Cost of living, changed retirement system cause teacher recruitment struggles: official
For two days, teachers will get to be students for a change, taking part in the Good Teaching Institute at Bartlett High School in Anchorage. The National Education Association chapter in Alaska hosts it, with a goal of allowing teachers to share ideas they can bring into classrooms with other colleagues.
"There's nothing teachers better than to just be awesome and feel like the most learning is happening daily in their class," President Tim Parker said.
Among the participants were new teachers from out of state, like Jasmine Lewis. Lewis recently moved to Alaska from Washington and will be an elementary school teacher in the Anchorage School District.
"School is different everywhere," she said. "Culturally, what they require, traditions and systems."
Lewis said she decided on Alaska because it fit personal and professional needs, but she had searched across the country for new teaching opportunities.
"I looked at Hawaii, looked at Oregon," she said. "I even looked at going east to Maine or New York."
Alaska offered her a competitive salary, as well.
"Transferring here from Washington state to Alaska, I did get a pay increase, which is really awesome," she said.
The National Education Association ranks Alaska seventh in the country for its annual average salary, which was around $67,000 in 2016. A spokesperson for ASD said a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree starts at $48,886, not including the benefits package. Documents show from the Lower-Kuskokwim School District, the 2014-15 salary schedule for teachers in their first year starts them at $51,594. In the North Slope Borough School District, a teacher's starting salary is at $56,849 for fiscal year 2017.
Joshua Gill, director of personnel and student services at LKSD, said during a phone interview that their district held 93 job fairs across the country last year. He said they offer a $3,000 signing bonus to help teachers move out to their community and continue to offer competitive benefits.
"We have phenomenal health insurance," he said. "We have great staff development. We're doing everything we can to approve teacher housing."
Parker said even with higher pay compared to many other states, Alaska's school districts aren't attracting and keeping teachers from the Lower 48 like they used to.
"Some remote areas have higher salaries, but they're always outweighed by the cost of living when a gallon of milk costs $10 and gas is astronomical," he said.
He also cites the fewer people entering the education industry as one of the reasons for a national teacher shortage, which is also affecting recruitment in Alaska.
"Colleges that used to enroll 1,500 in education programs now have 1,000 students," Parker said.
Several other factors are also contributing to more vacant positions that remain unfilled, such as a changed retirement system.
"The 1990s was probably the last time we were at the top of the scale and our retirement system drastically changed in 2006," he said. "We went from having the best retirement system in the country to pretty much having the worst retirement system."
Parker says that's why teachers often leave after a few years.
"Everyone hired after that time period, that's now more than 50 percent of the teachers in our state," he said. "They basically don't have a retirement. They have a glorified 401k and they don't qualify for social security."
The cost of living and living conditions in rural Alaska also may not be for everyone, Parker and Gill said.
"Those folks that you do get out here-- until you experience it, it isn't for everybody," Gill said.
What keeps Gill going is his community, he said, and he encourages other educators to find the positives in their experiences.
Lewis said from what she's witnessed in her last few years of teaching before moving to Alaska, she's learned the job in itself can be challenging.
"I feel like every year, there's at least three people I know who leave teaching," she said. "Whether it's the stress, the pay, just personal reasons. You see a lot of teachers with burnout."
Lewis said she's excited to learn what being a teacher in Anchorage will be like and is ready to start the school year strong. She said the two-day program with the Good Teaching Institute and its different workshops are sparking new questions on what to focus on for her career here.
"What are their values?" she asked. "What do they require, how do they require it? What can I do to achieve success in this district?"