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The Dive: Why a New Hanover County teacher quit the profession

Johanna F. Still for The Assembly
/
WHQR
Lisa Williams recently left her job in New Hanover County Schools.

Every week, WHQR news director Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. For this edition, we’re talking about a personal essay we ran this week, written by a veteran New Hanover County high school teacher — who just quit the profession.

The Dive is a free weekly newsletter jointly published by WHQR and The Assembly. You can find more information and subscribe here.


[Editor’s note: New Hanover County Schools provided a response, which appears at the end of this essay.]

I grew up in the culture of teaching. My grandmother was an elementary teacher for 50 years, and when her district forced her into retirement at age 70, she joined the Peace Corps to teach in the Philippines. My grandfather dedicated every fiber of his being to his career as a history teacher and high school football coach. My aunt enjoyed a long career as an English teacher and school librarian. My decision to become a high school English teacher was like breathing.

I remember my first day in the classroom. Right after the bell rang for my first class, I realized how unprepared I was. I then studied every night to stay ahead of my students. I researched, read, collaborated, and planned until I had a firm grasp of how to make my vision for my students a reality. Later that year, when I was seven months pregnant with my first son, an angry student threw a desk at me. I wanted him to do his grammar assignment; he figured I couldn’t make him. He was right. I walked away from teaching after my second year.

Five years later I went back, but this time I fell in love with it. I loved the teenage sense of humor and helping kids learn to do things they never thought they could do. I loved reading and writing stories with them, and how they discovered new words and tried them out in real life. I loved making yearbooks and newspapers and teaching students to harness their power. Especially, though, I loved revealing ways to break down what seemed like insurmountable tasks so my students could find their own way toward success. I loved getting emails from them when they passed Advanced Placement tests or got into their colleges of choice. I loved helping them find themselves, and I loved unleashing those students on a world that had no idea what was coming for it.

After 20 years in Kentucky classrooms and three years in New Hanover County, I have educated approximately 3,500 students. It’s almost surreal to think about how far the world has come in that time. I started teaching before smartphones, before YouTube, before XBox, before No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Parents and school boards trusted teachers to do their jobs, while teachers trusted parents and school boards to support their efforts.

Things weren’t perfect. Sometimes it was downright painful, but there was something about working with kids that helped me look past inept administrators, disruptive students, abusive media, rage-addicted parents, and budgetary shortcomings. My skin got thicker, my pockets got emptier, my skill level deepened, and somehow my smile got bigger. But as the years went on, the teaching profession steadily became unsustainable for me and many others. In the 2022–23 school year, 11.5 percent of North Carolina public school teachers left their jobs, up from 7.8 percent the prior year.

This year, six weeks before the school year ended, I resigned. I turned in my 30-day notice when I took a job in the private sector, and before I left I made sure my students were ready for their Advanced Placement tests. I posted lessons online for the rest of the school year. I was ready to go, and this time, I’m not going back to the classroom. You need to know why.

This year, I started carrying a bulletproof backpack to work. I kept my classroom door locked all day. In my desk drawer, I kept a can of wasp spray that could shoot 40 feet. I paid attention to everything: if the kids who had assaulted teachers and other students were in the hallway near my room, if the exterior door outside my classroom was propped open by a student who wanted to return under the administrative radar, if the fire drills were signaling an armed attack. When we were called into lockdowns, I stood behind the classroom door so I could greet anyone who might be on the other side because, while I might go down, I could buy time for my students to run.

This year, I worked an average of four hours after school every night and at least 10 hours during weekends. Sometimes more. It wasn’t because I enjoyed the work or because I am a perfectionist. It was so I could meet the demands of the local school board policy stating that every paper should be graded within one week of its due date.

Additionally, the central office expected me to attend administrator-directed professional learning meetings twice a week during my planning period. They also made the decision to “support” my instruction by asking me to drive across the county for larger meetings at least once each quarter. To add to the growing list of time killers, school administrators expected me to attend department meetings once a month, two committee meetings a month, meetings for each special-education student, two lunch duties a week, and to sub for teachers who were out. When my schedule was changed without notice on the first day of school, leaving me with nothing prepared for the students I didn’t know I would have, it did nothing to mitigate my already impossible schedule.

This year, I sent home permission slips and explanations for assigned readings to parents of senior AP Literature students. Although school authorities trust me to put myself between a bullet and a student, they don’t trust me to choose books for 18-year-olds in college-level courses, despite my experience, my bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and National Board certification. I can’t tell you how many parents have written, emailed, or called to tell me how absurd it is that I ask their permission. I remind them to pay attention to who they elect this fall, or it will be worse.

Because I wasn’t ready to lose my job, I was terrified to stand in front of the board and speak that day, but how could I stand in front of my students every day knowing that I did nothing to thwart censorship? 

This year, I spoke to the local Board of Education twice. Several members appeared to scroll on their phones as I spoke. A couple of them rolled their eyes. The first time, I spoke in opposition to the ban of the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, euphemized as a “temporary removal” in an AP class at my school. Because I wasn’t ready to lose my job, I was terrified to stand in front of the board and speak that day, but how could I stand in front of my students every day knowing that I did nothing to thwart censorship?

The second time, I spoke in opposition to a professional code of ethics that was punitive and forced me to choose between complying with the policy and my responsibility to challenge my students to think critically. According to this policy, I could be formally reprimanded—or possibly fired—for classroom content that even brushed up against issues of race, sex, or that simply made a student “uncomfortable.” How could any literature consistently pass their litmus test? In both cases, the board passed these measures at my professional and personal expense. I had no choice but to comply with my conscience.

There’s a mentality surrounding teaching right now that involves gaslighting and misinformation. People seem to think that teachers by nature are like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, in which a tree gives until it has nothing left to give. Teachers should be happy to provide unlimited amounts of time, money, positivity, intellectual currency, and even personal identities to the community at large until nothing is left but a stump. They ask, Isn’t that what you signed up for? Welcome to the myth of the American teacher. Most of us are not trying to become stumps in exchange for abuse and martyrdom, but at the core of our being, a voice of conviction poses the question we all have to answer: What about the kids?

The kids are losing the most in the battle over public education. Because teachers are overburdened with administrative tasks, larger class sizes, and hyper-politicized and impractical board policies, there isn’t enough time to serve students well. Board policies force teachers to offer nothing more than the state constitution requires: a basic education. But we live in a world where basic is no longer good enough. We live in a complex and unprecedented time that requires a deep understanding of our own social context, and unfortunately many teachers no longer feel at liberty to allow this sort of exploration in their classrooms.

Additionally, most students don’t have the experience, support, or emotional capital to realize what is happening to them, and if they do, they feel powerless to fight back. Parental pressure and political-rage culture is killing opportunities for our students, imposing unreasonable limitations on teachers, and limiting the scope of everyone’s critical thinking.

It’s not too late to change.

Parents, support your children by supporting their teachers. Visit your child’s teachers and see what they are trying to accomplish. When you undermine teachers, it doesn’t make things better for your child. Allow me to offer some examples from the last three years.

I once engaged in a four-day email battle with a parent because I made his daughter wait 10 minutes to go to the bathroom, in accordance with our school policy of keeping kids in the classroom for the last 15 minutes of each period. This policy is aimed at preventing vaping and other more nefarious activities, but teachers and administrators are unwilling to enforce it for fear of time-consuming and emotionally draining interactions with parents. The vape clouds that sometimes roll out of the bathrooms are truly impressive.

Another time, a parent told me I must allow her child to wander around in my classroom during my lessons because my chairs were too uncomfortable for him. My co-teacher bought him a cushion, but he wandered the room with impunity, disrupting the other kids at his whim. The administration pandered to the parent rather than supporting a workable solution because the parent was so outspoken and determined to have her way that it was just easier to subtract from the educational experience of all the other students in the room.

