State funding for public education in North Carolina remains below pre-recession levels, despite inflation and higher personnel costs. And less funding for public schools has contributed to teacher shortages in most districts across the state. Filling these vacancies is especially difficult for rural districts in Eastern North Carolina, which have smaller tax bases and are less desirable destinations for many recent college graduates.
Teacher recruitment and retention is one of the greatest challenges that Craven County Schools faces, said Meghan Doyle, the district’s superintendent.
“When I look at us in our region, I think we have the largest need for teachers right this minute, she said.”
Last school year, the rural school system had the fifth highest teacher vacancy rate in the state, shows a report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Right now, the district has 58 open teaching positions. A high number of recent retirees has contributed to this number, Doyle said.
“Just in the last eight or nine months, almost 50 teachers have retired. That’s a big number. Not only is it a big number, it’s a huge amount of professional knowledge walking out the door,” she said. “These are teachers who have anywhere between 25 and 30 years of experience, who unfortunately in the last several years have received the lowest increases in pay.”
Over the last four years, teachers who’ve worked in the profession for 25 years or longer have seen a modest 2.6 percent increase in base pay. And salaries cap at this level. This creates a financial incentive for teachers to retire as soon as they’re eligible, Doyle said.
“They’re making decisions about how they’re going to be able to live and maintain a quality of life in their retirement,” she said. “Many of them are saying, ‘I’m going to collect my state retirement, and I’m going to go get a second job.’”
Recruiting beginning teachers to fill positions left vacant by retirees is no easy task, Doyle said. Districts across the state are competing among themselves and with neighboring states for teachers, and Craven County is no exception, Doyle said.
“We are competing with the state of South Carolina now for teachers – that’s not something that I ever thought that I would say in my career, quite frankly. And that’s nothing about the quality of South Carolina – we’ve just never been in that situation,” Doyle said.
In 2016, the state's median teacher salary was just below $48,000, which is lower than any of its neighboring states, a National Education Association report shows. While state lawmakers determine teachers’ base salaries, many counties offer supplements, which creates an uneven playing field among districts vying for teachers.
“We are really working with our local elected officials to try to move our budget in the direction of being able to recruit teachers and retain them for a longer period of time,” Doyle said. “It’s not just supplements and salaries that get teachers in the door and keeps them in the door, but that is a huge deciding factor when people are beginning to look for options.”
A myriad of reasons influences a beginning teacher’s decision on where to seek employment, said Vivian Covington, director of educator preparation for East Carolina University. Pay is one factor, but geography has become another, she said. And when there’s a statewide teacher shortage, the problem is exacerbated in rural areas, such as the counties Eastern North Carolina, she said.
“In the past we’ve had shortages, but they were not necessarily geographical shortages. But now we’ve found that the pool has shrunk, those rural areas both in the eastern and western part of the state tend to suffer more. If you are a young person coming out of college, and you are looking to live in a large city, or those types of things, a rural area may not be as attractive to you initially.”
Four of the five districts with the highest teacher vacancy rates in the state are located in the eastern region, and all five districts are rural.
One district in the region is working to overcome this geographical barrier. Pitt County Schools recently developed a program that seeks to improve teacher recruitment and retention by offering higher-paying career pathways, said Thomas Feller, the district’s director of leadership development. The first newly created position is called facilitating teacher, and it offers a 15 percent salary supplement.
“They work with other adults to look at something that’s impacting student negatively, and then trying to solve that,” Feller said. “They’re doing research in the classroom with other teachers, they compare data, looking at data to see how different strategies are working in one classroom versus another.”
Another newly created position is called the multi-classroom teacher. These instructors will train and mentor less-experienced teachers, Feller said.
“They’re there to support inexperienced and novice teachers, so they co-teach with them in the same classroom – so both teachers would be up at the same time. But they’re really teaching them about what are best practices in education,” he said. “So, it’s a high support induction model in that sense, so either for novice teachers or teachers that just don’t have a lot of experience that need that extra support.”
In addition to its multiple career pathways program, the district also offers beginning teachers a chance to receive National Board Certification training through its Teacher Leadership Institute. After each round of teachers completes the training, the district pays for the certification tests. Teachers who pass the test then receive a higher base salary rate.
“Now there are more ways in which if we do recruit teachers we can share with them you can start out as a beginning teacher, then you got the key beginning teachers, you have the teacher leadership institute, then they run into the national board certification, which means more money,” said Dr. Ve-Lecia Council, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. "But we still struggle with retaining and recruiting teachers, even with that model."