A closer look at NHCS's attrition rate: Issues include pay, support, and respect
What’s been dubbed the ‘great resignation’ is continuing in the teaching profession.
According to WHQR’s analysis of personnel reports of New Hanover County teachers leaving the profession, there’s been a 22% increase in the attrition rate, comparing two recent 10-month periods from April 2021 — January 2022 (170 teachers left the district) and February 2022 — November 2022 (208 teachers left).
This analysis did not include teaching assistants, support staff, or administrators.
Related: Southeastern NC leads the state in teacher attrition. Those who left explain why.
About 80% of these were resignations, which points to the issue of unresolved problems with pay and respect for the profession.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) recently released the results of the North Carolina Teaching Working Conditions Survey. In March 2022, about 80% of New Hanover County educators said they would stay working in the district — the rest said they were leaving.
Just over 11% of those said they would leave education entirely — the state average was 7%.
Dr. Christopher Barnes, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, said the 2019 findings from the Economic Policy Institute on the ‘Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market’ still ring true. The 'storm' is the combination of issues with the ‘unequal distribution of highly qualified teachers across low and high-poverty schools,’ ‘struggle to retain teachers,’ ‘low pay,’ ‘school climate,’ and ‘accessing career advancement and professional supports.’
Barnes said he and the district are trying to address these issues the best they can.
“People need to feel valued; they need to have a sense of self-direction. And they need to have a purpose that unifies us, to help them make them feel like what they're coming to work for has a purpose. So we’re trying to control as many of those factors as we can. [But] I can't control what the legislature does; I can't control what is happening in the world either,” Barnes said.
One thing they can control is their support of teachers through their employee assistance program, according to Barnes.
“That’s a process that supports employees if they have a financial, emotional, and/or marital crisis," he said. "We send that out to people often to say, ‘Listen, here’s a support system the school pays for you to have,' because honestly, life is hard and challenging.”
But one of the largest factors for teachers staying in the profession is the issue of pay. Barnes said it’s hard for public sector employees to compete with private.
“So I would, of course, advocate with our state legislature that it needs to provide the adequate number of resources that's in the state's charter to provide for public education,” Barnes said.
Cynthia Silva is the president of the New Hanover County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).
Asked why she thought teachers are still leaving the profession at a higher-than-average level, Silva said, “it is no mystery why public school staff is leaving the field. Just ask any employee of any job why they quit, and many will promptly state that the boss demanded too much for too little pay. NHCS staff are leaving because the demands are too much and the pay is too little. It’s that simple.”
Barnes said he’s hoping the state will change the way teachers and staff are compensated, too.
“I think that's where I would lean on the legislators to look at things like restoring Master’s pay for teachers. There is a 10-year plateau in the teacher salary schedule near about 15 to 25 [years] where they don't get a significant increase. Now, our local budget does provide for that, and we do provide a higher stipend as people become more experienced,” Barnes said.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and the State Board of Education’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) have made progress in changing the way teachers are credentialed and compensated.
On December 1, the State Board did recommend PEPSC’s plan to make these changes to have higher salaries for teachers when they go through a series of credentials; however, they ultimately decided to start it as a pilot program before it’s expanded statewide.
Van Dempsey, PEPSC’s chair and the dean of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Watson College of Education, has been highly involved in this compensation change process and said in September to WHQR that while they’re still taking feedback, the state has to find a way to increase educator salaries – and soon.
PEPSC does meet this Thursday to further discuss the pilot program, which could be funded by the legislature in the new year.
However, Tamika Walker Kelly, President of the NCAE, has been highly critical of the plan in the past, saying this program would make educators jump through additional hoops to achieve higher paying salaries.
Stephanie Walker, vice-chair of the New Hanover County School Board, said she agrees that the current mode of compensation for educators is not sufficient. She decided this past June not to vote for the district’s budget because it didn’t provide a pay increase for classified staff.
“Right or wrong, it was a stand I felt I had to take because we had a salary study done, we had staff coming to us saying, ‘we're working two and three jobs, some of us have to go to the food bank.’ To me, if we're investing in public education, which is a public good, we need to support our staff, and that includes paying them,” Walker said.
