By Kristina Knauer

(Grateful Child of God, Joyful Wife, Blessed Mother of 5, Substitute Teacher, Volunteer Librarian, Secretary/Board Member of FSEL (Friends of the Southeast Library), Aspiring Writer, CEO of Crazy Town USA)

I am a substitute teacher for the Vail School District. This job provides a unique perspective on a lot of things. It is exhausting and scary, rewarding and fun, and definitely not going to make me rich — at least financially.

While reflecting on teachers and teaching, I had a talk with someone who offered some fresh perspective. Brandon Leblanc was born and raised in the Vail School District. He went to Desert Willow for preschool, was in Mesquite Elementary’s first kindergarten class, Desert Sky for middle school, and finally was in the first freshman house at the newly opened Vail Academy and high school, where he was a superstar in the Future Business Leaders of America. He went on to attend the University of Arizona, where he earned a business degree, and started his career working at Yelp in Phoenix. This all sounds great, and there’s nothing wrong with working at Yelp, but he didn’t love it.

In the Vail School District, and many other places, it has become harder and harder to find willing and qualified teachers. There are plenty of reasons, but the pay scale is probably at the top of the list. Close behind is the rigor of the job, which is becoming increasingly more regulated and test focus. Then there are societal changes which has led to kids and parents that are less respectful and more prone to entitled attitudes.

I chatted with Principal Barger from Vail Academy ad High School about the teacher crisis, and how he came to hire Brandon. When the previous business teacher left her position over winter break, Barger was faced with a challenge, as its especially hard to fill teaching positions mid-year. His wife suggested that he call Brandon, and after a few texts, email, and phone calls, a surprised Brandon was contacted. His first reaction to taking a pay cut and breaking a lease in order to teach was not an entirely positive one, but after taking stock of his general unhappiness with corporate life in the big city and speaking with an encouraging mentor, he decided to take the plunge.

He was approved and certified as a CTE teacher, which is easier than teaching a core class, and two weeks later, Brandon found himself back in his old high school classroom on the other side of the desk. “Talk about surreal,” he says as he gestures to the giant FBLA poster of himself as a student that decorates the wall. When I asked him if he expected this at all, he said he had never considered a career in teaching. His answer might come as a surprise after seeing Brandon teach. He has the right temperament, and the students love him. Best of all? He genuinely loves it. When he talks about the difference between fighting with his alarm every morning to drag himself to work versus cheerfully entering the campus every day, the difference is clear as day on his face. I asked him when he knew this would work out, and he said the moment he walked back into his classroom after spring break. That’s when he knew the classroom was where he belonged.

So why did a smart, capable, and kid-friendly young man like Brandon never consider a career in teaching? Again, money is an obvious answer, but it goes a little deeper than that. I believe that teaching has lost its glow. When I was young, people would ask kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of them would quickly say that they wanted to be like their teacher, and come college time, many would be pursuing a degree in teaching. It may not be for everyone, and there are definitely some people that shouldn’t be teaching. But there should be more teachers and educators talking about how lovely teaching is.

This is a problem that can’t be fixed with money alone. It would certainly help a lot, and it goes without saying that teachers deserve more compensation than they currently earn. Nevertheless, it would take years of effort to repair the reputation of the teaching profession, and generations for more people to choose it as a career so that the field is more competitive, and schools can be more selective. Afterall, we entrust our precious children to these people every day.

When I asked Principal Barger what he thought would help more students choose teaching, he said “People become teachers because they were inspired by someone to be a teacher. Someone saw that potential in them and called it out of them. Maybe a teacher made a difference in their life and so they realized they wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives too. So, kids need to see and hear happy teachers especially at the high school level when they are making career decisions.”

I asked Brandon what he thinks we can do about the missing glow. He thinks we must get the word out to people that teaching has wonderful aspects outside of the pay. The relationships you build with students and other teachers are life changing. Teaching fulfills a basic human need, letting you see the impact you’re having on the world every day. Brandon showed me handfuls of letters and notes from students that are obviously precious t him. He shared how deeply honored he is that his students nominated him for Rookie Teacher of the Year. His fellow teachers mentor and check on him. When asked if he might return to corporate life, his answer was an emphatic no way. He also doesn’t think he’ll ever leave VAHS. “This is my school,” he says with a smile.

Wait just a minute, is that it? The glow? I guess it didn’t leave this classroom. Suddenly I wanted to be a teacher — and not just a sub. That’s the power of the glow on a tired 50-year-old… imagine what it could do for an energetic teenager! How do we spread the glow? How do we get it back?

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