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NHC beginning teachers finding support they need, according to recent state survey

Fink (far left) and Raines (far right) pictured with BTs for their orientation in June 2022
Fink (far left) and Raines (far right) pictured with BTs for their orientation in June 2022

There are just over 280 beginning teachers in New Hanover County Schools. According to results from the most recent North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey, they’re mainly getting the support they need — although serious challenges remain across the profession.

2022 Working Conditions Survey

According to the survey results, one that’s conducted every two years, New Hanover County Schools is doing better than the state average when it comes to supporting beginning teachers.

Just over 200 of these beginning teachers answered the survey in May 2022, and about 81% of them agreed that “Overall, the additional support I received as a new teacher improved my instructional practice.” The state average is 78%.

Related: Statewide survey: Overall satisfaction with, but specific areas of concern for New Hanover County schools

For the statement, “Overall, the additional support I received as a new teacher has been important in my decision to continue teaching at this school,” about 75% of the respondents agreed, which was two percentage points higher than the state average.

Results from about 200 NHCS BTs who answered the survey in May 2022.
Results from about 200 NHCS BTs who answered the survey in May 2022.

Dr. Christopher Barnes is the assistant superintendent for New Hanover County Schools. He said one of the district’s biggest highlights from the past summer — about 87% of beginning teachers (BTs), characterized as those in their first, second, and third years teaching, have returned to the classroom after the previous year.

Dr. Katie Fink is a beginning teacher support and evaluation specialist for the district.

She said, nationally, statistics show that about half of teachers leave the profession after 5-years.

Beth Whittington is the gifted education specialist and lead mentor at Williston Middle School. She’s been teaching for over 20 years and has been at the school since 2006.

“This year, we have 18 beginning teachers, that’s more than we’ve ever had before,” Whittington said.

But she said it’s been good for the school’s overall culture.

“There was a lot of negative emotion going around last year, and a lot of people left. They [BTs] brought new energy to our building, so that's been a blessing,” Whittington said.

But the road to becoming a teacher who makes it past the 5-year mark is hard. And their internship experiences aren’t exactly what they’ll face when they’re the leader of the classroom.

“When they come through programs like at UNCW, they are taking over in classrooms where routines have already been established. And the students of the class already know generally how things go, and the student teacher can just kind of mimic what that teacher has done, but then when they get into a classroom of their own, and they have to be in charge of making the all those decisions about how we're going to sharpen our pencils, how we're going to line up to go to the lunchroom, and all of that, I think that's where it first kind of starts to spin out of control,” Whittington said.

State-mandated beginning teacher support model

But there’s a support model to help them in these first years, mandated by the state legislature. And teachers who become mentors for these beginning teachers receive about $100 a month for this work. The district pays this out of Title II federal funds.

There are about 284 beginning teachers currently in the district – and the most important thing keeping them in the profession, according to Fink, is the “perception of how they feel supported.”

Andrea Raines, who works along with Fink, is a beginning teacher support and educator development specialist for the district. She said having a mentor is critically important for the BTs.

“The positive encouragement of, this is how you can relate to your students because they've [the mentors] been working in the school for a while know the culture of the school, and then can really help support the beginning teacher fit into that,” Raines said.

Whittington agrees — who the BT surround themselves with contributes to their success.

“Figuring out who's on your hallway that can be helpful, because it's not just your mentor as a BT that you're going to go to for advice like it's the whole school community that's there to help you,” Whittington said.

Raines and Fink said that their office offers the BTs things like professional development, one half-day where they can observe another teacher in the district, and the chance to receive non-evaluative feedback, lesson modeling, and classroom walkthroughs and observations.

BTs (Year 1) Professional Development on November 8th about 'cooperative structures'
BTs (Year 1) Professional Development on November 8th about 'cooperative structures'

They also, along with Whittington, ask the BTs to fill out needs-assessment surveys — that they tailor professional development and support based on what they want.

They also facilitate being reflective of their teaching practices.

“Okay, what was working, what was not working? And it's okay if that strategy we used didn't work. What else can we try?” Whittington said.

Recently, Whittington said in November the Williston BTs got training on social-emotional learning as there is a “great need” for that — and in January, the school is scheduling a training on verbal de-escalation tactics.

While this learning has been debated by current school board members, to Whittington, the November training was about teachers having three signature practices each day: a welcoming, positive introduction, an activity, and then closing with a positive affirmation.

“Just establishing that every day is predictable, so the student knows [what to expect], and there's not guessing,” Whittington said.

