Last year, a survey by the Colorado Education Association found that 40% of licensed teachers statewide were considering leaving the profession. Among the chief complaints were safety concerns, heavy workloads and low pay.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

It should come as no surprise, then, that the 2022-23 school year would bring a myriad of headaches for administrators attempting to retain talent in their classrooms.

Yet here we are, days before school starts, with many districts floundering as the so-called “teacher shortages” continues in the face of lackluster changes.

Take for example Colorado Springs District 11, a local school district attracting many headlines for “teacher shortages.” Article after article features the plight of administrators in filling teacher slots — as many as 130 jobs for this district. In each one, it’s almost as if they’re aghast as to why a $2,500 hiring bonus isn’t doing the trick. 

Interestingly, not one of the articles I read mentioned base pay in this district. This made me curious. What was the base salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree? 

So I looked it up, and it appears to be $38,000

Based on an income tax calculator, that would equate to an estimated take home salary of $2,487 per month. Given the average rent for a less than 900-square-foot apartment in Colorado Springs is listed as $1,553 per month by RentCafe, that’s not a whole lot of wiggle room once you add in transportation, insurance, utilities, student loans, food and other essential items. In fact, it’s almost certainly paycheck-to-paycheck living for many people, even with good budgeting.

At the same time it might not surprise you to learn that the base salaries for the majority of administrative positions in the same district were over double that of a new teacher. Even less surprising, many positions appear to go well into the six figures. Again, this is the base pay for these positions. Many of the salaries wandered up and over $150,000 with more experience, a far cry from the average teacher’s attainable top pay.

The vast discrepancy between administrator and teacher pay is yet one more example of why teachers continue to feel undervalued and underappreciated. Add to that the complexities of teaching during a pandemic, larger class sizes, fewer aides, a lack of supplies, dysfunctional school boards, unruly parents, intense public scrutiny and the immense amount of emotional labor required to mold the minds of tomorrow, it’s no wonder there’s a mass exodus from the profession.

And therein lies the frameshift. 

The phrase “teacher shortage” as used by administrators and media alike presents a fallacy. On its face, it suggests there is a shortage of teachers. Much to the contrary, there is not a shortage of teachers; there are plenty of educated people who could teach exceptionally well.

There is, however, a shortage of teachers willing to stay in the profession under bad conditions, and rightfully so. In other words, the problem isn’t that teachers are in short supply; it’s that we’ve driven them into other jobs after years of bad policy.

This difference in framing matters immensely as it changes the solutions — and some districts are finally starting to take note. Final negotiations appear under way for teacher raises in several districts across the state.

Among them is Jeffco Public Schools with a potential deal of a $50,000 annual salary to start — although it should be noted the average rent is generally higher in these cities, rendering the increased salary far less effective than it sounds. Aurora and Denver also appear to have salary bumps pending, yet again with similar issues. Still, it’s a start.

Valuing public education and the teachers that make it possible must be a shared goal in any democracy. It’s good for parents and kids alike. At the very least, we can each play a part by offering compassion and kindness to those educating our children. But we need to do more by backing meaningful support and pay increases that truly match what those who shape our future generations are actually worth.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio