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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Essay: In North Carolina, students are still missing teachers

An outline of a teacher stands in front of a classroom full of students.
Anisa Khalifa
/
WUNC

The phrase “teacher shortage” became commonplace in education headlines nationwide in 2022, so I wasn’t surprised when it was a featured topic in a seminar at the Education Writers Association conference, an annual gathering for education reporters.

It did surprise me when the first person in line at the microphone for the customary Q&A portion, a reporter from Boston, asked the expert panelists, “What do we mean by a teacher shortage anyway? How do we know when it’s happening where we live?” I was sitting next to another reporter from North Carolina, and feeling flabbergasted I muttered to her, “Maybe when a school can’t find a math teacher all year?”

The previous year, I’d visited a high school in Robeson County that was missing several math teachers. The school district remedied this by paying a stipend to a seasoned teacher in another school across the county to sacrifice her prep time to teach these students remotely. The principal led me into a classroom where teens watched their teacher on a screen at the front of the room as she drew a graph on a coordinate plane. Her voice came through a grainy speaker, giving me flashbacks to Charlie Brown’s teachers. How would she hold their attention? How would I feel if I was 16 and knew this was the best my school could offer me?

Students Jalean Brown and Yanasia Haywood work on a math problem at Red Springs High School in Robeson County. Their teacher, Tamara Smith, teaches virtually from her classroom across the county at Purnell Swett High School.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Students Jalean Brown and Yanasia Haywood work on a math problem at Red Springs High School in Robeson County. Their teacher, Tamara Smith, teaches virtually from her classroom across the county at Purnell Swett High School.

While it was disconcerting to experience this scene in person, I knew from our state’s wealth of data on teaching vacancies (see the annual State of the Teaching Profession reports here) that this couldn’t be an isolated example. This school district’s strategy was certainly better than hiring a long-term substitute who didn’t know much about advanced algebra.

The Boston reporter’s question struck me, so I brought it up to other journalists I met at that conference. A veteran education editor from a national media outlet told me there’s debate about whether it’s a shortage if there are fewer qualified candidates than usual or if a school has to raise pay in order to fill a position. What this editor described was far short of actual vacancies in core classes mid-way through the school year, which had already been happening in North Carolina. I realized that education reporters across the country might be operating on different definitions of a teacher shortage, depending on where we live.

Another thing I often hear about teacher shortages is that they do exist, but only in certain subject areas or certain locations. While that has generally been true, I avoid that line in my stories. It would be like saying, “Don’t worry, it’s only happening in special education.” Or, “Don’t worry, it’s only in rural counties, and that’s not where you, our audience, lives.”

I realized that education reporters across the country might be operating on different definitions of a teacher shortage, depending on where we live.
Liz Schlemmer, WUNC Education Reporter

Any time a child is missing a teacher, it matters. In 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the Leandro case that the state has a duty to provide a “competent, certified, well-trained teacher in every class.” This phrase led me to pursue a series of stories on North Carolina’s teacher shortage I named “A Teacher In Every Class.”

InEdenton-Chowan Schools, there were fewer qualified teacher candidates than usual when this past school year started. It’s a small town school district that has had a history of strong teacher retention, but last summer when principals tried to fill a typical number of openings, they didn’t have enough applicants who were fully licensed teachers. The few traditional candidates they interviewed chose to go to other schools. So the school district hired retired teachers, long-term substitutes, and unlicensed newbies with a passion for teaching, and paired them with a fully licensed educator to help support them. This is increasingly what a teacher vacancy looks like in North Carolina – an adult leads the class, but it’s someone who lacks a degree and experience in education and/or a current, long-term teaching license.

At a Durham Public Schools’ job fair last spring, I met a principal who was hoping to fill multiple positions, but seemed concerned that with few candidates to go around, they might choose other schools because his was “perceived as a minority school.”

In Wake County, I met a student who lost his trusted special education teacher. When the interim teacher was unfamiliar with autistic students and couldn’t meet his needs, he spiraled into a mental health crisis that cost him months in school. After the school provided a one-on-one instructional assistant for him, he began to thrive.

A high school senior works on a math problem at his desk, on his laptop.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Senior Dakavias Bowser works on a math problem on his computer while his instructor teaches via a video screen from her classroom three hours away in Clinton City Schools. The high school hired a retired math teacher to supervise the class, but she is not considered the “teacher of record” for the class.

When a resource is scarce, it becomes an equity problem. Urban school districts will often fare better than rural ones. Schools with wealthier students will be better off than schools with students whose families have less time and money, and the students with the greatest learning needs will be the least likely to have all their needs met. And in the South, we know that too often, access to resources is also correlated with race.

In my few years as an education reporter, I’ve seen remarkable examples of educators doing the best they can for students with what they’ve got, and yet resources continue to dwindle. The chief resource in any school is a sufficient number of caring adults who keep a school running smoothly. Educators are forced to constantly adapt.

I think of the central office assistant who gets up at 5 a.m. to drive a bus, because she wanted to help kids get to school when she heard how bad the bus driver shortage had become.

I think of the front office receptionists who nurse bruised knees and administer prescription meds and respond to emergencies because their elementary school doesn’t have a nurse on site most days.

I think of the school district CFO who scraped together unused funds left over from teacher vacancies to give high school students a summer job painting murals in a new school.

I think of school nutrition staff who dropped off lunches and homework to students in the early days of pandemic lockdowns.

Two receptionists at Lakewood Elementary in Durham
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Shahidah Muhammad and Noemi Mondragon are receptionists at Lakewood Elementary in Durham. In addition to their administrative duties, they are responsible for responding to medical emergencies since the school does not have a full-time nurse.

I think of the many stories I've been told by teachers too fearful of consequences to share their name on the record — of elementary teachers going days without eating lunch to supervise students in their classroom; of teachers being asked to drive buses to school and then teach; of a special education teacher who didn’t always have enough adults in the room to help a child go to the bathroom without leaving other students unattended.

Some of these are pandemic stories, and some of these may continue to be post-pandemic stories without more investment in public education. Much attention has been paid to the effects of the pandemic on ‘learning loss’-- which I prefer to think of as lost quality time with a teacher. How much more crucial time will students lose in their education if they are back in school buildings, but some of their teachers are missing?

Great teachers are more than just deliverers of curriculum. They are role models, coaches, and trusted friends. For some students, an exceptional teacher may change their life, or be the reason they make it through another school day.
Liz Schlemmer

Most adults have at least one teacher we remember vividly because that person broadened our view of the world, or gave us confidence in ourselves, or pointed us in a better direction. Great teachers are more than just deliverers of curriculum. They are role models, coaches, and trusted friends. For some students, an exceptional teacher may change their life, or be the reason they make it through another school day.

As I packed up my recording equipment and walked away from one interview with a mid-career teacher who had recently quit teaching, citing concerns about pay and state policies, he turned to me and said, “I just wonder, who will be there to teach my kid?”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org