Where have all the teachers gone?

As the 2017-18 school year ended, Clarke County School District witnessed one of its largest teacher turnover rates in recent years, with 230 documented resignations throughout the county. Roughly 16-percent of all Clarke County teachers either resigned or retired. At Cedar Shoals High School, 28 employees resigned in the past year alone, almost 30-percent of the entire staff.

“It’s a problem in education in general. It’s a stressful job, being a teacher,” said Lynn Duke, the Executive Director of Human Resources and Information Services for CCSD.

Unfortunately, this trend is growing. As published in “Teachers Flee CCSD: Departures Doubled Over 2016-17” by Rebecca McCarthy in Flagpole, the number of teachers to leave the school district during 2017 was double that of 2016.

At the end of last school year, former Cedar Shoals social studies department chair Mrs. Erin Adamson resigned from her position and is now teaching at North Oconee High School. Throughout her years at Cedar Shoals, Adamson taught World History, worked with the cross country team, and even hosted the 2018 Cedar Shoals Europe trip.

“I think that it’s really damaging and misleading,” said Adamson in response to McCarthy’s article in Flagpole. “North Oconee High School, which is supposedly one of the top schools in the state, hired 18 new people this year. We have three new people in the social studies department alone, and I think there are a similar amount of new people in the social studies department at Cedar. This idea that it’s only Clarke County that’s experiencing this huge turnover is inaccurate,” said Adamson.

Erin Adamson continues to teach World History at North Oconee High School. “I like the fact that, because it’s not a title 1 district, and we don’t have a lot of students struggling academically, there’s not a huge burden placed on teachers.” said Adamson. Photo by Tyson Jordan

Mr. Derrick Maxwell, Cedar Shoals Principal, has worked in CCSD for 15 years in addition to his brief stint as principal at Commerce Middle School. During his time in CCSD, Maxwell has been principal at both Cedar Shoals and Whit Davis Elementary.

“I don’t think the 16% turnover rate is really unique to Clarke County,” said Maxwell. “Looking around at other similar districts, they experience similar percentages of attrition.”

As principal, Maxwell sees the struggles of new employees in CCSD.

“The Department of Education did a study two or three years ago, and I think the alarming statistic was that 44-percent of educators left the profession within their first five years,” said Maxwell.

“Georgia’s Teacher Dropout Crisis,” written by Stephen J. Owens, summarizes this study. Over 53,000 educators in Georgia were surveyed, with most saying that the “Number and emphasis of mandated tests” was the predominant reason they left.

“The first step is to find out why teachers are leaving the profession. I know Georgia has conducted that survey several years ago, but I think nationwide it would be good to do some research and anecdotal gathering of data,” said Maxwell.

Losing teachers is not only a personnel issue, but an expensive one. While the cost of training teachers varies across districts, the frequency throughout the United States is apparent.

A study titled “What’s The Cost of Teacher Turnover?” published by Learning Policy Institute says that on average, urban districts can spend up to $20,000 on each new hire.

As both Adamson and Maxwell acknowledge, the teacher attrition rate is not unique to Clarke County. In “Revolving Door of Teachers Cost Schools Billions Every Year,” writer Owen Phillips interviews Dr. Richard Ingersoll, who said that over 40-percent of K-12 Teachers leave a school district within their first five years of teaching. Ingersoll’s research on teacher retention has helped shed light on current issues in American schools.

The statistics speak for themselves. New teachers clearly have obstacles of their own to face, and they do not always feel supported.

“I think a big part of it is not having support. There’s been a couple places where the principals haven’t done well and haven’t supported their staff. People get fed up really easily with behavioral problems. People just get tired of disciplining the same kids and the administration not doing anything about those kids. That was the real issue when I was student teaching,” said Mr. Garrett Walker, a first-year teacher at Cedar who student taught at Coile Middle School, which is now under new leadership.

Not all new teachers are new to the field, but there are many educators who change locations and need time to adjust to new or unique circumstances.

Mr. Robert Chatmon is one of the 28 new teachers at Cedar Shoals this school year, previously working as a paraprofessional in CCSD along with teaching in both Shelby and Gwinnett County. He sees annual attrition as a cycle between various school systems.

“Opportunities present themselves. When I was in Gwinnett, I had an opportunity to come back to Clarke County. I think that happens in Clarke County as well. When you’re teaching, other opportunities present themselves. I think we also have to be mindful that if 16% of  (Clarke County teachers) left, and those positions were filled, that means that 16% of people left somewhere else to come back to Clarke County,” said Chatmon.

“People choose to leave for various reasons,” said Duke. “We hired around 200 teachers this year and we’ve already had about ten of them quit, which is startling and alarming.”

Duke suggests that there are many plausible explanations as to why teachers are leaving the profession.

“It could be anything from a transfer of the spouse to a different position or general location to health issues, too. There’s a teaching shortage. There was a period of time back during the recession when school districts were letting people go. Our attrition rates got pretty low because they were letting people go based on last one hired. Nobody wanted to move because you didn’t want to be the last one hired at the next district. So now that the economy is getting better, people are starting to move around a little bit more,” said Duke.

While the decision to leave was hard for Adamson, she does not blame the students.

“I don’t think it’s the students. I think, if anything, it’s the turnover, leadership, retirements. The fact that we have UGA here. The fact the we have a lot of pressure on us to document what we’re doing in the classroom,” said Adamson.

