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NC faces a teaching ‘crisis.’ 3 teachers describe why they left the classroom

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Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Angela Hinson Samuels was a special education teacher in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools who retired early during the pandemic due to the stress of her job.

Josh Paterni suddenly had more time to reflect after he quit his job in April as a high school English teacher in the Orange County School District.

“In some ways, this was an incredibly difficult decision to leave. And so, certainly, there's some regret,” Paterni said.

He left before the school year ended, just after spring break. Administrators were unable to fill his position with a certified teacher for the rest of the school year.

Paterni says he had a great group of students and counted colleagues among his closest friends, but the job was weighing on his home life.

"When you're a teacher, you're always a teacher," Paterni said. "Increasingly, that meant that I was responding to student emails or work related calls well into the evening."

"I felt like I wasn't a particularly successful co-parent, which felt incredibly unfair, because my partner is the primary breadwinner in our household," Paterni added.

He and his wife have an 8-year-old son and live in Durham. Despite being mid-career professionals in their 40s, he says they were just getting by.

"A trip to the emergency room for my son for stitches... or an unexpected car repair meant that we were putting thousands of dollars on credit cards," Paterni explained.

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Liz Schlemmer
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WUNC
Josh Paterni was a former high school English teacher at Orange County School who left this spring to take a higher-paying job at an education tech firm in Research Triangle Park.

Paterni spent 18 years teaching in North Carolina public schools, and at the end, made about $53,000. The state salary schedule locks mid-career teachers into a $50,000 base salary for 10 years straight after they reach 15 years of experience.

"I recognize that in some parts of the state, $50,000 is enough money to live comfortably," Paterni said. "But in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, in Wake County, or Durham, that's not a wage that you can raise a family on."

Paterni says his breaking point was when state lawmakers and Governor Roy Cooper announced a state budget deal in December. The budget was hailed by some as a compromise between the Republican-led legislature and the Democratic governor, but for Paterni it brought little relief.

While the budget raised teacher pay by an average 2.5 percent, it offered mid-career teachers only a one percent raise during a period of tough inflation.

"It felt like an insult and in particular in a period when teaching has been so difficult," Paterni said.

Out of frustration, Paterni applied for other jobs. He had sent out applications in years past, but during this year’s hiring boom, he had better luck. An education tech firm in Research Triangle Park offered him a job with a significant pay jump. He now makes more than the top of North Carolina’s teacher salary schedule.

"I did very much feel like I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and, and I'm hoping that that's something I'll be able to escape, kind of moving out of public service… which is a sad thing to say," Paterni said.

After serving in his new job for several months now, Paterni says he is happy with his decision to leave teaching, but he’s concerned about teacher vacancies.

"I’m just worried about who’s going to teach my son," Paterni said.

Last week, Eric Davis, the chair of the North Carolina Board of Education, called North Carolina’s current teacher vacancy situation a "crisis."

State education leaders at the Department of Public Instruction are working on a controversial restructuring plan to teacher salaries that State Superintendent Catherine Truitt says may help with teacher recruitment and retention. However, that plan does not address other working conditions.

Every former teacher has a breaking point – when extra duties mean they haven’t had a real lunch in weeks, when they have to seriously consider the risk of a school shooting, or when stress leads to a mental health crisis.

Special education teacher faces terrible stress from extra duties

Angela Hinson Samuels is the proud owner of a home with a large, sunny porch.

"That was always my goal to have a beautiful front porch, that I could sit back and relax on after I worked hard and served the community," Samuels said.

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Josh Sullivan
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WUNC

She retired as a high school special education teacher for Winston-Salem Forsyth/County Schools in August 2021, three years earlier than she had planned. School administrators say retirements are fueling teacher losses as much as resignations.

"I'm just burned completely out," Samuels said. "When they say, ‘you get up and go,’ well my get up and go has got up and gone and left the building."

The stress Samuels was experiencing from her job landed her in the hospital.

"January, February of 2021, I was ill, and wound up in the hospital in March for a week, and so the doctor took me out of work until July for me to heal," Samuels said.