She added she’s hoping to start talking about the budget soon with the incoming board who take their seats on December 6. “So I'm looking forward to discussing some ideas, maybe we can do a retreat or a work session to help the board be creative.”
But the bottom line for her, like Silva, is pay and respect. “If we can help stop the exodus of teachers, as much as we can, or attract teachers here — that want to be here and stay here, we have to start with, obviously, morale and pay,” Walker said.
One retired teacher’s story – it’s not just about the pay
Chuck Ughetta retired from teaching math at Hoggard High School in June.
In his interview with WHQR, Ughetta focused more on respect for the profession piece, as teaching was technically his second career. His first was in the finance sector at the New York Stock Exchange.
He said he retired because, “Well, I'm 70 years old. My wife wants some ‘me’ time, and this will give us the opportunity to travel and visit family.”
But Ughetta is still subbing at Cape Fear Academy and plans to sub at Hoggard after his six months of retirement.
“My original goal was to retire after 10 years, but I just did not think it was fair to the students to leave them in a very difficult environment,” he said.
That environment was the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Ughetta said students learned some unhealthy habits during that time.
“Students were basically given the opportunity to freeze their grades. And unfortunately, a lot of students chose to freeze their grades and stop working,” Ughetta said.
He said that in turn meant they weren’t ready for the next year of schooling.
“Students figured out all they had to do was basically complete the material, and they would get good grades. Unfortunately, that type of approach, when students focus on just getting the grades, they're not learning skills, the thought process that they need to understand the underlying concepts. And what we saw coming out of the pandemic, the students' foundations were weak,” Ughetta said.
When Ughetta first started at Hoggard over a decade ago, he said his saving grace was his team of math teachers.
“I was very lucky when I first got to Hoggard, Colleen St. Ledger, head of the math department, was a wonderful mentor. She exemplified what we expect of teachers, very stern, very disciplined, but also would go overboard to make sure the students had an opportunity to be successful,” Ughetta said.
But throughout the years, especially the last ones at Hoggard, he saw talented young teachers leave due to pay and student behavior.
“Two teachers left simply because the job market offered significantly more opportunity for them. And some of them left due to burnout,” Ughetta said.
Recently, when a young teacher became a part of his math educator team, he said they did their best to support her.
“Basically part of our daily routine was to build her up because the behavior, the issues were so overwhelming to her,” Ughetta said.
“She got through that first semester; things were much better the second semester, and it's constantly improving. You could see how some teachers will sit there and say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And the fact is, it's more the lack of respect,” Ughetta said.
He added that it’s hard for teachers who are first starting: “I don't know anybody who became a teacher that didn't cry at least once during their first year. Their struggle is, ‘I just don't know how to reach you,’” Ughetta said.
He talked about another teacher who they lost – and the reasons for her leaving.
“A wonderful math teacher at Hoggard literally got burned out after three or four years. I mean, it was sad. I mean, she was going to change the world; she was going to take on all these challenging students, but it's too much,” he said.
The problem, according to Ughetta, is that the students can be disengaged — but he said he understands that some of them are going through tough times, too.
“Find an alternative path for them where they can be successful, where they can find jobs, where they can sit there and maybe do two or three years at a technical school and get an apprenticeship with an electrician or plumber, a construction [worker] or something like that. There are paths for these kids. But at the end of the day, the kid has to want to do something right, they have to take responsibility for it,” Ughetta said.
One of his treasured teaching moments was a group of students who started the year by scoring a 1 on a math placement test, but by the end of the year, they scored a 3 on a 4-point scale.
“They were there after school and during lunch. They weren't interested in just completing the homework. They were interested in learning how to do the homework to make sure they understood the underlying concept. They wanted to make sure they knew how to apply it. They were not by far the best students I had, but boy, they made me so happy to have them as students for they worked hard. You saw a significant improvement,” Ughetta said.
For Ughetta, his math team family and those students who went above and beyond in their work made his time teaching memorable.
“And I'd rather remember those success stories than the failures," he said.