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NHCS teachers share their concerns, many highlighted in recent climate survey

An example of the respondent comments.
An example of the respondent comments.

New Hanover County Schools recently released the 900 plus comments from the December staff climate survey. WHQR took a closer look at some of the concerns, including compensation, planning time, communication, student mental health, and staff members' relationship with Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust.

Survey provides 'transparency', 'Salaries are too low'

Eric Pfirman is a social studies teacher at Southeast Area Technical (SEA-Tech) High School. He’s been an educator for 23 years and said he’s glad that he had the opportunity to share his thoughts.

“I appreciate that the board reached out to us and said, ‘You know, what's going on? How are things?’ And now, hopefully, they'll get that information and reflect on it and say, ‘Alright, what can we do to make this better?’” said Pfirman.

He added that he was really "glad that the board made it [the comments] public, they're being transparent. And I really appreciate that as a teacher, that they want to hear concerns; they want everyone to be aware of these concerns," said Pfirman.

The district compiled 11 key takeaways from the comments — one of them being 'low salaries.' Pfirman said he understands that salary increases are usually “hamstrung by the system, the state pays our salaries, then the school board goes along with what the county is able to supplement to the extent that they’re able.”

But a salary increase, Pfirman said, is especially needed for classified staff such as teaching assistants.

“Right now we see it every month, they're coming up before the board. Just as an educator in the building, or in any building, seeing everybody appreciated and being compensated for their input would be a good gesture,” said Pfirman.

At a January 4 school board meeting last month, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said the teachers already received a “huge pay increase from the commissioners” — adding that he understood that everyone wants a pay increase or a bonus.

But, Foust said, “We also need to understand that we have students who are failing. But what I’m going to say is this, we have not sat here at one board meeting and have put together or talked about what’s best for students. What we do is we do talk about the adults, but our goal is to talk about the decrease of student learning loss.”

In an exchange with Board Member Judy Justice, Foust asked her whether the district should abandon their 1-to-1 plan, which means one device per student, or not complete their ‘educational plan’ in exchange for giving salary increases or bonuses. But then he followed with, the bonuses and increases were likely “not doable” anyway.

Justice responded to Foust, “Every adult that works with a child is how these children are going to improve. That’s what I’m talking about with adults — I’m talking about improving our children.”

When the board discussed the results of the survey at the January 18 meeting last month, Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill said, “Maybe some of the people who are not happy or less ‘not happy’ were the ones doing the survey. I don’t know if we got any kudos at all, but certainly, it did stick out that we’re not doing everything bad.”

Teacher Support, ‘Too Many Initiatives’

Reading through the survey comments himself, Pfirman said he found both positive and negative feedback, but that, “if there were any comments about school administration, DPI, elected officials, those comments weren’t very positive. [...] And as teachers, we’re looking at the results of that input, and we’re hoping it seems pretty clear in a lot of areas, and we’re hoping it will be acted upon,” said Pfirman.

While most of the respondents did direct their concerns to those outside of their school buildings, staff did state they felt mainly supported by their direct building supervisors.

Pfirman said this is the case for him. He’s very appreciative of his principal Dr. Edith Skipper: “She’s in our classrooms every day; there’s not a day that goes by where she’s not just coming in to see how things are going. She respects our opinions and treats us like the knowledgeable professionals that we are.”

Andrea Britt teaches fourth grade at Mary C. Williams. She’s been an educator for over ten years. Her thoughts touch on another survey takeaway – ‘too many new initiatives.'

“It's important for the county, for the state, for all stakeholders in education to understand that we need more qualified people and not programs. I think a lot of times we attempt to fix things by ‘this program will work.’ But the program is only as good as the person implementing the program,” said Britt.

Amy Steelman is a language arts teacher at Murray Middle School. She’s on board with Britt about ensuring curriculum decision-makers connect with teachers on understanding the impacts of any new program.

“Decisions are made about my job by people who don't necessarily understand how that happens in the classroom. If [only] the people making decisions for me in my classroom, for my kids truly understood what they were asking of us,” said Steelman.

Britt said while new district programs like Eureka Math are beneficial as education materials, especially for beginning teachers, they can diminish autonomy.

“I love math – that it is one of my favorite subjects to teach, but it has taken a little bit of my joy this year. So we are looking to it as a resource, we are using it as a resource, but we have had to take back the reins and do what is best for children,” said Britt.

She added that she’d like to see more consistency with researched-based materials over time — and that, at a minimum, she could plan quarterly with teachers from different grades to ensure that her students are ready for the next level's concepts.

Mental Health Challenges, Planning Time

About 80% of certified respondents — like teachers — say they spend a great deal of time on student social-emotional challenges. Steelman’s point-of-view mirrors this survey finding.

