Low pay for Arizona teachers lowers morale, retention

Michelle Doherty, the 2017 Arizona Teacher of the Year, said students make teaching rewarding but the low pay for Arizona teachers can frustrate some and spur them to leave the profession. (Photo by Blakely McHugh/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Teacher salaries that are among the lowest in the nation drive down teacher morale and make retention difficult, education advocates say.

Arizona elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation when adjusted for statewide cost-of-living. While Arizona’s high school teachers pay ranks 49th of the 50 states, according to a Morrison Institute for Public Policy survey in May.

The average pay for elementary school teachers in Arizona is nearly $43,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average pay is about $52,000.

Teachers are challenged further because of other constraints, like large classrooms. Many teachers pay for classroom supplies with their own money, according to Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group. That can cost about $500 a year.

Wendy Fry moved to Arizona from Iowa to teach but was paid $10,000 less annually than she made in Iowa. She lasted a year before moving back.

“The pay is awful and class sizes are too large to effectively teach,” Fry said. “Classroom management is stressful when class sizes are that large. Many students fall through the cracks, and that’s not fair to the teacher or the students.”

Frustrated teachers leave the profession or pursue teaching jobs in other states that offer better pay, said Michelle Doherty, 2017 Arizona Teacher of the Year.

“We try to stay positive, passionate, productive,” Jackie Figueroa, an Arizona teacher for 30 years, said. “We teach. We coach. We tutor. We try to fight the ‘good fight.’ ”

About 40 percent of teachers work an additional job, either during the school year or over the summer, to earn extra money, according to the Morrison survey.

“What we’re concerned with is that the teachers that are choosing to stay in the career aren’t going past five years because either there’s pay freezes, the wages are low, or whatever,” Doherty said. “You can’t live off of teachers wages.”

More than 20 percent of teachers hired from 2013 to 2015 stopped working after a year. More than 40 percent stopped working as Arizona teachers after three years, the survey says.

And there aren’t enough teachers to meet classroom needs in the state. Arizona is losing more teachers than gaining graduates with bachelor in education degrees, according to the survey. About 85 percent of rural administrators reported it was somewhat or extremely difficult to hire new teachers, according to the survey.

“When a young person says, ‘Well I want to go into teaching,’ the community response should be, ‘Yes, we support you, that’s a great choice,'” said Erin Hart, chief operating officer for Expect More Arizona.

“But right now, the question is ‘Why? it doesn’t pay anything. Why would you do that?'”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau. To send us a story idea or to learn more about PIN, click here.