Where Are the Teachers?

May 23, 2017 Juvy Dichoso

A smile crossed the face of Deputy Superintendent Joe Sanchez as he shook the hand of former student Jon Bustamante during a chance run-in at the Department of Education central offices in Tiyan. Bustamante was his eighth-grade student at Untalan Middle School over a decade ago.

“Any teacher that’s been…in some cases if you’re a high school teacher, and you’ve been teaching for five years, you are going to have students that are going to be adults, and you’re gonna run into them on the street and they’ll talk to you,” Sanchez said. “They’ll come up to you and they’ll say, ‘Hi Mr. or Mrs. So and So’ and they’ll talk to you about what they’re doing. As a teacher, you realize that, hey, wow I actually had an impact on that person’s life. You know, sometimes I think people think it’s a cliché when you say you’re impacting the island’s future, but that’s really true.”

More than molding the island’s future leaders, a career in education also offers job security, benefits, and pay comparable to, although below, what’s offered throughout the United States and its other territories. Despite these, for the past decade, a perennial teacher shortage has plagued Guam and districts throughout the country.

“We’re still juggling anywhere from 50 to100 vacancies on a regular basis,” Sanchez said. That figure already accounts for limited-term teachers and retirees reentering the system, meaning the actual number of teacher vacancies is anywhere between 200 to 300 positions per year. The shortage is caused by the limited pool of certified teachers on Guam, especially in the areas of Math and Science.

“Science and Math tend to be a real tough one. Especially for individuals who get degrees, many of these people who major in Math and Science have a tendency to not go into teaching,” Sanchez pointed out. “They’ll go into Engineering or Medicine, or something else. So it’s really trying to recruit individuals who are interested in going into these fields and then at the same time interested in going into teaching.”

 

Teacher Pay and Job Security

As the demand for teachers grows, the compensation needed to attract them must also be considered. While it is not a career path typically taken by people with dreams of making millions, the profession can also lead to a comfortable lifestyle with the right time and education.

According to Superintendent Jon Fernandez, there were a total of 2,039 teachers at the Guam Department of Education as of March 13, 2017 making an average of $48,638 per year. That amount is higher compared to the average pay in 11 states, including South Carolina, West Virginia, and Maine.

“This figure takes into account the recently implemented Competitive Wage Act, which raised salaries for most government employees, although for teachers, the impact was felt most significantly at the lower end of the salary scale,” Fernandez said. “On average,

teachers on Guam are earning less than their stateside counterparts, but [at the same] experience a higher cost of living than many jurisdictions.”

“I know that if someone goes into teaching, they never go into teaching with the idea of one day becoming rich,” Sanchez added. “I think it allows for a decent living, especially if they decide to further their education, they decide to get a master’s degree, they decide to get a doctoral degree, or if they decide to get into administration and kind of work up the chain, then of course you can get incrementally larger salaries. However, it’s really kind of a job that takes you beyond your regular hours, and the compensation doesn’t usually follow that.”

According to the most recent GDOE pay scale, entry level teachers can earn as little as $34,383 while some of the highest paid teachers earn over $70,000 annually.

While pay might be an issue to consider, job security is not. “In Guam you will always find a job in the department of education if you have a teaching certificate. And if you don’t want to be in the classroom there are so many support positions that are available,” Sanchez said. “Because education is a big thing throughout the entire country, if you go to any state, any district, or in many cases, any territory, you will find a job in teaching or in education. If you were to look at it as a career option, I think that would be one of the biggest selling points.”

 

New Contracts and Protections

In addition to recently improved pay and continued job security, teachers are also on the brink of benefitting from a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement between the Guam Education Board and Guam Federation of Teachers.

The contract was approved by both parties in March for the first time in six years. It outlines rights and protections for teachers, and emphasizes the “shared responsibility” of molding students into life-long learners. One issue in particular—teacher duty day—was contentious during negotiations. It specifies how many days per year and hours per day teachers are required to work. The final agreement compromised for a school year with 180 instructional days, two parent-teacher conference days, two to nine professional development days, and two teacher workdays. It also includes everything from personal leave and grievance procedures to class sizes, which are not to exceed 23 to 25 students in elementary school, and 28 students in middle and high school.

The 44-page document was unanimously approved by both the GFT and GEB, and if approved by the Governor and Attorney General, will officially be put to effect, which will benefit roughly 80% of teachers at GDOE.

 

A Career in High Demand

While the number of teachers entering the work force may be unable to keep pace with demand, the number of people seeking careers in teaching is higher than you would expect.

According to statistics from the University of Guam School of Education, of the 80 students that apply to the education program every year, only 50 are accepted. This means 37% of applicants who want to become teachers are turned down, possibly because they fail to meet the minimum requirements necessary to join the program.

“We used to produce about 100 teachers a year,” School of Education Dean John Sanchez said. “That has changed over the past five years to about 60 a year. It’s not because we don’t have people who are interested in becoming teachers, it’s because the standard for teachers has really increased, and we’re holding to those standards.”

