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Class gives high school students early glimpse of life as a teacher

Durango School District 9-R seeks to improve retention rates among educators
Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, leads a class Friday at Durango High School. The school district is trying to get students involved in the education fields at a younger age to improve teacher retention. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango School District 9-R has launched a teacher training program for high school students in an effort to improve teacher retention.

The classes are a way to give students a better idea of whether a teaching career might be right for them, thereby reducing the chances that they pursue a college degree in teaching only to find out it wasn’t right for them.

9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser said students generally don’t choose to go into educational fields until college. And sometimes she’s found education students or new teachers realize they aren’t as interested in the career path as they thought they might be.

“In my experience with this class, you get the majority of students who realize this is what they want to do with their life and you’ve created this really supportive path,” she said. “And some will decide it’s not and that’s good, because then they didn’t wait until they got into college.”

Cheser was inspired to start the program through experiences she had with a similar class while working as a superintendent in Kentucky.

Teacher retention has been a growing problem in the state, leading other school districts to take measures such as moving to a four-day school week. Statistics recorded by the Colorado Department of Education show that from the 2020-21 school year to the 2021-22 school year, 26,491 teachers left their jobs. That is about a 21.2% turnover rate statewide.

On Thursdays and Fridays, 10 juniors, including nine from Durango High School and one from Silverton Middle-High School, attend the class where they earn college credit in collaboration with Fort Lewis College.

While the class features mostly DHS students, the course is open to other districts in the region.

Dakota Gervais, 17, left, and Selene Rhoades, 17, look over a worksheet in class that Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, teaches Friday at Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Cost of living in Southwest Colorado also creates barriers for teachers moving from other parts of the country.

“We know the teacher recruitment issue we have around the country but particularly here in Durango and La Plata County is because of the cost of housing,” Cheser said. “It’s been hard to recruit people, especially with new teachers who are just starting out to come from other places that are more affordable.”

The school district envisions trying to grow its own pool of teachers with the help of FLC. Because the class offers college credit, it also helps education students earn their degree faster and decreases student debt.

Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, leads a class Friday at Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The class is taught by Cheser and Dylan Connell, director of instruction for 9-R. It delves into issues deeper than general curriculum to understand how students learn and what may be impacting their learning. In the classroom last week, students discussed inequity and inequality as part of analyzing the school district’s test scores.

Cheser handed students a worksheet that provides a scenario of what to do with a gifted student who does not want to turn in homework assignments. The scenario gives students insight into the dilemma a teacher faces in upholding a strong late homework policy but also being conscientious of students’ needs. After discussion of what to do in the first scenario, Cheser then gave the students more information involving the hypothetical student.

The scenario discusses how the hypothetical student often must care for her siblings because she has parents who work late. This broadened the discussion among students in Cheser’s class.

The students came to a similar conclusion about student outreach. They felt as if teachers should try to create scenarios in which students can share issues they’re experiencing in the classroom to create an open dialogue.

“That’s what we want to build is compassion and empathy for students and understand there many factors that contribute to whether or not students learn easily or not,” Cheser said.

FLC Dean of Education Jennifer Trujillo was also in attendance and said regardless of what career path students choose, the classroom scenarios discussed were beneficial life lessons.

“Whether you become a teacher or not, you learn not to make assumptions about people,” she said.

Students evaluated data from the 9-R test scores to discuss equity and to identify what students may need to improve. Cheser told students to evaluate the results by student groups.

They broke down student test scores into different demographics – such as race and gender – to discuss why some students may be performing better than others. Cheser asked students how equity could be a factor with the test scores.

The exercise provoked conversations about family issues, socioeconomic status and food insecurity.

Cheser was impressed by students’ level of engagement. Trujillo said that level of interest may be a result of students relating to the material.

Faces The Dawn, 16, joins a discussion in class that Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, teaches Friday at Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On Wednesdays, students attend a class to study a teacher in the classroom as part of the practicum. Cheser said that allows students to better identify whether they have an interest in becoming a teacher.

Another requirement for the practicum is for students to dress in professional attire so they understand what is expected of them when entering the workforce.

Trujillo said FLC is seeing a strong interest in its education program and enrollment numbers in that field are up.

DHS Principal Jon Hoerl said: “It’s a great win-win situation for everybody involved. They’re getting college credit, exposure to college classes and hopefully learning that they really do want to be a teacher.”

tbrown@durangoherald.com

Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, leads a class Friday at Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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