Jonathan West reached over and adjusted the young girl's fingers as she plucked the viola strings.
"Why do we do the rainbow?" he said.
"So that you don't touch the other strings," she replied.
West is teaching her a basic playing technique. But he is not a teacher — yet. West is a music education major at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He has wanted to be a teacher ever since middle school.
"I was bullied a lot and my music class was kind of the one place for me that my teacher was encouraging, and it gave me a space to express myself," he said. "So, I decided that I wanted to be the teacher for those kids, through music, to give them a place to feel safe and to express themselves."
But West’s ambition is tempered by a recent statistic from the Colorado Departments of Education and Higher Education: Nearly 17 percent of teachers leave the profession after five years.
Democratic State Rep. Barbara McLachlan — and a former English teacher — said low pay is only part of the state's teacher retention problem. The issue is more complicated than that.
“Everybody wants teachers to be the end all be all. We’re supposed to be parents and judicial activists,” she said. “We’re supposed to kind of do everything at the school. It’s not just teaching anymore.”
Every year about 3,000 educator positions remain unfilled in the state. Last year McLachlan drafted a bill to study why teachers are leaving the profession — and what can be done to narrow Colorado’s growing shortage.
“All this bill said was do that survey again and now let’s come up with an action plan about how we can get some bills out here to actually solve this problem,” McLachlan said.
The Departments of Education and Higher Education led town hall meetings and conducted online surveys to learn more about the issues contributing to the teacher shortage. Last December, they outlined recommendations in a strategic plan submitted to the state legislature. The plan has four key goals: Improve teacher retention, increase pay and benefits, attract talent to high-need areas and produce more graduates from educator programs.
A bill proposed this legislative session aims to address some of those issues. It would allow students in a teaching preparation program to receive a stipend for working in rural school districts that need teachers. McLachlan may also support another bill to provide leadership training to principals.
“It’s the principal that makes the biggest difference. A good principal you don’t have teachers that are talking about how miserable they are,” said McLachlan. “They stay because, as most teachers do, you’re not doing it for the pay, you’re doing it because you love it.”
While state lawmakers work on legislation to curb the teacher shortage, UNC is training the next crop of educators to fill the positions – like Jonathan West.
West is a teaching assistant with the UNC String Project. The program was started last fall to give music majors hands on experience teaching fourth and fifth graders how to play the viola, violin, cello and bass.
Dr. Lindsay Fulcher is an assistant professor at UNC and oversees the project. She acknowledges the teacher shortage is a problem, but it also provides UNC students with a greater opportunity to get hired after graduation. The String Program gives these future educators a taste of what it’s really like to be a teacher.
“There’s so much that goes into having a classroom other than just figuring out the curriculum There’s the logistics of tuning instruments and talking to parents and managing budgets,” said Fulcher. “I hope they learn ownership. I hope they learn how to have their own classroom.”
The UNC String Project works with 25 kids from elementary schools all over Weld County. West and four other teaching assistants spend one afternoon a week teaching them music fundamentals in an orchestra setting. The program is part of the National String Project Consortium, a coalition of String Project sites based at colleges and universities across the country.
West grew up in Colorado Springs and would like to find a teaching job in the state after he graduates in 2019. He said the String Project provides practical job experience and is a great addition to his classroom based studies.
“Now I feel much more comfortable with elementary school kids,” he said. “Overall, it’s made me much more excited to be doing work in this field.”