I was the yearbook adviser and expected public comment, but it was sometimes extreme. In one case, a parent used her car to block me into a parking space at Walmart so she could scream at me about her daughter’s yearbook picture. It wasn’t big enough. There was no way to go back and change it, but she was going to let me and the rest of the county know what she thought of me.

I could be formally reprimanded—or possibly fired—for classroom content that even brushed up against issues of race, sex, or that simply made a student “uncomfortable.” How could any literature consistently pass their litmus test?

Parents, when you do these things, you’ve missed an opportunity to set a positive example of conflict resolution and to effectively parent your child.

Administrators, support your teachers. Be available and present, both mentally and physically. Check in on your staff. Offer direct, honest responses to communications from teachers and parents, especially when you need to take a stand. Hang around in classrooms during lessons and participate with the students. Respect planning time. If the meeting can be emailed via a Google Slideshow, it doesn’t need to be a meeting. Teacher workdays, planning periods, and lunchtimes should be supported as times for teachers to do the things they need to do.

Trust me, administrators, teachers are painfully aware of their responsibilities. If there are teachers in your building who make you feel suspicious about how they spend their time, you have a responsibility to take a hard look at whether they should still be working for you. The majority of teachers I know barely stop working for a 20-minute lunch break or a bathroom break, but the teachers who chum around in the office during their planning periods are likely ignoring something important. The culture you create when you reward sloth speaks volumes about staff absenteeism.

Voters, support your teachers. Elect officials who make nonpartisan decisions to support improving public education. Don’t elect people to a public office who run solely on the premise of dismantling the very institution that they have been elected to protect. Even if your kids are grown and gone, even if your kids are not in public school, even if you have no kids, there’s an important underlying democratic premise in supporting public education because there’s nothing free about an uneducated public.

If you value a truly free and civilized society, you will support robust, well-funded, well-cultivated public schools and the professionals who can make those things a reality. If you think supporting solid, nonpartisan, researched-based educational practices is expensive, try living in a world where access to those things is not even an option.

Although I left the classroom, I don’t think I will ever stop hoping and fighting for a better public education system. I still follow New Hanover County Board of Education meetings, and I still check in with educator friends I left in the trenches. I care about what happens to them, and I worry about what will happen to our country if we continue down our current slippery slope. The oppression I felt as a teacher in North Carolina was all-encompassing and multifaceted. I don’t think it is a political statement to say that it is going to take effort from all of us, whether we are in education or not, to do better for our teachers, because doing better for our teachers means we are doing better for our kids.

* * *

Lisa Williams taught English and journalism in New Hanover County Schools for three years after teaching in Kentucky public schools for 20 years. She now works in the private sector and writes in her spare time.

The Assembly summarized Lisa Williams’ essay and asked New Hanover County Schools for a response. The district provided this statement:

“First and foremost, we want to express our gratitude for the dedicated service of our teachers. We believe our educators are the very best. They are consummate professionals whose passion and determination are vital to the success of our school district. Their unwavering commitment and enthusiasm are critical to the mission of providing our students with the opportunity for a superior education in a safe and positive learning environment.

The safety of our students and staff is our top priority. We continuously evaluate and enhance our safety protocols to ensure a secure learning environment.

We strive to create a supportive environment that empowers our staff to use the most effective methods possible, aiming for optimal student learning outcomes.

We recognize the challenges inherent in the teaching profession. We have implemented strategies to streamline operations and reduce unnecessary burdens to support our teachers.

We are committed to minimizing non-instructional demands on our teachers’ time, ensuring that every meeting and administrative task is purposeful and contributes to the overall effectiveness of our educational programs.

While we adhere to state and district guidelines to maintain a cohesive and comprehensive curriculum, we also value and respect our teachers’ professional judgment. We are dedicated to balancing necessary oversight with the flexibility for educators to tailor their instruction to meet the diverse needs of their students.

We are proud of our staff and deeply appreciate their hard work and dedication. Their efforts are integral to providing our students with a superb education. We remain committed to supporting our teachers and continuously improving the conditions in which they work.”


