As the 2004 school year drew to a close, more than 11,000 North Carolina public schoolteachers packed up their books and cleaned out their classrooms for the last time. While some of them left to teach in other North Carolina schools, most were leaving the public school system for good. Caught between the growing number of veteran teachers who reach retirement age, and the exodus of disillusioned new teachers, schools struggle each fall to plug the holes left by departing staff.
“Teacher turnover,” as the phenomenon is called, troubles education officials not only in North Carolina, but also throughout the United States. A recent survey conducted by the National Center for Education Information showed that 40 percent of the nation’s public school teaching force expects not to be teaching five years from now.
On the surface, North Carolina’s turnover problem may be even more severe. The Department of Public Instruction, which tracks teacher turnover, reports that the rate of turnover has hovered between 12 percent and 13 percent since 2001. That’s significantly higher than the 8 percent rate for the nation reported by the NCEI (although a bit lower than the National Center for Education Statistics’ figure of 15 percent).
DPI collects data from school systems to determine why teachers are leaving. DPI’s report shows that the largest group of those who leave (19 percent) do so to teach somewhere else, and that most of those plan to teach somewhere in North Carolina. But it is the teachers who are lost entirely to the teaching profession that are of greatest concern to education officials, and these tend to fall into two categories: experienced teachers who elect to retire, and new teachers who decide (usually in the first two or three years) that teaching is not for them. In effect, the state’s teacher work force is being drained from both ends.
North Carolina’s teachers participate in the Teachers‚ and State Employees‚ Retirement System, which allows most to retire after 30 years of service, regardless of age, or after five years of service at age 65. Although the income provided is modest, it’s often enough to allow veteran teachers to leave the classroom in their 50s and begin second careers, or work part-time in some other field.
At the other end of the spectrum, recent efforts by school systems and the state to keep new teachers in the profession have yet to bear much fruit. In 1997 the Public School Forum, a Raleigh-based education-policy think tank, released a report, “A Profession in Jeopardy: Why Teachers Leave & What We Can Do About It,” which pointed to five factors that led teachers to quit. The study claimed that new teachers were given the hardest assignments and little support, and that teacher-training programs left them generally under-prepared for the demands of the profession, particularly in classroom management.
It also cited the absence of a professional career ladder, lack of access to appropriate technologies, and too many demands upon teachers‚ time both inside and outside the classroom, as disincentives to remain in the profession.
In response, the General Assembly approved legislation to improve teacher training and to provide paid mentors for new teachers. School administrators were forbidden to give new teachers extra duties unrelated to their field without their consent. Administrators now say that supporting new teachers and guiding them through their first years in education is one of their highest priorities.
Technology has been upgraded in many schools around the state, with most teachers now having an Internet-capable computer in their classrooms. In addition, teacher pay was increased until it briefly flirted with (and exceeded, when benefits and local cost of living is factored in) the national average in 2000-2001.
But despite these efforts there is no sign that North Carolina is doing better at retaining new teachers now than it was eight years ago. DPI’s Teacher Turnover Report does not track teachers who leave by age group or experience. However, it does reveal that of the 11,399 teachers who left in 2004, the latest year for which data are available, 7,805 did not have tenure, meaning that they had been employed in their school system for less than five years. While some of these must have been veteran teachers, hired from another jurisdiction within the last five years, many would have been new to teaching, or at least new to teaching in North Carolina.
However, there is some good news. DPI checks with school systems in October each year to find out how many teaching positions are still unfilled two months after school begins. In October 2003 schools were operating with 99.2 percent of their teaching positions filled. While vacancies were up slightly last October, the vacancy rate was still only 1 percent. Most vacancies were in the areas of exceptional children, elementary, middle- and high-school math, and middle-school language arts.
The North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey, 2004 seemed to indicate that teachers in this state are relatively satisfied with most aspects of teaching. Large majorities cite the support they receive from administrators, and the input they have into school decisions, as benefits of teaching here. About one-third of North Carolina’s teachers participated in this survey last year, and the most common complaints were that classes were too large (48 percent), and that they were given too many extra duties and administrative tasks (52 percent). The percentage of teachers who said they were dissatisfied with teaching as a career (13 percent) was virtually the same as the 12.4 percent turnover rate for that year.
So while the rate of teacher turnover is troubling to some, it doesn’t necessarily have negative implications for the oft-commented-upon teacher shortage.‚ Teaching tends to be a revolving-door profession that people move into and out of as personal or professional circumstances dictate. It is also a highly portable profession—a comprehensive benefits package and retirement plan, consolidated at the state level, makes it easy for teachers to change jobs frequently in search of personal or professional fulfillment.
The teacher turnover report for the 2004-2005 academic year is being prepared by DPI’s Human Resources Division. It is due to be presented to the State School Board soon.