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Student teachers inspired by passion to teach, despite Utah’s average salary

Westminster students participate in the annual MLK Day of Service. Some students say even though it’s a low-paying career, they still think being a teacher is worth pursuing. (Lewis Figun Westbrook)

Despite Utah being one of the lowest states for teacher salaries and spending per student, some students from Westminster College’s School of Education say they are more focused on their ability to teach and inspire than the amount of money they’ll earn after graduation.

The average salary for a public school teacher in Utah is $54,597 as of December 2019, but the range typically falls between $47,664 and $63,031, according to salary.com.

Last year, teachers from the Salt Lake School District rallied for their salary to increase to $60,000. The range of salary is dependent on a number of factors, including, education and experience, according to salary.com

Students in Westminster’s education program are assigned experience “placements” to begin teaching in classrooms. Often, these placements are with Westminster graduates and their classes to get hands-on experience with familiar material.

Engaged learning from Westminster does come with a price tag. Some students said they worry about taking out student loans because they will be paying them off with a lower-compensation career.

Why students choose to become teachers

Rylee John, a junior elementary education major, said school has always been important to her. But, she said she didn’t know what she was passionate about at the start of her college career.

During her first year, John took her first education course with a class of six students. She said her professor thanked them for being there and told them they were needed. John said that was when she realized she had to become a teacher.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is huge, and I need to do this,’” John said. “I need to be the teacher that I had […] I need to change people’s lives, even if it’s just one, like, I need to do it and so I went with it.”

Another student, Liam Conkling, a double major in severe and mild/moderate special education, said he grew up with his parents teaching and didn’t realize until after two years of college it was something he wanted to do too.

“This is really what I love to do, and it makes me really happy,” Conkling said. “I don’t know why I’m pushing this away.”

Students say Westminster helps prepare them for the field

Westminster’s School of Education offers shared professor experience and advice, as well as off-campus learning.

“I think one of the best qualities of a professor here [is] a lot of them have been educators, so they actually know the experience,” said Jamie Laramie, a junior elementary education major. “Having their experiences and also all of their knowledge coming together kind of gives you a great basis for education.”

Along with experienced professors, the education program provides students with the opportunity to learn how to write lesson plans and execute those plans in a real classroom with elementary students. These opportunities, called placements, can begin as early as their first year.

“Since my freshman year I have been in a classroom with students,” said Aimee Kurfurst, a junior elementary education major. “Comparing to other friends I have at other universities; they are in their junior year and haven’t even seen a classroom.”

Often times, other universities only offer the classroom experience for student teaching opportunities. This happens toward the end of an educator’s degree.

Because of this difference, some students at Westminster say they felt they had a head start.

These placements come with a number of hours required per subject taught. This experience and amount of time in the classroom provides time to gain exposure to the classroom and receive job opportunities.

“I got offered a job where I was doing my original placement,” Liam Conkling said. “Last semester, I stacked 60 hours at Highland High School, so that really helped me feel prepared.”

Some education students say tuition increase worries them

During the 2019-2020 year, an announcement was made to raise the tuition 8.5% for the 2020-21 school year. This increase has made students nervous about the additional expense.

“I have to pull out loans every year and I am a little worried about that just because education is a lower-paying career choice,” said Aimee Kurfurst. “It does put a little fear into my head, like, wow, I’m going to have student loans until I’m 60.”

Out of a list of the 50 states, including the District of Columbia region, patch.com said Utah ranked 48 out of 51 in 2019 for lowest-paid teachers in the U.S.

”It hasn’t been a thought to leave, but it’s definitely been a fear after I graduate,” Kurfurst said. “What am I going to do?”

Fear of student loans over education majors

Liam Conkling said he was not worried about student debt after college because he had seen his parents work as teachers and they were able to provide. He also said because of his education, he will be on salary the second he graduates, unlike others.

Other students are unconcerned about the financial aspect. 

Besides the money, Rylee John said she thinks about the impact she can make on the lives of others and not the impact that student loans or other financial issues may have on her.

“We don’t do it for the money, obviously, and it’s sad because the people who think they do, are the people that get burned out and quit,” John said. “They’re not passionate about it […] It’s just, it’s just sad. I’m not here for the money, I’m really not. I want to make change right now.”

Education students say the passion outweighs the costs

“I think the fact that as a teacher you can have a very great impact on students,” said Jamie Laramie. “Giving them the confidence and empowering them to be whoever they want to be.”

Laramie said that teachers can make an impact on students, so that they care about school based on what their teachers have given them.

These students’ goals are to empower and to feel empowered by the positive impacts that they are making on their students.

“When the kids look at you, and you know that they have either learned something or they had no idea something existed,” said Rylee John. “I think it’s those moments that you’re like, okay, it’s totally worth it.”

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Shaylie Johnson
Shaylie Johnson is a junior majoring in communication and minoring in business. She followed the Utah stereotype by getting married young but is determined not to drop out of college to have 6,000 children. Instead, she is a crazy plant lady who is often found at rock concerts or eating whole lasagnas. One day, you'll see her name again as a writer -- who knows what it will be for, but it'll be big.

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