Why are so Many Teachers Leaving?

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Monica Wilkerson teaching her Pre-AP English II class in 2018. She would continue to teach for four more years until she retired at the end of the first semester. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Jumma)

Teachers at Leesville and beyond have been retiring or quitting the profession at astronomical rates since 2020, leaving many issues for schools and school boards to cover.

Teaching has always been challenging: Little pay, long hours, and constantly having to stay on your feet. 

The teacher shortage happening now has been a trend for years; the Covid-19 pandemic just exacerbated it. A 2018 poll estimate found that U.S. schools were around 100,000 teachers short, and it kept steadily decreasing.

Covid-19 caused many teachers to become stressed trying to teach their students online without cameras. Or in cohorts for just one semester. That and many other factors have caused a steep decrease in teachers nationwide.

What do Teacher Shortages do to Students?

The shortage of teachers nationwide causes detrimental, long-term effects on students.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, having a shortage of teachers can “depress student achievement” due to an inadequate replacement for the teacher or none in classrooms.

The shortage also shows the disparity between more affluent and poorer school districts. Even though half of the nation’s principals say they are understaffed for the 2022-23 school year, a survey shows that schools in lower-income communities are more likely to have vacancies.

Why are Leesville’s Teachers Retiring

Paul Dinkenor is a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School. He has been in that position since the school opened in 1993. 

Dinkenor, like five teachers this school year at Leesville, is retiring from the profession. “I’ve taught since 1980, and I feel like it’s the right time,” said Dinkenor, who is retiring in June.

Unlike other teachers, the pandemic did not affect Dinkenor’s decision to leave. But, he did notice a change in some teachers and students after the pandemic.

“I do think people came back very excited to be at school and ready to converse and be with each other,” said Dinkenor. “Hopefully, that will translate down the road into people recapturing their intellectual curiosity.” 

When Dinkenor talked to teachers who were leaving, they gave him different reasons for their departure. 

“Some people have said they were burnt out [because of the pandemic]. Some people moved to a better paying job,” said Dinkenor. “Or, some people were like me and knew it was time to go.”

Experienced teachers like Dinkenor retiring is normal, but the amount of teacher turnover combined with retirement jeopardizes the U.S. educational system. 

Why are Leesville’s Teachers Leaving Prematurely?

Luke McIntyre worked for Leesville Road High School for seven years as an English teacher before stepping away from the profession this past winter break.

“I’ve been out of the school system since December 21, [2022], and even talking about it now brings back a lot of that frustration,” said McIntyre over voice message.

McIntyre cites the lack of energy and time he had to give to his family as one of his reasons for leaving the profession. 

“I think [one of my reasons] is I have a daughter now, I have my second child on the way, the energy I put into teaching [was not sustainable],” said McIntyre.

But, McIntyre realized how much he wanted to do something new with his life once he was away for a time from teaching. 

“I was actually gone for a week on ‘vacation’ for my brother-in-law’s wedding, and it was the longest time away from teaching,” said McIntyre. “As I was driving back, I felt so much anxiety coming back into the school system.”

McIntyre said he had a “moment of clarity” as he was gone from teaching to realize that the profession was not for him anymore. 

McIntyre still had things he loved about the profession. “I loved the students, I loved learning, I loved growing, and there’s no replacement for the time and investment you put into students,” said McIntyre.

However, the change in how teachers could administer their lessons and more rules started to wear on McIntyre’s love for teaching. 

“The lack of autonomy in teaching styles that I saw, and the order in which we have to read books, and the things we have to teach felt like we were becoming more politically correct,” said McIntyre.

“When I don’t feel like I have any direction over how I’m trying to cater my class to the needs of my students, it’s not fun anymore.” 

McIntyre is certain other teachers at Leesville feel the same as him. “A lot of them are my friends, and I’ve had conversations with them, and my experiences are not unique,” said McIntyre.

“It’s hard when we have duty at the beginning of the day, we’ve got lunch duty as well, and all the meetings after school, and grading papers at the end of the day, regrading papers, and not getting paid over the summer,” said McIntyre. 