Her work was so overwhelming that it was causing not only mental health issues, but physical as well. She was having gastric issues from anxiety, and it was exacerbating her diabetes.

The stressful part of her job was not teaching. It was the mountains of paperwork special education teachers are required to file daily to track their students' progress and meet legal expectations. She spent about 15 to 20 hours a week on paperwork alone, often outside of school hours.

"Hours and hours and hours and on the weekend and at night and at home," Samuels said. "This is a constant thing."

During the school day, she didn’t have time for the paperwork because she was focused on her main job – teaching special education.

"In the early days of teaching you came in and you spent time with the kids. You taught. As I was leaving out the door, it was the opposite. You did paperwork," Samuels said.

When her school went to virtual only classes during the pandemic, Samuels got a small break.

"It gave you a better chance to use the bathroom when you needed to," Samuels said. "You had a minute to collect your thoughts and get things together or check your blood or drink a Glucerna."

She saw an alternative and began studying to be a Medicare insurance agent when another bout of anxiety landed her in the hospital a second time. Samuels decided to retire early in August 2021, just before she turned 59.

However, she didn’t fully retire. She now works as a Medicare agent and part-time as a reading tutor with a city program that serves elementary students.

"There's no way I could be fully retired because I've got to generate some type of income," Samuels said.

She is still paying off her own student debt from earning her degree in teaching mid-career. Because Samuels retired three years before she was eligible for full retirement benefits, she says she receives about 600 dollars less per month from her pension.

It weighed on her that the state already has hundreds of vacancies for special education teachers every year.

"That's why I wanted to hang on, because I know they need me," Samuels said. "I just did not intend to leave like that. I did not intend to retire early. I did not intend to leave money on the table. I intended to, you know, be a teacher."

Elementary teacher seeks flexibility and financial independence

Megan Wing keeps old class photos framed in her bedroom to remember her former first grade students.

"This was the last group of kids that I taught in person. They were amazing," Wing said, showing off her class photo. "I’ve been texting all of them because I see this photo."

Wing taught at Wake County Schools for five years and loved her job.

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Courtesy of Megan Wing
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Megan Wing is a former elementary school teacher at Wake County Public School who left her job to start a life coaching business to pursue more flexible hours and financial independence.

"Truly, it was everything to me," Wing said. "But I realized that it wasn't going to be a part of my long term plan."

She had a second passion: life coaching.

"A life coach is kind of like a therapist for your future," Wing explaine.

She had been seeing a life coach for years, who encouraged her to consider where she saw herself in 10 years.

"I realized that I wanted to be working from home, hopefully with some children," Wing said. "My coach brought up the interesting point that I can’t teach from home."

Wing started a part-time business life coaching during the pandemic while still teaching. She was making about $40,000 as a teacher, and was able to double her salary coaching part-time last year.

As a beginning teacher, Wing had worked around the clock to afford an apartment in Wake County without roommates.

"I would overnight nanny, and I would wake up with the kids I nannied. I would take them to school, teach all day, tutor, work after school and then take the kids back I nannied, and I taught yoga on Tuesdays and Friday mornings," Wing said.

Since deciding to quit her job as a teacher and run her business full time, Wing has grown her salary to nearly $100,000.

"Financially, the change from coaching to teaching has been ridiculous," Wing said. "That was a big part of me leaving teaching as well is that I knew that I wanted to travel and I knew that children would be expensive."

Wing also appreciates the flexibility of the job and how that may one day help her with her other goal of being a mom.

"I can work from home. I can work whenever I want. I choose my hours, I choose the price of my program," Wing said. "There's just a lot more freedom."

Wing says she never considered leaving teaching before the pandemic. Her realization came in May 2021.

"One of the things that a lot of us, I believe, realized is that we have no idea what’s gonna happen tomorrow, and it’s kind of important to reflect and be like, is this the life I really want to live?" Wing said.

School districts across the state are still working to hire teachers by the start of the school year, now weeks or days away, and still counting vacancies. The true cost of this 'Great Resignation' will not be tallied until students enter classrooms.

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