First of a two-day series

Amanda Millner is an Arizona teacher who left the state after five years in the classroom. Now she is ready to come back – but as a guidance counselor.

“The system just ate me alive,” she said, citing low pay, frustration with administrators and budget cuts.

Millner is just one of the thousands of Arizona teachers who leave the classroom every year. According to a study by the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy, nearly half of recently hired teachers leave the profession or the state within three years. Around 22 percent of teachers hired between 2013 and 2015 left the state after one year and 42 percent left the profession within three years. More than one-third of Arizona teachers have been in the classroom for four years or less.

A new program, the Arizona Teachers Academy, is supposed to provide $1 million of funding in scholarships for free tuition for 200 teachers at one of the state’s three public universities for each year they teach in Arizona. According to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, the three state universities, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona, are paying for the program through existing scholarship funds and Pell grants.

Millner, a theater teacher, beat the statistics by teaching for about five years in Arizona before leaving for a teaching job in South Korea. She returned to the U.S. a few years ago and has been substitute teaching in Santa Fe, N.M., while earning her master’s degree in counseling and hopes to find a job as a guidance counselor at an Arizona school.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the annual median pay of an Arizona teacher around $39,300. That means that half of Arizona teachers earn more and half earn less than that, a pay rate that is near the bottom of the 50 states.

Millner taught theater at three different school districts in the state, first on the Navajo Nation for two years, then a year at Kingman Unified School District and last at Coolidge Unified School District. She said the last straw came about five years ago when she was laid off at CUSD after budget cuts forced the district to cut many of its arts, music and honors classes.

“I got into this because I’m passionate about the children,” she said. “But they were cutting programs that for some kids is the only reason why they come to school. They work to keep their grades up in their other classes so they can stay eligible for these programs. I thought why bother (teaching) if they (the districts) don’t value what makes these kids come to school. It still makes me depressed that some of these kids still don’t have some of these programs.”

Millner ended up taking a position teaching theater in South Korea, which is an entirely different experience, she said. Education there is about students cramming in as much information as they can. Students who receive high test scores are chosen to go on to higher education. Students who don’t make the cut are sent to trade schools. That is why it isn’t really fair to compare U.S. schools with Korean schools -- it’s only the students with the best test scores who move on to higher education in Korea, she said.

The respect for teachers is greater in South Korea, too, she said. In Arizona, Millner said she didn’t feel supported by the administrations of the three districts she worked for. She said some administrators didn’t understand teachers because they had never taught themselves. These administrators seemed to be more interested in students being able to pass tests.

Millner said she felt frustrated and stifled as a public school teacher and she didn’t have an outlet for that frustration.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to be themselves, to teach in the best way for their students,” she said. “That’s why charter schools appeal so much to students and teachers.”

Charters give teachers the freedom to find the best ways to teach their subject to their students, and students get the freedom to learn the subject in a way that they can understand, Millner said.

“I really do believe in and support the public school system. We’re one of the only nations in the world that has a public education system that students don’t have to pay to go to,” she said.

Millner said she attended a public school system but she’s not sure that it provides the same education that it once did.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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