It was hard to get a job as a teacher in Whiteville City Schools back in the day. Pam Sutton knows.
“During the ’90s, someone had to die or retire for you to get in Whiteville City,” she said.
Sutton worked for three years in Elizabethtown after graduating college, waiting for a spot to open back home. When one finally did, it was because the woman who taught Sutton in first grade finally retired.
“There was not a lot of turnover at all,” she said. “My principal, who was principal when I was in kindergarten, was still here and hired me.”
Her reminiscent smile fades as she thinks about today.
“It’s different now.”
In 2021-22, Whiteville City Schools was among the five districts with the lowest teacher attrition rates in the state. But it still had high vacancy. District officials say the discrepancy has to do with difficulty in tracking when and why teachers leave. While it’s hard to peg with a single data point, teachers say it’s a problem.
And it’s not isolated. Across many districts, educators say they feel a lack of human capital. That can spell trouble for implementing instruction grounded in the science of reading across the state.
“If we’re honest, we’re in a time of hiring crisis,” said Sarah Cain, director of elementary schools in Asheville City Schools. “And it’s a big lift for teachers to do this intense level of professional development, on top of learning new curriculum, on top of addressing learning loss. At a time when our society feels a little fractured, too.”
School districts are desperately trying to keep teachers. It’s difficult, several district leaders said, with increased workloads, persistently low pay, and — now — culture wars. But these teachers already have begun a long journey of learning how to teach reading effectively. Districts don’t want to lose out on the time and money already invested.
Why keeping teachers is critical to better reading instruction
The state is paying for teacher training in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). The training requires two years, and 160 hours, to complete.
When a teacher leaves, that investment goes with them. The state’s investment in LETRS is not ongoing — at some point, really soon, it stops. As new teachers come in, they won’t have access to the training unless it’s supported by local dollars.
It creates a couple problems, educators say. When a new teacher comes in without knowledge of evidence-based practices for reading instruction, there’s a disconnect among teachers in strategy meetings. Also, it takes time to get comfortable with curriculum and instructional programs — and with teaching them effectively.
“It’s hard to sit around a table of teachers when they’re planning and they’re not all on the same page,” said Lynn Plummer, director of elementary education in the Stanly County Schools. “[It makes it hard] to try to change teachers or try to change their mindsets from what they’re doing to what may be a better practice.”
Melissa Fields has seen this in Perquimans County, though at a smaller rate. For the most part, Perquimans classrooms are filled with licensed teachers. And nearly all of the teachers who began LETRS training there two years ago are still in the district.
But when there is turnover, there are pain points.
“A new teacher might come in, and maybe their neighbor teacher gives them a crash course, and then they just pick up the book and go,” said Fields, who has led the shift to science of reading in her district as the chief academic officer. “But there’s so many nuances to implementing the program with fidelity that they don’t know about.”
What happens when teachers stay
Perquimans is a standout district in implementing North Carolina’s new reading law. And one of the keys is taking care of and retaining teachers.
“My top priority when I got here was to fix teacher attrition,” said John Lassiter, the principal who took over for former state principal of the year Jason Griffin at Hertford Grammar School. “As turnover happens with administration, typically teacher attrition follows. And so for three straight years, the year before I got here and two years after, we had 30% teacher turnover.
“But that’s gone down a lot. So you can really build a successful model if there’s consistency.”
The district has worked hard under the leadership of its superintendent, Tanya Turner, and people like Fields. The stories you hear about Whiteville City in the 1990s are what you see in Perquimans now. Lassiter, for example, had Fields as his fourth-grade teacher and Turner as his teacher in fifth grade.
“I couldn’t have turned out bad, right?” said Lassiter, this year’s Northeast regional principal of the year.
Lassiter attributes student assessment growth, in part, to consistency in his teacher workforce. Before this year, a quarter of his kindergartners were on track for proficiency midway through the year. Now that number is more than two-thirds.
That growth is about what the district sees on average.
“I think our competitive advantage is consistency in leadership,” he said, including teachers as leaders when it comes to students’ reading acquisition. “We can’t build something if we’re starting over every two or three years.”
But that constant starting over is a reality for a lot of districts.
The state of teacher turnover in the state
The Education Policy Initiative at Carolina compiled a brief using Department of Public Instruction data to compare educator attrition from 2016 to 2023. It breaks down the distribution of educator attrition across North Carolina school districts.
Between September 2019 and September 2020, teacher and principal attrition fell to 9.8% and 10.4%, respectively. Since September 2020, teacher and principal attrition in public schools rose. Teacher attrition increased to 12.1% between September 2020 and September 2021. It increased again, to 15.6%, between September 2021 and September 2022.
“To put this increase into perspective, we note that each percentage point increase in attrition represents approximately 1,000 additional individuals no longer teaching” in public schools, the EPIC report said.
Principal attrition increased to 12.5% in September 2021 and 17.5% in September 2022. That means nearly one out of every five principals in September 2021 was no longer one in September 2022.
The northeast region of the state, a concentration of low-income communities and Black and Brown people, had the highest attrition. The mostly white Perquimans County Schools is an outlier in that region.
What’s making it so hard to keep teachers in schools
There are a lot of reasons teachers leave. One often tops the list.
“Teacher shortage comes right back to pay,” Fields said. “People aren’t getting paid. We have a third-year teacher and her child is income eligible for NC Pre-K because she’s at below 75% of the state median income. She’s a third-year teacher with a four-year degree.”
“It is unacceptable,” Turner adds.
Low pay is a bitter pill to swallow, made more so by an increasingly toxic environment.
“Why would I make this less money, for this really big, important work I’m supposed to do, but I don’t feel very supported,” said Ruafika Cobb, principal at Ira B. Jones Elementary in Asheville City Schools. “And I’m always criticized for the work that I am doing. I think that has started to shift the dynamics of teaching in general, and people aren’t even coming into the profession anymore.”
A recent RAND report warns that culture war legislation can result in collateral damage, making it more difficult to keep highly qualified teachers in schools.
“Teachers described working in conditions filled with worry, anxiety, and even fear,” the report reads. “They perceived that carrying out the core function of their roles — teaching students — has become more difficult, as restrictions on their classroom instruction limited their ability to engage students in learning, support students’ critical thinking skills, and develop students’ abilities to engage in perspective taking and empathy building.
“Especially concerning is the potential for these limitations and their politicized nature to lead teachers to consider leaving their jobs or the teaching profession altogether.”
Teacher impact on reading and successful science of reading implementation
Educators report widespread impact on science of reading implementation related to teacher turnover. Not only does turnover create disparity in LETRS training among staff, but it drains student-facing time from teachers who stay as they work to catch up their colleagues.
One of the most alarming impacts is on student continuity of instruction. Reading acquisition is the result of gains in a number of areas that teachers track through assessment. In addition to changes in instructional approaches, the shift to science of reading has changed how districts expect teachers to assess students.
As districts implement the reading law, an increasing number build intervention time into school day calendars to group students by areas needing growth and to provide extra support.
Sometimes that means more training on how to assess and how to respond to assessment. Most times, educators say, teachers learn by doing. Continuity for a student depends on teachers being able to do this with fidelity, but that becomes harder when teachers leave.
“We always can envision what more teachers can do,” Cobb said. “And we don’t necessarily train them for all the ‘more’ we want them doing. And we don’t compensate them for what they’re currently doing. I think we need to start re-evaluating what all we’re asking a teacher to do.”