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Colorado’s teacher shortage may worsen coming out of the pandemic. Could $13M stop the trend?

A bipartisan bill seeks to build up the future workforce with middle and high schoolers, veterans and mid-career professionals and keep them in classrooms long term.

First grade student-teacher Karen Gonzalez Rivas interacts with her students during Spanish class on Thursday, April 29, 2021, at Eagle Valley Elementary School in Eagle. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Karen Gonzalez Rivas shows up to school each day to teach in some of the same classrooms where her fifth grade self learned how to master words and numbers. In a way, she’s returned to where some of the seeds of her nascent career in education were first planted.

Gonzalez Rivas, who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a baby, has lived in Eagle since she was 9 and doesn’t want to leave. She’s known for a long time that she wanted to be a teacher. She remembers an assignment her freshman year of high school that asked her to draw out her future career. Her work of art featured an elementary school teacher.

“I’ve always known that I’ve wanted to work with kids and that has never gone away,” she said.

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Gonzalez Rivas, 22, is wrapping up her final semester as a student teacher, preparing to graduate next week from Colorado Mountain College and enter a workforce that continues to be wracked by shortages. 

Lawmakers are committed to drawing more students like Gonzalez Rivas into teaching, or at very least exposing them to the possibility of a career in education. It’s one component of an omnibus bill aiming to help Colorado recruit and retain more teachers, so districts that face chronic shortages of educators won’t have to keep wondering how they’re going to cover their classrooms. 

Senate Bill 185 takes an all-encompassing approach to bulking up the educator workforce, pulling people into the teaching pipeline from a variety of entry points: from middle and high school students to college students, former military personnel and seasoned professionals who might be seeking a career change.

First grade student-teacher Karen Gonzalez Rivas assists a student with classwork on Thursday, April 29, 2021, at Eagle Valley Elementary School in Eagle. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Instead of having a leaky pipe, we’re plugging the holes, and we’re extending the pipe and we’re just making sure that we have a really good, comprehensive approach to recruiting, attracting and retaining teachers,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and fifth-generation teacher who is co-sponsoring the bill.

The legislation, which heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday and could move to the floor next week, is particularly focused on correcting shortages that could worsen under pandemic-related disruptions that have drained many educators.

Data from the Colorado Department of Education shows that about 2% of school jobs, equal to 147 K-12 teaching positions across the state, remained unfilled during the past school year. Close to 1,000 teaching positions were filled through a shortage mechanism, such an emergency license or an alternative teaching license. More than 75 specialized positions — including school psychologists, counselors and nurses — went unfilled for the school year, with an additional 69 being filled through a shortage mechanism. 

A recent survey of educators conducted by the Colorado Education Association suggests the potential for teacher shortages to accelerate: almost 40% of respondents indicated they are considering leaving the profession, pointing to overwhelming workloads, risky work environments due to COVID-19 and low pay as their top motivations for wanting to exit the field.

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CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said the association has heard anecdotally that many educators considering retiring in the next three to five years have shortened their timeline up with plans to retire this year. She worries that without an intentional effort around teacher recruitment and retention, students will suffer.

“It is the students who lose out when we don’t address things like educator recruitment and retention,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Recruiting future teachers among teens and veterans alike

Senate Bill 185, which has bipartisan support, veers from the “scattershot approach” Zenzinger said lawmakers have historically taken when it comes to building up and supporting the state’s teacher workforce. The legislation would invest $13 million from the state’s general fund toward a variety of programs that aim to recruit future teachers as young as middle school and eliminate barriers for mid-career professionals to enter the field, including military veterans.

“What occurred to me is that we really needed something that brought these all together under one collective banner that would approach the problem at all different points along the pipeline,” Zenzinger said.

Part of the money would restore funding for some programs, including Colorado’s Educator Loan Forgiveness Program and Quality Teacher Recruitment Grant Program, both of which lost funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year when lawmakers slashed budgets in anticipation of a pandemic-related recession.

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Two new teacher pathway programs would be launched, geared toward piquing interest in teaching among young students and among more experienced professionals who are open to a career change while also making higher education more affordable for them. 

