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Perspective | A call to thwart a Great Resignation — and to reenvision public schools

The prolonged pandemic roiled the economy, nudged some into earlier-than-planned retirement, sent many in search of higher-paying jobs, and spawned the phrase Great Resignation. State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis used the term this week when he sought to alert state legislators to an impending erosion of teachers and staff in North Carolina public schools.

“In response to current staffing shortages and in anticipation of the Great Resignation hitting our schools at the end of this school year,” said Davis. “We should aggressively launch additional district and state-level strategies to retain staff and fill vacancies before the next school year.” 

Over the first academic year of COVID-induced economic downturn and school shutdown, few North Carolina teachers and principals fled. En masse, they turned to keeping students fed, connected to their schools, and learning as best they could online. In a study spanning the 2020-21 school year, the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina found that “exit and transfer rates for teachers and principals are generally lower during the pandemic than in prior years.”

“Although the decrease in attrition is positive for schools, it is important to note that the absence of attrition does not mean the absence of a problem,” the EPIC brief added. “Educators are feeling stress and burn out and will need supports from district and state officials as North Carolina emerges from the pandemic.”

Those words were written before the current 2021-22 school term and before the outbreak of the omicron variant. In the state and counties, this term has been marked by the flare-up of divisions over mask and vaccine mandates and over the teaching of the nation’s racial history.

“As if keeping schools operational during a pandemic wasn’t stressful enough, keep in mind that teachers have had to confront the ripple effects of extreme political polarization in the U.S. in recent years as well,” says a Brookings Institution essay. “… In short, America’s contentious political climate and ongoing pandemic have simultaneously increased teachers’ workloads—and work-related stress..”

In his quietly graceful presentation to a panel of legislators, Davis avoided wedge-issue politics. He mentioned the Great Resignation in only one sentence. All in all, Davis, who has served on the education board since 2015, defined an education agenda in a personable manner rather than through policy language.

Davis used the pronoun “I” not to refer to himself but rather to articulate what students, parents, and educators would say “when we listen.” It’s worth reading his full text, but here is a sample:

  • From listening to the aspirations of students: “I need an engaging, empowering, and effective teacher who knows me and cares about me and who believes in me even when I do not believe in myself. I need teachers who understand me because they have had similar life experiences, may look like me, and will prepare me to learn and live in a diverse, ever-changing society.”
  • From parents seeking a “better tomorrow” for their children: “I want my child’s teacher to be my partner in my child’s education. I want to choose to send my child to a public school that is fully supported by the community and state that I live in.”
  • From educators who choose the career: “I need relief from the burdens that keep me from teaching. I need support to overcome my own fatigue and anxiety that the pandemic has magnified in order to be a positive force for good for my students. I want to earn a salary that is competitive with the private sector so that I can stay in education and can support my family.”

Davis also made a key point. For many thousands of North Carolina young people, public schools perform as they should in preparing them for post-graduation education and life. And yet, “far too many” don’t receive the quality of education the state promises as a fundamental right. The challenge, he said, is to enhance what’s working and address what’s not.

“We have a once in a century opportunity over the next two years to innovate and transform the system,” said the education board chair. “We must take longer strides on a more urgent and deliberate time schedule with the full commitment of our state’s leadership and abundant resources.”

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.