Teachers share 'Classroom Realities' with policymakers at UEA event


Utah Classroom Realities: The Teacher’s Perspective

New legislators hear classroom reality stories from six Utah teachers

In an effort to inform those who make education policy decisions, the UEA invited legislators, superintendents, school board members and state administrators to hear from teachers. About 30 policymakers gathered at the UEA Office Dec. 13 to hear from teachers.

The interactive discussion included a panel of six accomplished Utah teachers at different stages of their careers (view teacher panelist profiles). These teachers shared their “classroom realities,” explained how laws and policies impact classrooms and provided insight into what they believe is really needed to ensure our Utah students have the education they deserve. 

UEA President Heidi Matthews introduced the program by outlining meeting objectives. “First, we’d like to provide some insight into what Utah teachers are currently facing each day in their classrooms,” she said. “We also hope to share a few specific examples of how legislation and policy impacts our Utah classrooms and students. I’m also hoping we can discuss some of the myriad ways that collaboration with educators can lead to the schools our students deserve.”

Teachers then responded to a few prepared questions before taking questions from the attending policymakers.

Asked what resources and supports are needed to be effective and how those resources would make a difference in student learning, Melissa Nikolai said, “I think I speak for all teachers when I say what we really need is time…Give us the opportunity to really look at our students’ work.” She explained that as a secondary English teacher she has 180 students, each submitting multiple essays during the course of a year, requiring 500 hours just to grade, in addition to the time needed to review those essays with each student individually.

“In order for our students to grow and learn, they need that one-on-one time from us. I’m so torn between planning lessons, grading papers and meeting with students, it’s overwhelming. If we had a smaller student load, I think we could do so much more,” said Nickolai.

Jody Lynn Tolley decided to get perspective from her students on the question ‘How would you describe the attributes of a school that successfully meets the needs of all students?’ “What was very telling was that every single student had the very same answer. They said, ‘we want a teacher who wants to teach.’ And I thought, now that’s the challenge. Our challenge is to make sure that teachers are motivated to stay teaching,” she said.

Teachers next shared what they wish policymakers better understood about their students, their classroom and their school. “We saw a 300 percent increase in student anxiety and suicide tendencies (at our school),” said Albert Spencer-Wise. “We had to make a tough decision. We have a lot of science classes with 45-47 students in them. We had to weigh the option of hiring a half-time science teacher to help alleviate the classroom numbers, or to hire a half-time social worker to help (students) with their social issues.” He said they made the decision to hire a social worker because of the personal impact on individual students.

“I really wish (policymakers) would understand that our students, our classrooms, our schools are all so unique,” responded Amy Hildreth. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody. But all our students deserve the best. They deserve high-quality curriculum and prepared teachers that are able to meet all their needs the best they can.”

Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert, asked the veteran teachers what changes they have seen over the last 10 years. “I would say without question in the last several years the amount of pressure that’s being put on teacher has increased tremendously. It’s no longer ‘did you teach it?’ it’s ‘did your students pass it?,’” said Tolley. “The expectation is now that it’s (the teacher’s) fault if the student fails.”

Current State Board of Education member and Representative-Elect Jefferson Moss noted many of the “significant improvements” made recently in public education, such as improved graduation rates. He asked the panelists what they believe is working well in our public schools and what has led to those improvements.

“I honestly believe part of it is we have technology that we can use in the classroom which gives our students new advantages that we’ve never had before and gives us multiple opportunities to teach in unique ways that we’ve never been able to do,” responded Tolley.

Edward Kimber explained that technology has also helped parents and teachers to have better communication. “Parents have been able to be more involved in understanding what’s going on in their students’ classrooms. (The ability for parents to) know what their student’s grade is online sooner…and email has been helpful to correspond with parents.”

Matthews concluded by thanking the legislators for their service and encouraging more “extensive collaboration between legislators and educators in the upcoming legislative session to work together for the schools our students deserve.”

Teacher Panel Participants

Early Career:

Edward Kimber teaches science and keyboarding at North Layton Junior High School in the Davis School District. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and is currently completing a second master’s degree in chemistry. Edward received the Weber State University College of Education Professor’s Honor Award and a Recognition of Excellence for the Biology Praxis II exam. He began his teaching career working in a locked-down treatment center for troubled youth.

Amy Hildreth is a third-year teacher at Newman Elementary in the Salt Lake City School District. She graduated from Westminster College with a Master of Arts in teaching and a Master of Education. Amy is currently pursuing a gifted and talented endorsement with the goal of more successfully differentiating for every student’s needs. She is actively engaged in advocating for her students and empowering students to develop a love of learning.


Chelsie Acosta teaches English Language Development and Latinos in Action at Glendale Middle School in the Salt Lake City School District. She is currently completing a master’s degree in education, culture and society at the University of Utah. Chelsie serves on the district Equity Leadership Team, is president of the Utah Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education, a Salt Lake Education Association Executive Board member, and a member of both the UEA Political Action Committee and UEA Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee.

Albert Spencer-Wise teaches Spanish 3, 4 and Advanced Placement, Latinos in Action, and serves as the World Languages Chair and new teacher mentor at Alta High School in the Canyons Schools District. He is a National Board Certified teacher and has a Master of Education degree from Westminster College. Albert has taught art and Spanish for 15 years at the secondary level and has taught as adjunct faculty at Westminster College. He is a facilitator for the NEA's national online Ed Community, serves on the Executive Board of the Utah National Board Coalition and is working with the UEA to develop a Jump Start program to support more teachers in successfully pursuing National Board certification.

Veteran Teachers:

Melissa Nikolai has been teaching for 22 years. She currently teaches 10th-grade honors World Literature and 12th-grade concurrent enrollment for Intro to College Writing in the Park City School District. Melissa has a master’s degree in secondary literacy with an emphasis on content area literacy. She also holds a technology endorsement, an English as a second language endorsement and is a National Board Certified teacher.

Jody Lynn Tolley spent her first ten years teaching elementary and junior high students at the Utah School for the Deaf and the Blind and for the last 10 years has taught American Sign Language at Skyline High School in Granite School District. She a Bachelor of Science in special education and a Master of Education in communicative disorders and deaf education from Utah State University and an education technology endorsement from Southern Utah University. Jody Lynn has received the Golden Talons Award and Golden Apple Award and in 2016 was named Granite School District Teacher of the Year and the first runner up for Utah Teacher of the Year.

Back to News Listing