The following was originally published by the Casper Star-Tribune.

By: Aedan Hannon

A couple of weeks ago, Jenna Shim spent the day talking with the principal and teachers at Encampment’s K-12 school.

The visit was typical of the regular outreach that Shim, the Jack Ellbogen Interim Dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Education, tries to do, touring school districts around the state to hear from teachers and administrators.

During their conversation, Encampment’s staff discussed the qualities they consider when hiring new teachers.

“They look for skills, but more importantly they look for the fit and they look for their commitment because that’s what’s going to keep them in classrooms,” Shim said.

As is true for many school districts in Wyoming, the majority of teachers in Carbon County School District No. 2, Encampment’s district, graduated from UW. UW’s College of Education accounts for more teachers in Wyoming than any other institution, according to a report from Christiana Stoddard, an economics professor at Montana State University and education finance consultant for the state.

As such, UW’s College of Education plays a significant role in shaping the future of K-12 schooling in Wyoming. The decisions that Shim and the college make reverberate. They manifest in classrooms with each UW-trained teacher. That’s in part why Shim makes the effort to see schools.

“I try to visit these school districts to learn from them as much as I can because they have such valuable insights,” she said.

Years of listening to educators and schools, growing teacher retention and attrition concerns, and a rapidly changing K-12 landscape have led UW’s College of Education to launch a series of recent initiatives that promise to reshape teaching and teacher development in Wyoming. Central to the College of Education’s push is a plan to support educators through what Shim and former Dean Scott Thomas call the “arc” of their careers, engaging with them well beyond the limits of Laramie’s campus.

“We try to do our part preparing them, but it’s much bigger than that,” Shim said.

The arc

Imagine that you’re a high school student in Meeteetse, Sundance or just about any other small town in Wyoming. You think you might want to attend UW or another college, but you’re not sure how to apply or how to pay. So you go to your counselor.

The data suggests that you may not get the help you need. Though there has been recent work to close the gaps, a 2012 College Board national survey found that a majority of school counselors felt ill-prepared and lacked the training to help students with college admissions and career preparation. The effects of unprepared counselors can be especially significant in rural communities, which already have less access to school counselors and have lower college enrollment rates.

In 2022, UW’s College of Education and Trustees Education Initiative received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to improve the college enrollment and attainment of Wyoming’s rural and first-generation students, including by training school staff in college and career preparation. The resulting initiative was dubbed UW’s High Altitude Pathway, a three-year program that works with a number of public schools, alternative education centers and after-school programs to expose rural high school students to higher education and better prepare them to pursue advanced studies and training.

During the program, students undergo training created by College for Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways, an education group dedicated to improving college and career readiness. They learn about potential careers as well as applying and paying for higher education, including accessing financial. They also get hands-on experience at UW, which they visit during the summer for an immersion trip. At the same time, teachers, counselors and administrators receive training from CFES Brilliant Pathways and the College of Education so they can better guide those students who are interested in attending college or pursuing other post-high school programs.

While UW’s High Altitude Pathway is aimed broadly at improving college attainment and career preparation, it has also served another purpose for the College of Education. Alongside nursing and other professions, the high school students in the program learn about teaching, Shim said. For the students and the College of Education, the exposure can be a benefit.

“A small subset of our efforts are about recruiting teachers and really helping them understand what teaching is about and whether or not it’s a good fit for them,” she said. “At the end of the day, that fit is really important.”

For those students who are interested, UW could very well be their next stop. And that’s where the College of Education’s second initiative comes in.

Around the same time the College of Education was securing money to start the High Altitude Pathway program, it was also receiving money to start a rural teaching corps. In March 2022, the College’s School of Teacher Education obtained a $25,000 grant from the Rural Schools Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to bolstering rural schools, to develop the teacher corps alongside Teton Science Schools in Jackson.

While the College of Education’s coursework is designed to give students the skills they need, including hands-on learning through residencies, the actual experience of teaching in Wyoming’s rural communities is unique and can be a challenge.

“That is very different than [teaching] in other areas, and that’s where the retention rate is the lowest,” Shim said.

The first Rural Teaching Corps cohort last year saw a dozen students in the College of Education paired with teachers from rural school districts across the state. They received training in place-based education, a model in which educators root their teaching in their local communities and environments, as well as mentorship to help them feel more comfortable as they move toward teaching in rural areas, according to Teton Science Schools. The program’s goal is to not only better prepare UW students to enter rural classrooms, but to create a community where rural educators can get the help they need as they start the profession.

“The first piece is when they’re in high school,” Shim said. “The second piece is that rural teacher corps while they are in our teacher prep program.”

