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Keeping teachers, finding new ones

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Preston Utley/Vail DailyHeather Potts, left a teacher and director of the Edwards Preschool, also works as a waitress and a volleyball and basketball referee to make ends meet.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” A day with Heather Potts begins with a room full of bouncy, cereal-filled children at an Edwards preschool.

It continues with plates of burgers, fries and rotisserie chickens at the Gore Range Brewery, where she’ll wait tables into the night.

For kicks, she might referee a middle school volleyball or basketball game. Soon, she hopes to take up coaching too. They’re all extra paychecks.

The long day ends at home, where she’ll soon be living with a roommate, something she didn’t expect to have at age 26. She knows it’s common to be breaking 30 in the valley and still be sharing rent with co-workers.

Potts, a director at the Edwards Preschool Center, is one of many Eagle County teachers trying her hardest to avoid the yearly exodus from the school district. While teachers leave for a variety of reasons ” retirement, career change, poor performance ” the largest number leave because they can’t afford to live in the valley, and those extra paychecks make a difference.

Sure, it’s a problem in every single office, shop and restaurant you walk in around here, but it’s a little different at school. Most teachers agree that having a consistent staff from year to year is much better for the kids, and a high turnover certainly doesn’t help.

A new teacher here follows the same landlord-speckled trail that most people follow when they move to Eagle County.

Many of these new teachers are young and fresh out of college or with a couple years experience. The enticing lifestyle of skiing, hiking and biking caught their eyes.

“Picture yourself teaching in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado,” says a district recruitment brochure, which talks about how locals take great pride in their love of the outdoors and how the Teacher Advancement Program rewards excellent performance.

Then the landlord trail begins. The district has close to 30 low-cost and temporary housing units, but there’s usually a waiting list for one of those coveted spots, said Lynda Ruggeberg from the district’s business department. Prospective teachers on the price hunt are then routinely shocked at how much it costs to live here, and yeah, it scares them away.

It’s an effect especially seen during spring hiring, when the district has had to rope in anywhere between 54 and 95 new teachers, which includes newly created positions.

“We lose candidates very quickly when they look into the cost of living,” said Dana Zilliox, an English teacher at Battle Mountain High School who’s involved in hiring new teachers for next year.

Finding an affordable house might also mean a commute ” that cheap room in Gypsum could involve a 30-minute drive to school in Vail.

Many of the young teachers, who came here for the lively lifestyle, are frustrated living so far away from the hustle and bustle of Vail, Ruggeberg said.

Many teachers that do stay find that it’s hard to stay long. In the 2005-2006 school year, the average teacher salary in the district was $45,406 ” not even $1,000 over the state average in an area with a much higher cost of living, said Trisha Theelke, director of human resources.

Taking a second or third job isn’t the norm, but it’s common enough to notice. There are teachers who double as ski instructors, teach night classes, give music lessons, tutor on weekends, take on extra duties with the district and wait tables.

“I’m definitely feeling the effects of it ” my hours are until 3:45 at school, then I go to the brewery at 4, so there’s not really a break time in there at all,” Potts said.

A typical breaking point is when a teacher decides to buy a house or start a family. Many teachers move here already in love with the lifestyle and don’t really mind the difficulty. It’s ski country, after all, but attitudes change when they want to settle down.

“I’d love to live here permanently, but I want to be able to own something ” that might not be a reality,” Zilliox said.

Turnover is expected at any work place, but at a school, it can disrupt what the kids are used to. Perhaps that nice teacher who ran the Spanish club one year will be gone the next. That teacher who ran the after school math tutorials, the one who really made progress with your chid, might be gone.

The teacher you wanted for AP English next year says good-bye, and now there’s a new face, someone who’s new to the school and doesn’t know you.

“You need consistency with children ” they need a consistent environment,” said Adrienne Czarniak, a nutrition teacher at Battle Mountain High School. “But if you’re constantly having to turn over your staff, that’s not a good thing.”

It’s also tough for the other teachers staying on board. Much of their success comes from the weekly group planning sessions they have where teachers discuss lessons, share stories, test theories and learn from mistakes. And like any job, there’s a learning curve when new teachers come on board. It’s not a matter of competency” it’s a matter of having a well-oiled machine in place at a school.

Potts said there’s constant turnover at the preschool because of affordability, and every time someone new comes on, the learning process starts over.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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