Susan Aubin found herself packing up her once highly decorated classroom this spring after just one year of teaching at a New Hampshire high school.
On top of beginning her teaching career during the coronavirus pandemic, Aubin, 22, was frustrated by restrictions on how she could teach about diversity and inclusion. She was discouraged, too, by her salary, saying her teenage students were making just as much if not more money per hour working at McDonald's or Walmart.
“I was like, 'What am I doing with my life?' I have a whole degree, a degree that cost thousands of dollars. And a 16-year-old is making more money than me at an hourly job,” Aubin said. “It was not worth the amount of work and the amount of physical and emotional toll it took on me, because I do care about them. I care about my kids so much. And it broke my heart.”
Aubin, who graduated from Plymouth State University in May 2021 after transferring from the University of New Hampshire, was paid an entry-level salary of $37,714 for the 2021-22 school year. She calculated she earned just over $16 per hour after taxes, based on the hours she worked. The McDonald's in Aubin’s area of the state has a starting pay of $16 per hour and Walmart starts workers at $20.
Aubin’s experience reflects current times in the education field in New Hampshire and nationally. Schools have been reporting an increase in resignations, and data shows fewer college graduates completing education degrees and getting certified to teach. Also, colleges report fewer students entering teaching programs.
Low pay is one reason.
“I want to financially get out what I put in, and I work really hard," Aubin said. "And I know my work ethic, I know my value. ... If I was getting paid 100 grand to do what I was doing, then it would be a no-brainer, I would have stayed and done it because you're doing 100 grand worth of work in your time there.”
She's now working as a copywriter.
Data shows fewer people are going into teaching
The past decade has seen a decline in the number of students finishing education degrees in New Hampshire. According to federal Title II Higher Education Act reports, during the 2011-2012 school year, 1,050 out of 2,874 education students completed their degrees. That dropped to 739 out of 2,397 in 2018-19 and 698 out of 2,767 in 2019-20, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
This data reflects national trends. Title II reports during the 2011-2012 school year, 203,997 out of 621,898 education students completed their degrees, dropping to 150,200 of 559,335 in 2018-19 and ticking up slightly to 152,939 of 601,467 in 2019-20.
Similarly, teacher certifications have decreased. Title II reports 1,221 teacher certifications in New Hampshire in 2010-11. A steady decline began after 2016-2017, going from 1,103 that year to 860 in 2018-2019 and 526 in 2019-2020, the first year of the pandemic.
At UNH, the number of education majors completing the undergraduate program declined from 103 in 2010 to a decade low of 32 in 2022, according to data provided by the school. The number of students graduating with master’s degrees in education at UNH was 250 in 2011 and declined in recent years with 116 in 2022.
Keene State College, which was founded in 1909 as a teacher's college, has seen education student enrollment drop from 727 in 2015 to 467 in 2021. Keene in 2021 placed two programs related to science teaching on administrative hold due to low enrollment.
Andrew Coppens, associate professor of education and learning sciences at UNH, said low salaries in teaching jobs make it difficult to pay student loans. He noted UNH is one of the most expensive public universities in the country for in-state students.
“If teaching doesn't provide that salary, people just aren't going to go into the profession,” Coppens said. “On that side, it has a lot to do with the amount of resources that the state provides our districts to pay teachers competitive salaries. Funding is very low in New Hampshire relative to other states.”
Coppens said federal aid and loan forgiveness programs can help to offset the cost of higher education, but this does not fix the overall issue.
Impact of 'divisive concepts' law in NH
Low pay was not the only factor in Aubin's decision to leave teaching after one year.
In 2021, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed legislation known as the "divisive concepts" bill, though that phrase was not in the final version of the bill. The state law bans certain teachings around race and class in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union and the state's two largest teachers unions sued the state over the law, claiming it has a "chilling" effect on teachers talking in the classroom about privilege, oppression and bias. The lawsuit is ongoing with oral arguments expected in August or September.
James Morse, superintendent of the Oyster River school district, and former member of Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, called the law “contradictory and confusing,” leaving teachers unsure of what they can and cannot teach. The law states anybody, including parents, can make a claim that teachers are in violation of it. That can spark an investigation and could lead to a teacher losing their certification.
Aubin said because of this law, her school made the decision to disallow teachers from showcasing any flag besides the American flag in their classroom, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ flags.
When it came time for Aubin to start a unit in her freshman class on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she felt she could not have an open class discussion about the topic of racism.
“It made it really hard, and it made me legitimately scared,” Aubin said. “I didn't feel comfortable having those conversations because I didn't want to get in trouble … it was heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time.”
Coppens said, “I'm concerned about the current and future realities for New Hampshire teachers and what some of the events, policies and laws in New Hampshire and economic realities might mean for us being able to continue to recruit teachers into the education profession."
How one Portsmouth teacher has dealt with the law
Cynthia Young, a social studies teacher at Portsmouth High School with about 20 years of experience, said her school has not put any restrictions in place on topics involving racism and sexism. “I taught them before. I still teach them now,” she said.
“If you look at the actual wording of (the law), it doesn't actually prevent me from teaching anything. It is designed to instill fear in teachers so that they will be scared of teaching issues of race and sexism and anything systemic,” Young said. She tells her students, “My job is not to make you think like me, my job is to teach you how to think.”
Young said she uses lots of primary sources with varying opinions as one way of teaching in an unbiased way. She also teaches students how to research and find articles they can trust, to help form their own opinions. Young always asks students to share their research with the rest of the class to circulate different sources of information.
