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NC schools are competing eagerly for new hires, but ‘it’s a teacher’s market’

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Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Principal Gloria Woods-Weeks of Riverside High School in Durham looks over the resume of prospective teacher Abby Wood at a Durham Public Schools job fair this spring.

This story is the first in a WUNC series all about the teacher pipeline called "A Teacher In Every Class."

At Durham Public Schools’ annual job fair at Hillside High this spring, school administrators filled the hallways. Tables were laid out with pamphlets and displays advertising each school to candidates who trickled through. Principals lined the lockers, scouting out their next hire.

Principal Gloria Woods-Weeks was seeking candidates to fill multiple teaching positions at Riverside High. She and her staff were all dressed up in their school colors, giving a little extra effort to stand out in the crowd.

I've been in education going on, what 27 years, and I can honestly say that this is the most difficult year I have seen as far as not only recruitment but retention of educators.
Alvera Lesane, Durham Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources

“It is a bit more challenging since the pandemic,” Woods-Weeks said. “We're all looking for the most highly qualified candidate that is present today, and so it becomes a little bit competitive.”

The pandemic has changed many things for schools. One of the enduring effects may be the havoc it has wreaked on teacher retention, as the well-known phenomenon of “burnout” has led even seasoned teachers to move on from the classroom.

“I've been in education going on, what 27 years, and I can honestly say that this is the most difficult year I have seen as far as not only recruitment but retention of educators,” said Durham Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Alvera Lesane.

Lesane later confirmed Durham Public Schools has lost nearly 1 in 5 teachers this past school year, an all-time high for the district. That statistic counts all retirements, deaths, and teachers who left the classroom.

Officials from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Wake County Schools also told WUNC they are seeing higher than usual turnover in the 2021-2022 school year, and school districts are still tallying their final numbers as they look forward to the fall.

Durham Public School’s rate of turnover had been on a downward trend in recent years, until this past school year. In fact, the school district reached its lowest teacher turnover rate of 11 percent in the prior 2020-2021 school year, before hitting its peak from last fall through this summer.

“Here in the span of a year, and a very difficult year at that, we have seen those numbers spike,” Lesane said.

Durham Public Schools is losing teachers in spite of the fact that it is a competitive employer among North Carolina school districts, with higher than average teacher pay for the state, in a growing city that attracts young people.

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Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Principal Gloria Woods-Weeks stands at her booth representing Riverside High School at the Durham Public Schools' spring job fair.

The principals at this job fair were ready to make up for those losses with new hires. Woods-Weeks accepted resumes all day long and interviewed some candidates on the spot in the classroom behind her booth.

She had already completed about 20 interviews that day, when up walked prospective teacher Abby Wood, who said she was impressed by Riverside's staff, all in purple outfits.

“This is so coordinated and put together,” Wood said. “When my socks match I feel good about it, and you're just all together, all together!”

The two exchanged handshakes and a resume, then Wood headed back to the classroom for an interview with high hopes.

'It’s A Teacher’s Market' and schools are in a race to avoid vacancies

Meanwhile principal Jerome Leathers of Southern School of Energy and Sustainability sat in a classroom down the hall, waiting for candidates.

“It seems like the activity today has not been as much as we've seen in the past,” Leathers said. “But what I am experiencing, that we're getting good candidates coming through.”

He has multiple positions to fill, a few that were vacant for the past school year. Leathers says he intentionally waited until the summer hiring season to fill them with a fresh crop of candidates.

“I’m a firm believer, we don’t fill vacancies just to have them filled,” Leathers said. “This is our time to hire candidates, because if we don't attract, if we don't draw people to our school now, it becomes a problem.”

Leathers says sometimes his school is up against a negative perception that isn't fair to his students.

“It's perceived a minority school,” Leathers said. “Other schools aren't perceived a minority school, but DPS is a minority district, right?”

The percentages of Black and Latino students attending Southern High are slightly higher than that of the district, and so is the school’s share of economically disadvantaged students.

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Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Principal Jerome Leathers of Southern School of Energy and Sustainability in Durham Public Schools is hoping to fill 13 open positions over the summer.

As a Black principal in Durham, Leathers is well aware of how stereotypes affect his students.

“I'm a Durham kid myself. I graduated from Hillside High School,” Leathers said. “So the idea that any child in Durham can't learn what I did, that is difficult to teach, I don't believe that.”

While most schools are struggling with recruitment this year, some schools have it harder than others -- whether it's because of stereotypes about the school, its location, or how much its district pays teachers. Leathers says it's especially tough to compete now, when new teachers have a lot of options.

“It's a teacher's market,” Leathers said. “So they won't just have one offer, they have five offers.”

Leathers is in a race this summer to fill positions so they aren't vacant come August. By the end of the school year in May, he had 13 positions to fill by fall.

How’s the job market for candidates? 'Exciting and nerve-wracking.'

Wood is a recent graduate of Duke University’s master of arts in teaching program. She says the job market is “so insane right now.”

“There are so many openings all over the place that it's almost a little bit overwhelming, but it's also a huge relief, and especially as someone looking for a job, it's nice to be in high demand,” Wood said.

Wood says it is both exciting and nerve-wracking to know there are so many vacancies, just as she’s entering the teaching field for the first time.

“Because if people are leaving, there's probably a reason, but I'm the type of person who really does enjoy being challenged,” Wood said.

Wood recently moved to North Carolina from Idaho to get her master's degree. Halfway through the program, she was shocked to learn that the state had ended higher pay for teachers who started a master’s program after 2013.

“It seems like a logical thing to assume that you would have master's pay or higher pay for a higher degree,” Wood said. “But hopefully, that's something that can change.”

Wood is also concerned about how teacher turnover will change the school setting for students.

“So I'm excited to be able to get into a school where I can start to rebuild some of those relationships with students and provide some stability,” Wood said.

After working as a student teacher in Durham Public Schools, she was excited to stay in the district. Luckily, she must have aced her interview at Riverside High, because it was one of a handful of job offers she got for the fall – and she decided to take it.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org
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