At one point during the four-and-a-half years Jen Tarwater studied to become a teacher and completed two minors, she juggled four jobs — among them, serving as a student employee at her school’s Hispanic multicultural center and working as an entertainer on the Polar Express with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train.
It wasn’t so much a matter of survival for the Fort Lewis College graduate, but rather a proactive measure to create a cushion for the months she needed to devote to student teaching.
Most of Colorado’s student teachers aren’t paid for the hours they invest in the classroom, even when taking over the bulk of lesson planning, teaching and grading, according to Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education.
They work a full-time job for free while also, in many instances, still paying their college tuition.
Some students will continue to take out student loans, pick up jobs on the side, coach school sports teams or move back in with parents or other family members to scrape by, O’Neil said.
It’s not an easy balancing act.
“The challenge becomes when they are student teaching, that’s kind of a full-time job,” said Richard Fulton, dean of the School of Education at Fort Lewis College. “It’s really hard for them to continue their part-time jobs when they’re teaching full time.”
The legislature could lift part of the financial burden student teachers face as Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, plans to introduce an omnibus bill that will make the student teaching experience a more flexible one and open up new possibilities for compensation.
The bill in some ways mirrors a broad package of education legislation unveiled by Republicans last week. While their bills take a different approach, some of the issues they address overlap with those presented by Todd, particularly teacher pay, indicating it will rise as a top priority this session.
Todd, whose own career included 25 years of teaching, recognizes how hard it is for student teachers to make ends meet — in some cases, impossible.
In collecting feedback from teachers in training, particularly at Colorado State University-Pueblo, Todd said she realized how much of a financial barrier student teaching imposed for some students.
“It was very evident to me that students were dropping out before they were going to do their student teaching because they couldn’t afford to do that,” Todd said.
The bill would revise legislation sponsored by Todd and passed during the last legislative session that, among other things, mandated educator preparation programs “must include at least one full, continuous school year of clinical practice.”
That mandate has not yet gone into effect.
While Todd initially thought that a longer-term commitment would serve student teachers well, after getting input from aspiring teachers she instead worries that it could be a deterrent.
Todd’s omnibus bill is still a work in progress, but the senator envisions giving students more flexibility by breaking up their student teacher experience so that they’re not locked into a full school year in one setting.
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She’s also interested in finding ways to pay student teachers.
That could involve directing state dollars to teachers in training from a broader pool of education funding. Currently, the legislature earmarks dollars for different education programs and different kinds of educators, such as those pursuing National Board Certification. Through the omnibus bill, Todd seeks to blend pockets of money together into one stream so that dollars can better flow to where the demands are — including the demand of supporting student teachers.
“That is part of the conversation,” Todd said.
She also wants to enable districts and higher education institutions to work together to pay student teachers, something she said is already happening for some teachers in training.
Another possibility: giving budding teachers a paid internship experience with something like a modified salary.
Tarwater, now a sixth grade Spanish teacher at Telluride Intermediate School and a substitute teacher for Telluride School District R-1, worked as a Spanish intern during one class period at Telluride Intermediate School while student teaching from August to December last year. She was officially hired as a substitute teacher in January and still teaches that Spanish class.
Tarwater wasn’t certified last year so she couldn’t be alone in the classroom. She taught the Spanish class while another teacher in the room used the period for planning.
The state’s teacher shortage is dire enough that hiring workarounds enable some students to begin teaching in districts as they near graduation.
A 12-month contract allowed Tarwater to earn about $8,000 teaching the Spanish class, which helped cover her living expenses while student teaching.
She tapped a few other funding sources during the year, including savings from her four jobs — amassed when she was planning to student teach at a bilingual school in Costa Rica. A field trip to Telluride Intermediate School changed her mind.
She also lucked out with a cheap living arrangement. While housing prospects in Telluride would have had her paying $1,500 a month for a studio apartment, Tarwater moved to Norwood about 30 miles away, where she pays $300 a month in exchange for helping her roommate care for her dog.
Additionally, Tarwater received the Colorado Rural Teaching Stipend, a $4,000 award from the Colorado Center for Rural Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education that first helps students with any tuition they still owe followed by their living expenses and classroom costs.
In years past, the stipend has distributed $2,800 increments to student teachers. During the last legislative session lawmakers decided to boost that amount to $4,000, though they didn’t increase total program funding, according to Valerie Sherman, rural education coordinator for the Colorado Center for Rural Education.
This year, 28 student teachers benefited from stipends, down from about 40 in prior years, while interest in the program nearly doubled. Application numbers swelled from between 40 and 45 to almost 70 this year, Sherman said.
The stipend funds students during their semester of student teaching — usually 14 or 15 weeks — and doesn’t always help them make ends meet. Just how much it helps depends on the tuition bills a student is facing along with where he or she student teaches, according to Sherman.
A different program, the Colorado Rural Teaching Fellowship, helps support student teachers with an interest in a rural school district. Fellows commit to a year of student teaching in a rural district and, in exchange, are given $10,000 — $5,000 from the legislature and $5,000 from their college or university — toward tuition and living expenses.
The fellowship launched in 2018 and so far 30 students have benefited, Sherman said.
The legislature originally funded enough for 100 students per year and opened the fellowship opportunity up to all higher education institutions based in Colorado with an educator preparation program, according to Sherman.
However, the year-long student teaching commitment is requiring some institutions to revisit the structure of their programs, Sherman said, while they must also figure out how to fund students.
Sherman acknowledged the financial hurdles many stipend recipients face, particularly as their higher education institutions discourage them from working other jobs and in some cases may prohibit it.
Students “may be forced to make some difficult choices,” Sherman said, “it’s really hard as an undergrad to pay to work.”
Curtis Garcia, department chair of the Teacher Education Department at Adams State University in Alamosa, has watched as many of his students have had to work outside jobs while student teaching, delay completing their program in student teaching or even abandon their plans to pursue a career in the classroom.
“I’ve seen how it’s made it very difficult for some of our students to complete their student teaching if they’re in situations where they’re needing to provide for themselves or their families financially,” Garcia said.
Tarwater didn’t want to have to work while student teaching after having managed four jobs on top of schoolwork and field experience in the classroom, noting “it was too much.”
Her classmate, Laine Waters, who student taught kindergarteners at Ouray Elementary School last year, devoted hours outside the classroom to bartending and other side jobs like housesitting.
Waters, also a recipient of the Colorado Rural Teaching Stipend, would often bring homework and lesson plan materials to the Full Tilt Saloon in Ridgway so she could prepare for school before beginning her bartending shifts.
Both she and Tarwater were frustrated by the lack of compensation while serving as student teachers, particularly during the weeks when they were completely responsible for creating lessons, grading, teaching and assessing at their assigned schools.
Were students to be paid during those weeks, “it would make life so much easier,” Tarwater said.
Garcia relates the problems surrounding student teacher pay to a bigger problem around teacher compensation in general. If teachers in training had higher salaries to look forward to along with greater respect for the profession, he said, they’d be more willing to make investments and sacrifices while preparing to become educators.
Still, neither Tarwater and Waters ever rethought their decision to become a teacher.
“Going into this career,” Waters said, “it’s not about the money for us, clearly, because you’re not going to make a whole lot of money as a teacher, which is sad but true.”