All of these reasons make McIntyre feel “younger now” than he was seven and a half years ago since he stepped away from teaching. 

“Even in my hardest days now, not once do I regret leaving teaching,” said McIntyre.  

Despite that, he will always miss his students. “I miss my students. I always wonder how they’re doing. They’re my kids; they always will be,” said McIntyre. 

“But, the honest reality is, I’ve got my own daughter now, I have another kid on the way, and I want to be the best father to them. But, I can’t do that in the public school system,” said McIntyre.

The Effects of Shortages on Substitutes

This time in the education system is not just stressful for teachers and students. It also pushes the limits of substitute teachers.

Many students at Leesville have had Jeffrey Kulp as their substitute teacher. Many are getting to know him better than just a day because he is a long-term substitute. Mr. Kulp is currently subbing for Ms. Dobbins for five weeks.

“I’ve been subbing for seventeen and a half years,” said Kulp. “I’ve been long-term subbing for someone in some capacity ever since Covid started.”

During the pandemic, Kulp subbed for semesters at a time. “It is quite a bit more work with no extra benefits,” said Kulp. 

Even though Kulp is only certified in social studies, he has long-term subbed for many different subjects. However, if Kulp feels like he doesn’t know enough about a subject, he will not sub for them. 

 “I’ve done Spanish, every single social studies, earth science, biology, astronomy, project management, Microsoft Word and Powerpoint,” said Kulp.

Subbing for this long has been a challenge for Kulp and other substitutes at Leesville. 

“I have said pretty much for the last five years I am never doing another long-term,” said Kulp. He only does long-term subbing for teachers he’s subbed for well in the past.

“After this [subbing job], I’m probably not going to last,” said Kulp. Kulp cites the amount of work he has to do for little pay as one of the reasons he might stop subbing soon. Kulp says other subs around Leesville feel the same way.

Substitute teachers’ salaries in North Carolina range from $16,000 to $47,000, according to ZipRecruiter and Salary.com. Compared to the state’s average teaching salary of $54,000, this is a significant decrease for doing the same work. 

But, for now, Kulp does not continue subbing for the money. “It’s just me wanting to personally help out teachers that I know and have treated me right in the past.” 

The substitute problem at Leesville is just as bad as across the country. The Department of Education reported that 75% of public schools struggled to find subs before 2020, and more than half find it more difficult now.

What are School Leaders Locally Doing

Like many other school boards around the country, Wake County Public School Board (WCPSS) is trying to deal with the teacher and substitute teacher shortage. 

“We’ve seen more teachers retiring to enter different fields and also seeing difficulties finding new teachers,” said Chris Heagarty, the school board member for Leesville, over the phone.

Heagarty finds there are a lot of different factors that contribute to the state of teaching in North Carolina. “The reasons most cited are that the pay for teachers doesn’t really compensate them for the work involved,” said Heagarty.

“Teachers can go into other professions with the same education they have coming out of college and make a lot more [money] with fewer hours,” said Heagarty.

Heagarty also cites working conditions and verbal attacks by students, parents, and people in the community, and the lack of students in college going to school for education to the lack of teachers. 

Heagarty and the school board are trying to recruit new teachers, but it’s hard to do that because of the General Assembly’s funding cuts.

“[WCPSS] can offer a very competitive salary and benefits package that brings more teachers in, but it’s been hard to deal with the loss of state funding and benefits.”

When North Carolina looks to cut taxes, they go to education first to get rid of them, which hurts the system, according to Heagarty. “It’s a lousy policy when you don’t invest in education,” said Heagarty.

“You’re mortgaging the future, and you’re mortgaging the economy,” said Heagarty. “When you shortchange that, you can’t expect the same results.” 

Heagarty and the school board are looking to other monetary sources to bring people to the teaching profession if the state government continues not to fund them enough.

Teacher and substitute teacher shortages threaten the U.S. education system every day, and school districts locally and around the country will work to make the system better again.

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