Smithfield Herald

Johnston schools leaning on ‘family’ atmosphere to recruit, retain teachers

Paige Nixon, a third-grade teacher at East Clayton Elementary School, talks to her class during a lesson on Sept. 23.
Paige Nixon, a third-grade teacher at East Clayton Elementary School, talks to her class during a lesson on Sept. 23. ndunn@newsobserver.com

Paige Nixon grew up a few miles from where she teaches in Clayton.

After graduating from N.C. State University this summer, the elementary-education major said she was quick to apply for a third-grade opening at East Clayton Elementary School.

“I’ve always loved the schools I grew up in, and I wanted to come back,” Nixon said. “I had opportunities to go to other schools, but it’s a lot more personable here.”

Of course, not all of the roughly 270 new teachers in Johnston grew up here. But with increasing competition from other school districts and different professions, Johnston school leaders are relying on what they call a “family atmosphere” to recruit and retain their teachers.

Robin Little, the chief personnel officer for Johnston County Schools, said something as simple as recognizing a teacher’s voice over the phone can make a difference.

“In larger school systems, that doesn’t happen,” Little said.

Teachers have told school leaders that the district’s culture, coupled with professional-development programs, are reasons to stay, Little said.

“We often do have people that leave and go to other counties for money and then do come back,” said Tracey Peedin Jones, the district’s spokeswoman and a former school administrator.

But for teachers who leave and don’t come back, it’s often for a larger paycheck, either through higher supplements in another county or a higher pay rate in another state, Little said.

During the 2012-13 school year, 13.46 percent of Johnston teachers left to work in another district or quit teaching altogether. That turnover rate was slightly lower than the state rate of 14.33 percent.

About 45 percent of the Johnston teachers who left during the 2012-13 year remained in education, 33 percent left for reasons “beyond control,” and 22 percent left for “personal or other” reasons, according to teacher turnover data.

The state has not released the turnover rates from last school year, when teachers lobbied for higher pay, parents condemned testing standards and out-of-state school districts launched recruiting campaigns across North Carolina. Little said she expects the county’s turnover rate to increase.

“This past summer, we lost more teachers to other states than usual,” Little said. “We lost a lot of teachers to South Carolina this summer, and that was a first.”

To replace the teachers it loses, the Johnston County school system relies on job fairs at in-state and out-of-state colleges. The district went to 13 in North Carolina last year, in addition to job fairs in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan.

The district also hires education majors who do their student teaching in Johnston County. Nixon, the third-grade teacher at East Clayton Elementary, did her student teaching across town at West Clayton Elementary.

“I feel very comfortable with my team and with being able to teach with them,” Nixon said.

The number of new teacher hires this year, 273, is not unusually high, Little said. Most of the new hires teach at the elementary school level. Of this year’s class of new teachers, 83.7 are white, 7.8 percent are black, 7 percent are Hispanic and 1.5 percent are of another race.

East Clayton Principal Brayton Leonhardt, who is in his first year at the elementary school, said the work environment is critical to the teaching profession.

“We are the size where you can reach out to the central office and talk to them immediately,” Leonhardt said. “It’s an atmosphere where you feel comfortable.”

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