Colorado needs teachers. Thousands of them. Colleges in state are graduating 25 percent fewer licensed teachers than they did six years ago. The crisis is most acute in rural Colorado, where turnover is high.
Which brings us to Dusty Mars of Ignacio.
After spending years as an oil production foreman, where he oversaw a dozen operators and 1,000 wells, an even bigger challenge presented itself. He was tapped to teach middle school math on an emergency credential. Soon enough, he found himself with a teary student.
“She was breaking down, she was crying, so after class was over was my planning period, I said, ‘why don’t you just stay here until you’re ready to go on,’” he says, recounting the story for Boettcher Teacher Residency field coach Karen Lunceford.
Mars tells Lunceford he and the student worked on math problems and soon she was fine. But Mars didn’t really know what to do in a situation like this. He was kind of winging it the whole school year.
“It was like drinking from a fire hose and learning a new profession and having to implement it on a daily basis and having an audience that wasn’t necessarily wanting to buy what you were selling,” he says.
School districts across Colorado ask for emergency credentials when they can’t find a licensed teacher, but there’s someone with a bachelor’s degree who can step in. During the 2016-17 school year, the state board of education issued 20 emergency authorizations for teachers. As of August, going into the 2017-18 school year, nine have already been issued.
After his shaky start and with the emergency credential expired, Mars discovered the Boettcher Teacher Residency. The program targets professionals in five regions of Colorado ready to make the leap into the classroom.
Small rural districts like Ignacio, Cortez, and Dolores are tapping teacher candidates like Mars. His family has deep roots in Ignacio. He’s been tutoring as a volunteer, found he was really good with kids, and — tired of the boom and bust nature of the oil industry — he was ready to take a 90 percent pay cut for a change of career.
It surprised him, but he was happy to see there was a lot of fulfillment in what he was doing and that he was “really good at helping students and teaching.”
If you can tap potential teachers from the region, they’re more likely to stay. Nationwide, more than half of teachers leave in the first five years, but the Boettcher Teacher Residency has a 95 percent retention rate after five years.
There are two types of Boettcher residents.
First are those in the traditional program, who will have more time to fine tune the art of teaching. Given a stipend, they spend a year in a classroom with a master teacher before being released on their own. But with the teacher shortage in rural areas, there is a second group of residents called “induction” residents. These are the teaching candidates like Dusty Mars. Districts are allowed to hire them straight into the classroom.
Mars starts his Boettcher journey with a three-week summer institute in Durango. Joining him was a bilingual financial planner who will teach Spanish, a PhD in English literature who will teach high school English, a ski instructor who will teach physical education and a journalist who will soon teach U.S. History. There are also former medical assistants, wildlife biologists, and classroom aides.
“What we’re trying to do is find ways to harness the assets and strengths of the local community,” says Evan Kennedy, Boettcher’s recruitment and admissions manager. “There’s a ton of talent around the state in all the towns we’re in.”
The summer institute is the first step in getting a teacher’s license. When Dusty Mars goes back into the classroom, he’ll have a mentor checking up on him. He’ll also have weekly night classes and field coaches dropping by four times a month for the next two years — and on an as-needed-basis for three more years after that.
All that on-going support support is so that the Boettcher candidates “don’t feel like they’re sink or swim,” says Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger. For him, that’s the biggest difference between Boettcher candidates and those from 4-year traditional teacher education programs.
With those lifelines, they’re “more prepared to make the connection for students,” Snowberger says.
Even so, teaching is a complex, fast-paced, high stress profession. There’s a lot for these residents to learn.
Boettcher covers everything from child development theories, how to speak in class, how to build relationships with students, how to manage behavior, to stress management and engaging lesson plans. These future teachers spend time understanding how they themselves learn best, how they can structure lessons to best accommodate extroverted and introverted students.
As Boettcher field manager and longtime teacher and school principal Sherri Maxwell talks to the residents, she uses lots of techniques to engage them, demonstrating what they can use in their own classrooms. Residents do the same. Everything they learn at the institute, they have to put into practice as if they’re in front of their students.
“They’re constantly being asked to think about and reflect upon what they’re learning in class and how that’s going to look in the classroom,” Maxwell says. “It’s really taking that theory and then putting it into play right away.”
One group is planning a lesson for fellow residents about the child development theories they’ve studied, using a scenario about a student who won’t put away his phone. The group bats around a number of ideas, collectively developing and refining the creative idea.
Sarah Glover, Boettcher’s associate executive director says that’s another piece of the teaching puzzle for the candidates. They want them to walk away with the “ability to sit side by side and think about teaching collectively.”
The group’s creative lesson is well-received. Early grade teachers also come up with some engaging lessons that call for the residents to snap and clap. Collectively though, they're a little tougher on the presentation from Dusty Mars' group.
“I noticed that when you guys were glued to the computer, it was a little bit dull,” says one resident. But she points out as soon as they got excited about their topic and stepped away from their computers, “the whole room lit up.”
This is what Dusty Mars believes will be his biggest challenge – keeping his students engaged at all times, reaching those who seemed “as though they were apathetic, as though they didn’t care and trying to turn that around to where they actually succeeded.”
He is eager to find ways to better connect with the Latino and Native American students that are part of the community his family has lived in for generations. For some residents like Mars, the change in career is a pay cut; for others, it means benefits for the first time. But all the career changers say teaching is a way to take the skills they already have and use them in a way that impacts their communities for the better.
“Teaching is a hugely personal satisfaction, there’s no other incentive besides the feeling like you’ve made an impact in a student’s life,” Mars says.