Benjamin Schachtman: All right, Johanna, still. Thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thanks for having me.

BS: In this week's dive, we featured something of a letter to the editor from a teacher named Lisa Williams, who wrote about why she is leaving the profession after decades and teaching 1000s of students. First of all, I want to ask, how did this piece come about? Because it's a little different than what people may have seen in The Dive and The Assembly in the past, right?

JS: So Lisa, she left her job with six weeks left to go till the end of the school year, and she went into the private sector. And so she had, I think, been kind of sitting on these experiences, thinking about them. And, you know, I took her photograph for the piece, which she wrote with some editorial assistance and feedback, but you know, mostly it's hers, you know, it's her writing through and through. She felt compelled to share how she's feeling and what she's experiencing, especially now that she's out of the profession. You know, she has no reason to keep quiet anymore. And so she did this exercise, and got a lot off her chest, and it seemed to really resonate with a lot of people, parents, students, former students, other teachers. She kind of sees herself as basically being able to speak on behalf of teachers who are still in the system and experiencing some of the things that she laid out in her letter. And Yet, You're right. We don't typically publish editorial content, you know, first-person opinion-type pieces. However, we found her story to be compelling. We did publish a lengthy statement from the school system responding to her experiences at the bottom of the piece. And we, you know, personally vetted her just to make sure that you know she was who she says she was. And of course, she is. And so her experiences are really kind of symbolic for what's going on in the school system and in school systems across the country. As school boards have become more polarized and as pay has really stagnated, she kind of hits on what's also happening on the inside of the classroom, where teachers are really just feeling tired and exasperated.

BS: Yeah, I thought it was interesting. She covers a lot of issues, and I don't want to try to reproduce her essay here; I hope people will read it. But she she covers everything from sort of sweeping national level issues like school safety, you know, she talks about carrying a bulletproof backpack to work and keeping a can of Wasp spray in her desk. She talks a little bit about some of the culture war stuff, the banning of the book Stamped, that happened last year. But she also talks about some really sort of granular level in-the-classroom stuff, the impact of policies that seem more mundane but have caused some chaos in her life.

JS: One of those policies being to finish grading assignments within a week. And some of the reasons behind why that policy is in place, I mean, you could think of some, you know, positive potential reasons for why it'd be there. Maybe, you know, speakers losing assignments, right? So students feeling like maybe they completed assignment, they didn't get a grade. The issues that could come from that disagreement or discrepancy are solved by having a deadline for grading assignments within a week. However, she also, you know, she brings up how that has created, you know, a big lump of work for teachers, basically. So she's explains how much time she spent outside of her job grading and trying to just keep up with the mountain of assignments that ended up meaning that she was stretched, stretched thin.

BS: Yeah, working late, working on the weekends. She talks about another policy that prevented students from going to the restroom at the end of a classroom period, and that that set off sort of a long running email conflict with a parent, and just a lot of, again, a lot of the small scale results of policies that we haven't covered as much because they're not as flashy as things like the transgender athlete policy or the recent policy banning displays and images in classrooms. So it's a really in depth look at what's actually going on in the classroom. And Johanna, to your point, she is now free to say these things, she's moved on to the private sector, and teachers who have talked to us in the past have always just been willing to share their stories, but only privately, because they were so concerned about retaliation.

JS: And we've heard from people who have read the piece who really resonated with it. We've heard from people who say that, you know, she's a legend, that she was an amazing teacher. Already, we've gotten that feedback, and I hope she won't mind me saying this, but I spoke with her husband when we when I took her photo, and he said that she is noticeably happier. She just seems like a weight has been lifted off of her chest, and that she's just a happier person, which I thought was really compelling.

BS: Yeah, so I hope people read it. They may not agree with everything she has to say, but it is probably the most direct picture we've heard from the classroom in recent history. So I'm glad that we were able to put it out and for now. Johanna, thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you, Ben.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.
Johanna Still is The Assembly‘s Wilmington editor. She previously covered economic development for Greater Wilmington Business Journal and was the assistant editor at Port City Daily.