The Gower family.

The Gowers are gone now.

So are the Quinlans.

Their leaving is full of love and joy and frustration and tears.

They’ve taught our kids for years — decades if you add up the time.

They have loved those kids, recalling the moment a teenager understood what really happened during the Revolution, the heartbreaking effort to compensate for a broken family, the triumph of the kid struck mute with autism at the football game, the little gang of kids who insisted on painting a turtle on the wall of the Gowers’ nursery.

That’s the joy.

But they also feel frustrated with a system that didn’t support them and/or consistently provide what those kids needed — at least not all the time, not enough.

A Roundup interview with Bree and Chad Gower, along with Bree’s parents Barbara and Jim Quinlan, illustrated the rewarding, life-affirming, frustrating challenges of teaching in a system battered by changes in modern families and the lurching progress of education reform, now obsessed with standardized testing. Their 80 years of accumulated teaching experience illustrate some of the reasons for the national teaching shortage, as well as the problems facing Payson schools. Their experience provides a sobering challenge for newly hired Superintendent Stan Rentz, who took over the district this week.

Chad Gower — a popular history teacher in a department plagued with turnover — will teach at a Catholic high school in the Valley next year, after 12 years teaching here. “It’s a bittersweet exit for me. Payson gave me a great start. But we have to accommodate and accommodate and accommodate and that takes away from the really good kids who want to learn.”

Bree Gower, his wife, was a special education teacher who took on the toughest cases, the children who struggle to function at all. She’s taught here for five years. “It just definitely opened my mind and my heart for what I have and that I’m able to help them and they’re able to help me in return,” Bree said. But she also feels few in the system seemed to recognize what she does. She’s going to be a special education consultant for Valley schools.

A big reason they’re leaving has nothing to do with the district. Their son has complicated medical issues and they’ve decided they need to move closer to good medical care, while also freeing up Bree to be home when Jackson needs her.

Barbara Quinlan, Bree’s mother, has taught elementary school here for years, after switching over from a career as an accountant. She loves her kids — watching how their minds open up, savoring their excitement. But she’s had enough of the micro-management and overwhelming emphasis on standardized test scores. “Let teachers do their jobs. The teachers know their students best. They’re with them all day. So let the teacher do what they’re trained to do.”

And finally there’s Jim Quinlan, Barbara’s husband and Bree’s father and a former member of the Payson School Board. He’s been a teacher for 44 years, including 25 years teaching English at Payson High School. Now, he’s on the faculty at Gila Community College, where he’ll remain. When he went on the school board, Barbara stopped working at the district due to conflict of interest rules, which apply to spouses but not other family members. He resigned from the board when the family decided Barbara needed to return to the classroom. Of their six children, four became teachers but only two remain in the profession — Bree and Byron, who at one time was a middle school counselor in Payson until the district eliminated the position.

Studies show that the best teachers can make a tremendous difference in how kids’ lives turn out. Things like poverty, family trauma and family education have the biggest impact on whether students thrive in school. However, the quality of the teacher remains the biggest single factor the school system can actually control. It counts for more than per-student spending, class size, administration, transportation, extracurricular activities or any other factor, according to studies by the RAND Corporation and other researchers.

But some 1,600 Arizona classrooms started the year without a teacher in 2018, according to an Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey. Another 663 teachers quit in the first month of school. Arizona has among the lowest teacher salaries and largest class sizes in the nation. The Legislature has responded to the shortage first by saying teachers don’t need formal teacher training and credentials, although research suggests a good training program does have an impact on teacher effectiveness. Then lawmakers promised a 20 percent teacher raise over three years — with one more year to go. However, the raise will still leave Arizona in the bottom 20 percent nationally when it comes to teacher pay.

The Morrison Institute for Public Policy recently completed a study that found Arizona loses more teachers every year than the teaching programs at the three state universities produce.

So that makes it vital to listen to the insights about Payson schools offered by four veteran teachers.

“They’ve taken so much away from the teachers — being the expert in the classroom,” said Jim. “The high stakes testing mode we’ve been in, it’s taken the fun out of teaching in school. If you want to teach the letter “O” for “Orange” during Halloween, you can’t because that’s not what’s on the schedule or calendar. I think it’s education in general, not just Payson — other districts obviously have the same problem.

“We have a great faculty, great coaching staff, but slowly but surely we’ve lost a lot of great teachers. Once you have a good teacher, you should do almost anything to try to keep them — they’re so hard to find and to develop. But so often I’ve seen teachers leave Payson with a bitter taste in their mouths.”

Next: Get the insights of veteran Payson teachers who are leaving the district.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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