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A rural school gets creative in facing the NC teacher shortage

Liz Schlemmer

Chowan Middle School is about 15 minutes outside the small town of Edenton. The road to get there cuts through farm fields and runs parallel to the Chowan River, which branches off the Albemarle Sound.

Students here are settling into the routine of a new school year, but a shortage of qualified teachers lingers.

In her language arts class, sixth grader Kiyanna Fleming follows along with a reading passage on her laptop as teacher Susan Lamb reads aloud through a video screen and speaker at the front of the room.

Another teacher, Gregory Bassett, walks the aisles between desks. If students have a question, they raise their hands and Bassett responds. Fleming says this feels different from her experience with virtual school early on in the pandemic.

“It's easier because when I was in virtual when I needed help I couldn't get that help because the teacher wasn’t there,” Fleming said.

Right next door, Lamb teaches the same material at the same time to a group of students in her own classroom. Lamb is a veteran teacher with 19 years of classroom experience. She says she was coaxed out of semi-retirement to fill an opening at the school.

Bassett is an eager young teacher with little classroom experience and a degree in English, not education. He’s learning the basics of managing a classroom of 25 pre-teens.

Liz Schlemmer

The superintendent, Michael Sasscer, observes.

“This is the definition of synchronous learning,” Sasscer says. Bassett asks students if they need a piece of paper, and Lamb jumps in to instruct students to write a header in the top corner.

This classroom scene shows just one of many ways schools are figuring out how to handle a shortage of teachers this school year.

“Although on paper, it looks like we have a vacancy, we don't have a void,” Sasscer says. “The classroom’s rich with learning and students are engaged with a teacher, it's just in an unconventional way.”

The best estimate is that there are more than 4,400 teaching vacancies across the state this fall. That’s based on a survey by the North Carolina School Superintendents Association, with 98 of 115 superintendents responding in August. Schools with unfilled positions have had to enact creative strategies to offer students the best education possible given the circumstances.

Putting Relationships First

Edenton-Chowan Schools has four vacancies for classroom teachers this semester – but to put that in perspective, the district has only four schools. Sasscer says his biggest concern was giving students the opportunity to build relationships with their teachers.

Liz Schlemmer

“I know every single one of my teachers in K-12 education,” Sasscer says. “I give stories of how they made a difference in my life, and at the end of the day, it’s through relationships.”

Everyone has teachers they remember, and different kids connect with different teachers. So let’s say every great teacher really connects with 5 or 10 kids a year, what happens if that teacher is missing?

“If I’ve got four vacancies, that’s 40 students that potentially haven’t had that impactful transformation that we know all teachers gift us with through their time and energies,” Sasscer says.

Historically, Edenton-Chowan Schools has had a low teacher turnover rate, among the lowest of all school districts in the state, according to a 2020 report by the Department of Public Instruction. This district’s issue with staffing this year wasn’t because an unusual number of teachers retired or left. Some were simply promoted to administrative positions.

But when it came to hiring, Sasscer says they simply ran out of qualified candidates for the number of positions to be filled. Not enough candidates applied and some ultimately took jobs in other districts.

“So we knew we had to be creative,” Sasscer says. “We knew we had to think innovatively of how to staff those positions.”

Edenton-Chowan schools found four different solutions for each of its four vacancies. Three of those classes are using a co-teaching model, and the fourth is using an online program to deliver material.

Understaffed schools across the state are playing a game of chess to move teachers to cover classes where they know the material. Superintendent Sasscer has a smaller chessboard, so he reached out to other school districts to help find teachers. In one math class, the “teacher of record” is in Clinton City Schools, a nearly 3 hour drive away.

How Students Are Reacting

Inside that math class, students work quietly. Dakavias Bowser works on a line graph problem displayed on his Chromebook. Some students listen to the lesson through their personal headphones. Meanwhile, the class is monitored by a retired math teacher who has stepped in as a long-term substitute.

Liz Schlemmer

Bowser and fellow student Amerah Bowen say they can manage, but it is a little harder to follow along with the remote teacher.

“Being that she's teaching her class and our class it’s difficult for her too,” Bowser says.

“It’s hard for her to grab the students’ attention, because she's mainly talking to her class, but she's also talking to us,” Bowen adds. “And sometimes it can be difficult to hear her.”

They say there are pros too. Bowen says she struggled in her previous math class that she took remotely during the pandemic, but she likes learning independently with help from her two teachers. She believes it will prepare her for college.

“Now I feel like I'm not struggling. I feel like I'm trying to adapt to it,” Bowen says. “I actually like it this way.”

“It's a little bit more freedom, because we still have a teacher there, especially one that's physically there,” Bowser added.

The school district had such a shortage of options for the high school’s other vacancy, in environmental science, that it was filled with an online program. The school district’s chief academic officer Sheila Evans says she feels better about the co-teaching model.

“People send stuff to my email every day to buy an online course, buy an online course, buy an online course,” Evans says. “I'm not saying that their curriculum is not good…but you hear the kids, and we know the best resource for teaching is that teacher.”

A Temporary Fix

Evans says school administrators have seen this teacher shortage coming for years, and it’s not something that can be solved overnight.

“We have fixed this problem for right now,” Evans says. “But we've got to continue thinking and thinking outside the box for what we're going to do next semester, next year, two years from now.”

Federal data show the number of graduates of North Carolina teaching colleges began to plummet ten years ago, after reaching a peak in 2010. Sasscer says in the past, most people who applied for teaching jobs at his district had a traditional degree in education and student teaching experience.

“That's changed, we're seeing over the years, and it's not just this past year, and it's not due to COVID,” Sasscer says.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction confirmed that most new teachers working in North Carolina schools are operating under a residency license, like Gregory Bassett. Because they haven’t entered the profession through a traditional pathway, they must complete exams and college coursework to become fully licensed teachers and remain employed.

Bassett says he appreciates the mentorship he’s received at Chowan Middle School, and feels better supported than several friends he knows who are first year teachers on residency licenses in other districts.

“I'm the only one who has something like this,” Bassett says. “Of the three of us, I am the only one who has this kind of support system.”

Liz Schlemmer

Evans says Edenton-Chowan Schools might need to hire a coordinator to help coach inexperienced teachers or organize online courses in the future, but she says that raises the question of how the district would pay for such a position.

State funding pays for salaries based on the number of classroom teachers allotted to a school, but that funding can’t be easily transferred for other purposes. A state-funded pilot program in 15 counties known as advanced teaching roles pays experienced teachers to co-teach with less experienced teachers. There are proposals to scale it up, but that would require more state funding.

Right now, the Edenton-Chowan district pays teachers who are performing extra duties a stipend using federal COVID relief money, but that funding expires in the fall of next year. Superintendent Sasscer says he would like to have the flexibility to use school funding to continue the co-teaching model.

“I'm preparing to be future ready,” Sasscer says. “The phrase I keep saying is not that school keeps happening, but the children are coming.”

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

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.