Requirements to enter the program include the formation of a comprehensive portfolio and passage of a series of tests. The strengthened requirements were formed within the past decade to ensure graduates have the skills necessary to become certified and succeed in the classroom.

At one point UOG was producing enough teachers to meet the demand, but Sanchez pointed out, “That lasted for about a year, and then I think with the teaching work force aging and the baby boomers all retiring, that left another hole. And here we are again, needing teachers in all areas.”

In an effort to boost program enrollment, UOG has started initiatives including peer-to-peer advisement, Praxis review classes, and scholarships to fund review classes or preparatory material. The school also provides multiple avenues to obtain degrees in education, including a Bachelor of Arts in Education, BA Plus, and a Master of Education in various areas.

 

Recruitment in a Limited Labor Force

Until the time graduates are able to meet the growing demand, Guam will continue to face a teacher shortage. “Guam is just one district, and we pull from the same work force. In the United States you have districts that kind of pull from each other. They have multiple pools to choose from. In Guam we really have just everyone that’s within the island of Guam,” Sanchez said.

This makes the teacher shortage issue unique to our geographical area. While the department used to recruit teachers from off-island, those efforts ended many years ago due to a lack of federal funds. The program addressed vacancies in the short-term, and with the focus shifting to building a local work force, most teachers now come from UOG.

However, other pools the department taps into includes retirees, limited-term teachers, and mid-level professionals.

Retirees are one of the department’s most valued resources, and a large number of them return to fill existing vacancies every year. “That’s a really strong resource for us,” Sanchez said. “It’s a resource we kind of pull from on a regular basis because they are certified and they have the experience.”

As for limited-term teachers who are already in schools, there is the issue of them lacking the proper certification. “I think we have over 50,” Sanchez said. “So if we try to encourage them and help them to take the classes that they need to get certified, that’s an additional 50 certified teachers that we could potentially keep for the remainder of their careers.”

A smaller pool is of professionals transitioning to teaching from other fields. “In some cases they’ve retired, or you’ll have those who are mid-career, who work in another sector and just decide somewhere in the middle of their career, ‘Hey I’d like to try teaching.’ So we’re really looking at all of those pools of potential teachers,” Sanchez explained.

According to Fernandez the department also needs to do a better job of opening the field of education as a career path for students. “A lot of us decided to go into education because of our experiences in school,” Sanchez said. While the department tends to promote careers in other industries, it needs to improve its efforts to recruit students into education.

Retention

While the department looks at ways to boost recruitment, another area in need of improvement is retention. According to numbers provided by GDOE, certified teachers are most likely to leave the profession within their first three years. “For those who may not be as experienced, or for those who are not familiar with how schools are run, it can be really stressful, because you’re dealing with the paperwork that’s required of a teacher, and at the same time the students themselves can be challenging,” Sanchez said.

One big frustration expressed by teachers is the increase in teacher accountability, requiring greater documentation and evidence of effective learning. “The accountability portion is burning out teachers, UOG’s Sanchez said. “They still love teaching, and the teaching hasn’t changed, it’s the reporting requirements that, I think, has a lot of teachers wondering if they still want to continue.”

Luckily, GDOE has programs in place to help struggling teachers in both these areas. In particular, the Teacher Induction Mentors program supports 1st- to 3rd-year fully certified teachers through everything from instruction and management to social and emotional support.

Experienced peers guide teachers and provide feedback through weekly or bi-weekly observations. Research suggests that supporting teachers in their first year results in higher retention and increased student learning. However, project director Dawn Blas said because the department has six mentors for the entire district, they are currently reaching teachers in their second year. Despite this, the program has been highly successful. Of the 454 teachers mentored over the past five years, 396 are still with GDOE.

The bottom line is Guam needs to do a better job of attracting qualified teachers and sustaining a healthy supply of educators. “We need to work on ways to entice capable and committed individuals to become classroom teachers, and when they are in our classrooms, we have to ensure that we support them, help them to improve their craft, and give them opportunities they need to grow and lead,” Fernandez said.

He also acknowledged that the department needs to work with higher learning institutions and the Legislature to attract graduates, reduce unnecessary obstacles, and, in some cases, source funding to recruit off-island applicants for hard-to-fill positions. “If we accept the knowledge and reality that our role—each and every one of us—in this department can make a difference in the lives of students, can help our young people chart courses for their own success, and can build future strength within our island community, then we must acknowledge that our work may never quite be done and may never get less complicated,” Fernandez wrote in a department-wide memo on leadership. “This doesn’t make our work less desirable. It makes our work more important, more meaningful, and more essential.”

 

“We’re still juggling anywhere from 50 to100 vacancies on a regular basis. That figure already accounts for limited-term teachers and retirees reentering the system, meaning the actual number of teacher vacancies is anywhere between 200 to 300 positions per year.”

  • Deputy Superintendent Joe Sanchez

While the number of teachers entering the work force may be unable to keep pace with demand, the number of people seeking careers in teaching is higher than you would expect.

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