Teacher retention, keeping teachers on the Shore is one of the most important and critical issues facing Northampton county. The Mirror has interviewed and talked with several teachers, and the reasons people leave the Northampton school district is multi-faceted. This year, the county lost 25% of its teachers—that means there will be over 35 new teachers that will need to be integrated into the system. The demographics can be broken down into categories such as attrition, moving, etc.; sources tell us that of the 25% that are leaving, at least half are leaving because of job dissatisfaction. Some of the factors included inadequate administrative support, isolated working conditions, poor support and consistency regarding student discipline, lower salaries and a lack of collaborative teacher influence over school decisions, decisions that directly affect performance in the classroom.
Note: This article only sampled around 9% of the teachers in the school system. It should also be noted that we only spoke with teachers who are currently working in the school system. In future articles, we will be talking to teachers that have left, asking why they chose to leave Northampton, or the field in general. While responses varied, we are only presenting those that were most common. While we did not want to paint the entire system with the same brush, was also did not want to throw individual buildings under the bus. As was noted in the Teacher Retention Committee’s surveys, responses vary by school.
One way teachers try to avoid burn out is to transfer—either to a new school, or even change the grade level they are teaching. We heard over and over that transfer requests were almost never discussed. Instead, teachers only received a pink slip rubber stamped with a big red ‘DENIED’ notice with no explanation one way or the another. Another issue is the lack of upward mobility at the school system. The major complaint heard from teachers is that the school system rarely if ever hires or promotes from within. In most cases, administration looks to bring people in from outside. While bringing in new blood may be a way freshen a stale system, it also impedes morale, and forces teachers to move out if they want to move up.
Onerous Lesson Plans
Teachers complain about administration’s draconian emphasis on lesson planning, and the rigid scheduling around turning them in. The concern is that teachers don’t have time to prep for the activities that are going to help students because they are so busy writing elaborate lesson plans. How can teachers really be “effective” if they must spend 3 or 4 hours just on lesson plans, which are really just “plans”? The consensus is that lesson plans are important, but they are a formality—what actually happens in the classroom is what matters. In Virginia Beach, every single school has been accredited. The lessons plans used there are, compared to Northampton, very efficient and streamlined. Burdensome lesson plans are unnecessarily stressful and time-consuming exercises which rarely translate to meaningful successes in the classroom.
Lack of respect, professionalism
For teachers in Northampton, one big issue is how much voice, how much say they have in the school-wide decisions that affect their jobs. They do not feel they are treated as professionals. Teachers feel that they are not respected, and are sometimes even belittled by administration. Some feel they don’t have autonomy in their own classroom, and are consistently micromanaged. Teachers say they would like to have real career prospects and more responsibility as professionals. They would like for administration to encourage them to become leaders of educational reform, to be seen as innovators in education, not just passive servants to the SOLs.
The Shun Wall – No Voice in school affairs
A consistent complaint is that teachers feel they have no voice in the affairs of the school system. There is also a fear of speaking out, or to even have a professional discussion about a concern. In an email, a teacher told us, “Since our voice is rather pronounced and specific, often times we are punished for speaking out which may lead some to be apprehensive to give comment.” One teacher referred to this as the ‘Shun Wall’. Once you bring up a concern, the response is basically to be shunned by administration. The inability to voice concerns leads to a feeling of being undervalued. “We tend to feel insignificant, that what we do, our contributions, no one really cares about what we need to be successful…they are only worried about the test scores.”
Need for support and consistency with discipline issues
Successful school systems thrive on consistency. The teachers we talked to complained that there was not a consistent methodology for dealing with discipline problems. Managing a classroom is a challenge no matter where it is, however the population on the Shore presents unique problems. Complaints are that new teachers are not given enough help acclimating to some of the special issues found here, such as long-term generational poverty. In some cases, we have children that are acting as the head of household, sometimes are even the main breadwinner. How do you discipline someone like that? We were told that some teachers have left after just six months because they couldn’t manage the classroom, and were not receiving any support or help from administration.
Lack of Mentorship
Almost all the teachers interviewed had high praise for the mentors working in the school system. The issue is that there aren’t enough to go around. From what we could gather, the ratio is 1 mentor to 40 teachers (not confirmed). Mentorship is crucial for young teachers. While they receive two weeks of training and orientation before classes begin, once school starts, many find themselves alone on an island. Other, more experienced teachers try to fill the gap helping with lesson plans and showing them how to use the online computer systems, but this does not take the place of a proper mentorship program.
Lack of a solid curriculum
Another important issue that was brought up was the lack of an appropriate yearlong or semester-long curriculum aligned with the state standards in core subjects. If teachers are responsible for creating curriculums, it takes time away from instruction and burdens teachers with extra work and excessive paperwork. This issue is amplified for new teachers.
For new teachers moving to the Shore, the community provides a good amount of support helping them acclimate to the area, such as finding housing, services and other resources. After they settle in, and fall turns into winter, the desolation of the area begins to set in. It is very expensive to live here, and given the starting salaries, after paying rent and bills, there is little left for entertainment. Most certainly can’t pay the toll to go across the bay on a regular basis. In many cases, they are left alone, trying to make it to the next pay check. One suggestion was that the school system could organize events such as taking the white bus across the bay to shopping malls or movie theaters (it only costs $1 to cross), or even small events like barbecues. These are small gestures, but getting groups of teachers together once a month just to talk and have fun would mean so much to our young teachers.
Most teachers said that while salary was not the most important factor, many times it was the straw that breaks the camel’s back and prompts them to leave Northampton. Most realize that the county is doing more than is required (paying 30% more than is required by the state), however that does not change the fact that it is a hardship. Almost every teacher we talked to worked a second job just to make ends meet. As was mentioned earlier, it is expensive to live here—housing, utilities, food, gas, etc., when it’s all said and done, most teachers wind up living off their credit cards.
The Northampton County school system has lost 25% of its teachers. So why do so many leave? As we illustrated, there are many different reasons. When we asked the teachers that continue to stay on, why they stay, the response was much the same—the kids come first. These teachers, despite the obstacles have formed a unique bond with the students of Northampton County. As one teacher responded, “I love the Eastern Shore. The students of Northampton deserve to have something stable in their very tumultuous lives.”
In the next few months, the School Board will be addressing important issues such as attendance and truancy. Teacher retention should also be at the top of the list. The Teacher Retention Committee has begun to produce some data, as well as a beginning list of recommendations. As one teacher told us, “If meaningful change is going to happen, the work of the TRC, especially the teacher surveys needs to be a priority.”