Education

NC teachers quitting, citing not enough pay, too much stress, unmotivated students

Teachers who quit their jobs this spring told WRAL News they felt unappreciated and described increasingly negative school environments worsened by the pandemic.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Two and a half years of teaching was enough for Gabe DeCaro.

He loved tutoring when he was younger and thought he wanted to be a teacher.

But two and a half years as a high school science teacher in Wake County — a time period that included more than a year of remote learning for his students — wore him down.

“I always enjoyed helping out my fellow classmates, like that light bulb moment when they finally came to understand something — that was very valuable, very fulfilling,” DeCaro said. “And so I thought, OK, teaching is the best way to do this. But that light bulb moment rarely happens when kids are tired in the classroom and only want to get through or survive.”

Thousands more North Carolina teachers are planning to quit this summer, like DeCaro. About 7.2% of the more than 107,000 teachers, librarians, school counselors, social workers and psychologists who responded to the North Carolina Teaching Working Conditions Survey this spring said their immediate plan was to quit education altogether, up from about 4% in 2020 and in 2018.

If that percentage follows through, nearly 7,800 people — the vast majority of them classroom teachers — will quit the education profession this summer, nearly twice the usual number. That’s an average of one more than usual at every school and more than 30 more than usual in each school system.

"It was just the system in itself was too draining," said former Wake County teacher Emily Harrison.

Harrison left her teaching job at at Carroll Magnet Middle School in Raleigh. She taught for eight years in three school districts before leaving.

In Harrison's new role in education technology, she has better pay, unlimited paid time off and more stable hours.

Teachers who quit their jobs this spring told WRAL News they felt unappreciated and described increasingly negative school environments worsened by the pandemic. They said state and local education leadership don’t include teachers’ and students’ voices when making decisions that impact them, leaving teachers and students feeling alienated.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction administers the anonymous Teacher Working Conditions Survey once every two years. It mostly asks teachers to agree or disagree with statements, includes no questions about pay and provides no space for teachers to offer open-ended feedback.

The large majority of educators — about 92.5% — filled out the survey, and the results were mostly positive for most categories. Results were negative for questions regarding student conduct and certain professional development opportunities. Teachers’ once near-universal agreement that school leadership were addressing their various concerns dropped to just about three-quarters of teachers feeing that way.

While most teachers don’t plan to quit, the potential for an increase could hamper schools’ plans to conduct pandemic learning recovery efforts and leave many children without a consistent classroom teacher for a portion or the entirety of their upcoming school year.

A depressing year

DeCaro watched many students attend Holly Springs High School this year without much enthusiasm.

School didn’t seem to be working for a lot of his students, and DeCaro felt like he couldn’t help them or that he had any flexibility in his job to try to inspire them.

Ashleigh Wilson, a nine-year high school science teacher who resigned in April from Pitt County High School, said students returned after a year and a half of disrupted learning in worse moods than before.

“They were getting increasingly disrespectful,” Wilson said. “The support system for the students isn’t totally there.”

That’s weighed on teachers navigating student conduct issues and attempting to be empathetic.

“This school year has been extremely stressful,” Wilson said.

Schooling this year has been a matter of business as usual, with an emphasis on speeding up the pace of learning to make up for lower test scores during the pandemic, DeCaro said. But the year hasn’t been usual, and the energetic optimism of that approach doesn’t align with the mood in the school, he said. Many students aren’t responding to it, he said.

“They become alienated, they become disengaged,” DeCaro said. “And that's hard to live with on an everyday basis.”

DeCaro’s philosophical struggles with North Carolina’s education system will prompt his teaching career to end next week, potentially along with the 8.3% of Wake County Public School System teachers who said they planned to quit, up from 4% in 2020.

About 6% of teachers are planning to quit in Pitt County Schools, up from 3.6%.

The pandemic has created a more taxing work environment, but neither DeCaro nor Wilson said they believed the pandemic changed their ultimate trajectory — to quit the education profession before retiring from it.

A better opportunity

Wilson and DeCaro said many teachers who aren’t planning to quit now are still thinking about it or are awaiting retirement eligibility, feeling unemployable in any other industry. Research shows teachers are unlikely to change professions after teaching for several years, in part because their skillset is not transferable to very many other professions that pay as well as or better than teaching.

Wilson bucked that trend just a little bit; she quit teaching science in April after receiving an offer to work as an entry-level chemist at a pharmaceutical company. She had been a teacher for nine years, most recently in Pitt County for five years and then in Onslow County for four years before that.

Wilson still loved teaching, but quit because she thought time was running out to change careers.

“I’m really missing my students and that teaching aspect of that job,” Wilson said.

Wilson went to the school’s prom after quitting and is planning to attend graduation. She said "it was really all the behind the scenes things” that prompted her to resign.

Wilson and DeCaro are both high school science teachers, among the types of teachers North Carolina has the hardest time hiring. People with skills in STEM fields can often make more money at STEM-focused companies than they can in teaching.

"I want enough in order to live on and survive, but I also want an enviornment where I can grow and learn and ironically, that doesn't happen at schools," DeCaro said.

That ended up being the case for Wilson, though DeCaro wants to make an even bigger change.

After more than two years of feeling negative, he’s decided to focus on a hobby. He’s planning to be a chef.

“I want to master a craft and be good at something,” DeCaro said. “And cooking only brings people joy. And teaching, it has some positive moments of joy.”

Wilson decided to take advantage of the other of her two degrees from East Carolina University — the one in chemistry. Though she’s now in an entry-level position, she makes about as much as the roughly $45,000 she did as a teacher, with the added promise of more pay raises and promotional opportunities as she gains experience. Plus, she doesn’t take her work home with her at the end of the day, like she did as a teacher. And she doesn’t spend $300 of her own money each year on work supplies, like she did when she bought materials for labs or basic classroom items, such as tape and scissors.

For Wilson, actions from elected officials made her feel like teachers weren’t valued. No state budget for two years kept her from getting step increases with each year of experience. She didn’t always get her classroom supplies stipend of $100. She couldn’t afford advanced credentials to improve her teaching, either, after lawmakers cut Master’s pay and funding ran dry for the state’s one-time reimbursement program for National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification.

Promised pay raises didn’t turn out to feel like all that much, she said.

“The state itself is not making it a desirable position,” Wilson said.

At nine years of experience, Wilson received about $101 more per month with the pay raise and about $57 more per month with her experience-based step increase.

Lawmakers approved pay raises that averaged out to 5% over two years for most teachers, though the raises were about half that for teachers with at least 15 years of experience who were not guaranteed an experience-based step increase alongside the base salary increase.

For nine years, Wilson said she found ways to adjust to changes she didn’t like, until she couldn’t anymore.

“I’d make peace with it and then something else would be dropped, and I’d make peace with it and something else would be dropped,” Wilson said.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said when it comes to school leadership, the onus is on district leaders across North Carolina to do something with the data to turn things around.

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