One program, the Teacher Recruitment Education and Preparation Program, would focus on recruiting secondary students for future careers in education — even students in middle school. Zenzinger, who grew up in a family of teachers and knew early on she would become an educator, said she remembers career fairs at Montrose High School being the one place in school where teachers and teaching didn’t have a presence.

Similarly, she said, the state legislature has worked on concurrent enrollment and workforce development and creating pathways into a variety of professions — but not education. Key questions for Zenzinger: How can Colorado interest middle and high school students in the education field and how can the state carve out a very clear pathway that sends them on their way to becoming an educator?

“We’re trying to be intentional about that and trying to get them to enroll in these postsecondary courses that just naturally move students from their secondary coursework into postsecondary coursework to become teachers,” Zenzinger said. The bill would also push institutions of higher education to better collaborate and design a more defined teaching pathway. 

The other program, the Educator Recruitment and Retention Program, is focused on members of the military as they transition out of the service. Lawmakers like Zenzinger and Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, see veterans as a pool the state could better tap for its educator workforce. The program would provide veterans-turned-teachers a $10,000 stipend to help cover the cost of tuition for an educator preparation program and getting licensed — an incentive to help with teacher retention.

“If we’re going to invest in recruiting talented people into our profession, we want them to stay,” Zenzinger said.

Rankin said the program would be modeled on the Federal Troops to Teachers Program, which has used federal grant funding to prepare members of the military for careers in education. 

First grade student-teacher Karen Gonzalez Rivas inside the classroom on Thursday, April 29, 2021, at Eagle Valley Elementary School in Eagle. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Additionally, the bill seeks to expand adjunct instructor authorization, through which an individual who does not have a teacher’s license can teach under the supervision of a licensed educator. Zenzinger said districts can already bring professionals with an adjunct instructor authorization into their classrooms, but they don’t take advantage of it widely. 

Expanding the authorization would help bring more people with diverse career backgrounds and skills into classrooms, opening students up to more career possibilities and helping districts bridge the gap in hard-to-fill teaching positions. It also represents another pathway into teaching, giving mid-career professionals the opportunity see if education is the right next step for them.

Another piece of the bill is framed around awareness. Lawmakers want CDE to better publicize existing teacher preparation programs and the ways they support students, with some programs offering financial help. The legislation would push CDE to provide technical support to districts, charter schools and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, helping them to understand the landscape of higher education programs and recruit students to teaching careers.

Diversifying the teacher workforce while expanding it

Legislators recognize that teacher pay still creates an obstacle to attracting more educators, but that hurdle isn’t one they tackle head on in Senate Bill 185. Zenzinger said that addressing educator pay will take a different kind of effort. For now, she’s focused on lessening the financial burden of becoming a teacher.

Berrick Abramson, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, whose work helped inform the bill, emphasized that Colorado’s problem recruiting and retaining teachers can’t be solved without addressing school finance and teacher compensation. But the state also can’t wait to address all issues related to the educator workforce until that issue has been resolved.

“Our kids in school today can’t wait for the adults to figure out how to pay teachers like professionals,” Abramson said. “We’ve got to be moving the needle in parallel.” 

Retention is a top-of-mind concern for Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent at the state education department. She worries about what teacher turnover will look like in the next few years as the state’s 178 school districts recover from the pandemic. She anticipates there will be early retirements and she’s worried about teachers who started their profession during a school year that was anything but normal.

Principals and superintendents across the state, too, are trying to understand how they can support those new teachers after so many disruptions, O’Neil said.

“We know we can address some shortages if we can retain our teachers longer,” she said. This will involve elevating the teaching profession so that new people want to join the field while creating a climate that makes educators want to keep teaching, she said.

Much of the inspiration for the omnibus bill around teacher recruitment and retention stemmed from efforts led by the Education System Resiliency and Innovation Initiative, a group formed last spring by the Keystone Policy Center and the Public Education & Business Coalition. The group is composed of more than 80 educators, principals, superintendents, private sector professionals, legislators and representatives from state departments including CDE and the Colorado Department of Higher Education. 

