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North Carolina Desperately Needs More Teachers

The state opened the school year with 3,584 teaching vacancies, almost a 20 percent drop from the previous year, but many of the new hires are less qualified. There’s been a 51 percent decrease in the last decade in traditional teacher preparation program enrollment.

Jahzar Fields could have majored in business administration, psychology or any of a number of fields he had considered to get a high-paying job after he graduates from N.C. State University.

Instead, Fields is an education major who plans to return to the Wilmington area to teach in a high-needs school to inspire other Black young people.

But the 19-year-old is becoming more of an exception than the rule as North Carolina schools struggle to fill thousands of vacant teaching positions.

“Being one of the only Black male teachers is something I take pride in,” Fields said in an interview. “I’m excited to say I’m a Black male teacher because I know what that can mean to kids. I knew what that meant to me.”

North Carolina students began a new school year a few weeks ago during a period of upheaval in the teaching profession. Low pay, lack of respect and a host of other issues are cited as contributing to the challenges of finding enough teachers to educate the state’s 1.5 million public school students.

Vacancies are having a real impact on students. Keith Richardson, principal of Knightdale High School, said he’s been unable to offer some popular courses this semester because he couldn’t get the teaching positions filled.

Like other principals across the state, Richardson has fewer candidates applying for each opening.

Schools Hiring Less-Qualified Teachers

School districts opened the school year with 3,584 teaching vacancies, a nearly 20 percent drop from the previous year, according to a survey from the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association. But Jack Hoke, the association’s executive director, said the drop only occurred because schools hired 1,400 more “residency license teachers” than the prior year.

Residency license teachers are people who are typically making a career change. They start teaching with less training than a person who was an education major in college.

The superintendents’ survey found districts hired 5,041 new residency license teachers this year. That’s a 160 percent increase over the past two years and a 39 percent increase over last year.

“The research is clear that teachers who are prepared in traditional programs do better and stay longer,” Paola Sztajn, dean of N.C. State’s College of Education, said in an interview. “Right now, yes we have such a shortage that people are having opportunities to start teaching with an emergency license.

“But in the long run, I’m hoping that will normalize and we’ll have opportunities to continue having traditionally prepared teachers.”

Residency license teachers are being put into the classroom to work with students at the same time they’re going back to college to take education classes and work on passing licensure exams.

Joey Ziemba gets up at 4 a.m. to do his course work for N.C. State before heading in to teach third-grade students at Smith Elementary School in Garner. Ziemba, 42, is in his second year of teaching after having spent time as a manager at UPS and later at a healthcare recruiting firm.

“I loved my time at UPS but I was weighing are you going to be happy and love what you’re doing but not make as much or chase after money and job titles,” Ziemba said in an interview.

Fewer Want to Become Teachers

The reason schools are turning more to residency license teachers is that fewer students are attending traditional teacher preparation programs.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, there’s been a 51 percent decrease in the past decade in traditional enrollment in North Carolina teacher preparation programs. Even when you factor in people who are going for alternative teaching licenses, the teacher prep program enrollment is still down 30 percent over the past 10 years.

The UNC System has seen a 50 percent drop since the spring 2010 semester in the number of undergraduate education majors.

It’s hard to talk a high school student into becoming a teacher when the starting salary is $37,000, according to Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School in Tarboro. The National Education Association ranks North Carolina 46th in the nation in beginning teacher pay and 34th overall in average teacher pay.

“Starting pay in North Carolina for teachers is ridiculous,” Bristow-Smith, the 2019 North Carolina Principal of the Year, said in an interview. “It absolutely is.

“The real challenge is how do you get a high school senior who is surveying all of the different options for their profession and thinking ‘I’ve got a big heart and I want to give back to society, but I also want to live.’”

Josh Webb, 19, an education major at N.C. State from Rocky Mount, said he had to come to terms with the low pay he’ll get as a teacher.

”I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone I’m going to become an educator and they say, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re smarter than that,’” Webb said in an interview.

Ioana Ibanescu, 23, didn’t get into teaching for the money. But the first-year math teacher at Green Hope High School in Cary will be monitoring how the state handles future teacher pay raises.

“I may have no choice but to move elsewhere where there’s higher pay,” Ibanescu said in an interview.

Teacher Attrition Rising

Compounding the problem is that teacher attrition has been rising in the state since 2020.

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) found that the teacher attrition rate in the state’s public schools had increased to 15.6 percent between September 2021 and September 2022. That means nearly 5,500 more teachers left teaching between September 2021 and September 2022 as compared to between September 2019 to September 2020.

The report found that teacher attrition was particularly high in northeastern North Carolina and is much lower, on average, in the western portions of the state. Some of the state’s most economically distressed counties are in the northeast.

“Schools educating many low-income students and students of color had higher attrition rates than other schools,” Kevin C. Bastian, director of EPIC and one of the report’s researchers, said in an interview.

Bastian said they’ve requested this year’s employee payroll data to see if the attrition rates are continuing to rise.

Is The State Doing Enough?

Efforts to sharply raise teacher pay have run into roadblocks at the state legislature.

“The most direct path toward making the teaching profession more palatable is we’ve got to do something about salaries in North Carolina,” Bristow-Smith said. “We just have to, and with billion-dollar surpluses in the General Assembly — billion dollar surpluses — we can’t eke out a salary scale that makes the profession attractive.”

