Arizona teachers demand pay raises, better working conditions amid shortages

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

"Crisis" and "panic."

Those are the two words being used to describe Arizona’s current teacher shortage. 

Governor Doug Ducey has recently said that teacher pay is his top priority.

Meanwhile, hundreds of state teachers aren't waiting around anymore. They are demanding change in the state schools.

[RELATED: Report: AZ Teacher retention, recruitment, pay at crisis levels]

Emitt Bryant is taking classes at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

“I’m going back to school for international business,” he said. 

It's a role reversal for Bryant as he spent the last nine years teaching. 

Like hundreds of his colleagues, Bryant left teaching before the start of the new school year because he was frustrated with the lack of resources.

Bryant added that he realized he couldn't afford to get his master's degree with his pay.

"You can't be a teacher and afford a mortgage," he said.

[RELATED: Gov. Ducey signs bill expanding teacher certifications]

Washington Elementary School Human Resources Director Justin Wing said that pay is the number one reason teachers say they are leaving their positions during exit interviews.  

"Quite a few (teachers) just dropped their keys and laptop off and said 'today's my last day," Wing said. 

A statewide survey recently found that about 526 teachers quit as school began in August. This shortage has created a total of 1,328 vacancies in Arizona classrooms.

In September and October, school board agendas continued to fill with lists of resignations.

Former teacher Mallori Holck just resigned after teaching third grade for six years.

While fighting back her tears, Holck explained that this was not an easy decision.

"Since I was in the first grade, teaching was the only thing I've wanted to do," she said. "I get emotional."

She told Arizona's Family that her class size reached 30-plus students. 

"I had some parents comment "how much more kids can we fit in here?" she added. 

As Holck's class size grew, so did the responsibilities, pressure and frustration.

"In the third grade, if they don't pass reading, they're not moving on to fourth grade," she said.

 "It falls back on the teacher." 

[RELATED: Arizona Senate OKs bill expanding teacher certifications]

Rhea Kowitz also just resigned after an 18-year teaching career.

"Our responsibilities become more and more every year, and it becomes harder to teach," she said. 

 Arizona pays the elementary school teachers less than any other state, according to a recent study. 

"Many of them (teachers) work at restaurants on the weekend. Many work at Target on the weekend," Kowitz added.

Recently, protests erupted at the state capitol, where the legislature approved a two-percent teacher pay raise over the next two years.

Many teachers are leaving Arizona for big raises in neighboring states including California and Nevada. 

"Nevada has a lovely social media campaign targeting Arizona teachers," Wing said. 

[RELATED: Survey shows teacher shortage easing, slightly]

In one advertisement, Nevada promises teachers can earn $50,000 by their fifth year. Fifth-year teachers in Arizona make about $30,000. 

As many teachers flee the state, Governor Ducey has changed the rules, allowing uncertified teachers to fill the gaps.

Some of them are experts in their fields. But critics say it's lowering standards in Arizona.

"It sounds like the governor's putting warm bodies in classrooms," Bryant said.

"It's not a good idea.  Just because you're an expert, doesn't mean you know how to teach." 

Another piece of the stop-gap the state is doing is the so-called "Teachers Academy." The teachers academy program is a free college tuition for teachers who agree to teach in high-need schools.

The program started with about 200 enrollees with plans to expand. Holck is concerned with those recent decisions by the state government. 

"It would relieve some of the financial burdens when you're getting started," she said.  "But my concern is for the longer term. Will it retain teachers or are we putting a Band-Aid over an open wound?" 

Wing called the teacher shortage situation a crisis. 

"You don't handle any crisis with small, incremental decisions, he said. "It needs to be substantial. And I have not seen that yet." 

[RELATED: Future teachers undeterred by challenges in education]

Nothing these now-former teachers have heard is enough to bring them back to the classroom. They are all starting new careers.          

Kowitz said she is starting a home rental business while Holck is now in real estate. 

As these former teachers look to the future, they'll always hold on to a few their pasts.

Arizona's Family asked the teachers what do they miss most being in the classroom? Holck replied with "everything about it." 

"It was hard to know who I was without it, or who I'd be," she said.

Holck said it was that much a part of her identity.

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