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Margaret Chase, a social studies teacher in her third year of teaching, poses for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at Highlands Ranch High School in Highlands Ranch. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

After the pandemic shuttered schools in spring 2020, teacher Margaret Chase lost a key element of her on-the-job training: the ability to “hop across the hallway” for advice from seasoned colleagues.

But the 25-year-old history instructor wasn’t on her own long enough for isolation to set in. Her mentors simply went virtual, and the advice and guidance she counted on came flooding her way via Zoom, phone calls, text messages and emails, propping up a sense of community even as Highlands Ranch High School stood empty.

“It was the biggest feeling of solidarity I think I’ve ever felt among teachers and everyone was willing to help everybody with everything,” said Chase, now in her third year in the classroom. 

Finding ways to support educators and keep them on the job through the chaos of the pandemic has been just one of myriad challenges facing school districts in Colorado — and there’s evidence they are succeeding. During the height of the pandemic last year, Colorado saw unlikely gains in efforts to keep teachers on the job, reporting a drop in its statewide attrition rate while the pandemic shook up classrooms, recent data show. 

The improvements in teacher retention — up to 14.3% of Colorado teachers left for other fields or moved school districts, down from 15.7% during the 2019-20 school year and 16.3% during the 2018-19 school year — came as school districts across the state scrambled to keep teachers on the job with programs meant to ease stress and provide extra support amid pandemic disruptions, particularly for early career educators. 

Yet that success hasn’t dispelled dire warnings that teacher departures could balloon in future years, as stress and uncertainty keep piling up amid outbreaks, quarantines and mask debates. 

“We’re waiting with bated breath as we think about this year and see where teachers are and know that we have to put things in place that really help educators,” said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education.

Keeping experienced teachers in the classroom is a key strategy for improving outcomes in Colorado schools. Experts fear the pandemic — with its messy mix of health concerns, classroom closures and sometimes-ugly policy disputes — will combine with perennial complaints like low pay and overstretched school budgets to help drive them from the field. 

“When a new teacher comes in, you spend a lot of time working with them and training them and you obviously want them to stay and be part of your team,” said Christy Sinner, a school district superintendent in Hayden in northwestern Colorado. “Every time we lose a teacher, it affects the whole team and you have to kind of start over and build up that support system again. It’s hard on students when teachers continue to change.”

State education officials say they have taken steps to smooth teachers’ career paths. In July, the state eased teacher license renewal requirements to once every seven years, down from one every five years — what officials call a “pressure release valve” for educators contending with added stress and heavy work loads. Additionally, some districts are using one-time federal stimulus funding to offer teachers more mental health resources and give them salary increases. And school districts have sought to introduce or expand mentorship programs to provide routine guidance even when teachers are working from home.

But the pandemic has also introduced funding roadblocks for programs meant to improve teacher retention. 

The Retaining Teachers Grant Program, created in 2018 to help districts develop and fund strategies around teacher retention, was suspended amid the pandemic as lawmakers tried to stabilize the state budget.

Margaret Chase, a social studies teacher in her third year of teaching, poses for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at Highlands Ranch High School in Highlands Ranch. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Sinner, who oversees the Hayden School District, said the program provided critical funding to help keep teachers in a part of the state that struggles to attract them in the first place. Her district, located west of Steamboat Springs in Routt County, faces a high cost of living and is relatively isolated. It’s not a fit for everybody, she said.

“You have to want to be here to be here,” she said.

With 414 students and 35 teachers, Hayden schools received more than $245,000 in grant funding and used part of it to hire a curriculum support specialist to shadow classrooms, coach teachers and connect them with resources. Another share of funding covered preschool tuition for teachers’ kids. The district also used grant dollars to hold two induction days for new teachers at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. They were oriented to district policies and trained on technology and on approaches to being effective in the classroom.

Additionally, Hayden School District spent grant money on three professional development sessions for all teachers last year and also reimbursed teachers who pursued advanced level courses toward a master’s degree, for instance.

This year, all of Hayden’s classrooms are filled with teachers, including one long-term substitute Sinner plans to keep. Several teachers retired last year, but Sinner doesn’t anticipate many more retirements in the near future. And she anticipates minimal teaching vacancies, unless some of her staff move to other districts.

Still, teacher turnover is a top concern for the superintendent since her district, which pays starting teachers $41,201, has consistently struggled to retain teachers for at least the last decade.

Denver Public Schools also took advantage of the now-suspended grant program as it zeroed in on retaining more of its early-career teachers, particularly in schools with a high population of low-income students that often face higher teacher turnover rates. Sarah Almy, executive director of teacher and leader learning, said the district had been rethinking how to support students in educator preparation programs as well as first-year teachers and those in their first three years.

The district has struggled to retain teachers after their first year, with new teachers ranking disproportionately high among teachers who leave their schools, Almy said.

When teachers leave, not only does it hurt the district’s bottom line, she said, but it also affects kids, who need stability and consistency in their relationships with adults to thrive emotionally and academically. 

DPS, which received $214,000, used the grant to fund a role called “associate teacher,” in which licensed teachers who have completed an educator preparation program teach students half the time and spend the other half of their schedule on planning and observing other teachers. That gives associate teachers an extra year to polish their classroom skills with more mentorship and support, Almy said.

“You have additional time to grow into your teaching,” she said.

The district, which has about 5,000 teachers total, has 17 associate teacher positions total and funded four of the positions with the grant. Almy recognizes that those numbers represent a small portion of the district’s count of first-year teachers but said those positions are concentrated in a subset of six schools called “teaching academies” where new teachers are surrounded by administrators and veteran teachers whose responsibilities include helping them learn and develop as educators. Almy said that 94% of associate teachers last year were hired as full-time teachers.

DPS has improved its retention of new teachers, Almy said. From 2019-20 to 2020-21, the district retained 89% of all its teachers. During that same period, DPS retained 84% of all first-year teachers and 84% of all first-year teachers teaching in schools with high populations of low-income students.

“While the retention rate of novice teachers was slightly lower, this is a narrower gap than we used to have as a district and so feels like we are making progress in supporting, developing and retaining our newer teachers,” Almy wrote in an email.  

Bracing for the possibility of more teacher turnover

It’s hard to know exactly how many teachers are flocking to jobs outside of schools. State data doesn’t provide a clear picture of teachers who have actually left the profession. The 14.3% turnover rate captured by the state education department includes both educators who have given up teaching and those who have moved from one district to another, O’Neil said.

About 8% of teachers nationwide transition out of education each year, she said, citing federal data.

O’Neil is bracing for a jump in teacher turnover in the future, though she noted that Colorado managed to avoid a mass loss of teachers during the economic downturn in 2008 and in the years following.

“We have a pretty stable force in the grand scheme of things,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil highlighted that “a living wage” is one of the most critical factors to retain teachers, particularly those who are at the starting point of their career. But many teachers in Colorado are struggling to make ends meet, particularly new teachers who take home less than $30,000 a year in some districts.

Mary Rose Donahue, a language arts teacher in her third year of teaching, poses for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at Boulder High School. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Mary Rose Donahue, a third-year teacher who moved to Boulder High School this year, credited one of her mentors for steering her through the pandemic.

“I would not get through last year if it was not for her,” Donahue, 25, said.

Mentorship also helps keep Chase committed to her job. 

“If I truly want to have a spot on earth where I am helping people be the best version of themselves and doing something that I think is meaningful, I think teaching is the best place to do that,” Chase said.

O’Neil said support programs offered through the state and individual school districts are a help, but can only accomplish so much when it comes to keeping teachers in the field. Their will to do the job is generally paramount — and may be what keeps Colorado from seeing “an exodus.” 

“Teachers are teaching because they believe in their mission and what they’re doing to educate children and to help children succeed in life,” O’Neil said.

CORRECTION: A caption in this story was updated at 11:08 a.m. on Oct. 7, 2021, to correct the title of teacher Mary Rose Donahue, who is a language arts teacher.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...