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Teacher morale is sinking in New Hanover County. It's not just the pandemic to blame

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The board discussed the climate survey on October 5th, 2021.

The difficulties of teaching have been exacerbated as the Covid-19 pandemic has dragged on. In New Hanover County Schools, this has taken a toll on teacher morale — and officials are trying to figure out what to do about it.

On October 5th, 2021, the New Hanover County School (NHCS) Board of Education agreed unanimously that the district needed to conduct a climate survey.

Board Member Hugh McManus brought up the motion.

“And I think our teachers are crying out to have an opportunity. I don’t think they’re all going to be negative, but there are some things we need to address, and it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the nature of so much that we’ve dealt with for two years,” said McManus.

Board Member Judy Justice agreed: “And I'm hearing plenty that is so burdensome to the point where really we're losing good people daily. [...]. We cannot continue this, our kids can’t, [...]. [T]eachers don't even have planning periods anymore. Subs won't sub. And it's not just the pandemic at this point. There's a lot going on, we need to know what's going on.”

Related: The relationship between teacher effectiveness and student home life is complicated, and sometimes contentious

According to figures from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction from 2015-2020, New Hanover County teacher attrition rates have averaged around 7%, with a majority of the teachers leaving say the reason was ‘personal.’ An official with DPI said figures for 2020-2021 won’t be out until January, but according to Joshua Smith, NHCS' chief communications officer, only 22 teachers have left the district from August 1, 2020, until August 1, 2021, with 9 of those citing a ‘career change’ for leaving.

This decrease in teacher morale has been going on for some time — at a county/city Community Relations Advisory Committee meeting in August, two former New Hanover County School teachers shared their stories about why they left the school system.

Not every school presents the same challenges

Former elementary teacher Kim Geiger, who left the district this June, said teaching in some schools presented more challenges than at others:

“I went to UNCW, and so a lot of the people that I graduated with were spread out all over the county. And I can say that the experience that I had teaching at Forest Hills was not at all the same experience that some of my friends had teaching at Ogden, but we all got the exact same training. And we all got the exact same professional development, and there was no difference in what I was prepared for, and what they were prepared for,” said Geiger.

Then Geiger asked Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, who was the guest speaker for the meeting, what the administration could do about it: “And so if we're aware of these discrepancies between the schools, what are we going to do about it in the future?”

Geiger also made a point of saying she hadn't seen Foust in her school building.

Foust responded that just because he was less visible to the rank and file didn't mean he wasn't working. He also downplayed differences between schools, saying the responsibility for student success fell squarely on teachers.

“We all have a job to do, we have to work in tandem to get it done. We can't blame the community for not working. That's why I go back to the hospitals, those doctors do not blame their environment, the outside environment for a patient not doing well, they try to save them. So all I'm saying is, as educators, we need to save our kids to make sure that they're getting to those places that they need to,” said Foust.

It's a sentiment Foust has shared often. During a May 2021 NAACP meeting, Foust said, “If we have students in a class who are not performing, 40% of your kids, would you go to a doctor that has 40% of his patients die? Would you? Would you recommend that? But we will get caught up on, ‘Oh, well, they have a great personality. They have great relationships,’ but they are not teaching our kids so we have to do it [i.e. hold teachers accountable].”

While Foust has made it clear that he holds teachers accountable for their performance, the Board of Education holds him accountable for teacher morale — traditionally one of the key metrics used on superintendent evaluations. Those evaluations remain sealed as personnel records unless the superintendent agrees to release them — or, under limited circumstances, the board votes to do so. The district confirmed that the Board has completed Foust's 2020-2021 review, but that it will not be released to the public at this time.

Teaching has always been tough. It's getting tougher

Florence Warren retired in 2011 from Williston Middle School after a 35-year career, including a year at the all-Black Williston High School before it closed in 1968.

Warren said one reason she stopped teaching was that student behavior was out of control.

“And I told them as loud as I am and as Black as I am, I should not have to raise my voice to get you to be quiet, because I did everything to make the lessons exciting so that they would learn, and if I didn’t have that encounter, I would still be teaching now because I love it. I love it,” said Warren.

Warren and Geiger spoke to challenges that are getting tougher — even without the pandemic. Dr. Lauren Sartain, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, said teachers are struggling as the expectations keep increasing.

“So not only are we expecting teachers to teach academic content and make sure that students are learning, but we're also expecting teachers to support students’ social and emotional development, to create safe classroom spaces, to really connect them build meaningful relationships with students. And all of that is great. And all that is really important, right? But it's a lot. And, you know, truly evaluating all those aspects of a teacher's job is really, really challenging,” said Sartain.

A third school year in a pandemic and the continuing societal polarization have exacerbated these demands on teachers and staff. Dr. Tim Drake teaches a principal leadership course at N.C. State University.

In response to the changing demands on teachers, Drake said, “It's just we have more research on social-emotional needs on trauma-informed care, and so it's in the water more so, and so we add it to the job description of both teachers and principals. So in that sense, yes, I think it's always been a part of the job. But now more formally, it's an expectation of the job. So maybe that's the difference.”

He also said it’s important for district leadership and administrators to support staff, and help them find moments of happiness.

“So in your meetings, asking your teachers, when did you feel joy last? Tell us about it, share it, right? And I think it's important to find those positives during this time. And then finally, for them is to get in the trenches not be afraid to get down to teach when it's required. I mean, we're always working on staffing needs, but when teachers see principals proactively working alongside them to fill gaps, I think it does a lot with respect to trust,” said Drake.

Drake said from surveys of teachers they’re looking for principals who are trusting, supportive, caring, receptive, and personable.

“Listen to our teachers when they're speaking, use those reflective listening skills, be able to be transparent with them. I think that's a big thing. And it relates to communication, which is also important, clear communication, be transparent. Own your mistakes when you make them because inevitably, we're all making them. And then when you have to pivot, because principals have Plan A, and they have Plan B and C and D, and so as you shift, acknowledge how hard it is to your teachers like even naming it can be important," he said.

But Drake said the pandemic is taking a toll on principals, too: “We know before COVID, we had about a 20% turnover rate for principals, and some survey estimates suggest that might climb as high as 40%. So we know that we're losing our principals, especially right now, given all the time pressures and everything else they're dealing with.”