Main BT challenge: classroom management

According to Fink, behavior management has been a huge need.

One of the reasons, some of these beginning teachers did their internships during the pandemic when there was virtual school or there were smaller class sizes because of the A/B schedule where one group of students would attend class on an “A” day, and the other on a “B” day.

“I think the students coming off of two, two and a half years of kind of [an] unstructured environment have had a challenge coming back to the school environment that we've noticed. I would say pre-K through 12, but especially in our kindergarten through first right now the behaviors are unique,” Fink said.

Whittington added that the new teachers in her building have embraced the idea that teaching is harder after the pandemic.

“It's not going to be an easy job. The first year teaching is probably the hardest year of your life, but it also can be your most rewarding," she said.

Another issue in the struggle for students to remain on task — is how to foster that motivation to learn.

Fink herself was once a beginning teacher.

“I very much thought that every single one of my students was going to be a history nerd, just like me, and love to learn history. And to my dismay, most of them absolutely hated it. So I had to strike that balance and find, ‘What will we like in this room?’” Fink said.

And when some students aren’t excited about, for example, learning about the Civil War, it can be a hard pill to swallow for any BT.

“I think a lot of our BTs take that very personally, when their students, especially in secondary [school], are not successful or don't seem to be motivated to be independent learners,” Fink said.

While Fink, Raines, and Whittington work constantly with the BTs on student buy-in, at the end of the day, if they are giving the tools for the students to be successful, they’re doing their part.

“And we again, just have to assure them that if they are doing X, Y, and Z, then they're doing what they're supposed to, to make sure that they are successful,” Fink said.

BTs in ‘priority schools’

Together Raines and Fink cover mentoring the BTs in all the district’s 45 schools — and Raines mostly works with those in 'priority schools'.

According to district spokesperson Russell Clark, the school system defines these as schools that have “been identified by the state or school district as needing additional support and resources to improve student growth. These schools often have high concentrations of students from low-income families and/or need additional support in academics and instruction. Priority schools may receive funding flexibility-based or other support to help them improve, and they are typically monitored closely to track their progress.”

In August 2021, Kim Geiger, a former beginning teacher at Forest Hills Elementary, said at a county/city Community Relations Advisory Committee meeting, that starting out teaching at her school was not the same as those BTs, (her former UNCW Watson College of Education classmates), who started working at Ogden Elementary, for example.

She said, “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.” Geiger added, “and so if we're aware of these discrepancies between the schools, what are we going to do about it in the future?”

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust was the guest speaker at this meeting, he responded that student success is mainly based on the quality of the teachers.

While research says this plays a part, mainly in the realm of student growth, not test scores, there are other factors involved with student success like parental impact and socio-economic status.

When asked about this predicament, Raines said that she and Fink do differentiate support based on the school that the BT is in.

“Not one shoe fits all for all beginning teachers, and so we can really help them find that professional development that they need to be successful in their setting,” Raines said.

Whittington said she’s seen firsthand the issue Geiger described. She said one of the BTs at Williston had really been struggling because, “his internship looked completely different than here, but he said he plans to stay at Williston and be here until he's no longer teaching, so that was really encouraging.”

Work-life balance

Another driver of retaining beginning teachers is the issue of burnout. It showed up even for veteran teachers in the last climate survey the district conducted in December 2021.

“Teachers notoriously don't have a great relationship with work-life balance. And, of course, our beginning teachers are in that same boat. So we do get feedback, the ‘to-do list is never going to end,’” Fink said. But she said BTs need to decide, “‘Okay, it's time for me to go home and do something for myself.’ So we have to encourage them and let them know it's okay to leave school at school, and go home, take care of yourself and come back refreshed tomorrow.”

Fink said that teacher workdays are so important in terms of them catching up on grading or other work that’s been piling up.

Whittington agrees, “it's all about building that culture of ‘it's okay not to be okay.’ Everything doesn't have to be perfect, and it's a culture where you can be vulnerable to ask for help and ask for some new ideas.”

Raines said she and Fink tell BTs to start a ‘sunshine folder’ “to put those positive notes [in] because every day is not going to be your best day of teaching ever, but you've got to have those reminders of why you got into this to start with.”

Whittington said she ultimately wants the public to know that BTs and veteran teachers alike are “underpaid and overworked.” But to “really take to heart what our job is and that we love working with our students,” she said. “Any way that they can encourage us to keep on going and be supportive [to] find the things that we're doing well in our schools and focus on that would be very helpful.”


2022 NC Teaching Working Conditions Survey — you can also view the results for each school in the district.

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