Nancy Hilburn, an English as a second language teacher at Northside Elementary School, has been working at elementary schools for almost 19 years, but this year has been her most difficult.
With a recent surge in teacher vacancies, Hilburn has had to take on more responsibilities — and she's noticed her fatigue setting in.
“This job is exhausting,” she said.
In an effort to combat her fatigue, Hilburn said she tries to exercise more and eat and sleep well. But, she said, she can only do these things because she doesn’t have additional responsibilities such as parenting outside of school.
"I cannot imagine what it is like for people with small children," Hilburn said.
She is not alone in her experiences.
North Carolina is experiencing teacher shortages in all core subjects for elementary schools as many teachers have considered leaving their jobs — or already have — throughout the pandemic. The state is also facing a shortage of substitute teachers to fill classroom vacancies.
According to data from the State Board of Education, about 8.2 percent of teachers left employment in North Carolina public schools during the 2020-21 school year. While it's unclear how the pandemic directly impacted this number, the state's report said the number of teachers who did not select one of the standard responses for reasons for departure increased by 117.21 percent.
Teacher shortages have also been a problem nationwide throughout the pandemic, as teachers were forced to adapt to remote and hybrid learning, and other COVID-19-related changes to operations.
Across the country, nearly one in four teachers responded that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the school year, according to findings from the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey.
Teachers reported levels of frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression higher than the general adult population, according to the survey. Results from another survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center showed that more than 70 percent of teachers perceive their morale as lower than before the pandemic.
“Teachers have always had too much on their plates,” Hilburn said. “But COVID and coming back to school with kids who have not been in person for an entire year plus has put us all in a different position."
Teacher shortages in CHCCS
CHCCS has vacancies across both certified and classified employees across school levels, facilities and offices.
Among certified employee positions, there were 87 vacancies as of March 1, according to data from CHCCS Chief Communications Officer Andy Jenks. For classified employee positions, there were 117 vacancies.
Also as of March 1, there were 12 certified employee hires in progress and 14 classified employee hires in progress.
Carrboro High School math teacher Myles Aitken said the vacancies not only impact the responsibilities of other teachers but also students’ ability to learn effectively, especially those who need hands-on attention.
“The burden of what that person could be doing falls on other people,” Aitken said. “And if it doesn’t, for the student, they go without.”
Jacob Hewgley, who is also a math teacher at Carrboro High School, said teaching is a stressful job — and that COVID-19 has brought additional challenges.
“Teaching is a pretty stressful job in general,” Hewgley said. “Adding in the pandemic and people’s health factors and what their family life’s like at home and their stress level regarding the pandemic, I think that just skyrocketed it.”
CHCCS elementary schools have been affected most by these vacancies. Of the 87 certified employee vacancies in the district, 22 are in elementary schools.
Hilburn echoed Aitken's sentiment, saying that when teachers have to take on outside responsibilities, students' learning experiences are harmed.
“You feel frustrated when you cannot meet with your children as much as you want to meet with them,” she said. “Because you know the need is there. You know the children need you.”
William Richards, a science teacher at Chapel Hill High School and a member of the hiring board for the science department, said providing bonuses, allocating classrooms for every teacher and creating a healthy teaching culture may help recruit more people to the profession.
“A lot of candidates will ask about our teaching culture," Richards said. "'What is like with the science teachers? Do we have a good relationship?’ Luckily we do in the science department. We’re all pretty friendly, and a lot of us are actual friends and hang out outside of school.”
Strategies to improve teacher recruitment, Hilburn said, should include enhancing education departments at universities, reinstating master’s pay and providing better benefits.
She said creating a work environment with fewer demands outside of teaching would help with the fatigue.
Brian Gibbs, a clinical assistant professor in the UNC School of Education, said teacher morale would be most positively impacted by allowing the teachers to do their job — teaching kids.
“Let them teach,” Gibbs said. “Give them what they need to teach, be supportive of what they’re doing, ask what they need, provide what they need, talk about equitable resources.”
He said the pandemic has exacerbated stress on teachers through trying to maintain test scores, which he said should not be used as monitors of student success.
He said it is more important to focus on students' health and wellness rather than standardized test scores.
For North Carolina teachers, including those who are experienced like Hilburn, COVID-19 brought with it a myriad of unique, unexpected and exhausting challenges.
“Teaching is such a difficult and physically demanding job, that when it gets more difficult all of a sudden, and you have to learn a lot of new things and put them into place and practice them quickly, it’s stressful,” Hilburn said.
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