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Hear it from teachers: North Carolina schools are not back to normal

"We lost a lot of teachers at the end of last year, and throughout this past year, people are quitting left and right or retiring early," said Millie Rosen, a math teacher at Durham School of the Arts.

"You can't teach in a building where you have only 75% of the adults that you need to actually fully staff the building," Rosen said. "You just can't teach well."

According to statewide reports by the NC Department of Public Instruction, teaching vacancies in schools doubled last school year compared to the previous year.

Teachers say those vacancies are continuing to grow this year, and the problem could be bigger than anyone expects by August.

Three members of the North Carolina Association of Educators who are leaders in their local chapters in Durham, Orange and Rockingham Counties opened up about staffing issues — and potential solutions — on a recent episode of WUNC's Tested podcast.

Here are excerpts of their conversations...

High School English teacher; President of the Orange County Association of Educators

"From what I'm hearing, it's like everyone is interviewing for other jobs, looking for other jobs," Clark said.

Clark spoke to WUNC in September about all the additional stress teachers have been under this school year, due to the lack of substitute teachers, ongoing COVID-19 precautions and short-staffing.

She says she personally knows more than 10 teachers who are leaving her school by the end of this school year — some to retire early, some for a higher paying job. Clark says it's a common joke among teachers that to achieve a middle-class life with a family, you need to "marry rich."

"If you're going to be a teacher, you're going to have to marry somebody who makes some more than you," Clark said. "My male friends that work in teaching, they're never the breadwinners."

Clark is staying. That’s her plan. She's had moments where she thought about leaving the classroom, but "not seriously" she says.

"But there are tons of factors — like if I lose certain things, like the people that I love that I work with. That's a huge blow to my psyche and could make me want to leave," Clark said.

She wants the public to know what's happening, before more teachers leave the profession.

The Orange County Association of Educators surveyed its members in the fall to ask what would persuade them to stay in their jobs.

"The top thing that they said was pay," Clark said.

That's why local school boards have turned to bonuses this year to keep staff. In Orange County, teachers advocated for a retention bonus and the board granted one for $1,200.

Elementary School media specialist; President of the Rockingham County Association of Educators

School districts have tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief aid to spend, and many of them are directing at least some of that funding to retention bonuses. But in some counties, those bonuses have only come after teachers fought for them. Spencer knows that firsthand.

"At the October board meeting, our superintendent brought the idea that we should get a $250 bonus, and they were going to split that bonus into two payments," Spencer said. "That got everybody talking."

"It felt like a slap in the face," Spencer said. "The $250 really felt like we were not valued at all as employees, and I just heard a lot of people that were so discouraged — wanting to leave — because in nearby counties they were getting more money."

Spencer is a native of Rockingham County, and has spent much of her 26-year career in education there, but she knows the county has to compete for teachers against higher paying districts in every direction, including in Virginia. She says teachers could get a position across the border and see their salaries go up by thousands of dollars.

"We started circulating a petition asking for a $4,000 bonus for all employees, and within a week's time, we got 300 signatures on the petition," Spencer said.

Bus drivers, custodians and teachers at her school all came to the library to sign the petition. Many had stories about financial struggles, including one single mom.

"She wrote what a struggle she was having really making ends meet, paying her rent, paying for gas to get to-and-from work, paying for childcare," Spencer said. "She said the one thing that would really help her in her situation was to get some bonuses, get a little more money."

That school employee was a teacher early in her career.

"The starting salaries for teachers are in the 30-thousands," Spencer said. "If you're trying to get by on $30,000 and you have kids it doesn't go really far."

Spencer tried to bring that message to the school board. In that meeting, the Rockingham County school board voted to give all school employees two $2,000 bonuses.

"I felt that they really valued our opinion," Spencer said. "This definitely increased the loyalty that we feel to the county."

Local teachers associations across the state have asked for bonuses or modest pay raises for the lowest paid staff — and many school boards responded — but teachers are also looking for longer term solutions.

7th Grade math teacher; Secretary of the Durham Association of Educators

"I don't think any long term solutions are on the county level," Rosen said. "The biggest threats are coming from the state level and the lack of education funding as a whole."

Rosen said she appreciates that the Durham school board responded to petitions by the Durham Association of Educators and approved more than $4,000 in bonuses for full-time employees.

"I do think the school board is doing the best it can with what it has," Rosen said, but she's not sure those bonuses are enough to entice teachers to stay.

"I'm extremely concerned, I have several colleagues right now that I know that are considering leaving, just because it's been so overwhelming this year," Rosen said.

About 18% of teachers at Durham Public Schools have left so far this year, according to Alvera Lesane, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. By the end of the year, the district estimates one-in-five teachers may be gone.

Rosen says these problems with funding and staffing are nothing new, but they've gotten worse during the pandemic.

"We've been like frogs in slowly boiling water for the last 10 years, and then the temperature got turned way up the last couple of years," Rosen said.

All three educators brought up things schools lost through policy changes — funding for instructional assistants and professional development, additional pay for teacher's with master's degrees, longevity pay for veteran teachers and health benefits for retirees.

"Without more support, and more resources, not just pay, but resources in general, more staff in the buildings, personnel, school supplies, classrooms, updated buildings... specialists, all of those things. We can't do our job without that," Rosen said.

Rosen wants to be in the classroom for the long haul, but she says it’s getting tougher.

"I would really love to just teach math for 30 years," Rosen said. "I don't know if it's going to be sustainable, just because of of all of those different factors that make it so difficult to do my job, and that's true for a lot of other people."

We will look more at teacher turnover, and its impact on schools and kids, in an upcoming series on WUNC.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

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Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.