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Where are the teachers? A look at Arizona’s struggle to fill positions

PHOENIX — Elementary school teachers are among the toughest jobs to fill in Arizona schools, according to a new survey assessing the current teacher shortage across the state.

“When someone asks me what teaching position is hard to fill, I tell them the first open position is in elementary education – K-6,” said Justin Wing, data analyst for the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association. KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Since 2015, his group has surveyed schools across the state twice a year to assess the number of teaching vacancies. Over the summer, the association conducted a survey “to get a temperature check” of the teacher shortage ahead of the new school year.

Wing said the survey, based on responses from 136 public and charter school districts in Arizona, showed there were more than 2,200 teaching vacancies.

Many of these were primary teaching positions. There were also many vacancies for math and science teachers.

Wing noted that in addition to the 2,200 vacant teaching positions, another 800 special education teaching positions remain vacant.

“Math, science, special education have always been hard to fill,” he said. “It was exacerbated.”

He added that what was also alarming was the 120 councilor posts and more than 80 social worker posts that were not filled.

“Some districts or charters don’t even have counselors or social workers,” Wing said. “So if we were as a state to invest in this, my prediction would be that we wouldn’t have the candidates to fill these jobs.”

According to the survey, schools in low socio-economic areas were among those that had the most difficulty finding teachers to hire.

One reason, Wing says, is that students at these schools typically face more challenges and are harder to teach.

“Students in lower socioeconomic schools, their starting line is further behind those in a higher socioeconomic school,” Wing said. “And we expect our teachers to get them to the finish line at the same time, even if they started a long time ago.”

The association conducted the survey after hearing from many human resources professionals.

“They were deeply concerned about the lack of applicants for teaching positions,” Wing said, adding that they were alarmed that there were “no applicants” just months before the start of the new school year.

Lupita Almanza de Mesa is one of the teachers who have left the profession. She taught for 11 years before leaving her second-grade class in May.

“It was the hardest decision, but I knew it was the right time to go,” Almanza said.

She said the long hours, stress of teaching online and time away from her family were becoming too much. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the school district where she worked asked her to implement a new curriculum for the following school year.

“I’m already giving 100 per cent and then I was asked to do more, I just felt like I couldn’t,” Almanza said.

Wing said the state continues to face “a severe teacher shortage” for several reasons, including low salaries, large class sizes and growing responsibilities.

He said until working conditions for Arizona teachers improve, schools across the state will continue to struggle to fill positions.

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