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Why I stayed: Lessons from one teacher’s journey on beginning teacher retention

In my seven years as a teacher, I have considered leaving the profession on numerous occasions. My recent 30th birthday has caused me to reflect on my career, why I thought about leaving the classroom, and why I ultimately decided to stay.

Even though I have sustained my passion and honed my skill for serving students in the classroom, factors such as workload, compensation, and opportunities for career advancement have led me to question whether I might be able to achieve a more fulfilling, balanced, and financially stable life in a different profession. Unfortunately, these factors are deterring many young teachers throughout North Carolina. The State Board of Education’s 2015-2016 report to the General Assembly found that more than one in 10 of our newest teachers opt out before reaching their fourth year.

And yet, many talented and dedicated teachers stay, continuing to improve their instruction and impact the lives of students every day. I am proud to be among them; so in celebration of turning 30 and continuing to teach, I would like to share some of the influences that have sustained me in the teaching profession.

A Reasonable Workload

The first five years of my teaching career were particularly arduous. As a ninth grade English teacher in Baltimore City, I dedicated virtually all of my time and a considerable amount of personal funds to meeting the needs of my students, many of whom were coping with the damaging effects of poverty and systemic racism. Combatting those forces as a beginning teacher left me depleted and made me question my ability and desire to continue teaching.

After three years in Baltimore, I taught English in France for a year, and then, feeling rejuvenated for the work, I  moved back to my hometown of Chapel Hill to become a French teacher. For my first two years in this position, I traveled between three elementary schools daily, which made for an extremely hectic workday. I felt like I was compensating for the district’s needs by shouldering an unmanageable amount of work, which was reminiscent of my time in Baltimore. I began to wonder if that was just the burden of being a teacher, even in a traditionally successful district like Chapel Hill.

In 2016, I was reassigned to a full-time position at one school and the change was immediate. I remember being struck by this awesome feeling of empowerment: suddenly I had enough planning time and a workload I could handle. I was invincible! I began to think outside of the box, fine-tuning my lessons and creating more engaging, in-depth ways for my students to interact with the French language. For the first time in my teaching career, I felt empowered to have the impact I knew was possible, and it made me want to continue teaching. All it took was a shift in the conditions of my teaching position.

Working conditions, especially workload, have an important impact on teacher retention. There should be more protections against unreasonable demands, as these can lead to high rates of burnout and turnover among teachers.

Furthermore, district and school leaders should be cognizant of how many schools, preps, classes, students, and student needs their teachers are supporting.  When teachers are required to do more with fewer resources, they can grow weary and become less effective. On the other hand, when teachers have the time and resources they need for the work before them, they can realize their power, use it on behalf of students, and stay the course for years to come.

Competitive Pay

When I was working at three schools in Chapel Hill, I was actively searching for jobs outside of the classroom. Most of the positions that piqued my interest brought in salaries that would not have supported my lifestyle. Thanks to Chapel Hill’s 12 percent local supplement and my master’s degree, I made more money as a teacher than I would have earned in the other positions I was considering. During those years, the financial benefit of staying in the classroom certainly influenced my decision to stick it out.

I received my master’s degree in 2012, which is early enough to secure compensation for this credential in North Carolina. Many of my young colleagues, however, missed the cut-off, and are paid significantly less than I am for no other reason than they started their degrees too late. This is unfortunate, since the financial “win” of receiving master’s-level pay has helped me hang on to my chosen profession. Inasmuch as master’s pay has served as incentive for me, it can become a deterrent for those who do not receive credit for this accomplishment.  

Teachers who do not receive master’s-level compensation and who do not teach in districts that provide a competitive local supplement can most likely find positions outside of the classroom that pay more for less rigorous work.

With a salary that fails to reflect their level of education and the difficulty of their work, these teachers lack incentives to persevere in a rewarding, but extremely challenging career. In order to retain these teachers, North Carolina should increase its base salary and reinstate master’s-level pay.

Mentors who connect and inspire

A teacher’s first years in the classroom tend to be some of the hardest of her life due to the pressure of learning on the job while taking on 100 percent of the position’s responsibilities. One way that public schools in North Carolina counteract this burden is by providing each beginning teacher with an experienced mentor who guides them in improving their craft.

My mentor was Shawna Catlett who teaches French at Ephesus Elementary. Beyond helping me improve my instruction, Shawna became my friend. On the days when I struggled, she was there to listen and problem-solve with me. Her support and friendship reminded me that I mattered, and that it would matter to someone if I gave up.

In addition to sustaining me through friendship, Shawna inspired me by providing an example of a rewarding career in teaching. With a dynamic career that includes leading our district’s Elementary World Languages team, presenting every year at the Foreign Language Association of North Carolina Conference, and advancing initiatives in World Language Education, she is the definition of a teacher-leader. She has encouraged me to  pursue some of the same pathways to leadership and coached me in meeting my professional goals. Her example and guidance have inspired me to envision and work toward a more fulfilling future in teaching.

Experienced teachers should never underestimate their potential impact on newcomers to the profession, even outside of the official mentorship model. By offering friendship and an example of how to lead from the classroom, an experienced teacher can help sustain a new teacher beyond those first few years, enabling her to become the teacher she was meant to be.

Opportunities for self-directed leadership

This year at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ Convocation, our new superintendent, Dr. Pamela Baldwin, challenged teachers to be willing to take risks. This message from the leader of my district reflects the encouragement I have always received from my school leaders in Chapel Hill.

Throughout my career in teaching, administrators have supported me in pursuing targeted professional development, creating new modes of communication with families, organizing school-wide events, and instituting new behavior incentive systems. Being able to diagnose problems, come up with solutions, and implement new initiatives makes me feel like a professional who is driving change.  

Although this process is inherently risky (we’re bound to stumble as we forge our own path), it is supremely rewarding and can lead to unprecedented progress. When new teachers have the freedom to generate solutions and support in taking on challenges, they grow more as professionals and can effect lasting change in their school communities. As a byproduct of this process, teachers become more invested in their school communities, more solutions-oriented, and less likely to leave the profession.

Without the privileges of my current position, I likely wouldn’t be a teacher anymore; and although I am only one person, I believe my story carries lessons for leaders at every level in North Carolina who want to help retain good beginning teachers.  

At the state level, elected officials should push for a more competitive base teacher salary. At the district level, leaders should implement a system to protect teachers against overwork. At the school level, administrators should work to encourage and support beginning teacher leadership. And finally, at the ground level, teachers should help sustain one another by offering friendship and inspiration.

If we can do our part at each level, perhaps more young teachers will get to experience the joy of celebrating their 30th birthdays with classrooms full of enthusiastic students.

Jaclyn Holland

Jaclyn Holland is a French teacher and the 2019 Teacher of the Year at Estes Hills Elementary in Chapel Hill. In her nine years as an educator, she has also taught Secondary English in Baltimore, MD and English as a Foreign Language in Valence, France.