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Perspective | A community approach to teacher retention in North Carolina

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June 11, 2021 was my last day of teaching. The decision to leave was emotional and I miss my students every day. Teaching American history has been my North Star since I was 16 years old. However, after 14 years of teaching, I left, and I am not alone.

On the best days, teaching is hard work. The nuances of teaching often remain hidden to those not in the building, as teachers are responsible for the social and emotional health of each child, ensuring that the curriculum is relevant and accurate, and in social studies, students are being prepared to become active members of our democracy upon graduation.

Over the past two years, teaching has become even harder. The results of this can be seen in districts across the state as teachers are leaving the profession in droves. According to the teacher recruiting sites for three central North Carolina school districts, as of Nov. 12, 2021, there were 691 open teaching positions.

Now, more than ever, teachers in your community need to see that you are not just standing behind them but standing with them.

Why teachers are leaving the profession

Teacher attrition is not a new conversation in education. However, there are three major factors that make teaching in the 2021-2022 school year different than others.

1. COVID-19

During the 2019 and 2020 school years, there was a sense amongst many teachers: “We can’t leave now, the kids need us.” I thought this often. In fact, through February 2021, teacher attrition was relatively low compared to the previous three years. Throughout the pandemic, teachers learned to flex to new learning environments, sought solutions to improve student engagement, and tried to keep students learning.

This school year, however, the past two years have finally taken their toll on the teaching community. WUNC recently reported that while there are not yet official statistics on the number of teachers who have left this year, there are “on-the-ground reports” that the shortage is acute throughout the state. Whether it is for personal, mental, or family health reasons, the pandemic is a factor in why teachers are leaving. And to be fair, the shortages are not limited to licensed teaching positions, but extend into every corner of each school building. The loss of teachers and staff builds into other systemic issues, leaving increased responsibilities for those who remain.

2. The politics of pay

Anyone who knows a teacher or watches the local news knows that teacher pay is not a new discussion. Since I started teaching in North Carolina in 2010, the state legislature has removed tenure, ended supplemental pay for advanced degrees, and engaged in political debate each year over teacher pay in budget negotiations.

Only recently was the state budget signed into law. While it does result in an average 5% raise for teachers over the next two years, for many veteran teachers, that only translates into $50 to $65 more a month. One might expect that, with all that is on a teacher’s plate in the 2021 school year, compensation for their hard work would be a legislative priority. Yet it is not, and teachers are very aware.

3. Critical race theory

The debate over Critical race theory (CRT) is an issue that is directly affecting teachers, their classroom lessons, and their interactions with students.

The public debate in North Carolina over CRT in the classroom has sparked the Johnston County Board of Commissioners to vote to withhold school funding until CRT was banned, pushed the North Carolina State Legislature to propose legislation, and is a major focus of the current Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson who created the FACTS Task Force to seek out teachers who are presumed to be teaching CRT and indoctrinating students.

Teachers are struggling with the realities of the pandemic, frustrations over the politics around teacher pay, and now the potential for punishment or loss of their position if they broach a subject or conversation that could be interpreted as CRT.

A community approach to teacher retention

I recognize that the problems are complicated and nuanced. As an experienced educator, I know that the following solutions will not fix everything. But I do believe there are three things we can all do, right now, to support North Carolina teachers.

First, seek opportunities to express your appreciation of teachers.

In my drawer next to me, I have every note a student gave me over the years and in front of me I have student letters, artwork, and poetry hanging on my home office walls. Small tokens of a job well done often make a bigger impact than you may believe. I encourage you to send a note to a teacher, tell their principal of the excellent work they are doing, volunteer at a school, or even buy them a cup of coffee.

Second, spend time understanding what students are learning.

If you have a concern, read along with them and reference the North Carolina Standards of Learning. Take the opportunity to learn with the students in your life. Engage with teachers about the lessons in a spirit of curiosity. However, please be patient as many teachers are currently overwhelmed and have been accustomed to emails that are sent in a much different spirit.

Third, call your state representatives.

Advocate to depoliticize teacher pay and help to make progress towards teachers earning what they are worth. Elected representatives hold jobs that are based on your support. If you disagree with what they are doing, tell them, and then vote.

It is not hyperbole to say that teachers have played a role in where we all are today and continue to play a role in the lives of our children. I would not be in education if it were not for my high school history teacher and the positive impact he had on my life. Teachers in North Carolina need community members to recognize the issues that are pushing them out of their classrooms and become the movement encouraging them to stay.

Beth Shaver

Beth Shaver is a second-year PhD student in teacher education and learning sciences in social studies at N.C. State University. Shaver spent 14 years as a middle and high school history teacher in both California and North Carolina and was the 2020 North Carolina Gilder Lehrman History Teacher of the Year. Her research interests include diversity and equity in social studies and the inclusion of minority narratives in American history classrooms.