’t feel we’re getting our money’s worth out of the education that’s being provided, particularly in early literacy,” he insisted. 

Scott cherry-picked third-graders’ scores on the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress to claim “we’re leaving about 45% of kids behind because we’re not doing an adequate job of teaching them how to read.” 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) told Scott his comments weren’t accurate and don’t recognize “our exceptional teaching corps and incredible professional community.”

“Focus on the good and find ways to do better rather than fabricating misinformation that suggests that we’re failing,” Rothfuss said. “The more we propagate misinformation, the more the public believes it.” 

Scott said Rothfuss is entitled to his opinion, but sharply reminded him he belongs to the Legislature’s minority. Yes, the remark was just as snarky and condescending in real time as it is in print.

Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) — a high school football coach and teacher in Capser — said WyTOPP is the fourth state standardized test since federal “No Child Left Behind” standards were introduced in the early 2000s. Harshman said the National Assessment of Educational Progress “is the only test that has any long-term validity to it, and we’re the ‘Best in the West,’ one of the best in the entire world. Our graduation rates are at an all-time high for this state.”

Harshman said after several years of financial hardship for Wyoming’s government, other states have caught up with our once-higher pay scale. “You’ve somehow got to pay people to come to our small communities to teach,” Harshman said. 

Wyoming’s current NAEP scores are set to be released Oct. 24, so perhaps it will help settle the question of how the state’s educational system is performing. But don’t count on it, because Amen said COVID-19 had a devastating impact on student learning. 

“My class is in third-grade and this is the first ‘normal’ year they’ve had,” she said, noting the pandemic wiped out the end of their kindergarten classes. 

“Their first-grade year started six feet apart, masks, hand sanitizers, no group activities at all,” Amen recalled. “Their second-grade year began the same way.”

How would Amen improve teacher recruitment and retention in the Equality State?

“If you ask any educators, they will tell you they just want to be respected and trusted and valued,” she said. “After 2020 we had to rethink every process we used in our classroom to keep our kids safe.

“We were asked to make these changes without adding one extra minute of planning time or compensation for our extra workload,” Amen said. “And yet we did it all because that’s what teachers do, we step up and do what’s best for our students.”

That’s a much better test of how Wyoming’s teachers are helping students learn than any standardized test can measure.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. This is a hard battle. The teachers mean well. But the unions are corrupt and you will not see the fixes happen if they have any say. I saw this up close in a blue state. It is all about the workers but none of them are happy. It is depressing. I was in a program to become a teacher as we are floating here in Wyoming. So I was sitting in on classes to observe for my lessons. The level of dysfunction was palpable. Suspicious looks. Paranoia. Some very good teachers. But a lot of tired and unhappy people running out the clock. I remember genuine interest and desire to learn in my heart when I went to school. These kids looked like they were in jail. Sad. How do you fix a culture problem? Don’t know. Money is no fix if the culture is broken. I no longer engage with education. It’s disappointing. These are the faces the kids are learning life’s lessons from. I really think we need to look at the affects of organizations like the NEA and NSBA and replace them. These old guard institutions only serve themselves.

  2. All parents want is good teachers focused on the tools of critical thinking.
    That requires emphasis on English skills, math skills, science skills,, and liberal topics like philosophy and shop classes to encourage handcrafts and a sense of accomplishment.
    No where are gender preference or racial problems listed above. That is not their job and never was.
    I grew up with major racial problems around me and no father in the home to provide paternal advice and inspire confidence. It took literally decades to make up for the factors beyond control. That is without someone attempting to confuse me and cause further emotional tension.
    My teachers, for the most part, did best when they provided resources and stayed out of my way. I am a self-starter and I ask questions that stun teachers. I then blow the test curve. So I was usually left to work on my own. I received encouragement from good teachers. But we never talked politics and we never even broached areas like sex or gender. You just didn’t go there. The racial problem was entirely caused by forced bussing. Drop several hundred black kids from the “hood” into a diverse student body that has not experienced violence to any significant degree, and you get fights on the playground and bullying. Add both Crips and Bloods fighting over this new turf and you have a mess. The teachers became ghosts hiding in their classrooms. When you examine the problems our culture is facing, teachers are our most important tool. But the politics and the nanny mentality have not helped. The kids must come first and the selfish idea that you know more than the parents must stop.

  3. In my ideal world every parent would be required to join a teacher for one week each year to discover what teachers actually do. They might even learn to be empathetic rather than dismissive. It is a hard job now being made harder by politics and parental pressure.

  4. I guess I know how to solve the problem with certain obstinate legislatures, vote them out, and vote in more progressive people who will work with the people instead of against, I have a daughter who is a teacher in another state, they put in more hours than people realize.