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NC classrooms brace for teacher shortage

In some areas, unusual reports of elementary classrooms hardest hit

Mirroring a national trend, some North Carolina classrooms are bracing for a teacher shortage next Monday, the first day of the traditional school year.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr about the reason why the teacher shortage is more pronounced there than in years past. Guilford’s school officials are still scrambling to fill around 50 teacher vacancies—many, unusually, in elementary classrooms.

“I think our state legislature has done a really great job of discouraging teachers from staying in North Carolina,” said Carr.

“Several years of budget cuts and many elected officials and pundits saying very negative things about teachers in general—there is a general feeling, at least among the educators I know, that public education is under attack in NC. And so people are leaving,” said Carr.

North Carolina’s large school districts, which for the most part offer higher salary supplemental pay than other state school districts, are struggling to fill teacher vacancies. Guilford, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth are all reporting teacher shortages.

Uptick in elementary school teacher vacancies

Guilford’s Carr emphasized how unusual it is to have teacher vacancies this late in the summer for elementary classrooms.

“It’s always tough to get science and math teachers, as well as special education teachers,” said Carr, explaining that industry jobs are typically higher paying and special education places considerably intense demands on a teacher. “But it’s really unusual to see vacancies in elementary schools.”

Guilford County isn’t alone in seeing an unusual number of teacher vacancies at the primary school level.

In Winston Salem-Forsyth schools, where administrators are still working to fill 81 teacher vacancies, 47 of those openings are in the district’s elementary classrooms.

“That’s troubling,” said NC State University’s Michael Maher, an assistant dean for professional education and accreditation who trains future teachers.

“We produce far more elementary school teachers than any other kind,” said Maher of North Carolina’s teacher training programs, “so the fact that we are seeing elementary school teacher shortages — that’s a serious issue.”

In order to try and get classrooms fully staffed before the start of the school year, both Winston Salem/Forsyth and Guilford County schools will look to hiring substitute teachers, rehiring retired teachers, and even pulling teacher assistants, whose jobs at this point are still unsecure thanks to a delayed state budget that has yet to be finalized by lawmakers, into full-time teacher positions.

Elementary teachers now face far fewer classroom supports than several years ago, thanks to years of state cuts to classroom supplies and early grade teacher assistants. The state currently employs 7,000 fewer TAs in grades K-3 than it did in 2008, and is proposing to cut an additional 8,500+ TAs from elementary schools over the next two years.

For elementary teachers like Barbara Dell Carter who works in rural eastern North Carolina, that means she must manage a classroom of 22 second graders with very diverse needs and without any instructional assistance, except for maybe an hour each day.

A classroom of 21 students is not terribly large, explained Carter, but without support, it’s difficult to make sure students learn. “And now that they have lifted the cap on classroom sizes, what will we do? We can keep adding desks, but that’s not good for our students,” said Carter.

An unattractive choice

While Guilford’s Carr doesn’t have proof that the prospect of working in an elementary classroom without classroom supports is directly playing into their teacher shortage, she can say it’s just one issue among many that are driving teachers away from North Carolina’s schools.

“Class sizes are up, resources are down, newer teachers got a raise last year, but many of the more experienced teachers did not, said Carr, noting that costs associated with teachers’ health insurance plans also went up, often negating any pay raises that more experienced educators may have received.

“Teaching is just not an attractive position in North Carolina anymore,” said Carr.

Guilford County Association of Educators president Angela Jackson, who is an elementary school teacher, says she’s still seeing her colleagues move to South Carolina and Virginia, where salaries for new teachers are $15,000 higher right off the bat.

“Why not?” said Jackson. “No [health] retirement benefits, no career status benefits so teachers can be fired for no reason at all…teaching is no longer an attractive field to be in.”

Career status, also known as teacher tenure, was eliminated by state lawmakers two years for new teachers. It’s one of many teaching benefits that has been cut by state lawmakers; additional pay for advanced degrees, professional development opportunities, and a state-funded teacher training program called NC Teaching Fellows have all been squashed in recent times.

And the latest? Eliminating health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees, an idea that Senate leaders are pushing for in their draft 2015-17 budget proposal.

If the proposal becomes law, teachers hired after January 1, 2016 would no longer be offered state-paid health insurance benefits in retirement—a benefit that recruiters often touted as something to look forward to after years of relatively low wages working as a teacher or state employee.

Guilford’s Carr says if lawmakers eliminate the health retirement benefit for teachers that will make a bad situation even worse.

“I don’t know anyone who goes into education for the dollars and cents,” said Carr. “Educators are mission-driven people and generally want to make peoples’ lives better.”

“But even missionaries can only take so much abuse, and we are past that tipping point in North Carolina,” added Carr, “and until better public policy changes come, we’ll be dealing with a self- created teaching shortage for the foreseeable future.”

A national trend

A New York Times story on teacher shortages highlighted Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools’ quandary: how to fill 200 teacher vacancies just one month before the start of the school year.

Nearly 100 vacancies remain just days now before the start of the school year—and Charlotte too is experiencing an unusually high number of those at the elementary school level.

Teacher shortages are widespread, especially in urban areas, according to the New York Times.

The vacancies are pushing school districts to hire more inexperienced teachers who may not even have their teaching credentials yet.

And a recovering economy means that graduating college students have more employment options, often with better pay than what a school teacher can earn.

Enrollments in teacher preparation programs are down across the country, as is the case in North Carolina.

Between 2010 and 2014, enrollment in UNC’s teacher preparation programs fell 27 percent.

NC State’s Maher said those numbers pushed them to recruit more heavily, and for 2015 it looks like they will see a slight uptick in teacher prep enrollment numbers thanks to those intense efforts.

It’s not clear, however, how enrollment numbers will look at other UNC teacher training programs for 2015—those figures won’t be out until later this fall.

Guilford’s Carr doesn’t see relief coming soon enough, however.

“More than anything, I’m most worried about the long term pipeline,” said Carr of the prospect of getting enough young people to come teach—and stay—in North Carolina.

“We’ve got to turn this around as a state.”

Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner is a contract reporter for EducationNC focused on child nutrition.