A class of students at Jefferson Middle School is on its third math teacher this school year.

The class’ original teacher retired after the first nine weeks of school. Next came retired math teacher Cindi Goins who took over for the second and third quarters as a long-term substitute. Recently, though, she had to give up the class when she reached a threshold of being considered a “full-time” worker, which would have forced her off of her retiree health plan onto a high-deductible plan. Another retired teacher has come in to finish out the school year.

Goins said she tried to make the transition from the original teacher as smooth as possible for the students, though it can be hard coming in mid-year.

“It’s kind of awkward, in a way,” she said. “The students saw that I was a retired teacher and I already knew classroom management. I think it made it easier on them.”

Such transitions are no longer unusual as school districts across the state – especially large, urban districts like Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools – struggle to fill all of their teaching positions. Teachers in competitive fields, like math and science, have been particularly hard to find, said Beverly Emory, superintendent of the district.

“This is the first time we’ve had more math vacancies than EC vacancies,” Emory said, referring to the long-standing challenge of finding teachers for exceptional children.

Schools can find it hard to compete with the technology sector in hiring math majors.

“They are very marketable and employable,” Emory said. “You may go into the major very convinced you want to go into the classroom, but when you’re offered (another) job at $50,000, it’s just really hard.”

Starting teacher salaries in North Carolina were $33,000 this school year. The General Assembly is expected to raise that to $35,000 this legislative session.

Still, school officials across the state fear that move alone might not be enough after several years of very public, and sometimes hostile, debate about public education. Not only can students look to other fields, but teachers can also look to other states. The Department of Public Instruction’s 2013-14 Annual Report on Teachers Leaving the Profession found more teachers left North Carolina to teach in other states than in previous years. The teacher turnover rate later dipped slightly, but is still above 14 percent.

Halfway through the current school year, there were at least 150 open teaching positions among the 10 largest urban districts in the state, according to a report from the North Carolina Large District Superintendent Consortium. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools had 37 unfilled positions during that time.

Emory said some of those positions have been filled, but there were still elementary school vacancies in February.

“It’s unheard of,” Emory said to a group of business and community leaders at a luncheon in March. “If the state of North Carolina doesn’t start valuing, paying for and honoring the hard work that go on in classrooms, we’ll have way more (vacancies).”

The result is districts are looking for creative solutions to fill positions, like hiring through lateral entry, which means individuals may come without formal teacher education, and relying on long-term substitutes, like Goins.

“I hated it,” Goins said of having to leave her class at the end of March. “I enjoyed my time there, but I fell under this umbrella thing that didn’t enable me to finish out the year.”

A change in the state health plan in response to the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide health coverage to employees who average 30 hours a week or 130 hours a month over a certain time period, has limited the degree to which school districts can use long-term substitutes. In another case, a retiree serving as interim principal at Piney Grove Elementary School had to give up that position after she, too, was going to hit the full-time worker threshold.

Spencer Hardy, principal at Parkland High School, had to get creative when he had open positions in his math department this year. He started the year with openings and accumulated several more after extenuating circumstances forced several more teachers to leave mid-year.

Hardy said he was able to pick up two brand-new teachers from mid-year graduates and covered other openings with substitutes and giving extra math assignments to teachers he already had. Still, it meant students were getting new teachers – either new to the profession or new to them – in the middle of their courses. It’s not ideal, he said.

“You want continuity at all times,” Hardy said. “Students need to have a comfort level that the teacher they have is somebody they can build relationships with. If there is something we have to get through, it is building that relationship. With a new teacher, you have to start the relationship all over again.”

Emory said the district has worked to minimize the impact on learning. At some schools, that has meant math departments create lessons for substitute teachers to administer. At others, it means creating more opportunities for after-school tutoring.

The district is also looking at ways to attract more teachers, with incentives other than salaries and signing bonuses. Emory said they are turning to teacher working conditions surveys to address issues that may make teachers more apt to leave the profession and trying to add more professional development opportunities. Emory said she knows these initiatives alone will not solve the teacher shortage issue, but hopes they’ll at least help stem the tide locally.

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