Members set out to learn how the pandemic has shaped education and what takeaways could inform long-term improvements to the state’s education system, Abramson said. They studied the teacher workforce, the ways that teachers are trained and supported, and how students learn most effectively, trying to grasp how kids responded to different modes of learning throughout the pandemic.

As she helped write the bill, Zenzinger said she referenced many recommendations made in a report published by the Education System Resiliency and Innovation Initiative in February.

One of the group’s primary concerns centers around diversifying Colorado’s teacher workforce. This year, out of the state’s 55,842 teachers, 48,355, or nearly 87%, are white, according to CDE data. That sharply contrasts with demographics of the state’s student population.

Diversifying the educator workforce is just as important as expanding it to education advocates like Abramson, who sees potential in growing the paraprofessional-to-teacher pipeline. Paraprofessionals, who are not licensed to teach but whom districts hire to assist teachers with classroom instruction and help students individually, tend to more closely reflect the students they serve in terms of background and race, Abramson said. 

But many paraprofessionals don’t necessarily have the financial resources to pursue a teacher training program. Along with veterans, they could benefit from the Educator Recruitment and Retention Program, earning a stipend of up to $10,000 in exchange for committing to attend school and eventually teach in a school with a significant need for educators.

Hoping more applicants will show up

That kind of program has been successful in some rural mountain towns, which O’Neil said often struggle to find teachers for any subject. These districts, where the cost of living is high, often pay low salaries, she said.

Through the Colorado Rural Teaching Fellowship, people who student teach in a rural school district during the last year of their education preparation program can get $10,000 to help cover expenses while student teaching without compensation.

Colorado Mountain College averages about 12 fellows each year, supporting each of them with $5,000 in state funds and $5,000 the higher education institution must contribute, said Elizabeth Qualman, the college’s director of teacher education. The program, which prioritizes fellows for full-time jobs in the districts where they student teach, is growing as the college has made the fellowship available at more of its campuses. Qualman anticipates 18 fellows benefiting from the program next year.

Colorado Mountain College’s teacher training program has become a critical source of talent for principals like Kathryn Senor at Wamsley Elementary School, part of Garfield School District No. Re-2 in Rifle. By the beginning of the next school year, she will have hired six full-time teachers who were students at Colorado Mountain College. Three will start in the fall, including one who student taught at the school this year and is graduating this spring, and another who has another semester to go but whom she can hire through the state’s teacher of record license, which enables a student to be hired as a teacher before they officially graduate. 

Senor still has two teaching positions to fill before fall. In the past, she has had to scramble to ensure classrooms are staffed, relying on long-term substitute teachers or putting 30 kids in one class.

It’s hard to attract teachers to her rural school of 372 students, where employees face a high cost of living and minimal opportunities for a social life.

And the principal must do more than compete against other districts for teachers. She also competes against other schools in her own district. As she tries to figure out how to fill her two vacancies for the next school year, she’s leaning on a lot of hope.

“You sit on the deck and open the portal and hope that somebody shows up,” Senor said. 

But she’s not looking for just anybody. “The reality is you need some applicants that fit your school and kind of the visions you have.” 

First grade student-teacher Karen Gonzalez Rivas assists a student with classwork on Thursday, April 29, 2021, at Eagle Valley Elementary School in Eagle. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Gonzalez Rivas, the student teacher from Eagle, is hoping to find her best fit for next fall. As a Colorado Rural Teaching Fellow, she’s wrapping up her student teaching at Eagle Valley Elementary School and is applying for jobs in the county, hoping to land a Spanish or bilingual position in an elementary school. She’s eager to stay, not only so that she can live by her family but so she can help students in the same way that her community has supported her.

Colorado Mountain College and the fellowship program have made teaching a more realistic and affordable option for her. And despite a teaching experience that came with additional stressors during the pandemic this past year and a future that likely won’t include a giant salary, she’s committed to the classroom.

“For me, it’s not about the money,” Gonzalez Rivas said. “It’s about the students.”


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