State lawmakers haven’t taken action to fully fund the Leandro plan, which calls for sharp raises as a way to try to provide every student with highly qualified teachers.

Lawmakers also haven’t acted on the State Board of Education’s request for permission to pilot a program that would tie large pay raises to whether teachers can demonstrate their effectiveness.

Some people say public schools should be run like a business, noted Eric Davis, chair of the state board.

Using that business scenario, Davis said the “management,” aka state lawmakers, “makes false accusations towards their employees” and “is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the competition” through private school vouchers.

“The company has 5,000 vacancies that they cannot fill due to low pay, poor working conditions and the way their employees are treated,” Davis said in an interview. “This is what the employees of the company known as the NC Public Education Company experience.

“No wonder employees are leaving in droves, and the new employee pipeline is drying up.”

But Randy Brechbiel, a spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger, said the blame shouldn’t be placed on lawmakers.

“The General Assembly has funded several measures over the years to help recruit and retain teachers in North Carolina, including pay raises, salary bonuses, state-funded local salary supplements, and additional performance-based bonuses,” Brechbiel said in a statement. “Unfortunately, our state — like the majority of states in the country — is facing workforce shortage issues in K-12 education.”

Making College More Affordable

In the face of low pay, some educators say what will help is to expand ways to make college less expensive for aspiring teachers.

The largest state effort is the Teaching Fellows program, which provides scholarships and forgivable loans to college students who will teach special education or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). It’s offered at eight colleges and universities, including N.C. State.

N.C. State also operates the Transformational Scholars program, which provides scholarships to Eastern North Carolina high school students who agree to return home to teach after graduation.

“We’re really working hard to allow future teachers to graduate with no or minimum debt,” Sztajn, the N.C. State dean said.

The lack of debt was a big attraction for Fields, who is in the Transformational Scholars program. He wants to avoid the plight of a Wake County teacher that he was a student teacher under. She didn’t finish paying off her student loan debt until she was 48.

“If people who have law degrees can’t pay off student loans, you know teachers can’t,” Fields said.

Future Teachers

Individual school systems are offering their own programs to recruit new teachers.

Edgecombe County’s Scholar Teachers program was created by Bristow-Smith to be the district’s version of the Teaching Fellows program. But Bristow-Smith wanted to model it on the original version of the program that was open to teachers in any subject and allowed students to go to colleges across the state.

“The environment is not designed to make teaching something young people actively seek out, which is why Scholar Teachers can grease the path by making college debt-free with scholarships,” Bristow-Smith said.

The Scholar Teachers program is already seeing its first members return to teach in the rural Eastern North Carolina district. Other program members like Dariana De Leon, 19, from Tarboro, are in the pipeline learning to become teachers.

“I’ll do something that will make me happy,” De Leon, who is also part of N.C. State’s Transformational Scholars program, said. “Sure it will be difficult. But I can see myself five years from now teaching in a classroom.”

Wake County has taken a different route with its Future Teachers program. Instead of a scholarship, Wake provides high school students with a stipend and training during their four years of college and the promise of a teaching position after graduation.

Alex Johnson, 25, a special-education teacher at Knightdale High School, was in the second class to join the Future Teachers program when she graduated from Garner High School in 2016. She’s among 54 program graduates who are still working in Wake County and seven at Knightdale High.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Johnson said in an interview. “I just always loved being a leader and just inspiring people.”

But despite Wake’s marketing efforts to its high schools, it’s never had more applicants than spots for the program.

“Teaching unfortunately doesn’t hold the same allure today as it has in the past,” Sherri Morris, an administrator for Teacher Talent and Retention in Wake’s Human Resources Department, said in an interview.

How Long Will They Teach?

Historically, teaching was viewed as a profession that people would spend their lives in before retiring. That’s not so much the case now given the work climate.

Johnson said she loves helping her special-education students prepare for life after high school. But Johnson said all the administrative work involved with being a special-education teacher means she’s looking at becoming a counselor down the road.

“I want to stay in the education realm, but I do not think I could stay in the classroom, especially in the climate that it’s in now, for more than like another 10 years,” said Johnson, who is in her fourth year of teaching. “It’s exhausting, but it makes it a lot better when you come to a place where you’re supported.”

Webb, the N.C. State student, says he plans to get “boots on the ground” as a teacher before switching to education policy work. But Webb intends to give it his best while he’s in the classroom.

“Students, no matter what ZIP code they come from or what side of the tracks they come from, they deserve someone who is willing to be in the classroom each day fighting for them to have the best education they can,” said Webb, who is a member of the Transformational Scholars and Scholar Teachers programs.

Eric Davis, 35, made the professional jump last year from being a DJ and working in the hospitality industry to teaching eighth-grade students at Neuse River Middle School in Raleigh. But Davis, who is no relation to the state board chair of the same name, said he’s looking to either focus on school administration or athletic coaching.

“Being a classroom teacher for up to 20 years is not my path or goal,” Davis said in an interview. “But I want to influence education.”

In a climate where state laws such as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” have been passed, Diego Alonso-Galindo isn’t committing to teaching past three years. Alonso-Galindo, 20, of Rocky Mount, is an N.C. State student and member of the Transformational Scholars and Scholar Teachers programs.

“It’s a lot to think about,” Alonso-Galindo said in an interview. “I am 20 and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.”

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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