North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends. Public school teachers are leaving in bigger numbers, while fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s universities.
It may be too soon to predict a shortage, but the trends could spell trouble for public school classrooms.
Teacher turnover in 2012-13 reached the second highest rate in a decade. Early retirements are up. And in the UNC system – the largest producer of new teachers – enrollment in teacher training programs declined by nearly 7 percent in 2013.
Teachers point to several reasons for the departures. Despite a 1.2 percent raise in 2012, average teacher pay is 46th in national rankings, with nearby states outpacing North Carolina. The state ended a teacher recruitment program meant to draw top students into the profession with college scholarships and enrichment opportunities. Tenure is being phased out, and after this year, teachers will no longer be able to boost their salaries by earning master’s degrees.
Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders have said getting teachers a raise is a priority this year.
However the politicians haven’t addressed the other factors that teachers say devalue their career choice and may dissuade young people from entering the profession.
As teachers are getting less, they’re being asked to give more.
In an era of higher learning standards and constant testing, they are increasingly scrutinized for their performance. Their evaluations are based, in part, on their students’ scores. And soon, the state’s big red pencil will brand each school with a letter grade.
At the same time, teachers say they work in increasingly difficult environments, with many disadvantaged children, larger class sizes and old textbooks. In lower grades, there are fewer teacher assistants even as the state imposes new demands for reading proficiency. Teachers are being told to embrace technology, track their students with detailed data and move all children toward college or career readiness.
Despite the challenges, most teachers say they are utterly dedicated to their students’ progress.
“It’s just really fun when you have a kid who gets it or have a lesson that’s just going really well,” Fanta Freeman, a seventh-grade English teacher at Weldon Middle School in Halifax County, said after school on a recent day. “It only takes one kid, honestly, every day to just remind you, ‘That’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m doing. This is why I need to work harder. All the time.’ ”
Her co-worker, seventh-grade science teacher Emily Corbett, chimed in: “I was depressed with all the snow days because I missed my kids so much.”
Freeman and Corbett are both beginning teachers with Teach For America, a program that places recent college graduates in high-need public schools in urban and rural areas. At Weldon Middle, 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Their enthusiasm is palpable. Corbett beams when describing a wind experiment her students did using straws and confetti. Freeman talks about how she’ll have her students read a novel and write essays this spring, though she’ll have to choose three or four different books to accommodate the wide-range in reading levels.
Both women say they want to make teaching their lifelong career even though Teach For America requires only a two-year commitment.
But will they still feel the same way in a few years? A national study in 2012 said about one-third of beginning teachers will leave the field within three years, and almost half will leave after their fifth year.
N.C.: the cheap state
The profession will be in crisis if the state doesn’t show it values teachers, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. “We’ll have a revolving door,” she said. “We cannot make the progress we want by having constant turnover of teachers leaving the profession after one year or after two years.”
Haley Brown, 31, made it seven years until November, when she quit her job at Briarcliff Elementary in Cary for an administrative job at a private company.
“I know that it was absolutely the right thing for me to do. I have no regrets. I’m not looking back,” she said. “The stress that has been lifted off my life is unbelievably noticeable from other people. ... It’s like I can enjoy life again.”
Brown’s husband wrote an opinion column about his wife’s decision that was a viral sensation after it was published in The News & Observer.
Brown said she misses the children and her co-workers. She is sorry that she will continue to pay off loans for a degree she won’t use, but she doesn’t see herself returning to the classroom.
Others haven’t given up on teaching, but they have given up on North Carolina.
Jill Wenstrand, 30, left Millbrook Elementary in Raleigh for a school in Louisville, Ky., after frustration over low pay began to chip away at her job satisfaction.
With the move, Wenstrand’s salary increased from $37,900 in North Carolina to $52,100 in Kentucky.
“It was a conundrum,” she said. “Kentucky is known as a poor state, yet they pay more than North Carolina. And North Carolina is known as a cheap state.”