While lawmakers often focus their attention on training new educators to address Wyoming’s teacher shortages, Shim follows Thomas, the former dean of the College of Education, in reciting the idea that if Wyoming could retain more of its teachers, the state could solve its staffing challenges. Shim said the College of Education has consistently heard from Wyoming teachers that they don’t feel like they have a voice in their learning and professional development and it’s driving them to leave the profession. The College of Education’s third initiative, the Master Educator Competency Program, is an attempt to solve that issue.

With the goal of keeping quality early and mid-career teachers in the classroom, the program aims to give educators tailored professional development that more directly applies to them and their work. Since last year, the College of Education has been holding listening sessions and interviewing teachers about the skills and knowledge they need to better prepare students. The college has been working with 2Revolutions, a national education design lab, to take that input and build interactive learning courses that help teachers continue to learn and develop.

Unlike more traditional approaches to professional development, which often track the time a person spends learning, the digital modules are “competency-based,” meaning that teachers have to master new skills and learn their content in more depth, Shim said. Educators who participate in the program can put the courses toward renewing their license or advancing their pay. The College of Education is also moving to allow some of the courses to go toward a master’s degree.

“When you look at the research one of the reasons why teachers are leaving the profession is because of lack of autonomy or lack of respect,” Shim said. “[The Master Educator Competency Program] is really going straight to teachers about what they need and what they would like to learn.”

Meeting the needs of teachers also sits at the heart of College of Education’s last initiative, though for a group of educators that is often forgotten. Recruitment and retention efforts in Wyoming and across the country often target young and early career teachers, those who will be in the profession for the next few decades. Yet, keeping older teachers can be just as crucial.

Numerous studies show that teachers are increasingly unhappy and considering leaving the profession, including one recent survey by UW researcher Mark Perkins which found that a majority of Wyoming teachers would leave if they could. But those sentiments vary. A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Arkansas and Saint Louis University found that it was older teachers nearing retirement who were considering leaving the profession at higher rates during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Veteran teachers, especially in rural states like this, can get tired,” Shim said. “They’ve plateaued in their career. They don’t feel the sense of purpose anymore. And that also causes them to leave their profession earlier then they had planned to.”

The College of Education’s Wyoming Teacher-Mentor Corps wants to keep that passion alive by connecting expert teachers with those who are just entering the profession.

Launched in 2022, the Teacher-Mentor Corps is in its second year. The current cohort of 19 teachers represents 13 of Wyoming’s 48 school districts, according to a UW news release. Throughout the program, veteran educators mentor emerging teachers who are both preparing to enter the classroom and those who are in their first couple of years. They attend two summer “institutes” in Laramie as well as in-person retreats where they pass on their knowledge and use their expertise to prepare the next generation of Wyoming teachers.

According to Shim, the program has been incredibly successful, so much so that the College of Education is now building a similar one for principals while also thinking about expanding it to a national model.

Taken altogether, the four initiatives the College of Education has established in the last few years represent an “almost lifelong commitment,” Shim said, not only to UW’s teaching candidates but to educators across the state.

“At each stage of supporting teachers, we may have different players from the university,” she said. “But it requires that kind of collaborative effort to follow them and to keep them in classrooms and make that a rewarding profession.”

Adapting to a changing landscape

K-12 schooling in Wyoming is changing. That’s clear. What it will look like a decade down the road, though, is a question that education officials, lawmakers, the College of Education and school staff have yet to answer.

For starters, the Wyoming State Board of Education is moving to reduce the standards that teachers and administrators have long said make their jobs more difficult and stand in the way of student learning. The Wyoming Department of Education is working with school districts to strengthen career and technical education, while the agency recently announced an initiative that will incorporate wildlife, hunting and conservation education into classrooms.

But all of those changes are shadowed by the looming statewide shift to competency-based and student-centered learning, which will transform Wyoming’s K-12 system.

In July, “Wyoming’s Future of Learning,” the coalition that is leading the transition, which includes UW’s College of Education, the Department of Education, State Board of Education and Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, announced that it had accepted nine school districts for the state’s first pilot program trialing competency-based and student-centered learning. Under the new approach, the school districts and their students will focus on the “mastery” of a subject rather than test scores and time spent in a classroom. Students will have more freedom to shape their instruction and learning, while experiences outside of the classroom will also take on a new emphasis. The goal is to ultimately move students away from rote memorization to applying what they learn.

UW’s College of Education is set to play a critical role as the statewide transformation begins. It will serve as the bridge, turning policy into practice. Amid the changing landscape, the College of Education is adapting, too. Increasingly, the school is looking to apply the practices it is training teachers to use, including a new focus on competency-based learning.

“Our role in the College of Education is to continue to support teachers across the state so that they are very well versed and know what it looks like on the ground to implement that student-centered learning,” Shim said.

For Shim, the changes and the college’s broader teacher initiatives are simply the steps UW needs to take to support educators and keep pace with our evolving society.

“We need to change how we educate our students that aligns with how the world is changing,” she said. “The flip side is that we have to also change how we train our teachers.”