“Our situation due to our poverty level in Clarke County is very different than the ones around us, so it’s a different skill set that you need to work with our students. You have to want to work with our students,” said Duke. “If I can work in a school that doesn’t have behavior issues, would I chose that one? Probably, wouldn’t you? But by that same token, people choose to work in tough schools because that’s where you can make the most difference and see amazing things occur.”

While any conversation surrounding teacher turnover automatically focuses on those who leave, there are also those who choose to stay in CCSD — some for the duration of their careers.

Mr. Greg Huberty is currently teaching his 30th year at Cedar Shoals. In 2017, he was named  the county’s Teacher of the Year. He, his brothers, his wife, and his children all attended Cedar as high school students. His entire career has taken place at Cedar Shoals in CCSD.

“I was offered a job at Oconee County High school back when I was coaching soccer, and I turned it down because I was going to have to ‘float’. I was going to have to move classroom to classroom when I taught, and that was an issue for me because that’s a tough way to go about your day,” Huberty said. “Ever since I just haven’t really looked. I’ve enjoyed my time here at Cedar Shoals and wanted to stay. I enjoy the students, the faculty, and the experience that I’ve got here.”

Huberty sees Cedar Shoals as a practical high school setting that reflects the real world, whether it be the good or the bad.

“You’re not sheltered from anything. You see anything and everything here at Cedar Shoals,” said Huberty.

In nearby school systems, teacher attrition figures remain lower than CCSD’s, but the issue is still apparent.

Oconee County boasts both higher test scores and a wealthier community, in addition to higher rates of retention.

“Our retention rate here in Oconee County is over 90%. If you asked me what I thought that would be attributed to, I would point to the community support for our teachers, and the support that they receive in their building. The whole climate and culture of our school is very nurturing, rigourous, but overall a very positive learning environment,” said Oconee County Schools Director of Communication Anisa Jimenez in an email. Jimenez previously worked within CCSD as the Director of Public Relations and Communications.

Other local counties follow similar patterns. Beverley Levine, Oglethorpe County School System Superintendent, said that the collective staff had a retention rate of 88%, and when solely considering teachers that figure stands at 90%.

Fair compensation is yet another problem when trying to retain teachers. In a recent TIME Magazine cover story, “This is What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in America” writer Katie Reilly highlights the extremes that some educators go to to make ends meet.

The situation outlined by Reilly paints a dire and desperate picture of America’s teachers, but there is some truth to it locally. BluePrints Magazine conducted a survey of Cedar Shoals teachers asking about job satisfaction, compensation, and whether teachers have resorted to extra streams of income.

With 79 responses, 63.3% of respondents said that they did not feel fairly compensated for their work.

When asked “While working in the district, have you ever resorted to additional methods of income such as another part-time job, Uber, Airbnb, retail, service industry, etc.?” 58.2% of respondents said yes. For those who said yes, additional income streams like Uber and tutoring were common responses. Others included “plasma donation” and “bartending on the weekends.”

“It could be a lot of things. It could be that they’ve accumulated some debt and they want to pay it off. It could be that they’re living beyond their means and that they need to make an adjustment down the road. Am I saying that you’re in teaching to be a millionaire? No. It isn’t one of the best high paying jobs”, said Duke.

Comparing veteran salaries amongst CCSD and Oconee County shows a pay difference between the two locations. Educators in Clarke who have taught for over 21 years with an undergraduate degree earn a salary of $56,438, including the local supplement. The salary for the same level of experience in Oconee County is $57,327. The figures are similarly close for all experience and education level comparisons between the two systems.

In 2015-16 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published “Which Georgia school system pays teachers the most?” by Fiza Pirani, highlighting average Georgia school system salaries. Buford City topped the list with an average annual salary of $64,636. In the list of 203 districts, CCSD ranked 178th with an average salary of $47,267.

The future of CCSD’s teacher salaries are in the hands of Superintendent Dr. Demond Means and the school board. Duke said that preparations for CCSD’s next budget would start in November, followed by the official supplement during July of next year. They are already considering how to offer teachers better pay.

Greg Huberty teaches AP Calculus BC course. The 2017 CCSD Teacher of the Year, Huberty’s entire career has been at Cedar Shoals. Photo by Tyson Jordan

“I have asked Dr. Means if we can do signing bonuses next year,” said Duke. “We also want to pay additional supplements to people that are in those high demand fields. Being a special education teacher has its own challenges.”

As school systems work to solve the turnover problem, Huberty looks toward the final days of his teaching career. In those 30 years at the same school, the job has come to demand more and provide less.

“The turnover rate has increased the longer that I’ve taught,” said Huberty. “This is not an anomaly. A lot of it has to do with the profession itself. The expectations of the profession are changing. The accountability for some people is skewed a little bit, and it centers around the fact that a lot of a teacher’s day is outside the classroom, outside the teaching realm.”

To Huberty, as the profession has changed, teachers have lost valuable time toward doing the work they love.

“When I started teaching, the majority of your day consisted of teaching, preparing to teach, and analyzing what you taught. Now it’s a lot of paperwork and accountability that a lot of teachers get frustrated with, because it seems to not necessarily lead you to become a better teacher. I’m not saying those things are bad, I’m saying those things are taking up a lot of teachers’ time. I think that burden for a lot of teachers is tough, especially as a new teacher coming into it,” said Huberty.

“As my wife likes to say, it’s a lot of people telling you how to do your job, that don’t do your job, and that can be frustrating.”