Wenstrand’s pay had actually declined when she worked in Wake, she said, because deductions ate away at the 1.2 percent raise she got two years ago. She worked summers coaching swimming to shore up the family budget, taking her young son with her on her summer job. She and her husband decided to depart after the legislature did not give teachers a raise this year.
“We had to make a choice,” she said. “We want to have more kids and not struggle paycheck to paycheck.”
Now Wenstrand thinks about the colleagues she left behind.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I worked with some teachers who are phenomenal educators. They stay until 8 (p.m.) They come back at 6 (a.m.) … We didn’t get into teaching for the money, but we need to live.”
Pressure to perform
The focus on pay, preparation and teacher retention comes as teachers are under increasing pressure to perform.
The job involves more tracking of students’ progress and the expectation that lessons will be tailored to their achievement levels. The state keeps a close eye on low-performing schools. Often, some of the least experienced teachers land jobs teaching the most challenging students.
Whitney Brown said she grew up in Johnston County wanting to be a teacher and watching her grandmother, a teacher assistant, go to work.
Brown, 22, graduated from East Carolina University and landed a job teaching first grade at Pactolus Elementary School in Pitt County just as the discontent over teacher pay and employment conditions reached a peak last year.
To help new teachers working in the state’s underperforming schools, the UNC system has a coaching program that assigns former classroom teachers and administrators to beginning teachers. These schools are under extra scrutiny, and newcomers don’t have the stores of experiential knowledge that make their jobs more manageable. The goal of the NC New Teacher Support Program is to improve student learning by making beginning teachers as effective as possible and keep them in the profession.
Martha Gore, a coach at Pactolus, offers beginning teachers advice on planning and classroom management, offers ideas for lessons, and even helps decorate classrooms.
“It’s a tall order to be a teacher these days,” she said.
Gore works with Brown and nine other teachers at Pactolus.
Brown plans a long career in education. The talk of low pay and other worries couldn’t divert her from her chosen path and the first-grade class she leads with the confidence of a veteran.
The biggest surprise this year has been the time she must spend on testing, even though first-graders are not part of the high-stakes testing program that begins in third grade.
“The one thing you can’t be prepared for is the testing and the paperwork,” Brown said. “I feel like I’m comfortable teaching, but it’s all the extra stuff I have to deal with.”
Tarshanna Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Pactolus, is enjoying her second year leading a class, but had to take on a part-time job at Belk to meet her household budget.
She has since quit that retail job, but still worries about making a career in a profession with low pay and no job security while she’s raising her son.
The state is phasing out tenure, and school districts will offer the top 25 percent of their teachers $500 annual raises over four years to drop tenure and sign four-year contracts.
Moore doesn’t think selecting 25 percent is fair because it slights other hard-working teachers. If she seeks an advanced degree to upgrade her skills, she’ll go into debt, but the state won’t acknowledge her effort with a raise.
“The changes that are going on are very disappointing,” Moore said. “I’m thinking in 10-plus years where I want to be. I have a child to raise. I’m taking all these things into consideration.”
Karina Colon was recruited to teach in North Carolina while she was still a student at Wright State University in Ohio. Colon taught for eight years in Johnston County, a year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and four years in Wake County.
Colon, her husband and three daughters reluctantly left the state last year because, she said, all the things that made North Carolina an innovator in education were eroded. She now works as an instructional coordinator in a Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C.
“I can’t be an effective teacher if I’m worried about where my next meal is coming from,” she said. “I can’t be the best teacher that I can be and be worried about my family. That was the catalyst for me to leave.”
Colon also wanted her daughters taught by teachers who are happy. Discouraged by years without raises, she hoped that the 1.2 percent increase in 2012 would usher in better days.
But things got worse.
Last year’s budget had no raise for teachers, and there would be more testing, less classroom support and higher insurance costs.
“I’d had enough,” she said. “Teachers in other states weren’t doing awesome, but certainly were doing better.”
Colon, 37, said she would like to return to North Carolina if the environment improves for education and teachers.
“I really loved my life in North Carolina,” she said, “until I couldn’t live my life anymore.”
Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner Stancill: 919-829-4559