She noted she teaches a 1950s history class, which includes the civil rights movement. “You can't teach that without dealing with issues of racism,” Young said. She called the state law restricting some teachers "very vague. It's purposely vague. But ultimately, there's nothing I cannot teach.”
She added, “Portsmouth is very supportive of the teachers and realizes how much the bill really is about trying to get people to self-police and not say things that might be controversial." However, Young has spoken to other teachers across a variety of schools who are afraid to have certain conversations and use certain books in their classrooms. “There are a lot of teachers who are chilled by it.”
Education students voice concerns about future careers
Bryson Badeau, a recent graduate of UNH with a bachelor of arts degree in secondary theater education, has noticed a decline among his peers continuing on education tracks.
“I also graduated with another secondary theater education major who is not pursuing grad school and does not plan to be a teacher anymore," Badeau said. "I’ve known three or four people who have dropped the education major altogether.”
Badeau also voiced concern about his own future as a teacher.
“I worry about facing discrimination in my classroom for being Black and trans, and I worry about my students potentially facing discrimination for being any sort of minority," he said. "I worry about not being able to freely discuss what my students are interested in learning. I worry about all the mass shootings that have been happening in schools and one day my classroom falling into the list of (so many) others. I worry about not being able to teach curriculum that I’m passionate about in order to please the school board. But mostly, I worry about my students resenting education and learning.”
Aubin also expressed concern about safety because of the shootings seen in schools around the United States.
“I'm like, 'How am I going to either barricade us, or how are we going to get out?' And I'd say that’s something that I thought about every single day,” Aubin said. “That took a toll on me, like to have that anxiety and that I have to keep 20 kids safe. It's just a lot. And it's a lot to carry.”
Amanda Motzkin, a recent English education graduate from UNH, feels similar stress over her future career. “I have met people who are afraid to go into a system that sometimes seems to be hopeless and a struggle. I myself am scared to start teaching for fear of saying the wrong thing or teaching something I’m not supposed to, not realizing that such topics would be considered wrong.”
Loss of teachers hits hardest in lower-paying districts
Pay for teachers is not equal in districts across New Hampshire, which relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for education. Schools in wealthier communities typically offer higher pay.
"That's a big problem,” Coppens said.
Lori Lane, superintendent of schools in Somersworth, feels the same way.
“I wish that there was more equity and pay that was not related so heavily on a community's ability to raise tax dollars to support collective bargaining agreements,” Lane said. She said low pay is a main reason for teacher resignations in her district.
One teacher resigned in Somersworth to go to another district in the Seacoast area that pays $25,000 more. “I mean, you can't turn that down,” Lane said.
Lane said there have been 26 teacher resignations so far this year in Somersworth, the state's smallest city. Two of them were teachers leaving the field altogether. They are both in their late 20s and had been teaching four or five years, Lane said.
Finding substitute teachers is also difficult, Lane said.
Another challenge, Lane said, is students in kindergarten through high school had lower stamina to focus on schoolwork after returning to in-person learning following the worst of the pandemic. In elementary school, many were exhausted by 11 a.m.
“I think some of that also took its toll on our staff. ... It just felt, it felt harder this year,” Lane said.
Solutions and consequences
Coppens said it is important to think about what motivates teachers to go into the field. He emphasized money is not typically the main reason, but teachers can't continue to be poorly paid.
“We need to raise teacher salaries. Not by enormous amounts, but just so that teachers aren’t strapped into needing to work two and three other jobs in order to pay their bills,” he said. “Instead, they can focus their energy on their areas of their professional competency, serving the children and youth that are in front of them.”
Dian Mawene, assistant professor of special education at UNH, suggested one way to strengthen the existing teacher workforce is to encourage more paraprofessionals who assist in classrooms and with special education students to become certified teachers. She pointed to accelerated programs offered through community colleges and universities.
“I think that's really good because they have existing experience and knowledge by being in the school,” Mawene said.
According to Kelly Dunn, chair of the Education Department at NHTI — Concord’s Community College, the school offers a conversion program for people who have degrees in other areas, but want to transition into teaching. Dunn said NHTI is the only institution in the state with a program specifically for paraprofessionals who want to become certified teachers. Dunn said although NHTI has seen roughly a 30% drop in undergraduate education majors, the education conversion program enrollment has not decreased.
Many public schools in New Hampshire are seeing drops in enrollment due to the state's aging demographics while teachers are facing new pressures.
“Right now, the quality of public schools in New Hampshire is, I consider to be under assault,” Coppens said. “A main driver of the quality of schools is the quality and preparation and situation of a public-school teacher.”
Coppens said school systems play a crucial part in growing the state's population and encouraging young families to live here.
“If we don't make New Hampshire a desirable place for young families with young children early in their careers, we threaten the economic viability of the state," Coppens said. "And from a social justice perspective, we threaten to further marginalize rural and other disadvantaged communities in New Hampshire by not providing this high quality basic social service that's been a foundation of American democracy for ages, which is, public education. Public education is an equity promoter. And for that reason, it is, I think, a really important leg in the stool in our overall democracy.”
Pictured: Bryson Badeau, a recent graduate of the theater education program at the University of New Hampshire, is working at a summer camp this summer on campus at the Paul Creative Arts Center, as seen Friday, July 15, 2022. Olivia Falcigno/Seacoastonline and Fosters.com
This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative, as part of its race and equity initiative. It was edited by Seacoast Media Group, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.