Raleigh, North Carolina — Two and a half years of teaching was enough for Gabe DeCaro.
He loved tutoring when he was younger and thought he wanted to be a teacher.
But two and a half years as a high school science teacher in Wake County — a period that included more than a year of distance learning for his students — wore him down.
“I’ve always loved helping my classmates, like that light bulb moment when they finally figured something out — it was very valuable, very fulfilling,” DeCaro said. “And then I thought, OK, teaching is the best way to do it. But that light bulb moment rarely happens when kids are tired in class and just want to move on or survive.
Thousands of other North Carolina teachers are considering quitting this summer, like DeCaro. About 7.2% of the more than 107,000 teachers, librarians, school counselors, social workers and psychologists who responded to the North Carolina Education Working Conditions Survey this spring said their immediate plan was to leave education completely, compared to around 4% in 2020 and 2018.
If that percentage holds, almost 7,800 people – the vast majority of whom are classroom teachers – will leave the teaching profession this summer, nearly double the usual number. This is on average one more than usual in each school and more than 30 more than usual in each school system.
“It was just that the system itself was too exhausting,” said former Wake County teacher Emily Harrison.
Harrison quit her teaching job at Carroll Magnet Middle School in Raleigh. She taught for eight years in three school districts before leaving.
In Harrison’s new role in education technology, she has better pay, unlimited paid time off, and more stable hours.
Teachers who left their jobs this spring told WRAL News they felt unappreciated and described increasingly negative school environments made worse by the pandemic. They said state and local education leaders were not including the voices of teachers and students when making decisions that impacted them, leaving teachers and students feeling alienated.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction administers the anonymous survey of teachers’ working conditions once every two years. It primarily asks teachers to agree or disagree with statements, does not include any questions about salary, and leaves no space for teachers to offer open-ended comments.
The vast majority of educators – about 92.5% – responded to the survey, and the results were overwhelmingly positive for most categories. Results were negative for questions about student conduct and some professional development opportunities. The once near-universal agreement among teachers that the school management addressed their various concerns has dropped to around three-quarters of teachers.
Although most teachers do not plan to quit, the possibility of a raise could hamper schools’ plans to lead pandemic learning recovery efforts and leave many children without a constant teacher for part or their entire next school year.
A depressing year
DeCaro has seen many students attend Holly Springs High School this year with little enthusiasm.
School didn’t seem to be working for many of his students, and DeCaro felt like he couldn’t help them or had some flexibility in his work to try to inspire them.
Ashleigh Wilson, a nine-year-old high school science teacher who resigned from Pitt County High School in April, said students returned after a year and a half of interrupted learning in a worse mood than before.
“They were getting more and more disrespectful,” Wilson said. “The support system for students is not totally there.”
This has weighed on teachers who deal with student conduct issues and attempt to empathize.
“This school year has been extremely stressful,” Wilson said.
Schooling this year has been about business as usual, with a focus on picking up the pace of learning to compensate for lower test scores during the pandemic, DeCaro said. But the year has not been usual and the energetic optimism of this approach does not match the mood of the school, he said. Many students don’t react to it, he says.
“They become alienated, they disengage,” DeCaro said. “And it’s difficult to live with on a daily basis.”
DeCaro’s philosophical struggles with North Carolina’s education system will cause his teaching career to end next week, potentially with the 8.3% of teachers in the Wake County public school system who said they planned to resign, compared to 4% in 2020.
About 6% of teachers plan to quit at Pitt County schools, compared to 3.6%.
The pandemic created a more taxing work environment, but neither DeCaro nor Wilson said they thought the pandemic changed their ultimate trajectory — leaving the teaching profession before retiring.
A better opportunity
Wilson and DeCaro said many teachers who don’t plan to quit now are still thinking about it or waiting for retirement eligibility, feeling unemployable in any other industry. Research shows that teachers are unlikely to change professions after teaching for several years, in part because their skills are not transferable to very many other professions that pay as well or better than teaching.
Wilson bucked this trend somewhat; she quit teaching science in April after receiving a job offer as an entry-level chemist at a pharmaceutical company. She had been a teacher for nine years, most recently in Pitt County for five years, then in Onslow County for four years prior.
Wilson still loved teaching, but gave up because she felt time was running out to change careers.
“I really miss my students and that educational aspect of this job,” Wilson said.
Wilson went to the school prom after quitting and plans to attend the graduation. She said “it was really all the behind-the-scenes stuff” that made her quit.
Both Wilson and DeCaro are high school science teachers, among the types of teachers North Carolina has the hardest time hiring. People with skills in STEM fields can often make more money in STEM-focused businesses than they can in education.
“I want enough to live and survive, but I also want an environment where I can grow and learn and ironically that doesn’t happen in schools,” DeCaro said.
That ended up being the case for Wilson, though DeCaro wants to make an even bigger change.
After more than two years of negative feelings, he decided to focus on a hobby. He plans to become a chef.
“I want to master a craft and be good at something,” DeCaro said. “And cooking only brings joy to people. And teaching, there are positive moments of joy.
Wilson decided to take advantage of the other of his two degrees from East Carolina University, that of chemistry. Although she is now in an entry-level position, she earns about as much as the roughly $45,000 she earned as a teacher, with the added promise of more pay raises and opportunities for promotion as she gains experience. Also, she doesn’t take her work home at the end of the day, like she did as a teacher. And she doesn’t spend $300 of her own money each year on work supplies, like she did when buying lab supplies or basic classroom items like tape and scissors.
For Wilson, the actions of elected officials left him feeling that teachers were not valued. No state budget for two years prevented her from getting step increases with every year of experience. She still hasn’t received her $100 school supply allowance. She also couldn’t afford advanced degrees to improve her teaching, after lawmakers cut the master’s salary and funding ran out for the state’s one-time reimbursement program for board certification. National Vocational Education Standards.
The promised salary increases did not turn out to be so significant, she said.
“The state itself doesn’t make it a desirable position,” Wilson said.
At nine years of experience, Wilson received about $101 more per month with the pay raise and about $57 more per month with his experience-based increment.
Lawmakers approved pay increases that averaged 5% over two years for most teachers, though increases were about half those for teachers with at least 15 years of experience who were not guaranteed an experience-based step increase alongside the base salary increase.
For nine years, Wilson said she found ways to adapt to the changes she didn’t like, until she couldn’t anymore.
“I would make peace with that and then something else would be dropped, and I would make peace with that and something else would be dropped,” Wilson said.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said when it comes to school leadership, it’s up to North Carolina district leaders to do something with the data to make a difference.