How are Utah schools faring in the constantly changing world of modern education? This new world includes school violence, more pupils than most other states (we still have the largest households in the country), multicultural classrooms and very little money.
Meet Heidi Matthews, two-term President of Utah Education Association.
“Kids bring their home lives to school,” Matthews said. “A student says, ‘My parents are in jail. I have to get my brothers and sisters ready for school before I can get here.’ Or ‘My parents just got deported. I don’t know what to do.’” Surveys by organizations like the American Psychologists Association say 25 percent of U.S. kids under the age of 16 have experienced trauma.
Before you teach a young mind about latitude and longitude, you have to make sure they are ready to learn. As president of UEA, Matthews hears stories from teachers all over the state, helps assess the needs of districts as different as affluent Treasure Mountain, where she used to teach, and Jordan, one of the poorest districts in Utah. UEA’s purpose is to take classroom issues to decision makers.“You can’t teach a hungry kid,” Matthews says. “You can’t teach a kid whose mind is filled with problems like can they buy food, pay rent, avoid violence.”
UEA has 18,000 members, all professional teachers; it’s an organization to take the problems and issues of the classroom to the decision makers, to promote teaching as a respected and desirable career path by making it appealing to college students, to help influence local and state boards.
“So much of the problem comes down to per pupil spending,” says Matthews. Utah now spends $7,179 per pupil. We are still 51st in the country. It’s not enough.
“This leads to the extreme teacher shortage we now have in Utah,” says Matthews. “It’s not that there are not enough applicants (Utah schools don’t require a teaching certificate, a change made in light of the teaching shortage); there is a mass exodus of experienced teachers from the profession.” Matthews says, “They call it ‘burnout’ but I hate that word. It implies a lack of fortitude when it’s actually demoralization. Teachers are constantly being asked to do more without being given additional resources.” Teachers buy boxes of protein bars for hungry kids. There is no time or money for professional development in a rapidly changing field. The solution to low funding is larger class sizes—how class size affects learning can be debatable (there are hundreds of studies) but the need for a teacher to know their students is undeniable, especially in these unstable times. “UEA seeks to give teachers a voice in places that weren’t designed for them to have a voice,” says Matthews. About 450 teachers from nearly every school district gave their time to meet with legislators on UEA Educator Day on Capitol Hill in 2019. The UEA’s message: “We have to invest in Utah.”