“I have seen more mental illness, signs of mental illness and struggle, stress, anxiety, and things of that nature. I mean, I've been teaching for 17 years. It’s just rampant. And it's not the kids' fault. And we need to still teach the curriculum, but if a kid isn't emotionally in a good place, then it doesn't matter what I'm teaching, they're not getting it,” said Steelman.

She said that while her school has a third counselor this year — and an additional mental health support specialist — overcoming the impacts of the pandemic will take more professional resources: “[Mental health] is not my specialty. I don’t have the skills, and I don’t have the training to help with those issues, so I think having more specialists in the building [will] address that.”

And in order for Steelman to do a better job for her students, she said she needs more planning time — another key takeaway from the survey comments.

“I love being around kids like, that part is enjoyable. But I can only do so much. There are so many hours in the day and if you asked me to do one [thing], it takes away from something else,” said Steelman.

She added, “There are things that they've asked me to do that are amazing and wonderful and beneficial. And like in any job, there are things that feel like, from the teacher perspective, from the low man on the totem pole, just feel like paper pushing and checking boxes, which like, if I didn't have to do some of that stuff that doesn't directly impact my children, I might have some more time,” said Steelman.

In dealing with the fallout of the pandemic, in particular, students’ increasing academic and behavioral needs, close to 20–year veteran teacher Dawn Allan at Holly Shelter Middle School said the school system will bridge these gaps — just at a slower pace.

“Patience. I really feel like that's kind of like a word you don't hear right now. Or maybe it might be a word you're starting to hear. And I feel like in my emails, it’s just please have some patience with me. I promise I'll get it done,” said Allan.

Britt agrees with Allan. She said this year in particular she’s seeing wide learning gaps: “So you have the students who luckily had family members or someone that would help them with their online learning and they stayed on track. And then you have the students that online learning just didn't work at all for them. And some of them are in fourth grade functioning on a first and second grade level in certain areas.”

But Britt adds that at the end of the day, for educators, it’s about being valued for their commitment to the job. Only 28% of certified staff respondents said that the district 'values them'.

“We know that teachers don't get into this profession for the money but it's just — trust in us, trust in us and our ability, trust in us and our ability,” said Britt.

And what they love about their jobs? Britt, Pfirman, Steelman, and Allan all said – it’s the joy of working with the kids and their colleagues.

Comments about the Superintendent

Foust’s employment contract, which ends on June 30, 2024, states that his evaluation is to be conducted in a “closed session, and the evaluation and information concerning the evaluation shall be considered as confidential as provided by law.”

But in prior years, namely, in 2014 and 2015, former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley’s evaluations were released to the public.

According to theNC Open Government Coalition, personnel records are mainly exempt from release, but there is a provision in North Carolina law that the head of an agency can release personnel information if it’s “critical to upholding the trust and confidence in the public agency.” Another way Foust’s evaluation could become public would be if he gives the board permission to release it.

While Foust's evaluation remains under wraps, the publishing of the survey comments does provide some window into the superintendent’s performance. While the district’s 11 key takeaways includes “lack of professionalism at board meetings,” it does not mention the leadership of the superintendent. However, it does list “communication is lacking between the central office and schools" — with 'central office' referring to the upper administration and Foust himself.

Some of the comments touched on issues and concerns with the superintendent.

Comment #991 states, “[a]ny negative responses from me are directed at the district and not our principal. No, I do not feel valued by my district since [redacted] has taken over as our superintendent. As a veteran teacher, this has been my toughest year yet – so I’ve been looking at alternate professions and have been interviewing elsewhere.”

Another respondent, #755 said, “I will be questioned or criticized for not ‘teaching the curriculum with fidelity.’ I am a professional but am not treated as one. My instinctual and experienced grasp of teaching has been taken away and is being stifled in all ways.”

Foust has repeated this 'teaching the curriculum with fidelity' comment at several public meetings.

Comment #642 said, “If I felt I had the respect of the superintendent perhaps I would feel the slightest shred of optimism in spite of the challenges. Instead, I feel resentful of several comments he has made about our county’s teachers that may feign respect but are quite demanding and shameful.” This respondent went on to say how much they enjoy the support of their colleagues and attributes that to “staying afloat.”

Another commenter #121 said, "I don't feel very supported by the person in the highest position who should be advocating for everyone in NHCS. Feeling supported wouldn't solve all of the morale issues, but it would help some to feel like we're on the same team."

At the January 18 board meeting last month, where members discussed the survey results, Stefanie Adams said, in terms of trust between central office and the district’s schools, she “wished that everyone had the opportunity to speak to the superintendent and senior staff the way that we [the board] have. The people who are here are so committed to our schools. They give everything to our schools – and it may not feel that way all the time.”

Other major takeaways from the comments, not listed in the district’s ‘key takeaways’, were the lack of support for dealing with student behavior, mainly that MTSS (Multi-tiered System of Supports) doesn’t have the personnel to make it successful; the lack of work-life balance; and staff shortages.

Click here to view the comments.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR