LOVELL, Wyo. — Finding and retaining teachers is a struggle across the country with lack of pay, stress and burnout driving people out of the profession.
When it comes to paying teachers, not all states are equal and from Montana to Wyoming, the wages change considerably, which can be a deciding factor for teachers in the Mountain West to pick one state over another.
The Lovell school system, which has more than 700 students across elementary, middle and high schools, finds itself in a rare set of circumstances for a rural school district—being that it is fully staffed when it comes to teachers.
"We're fortunate enough to be fully staffed for this school year and have been for the last number of years," said Doug Hazen, Superintendent of Lovell Schools.
School districts across the country, including in Wyoming, are facing worsening teacher shortages—a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.
What helps Wyoming is high teacher starting pay and average teacher income, beating out its neighboring states significantly, especially Montana.
"Wyoming out competed like everybody in the intermountain West in terms of salaries and benefits right away," said Josey Allen, a physical sciences teacher at Lovell High School.
Shane Durtsche, a special education teacher at Lovell High School, recalls comparing salaries while looking at Montana and Wyoming schools.
"I want to say when I started three years ago, I think it was a $13,000 a year difference to start," Durtsche said.
Hazen, Durtsche, and Allen all emphasize that teachers feel pulled to the career field for more than financial reasons, hoping to help children and make a difference in young people's lives.
But Hazen says the realities of the cost of living, especially the inflated cost of housing, requires competitive salary offerings when attracting and recruiting teachers.
The National Educators Association shows Montana ranks 51st in the nation for starting teacher pay and 44th for average salary.
Cross the border to Wyoming and starting teacher pay jumps to 12th in the nation and 23rd for average salary.
"We're always hoping that we can get people to cross the border and get as many quality educators from that area to us because we know that the funding system as far as teacher pay is not what Wyoming is typically, depending on the area," Hazen said.
That's incentivized educators to pick Wyoming over Montana, even if Montana is where they have roots.
"I taught sixth grade social studies in Laurel, Montana in 2001-2002, I was also head boys basketball coach," Durtsche said. "I left the profession, had three boys, a wife, I just couldn't make a living doing it, quite frankly."
After 20 years, Durtsche returned to teaching and noticed a difference in starting salaries.
Allen, similarly, is originally from Montana but opted for Wyoming due in part to wages.
"I looked at various teacher salaries. Montana was straight off the list right away, sent to teacher salaries there," Allen said.
Hazen says what drives the difference in pay between the two states in part is in part the amount of state funding assigned to each student.
"I would also say that the amount allocated per student is likely higher than some of our surrounding states, and that allows us to provide a quality education," Hazen said.
But still, Hazen says the national teacher shortage is felt in Wyoming.
"I would say as fortunate as we are, even our applicant pools are not what they were 10 years ago," Hazen said. "So all of us are fighting and scratching to make sure we get the best quality applicants to work with our students."