Studies show pay is one of many factors that cause teacher turnover. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

Despite pay hikes, school districts still hemorrhaging teachers

Metro Atlanta school districts are still struggling to keep teachers amid a national teacher shortage, despite significant progress on increasing teacher salaries in recent years, often cited as the top reason why teachers leave.

More than 700 teaching positions still exist across the region. And more than 3,000 teachers left their jobs during the 2018-2019 school year, with many retiring, moving to another school districts or leaving the profession.

School begins for some districts in about two weeks. Educators and experts say focusing on issues beyond pay — including classroom conditions, professional development opportunities and school climate — will go a longer way to keep teachers in their classrooms.

“Pay is just a small needle in the haystack,” said Jason Allen, a teacher at Seven Pillars Career Academy in Forest Park. “Increases are good, but [they are] not fixing the problem. I’ve left good-paying roles because of bad leadership.”

School districts were holding job fairs as recently as Friday to continue the push toward starting the school year with teachers at the front of every classroom. That will be nearly impossible for some.

DeKalb Schools, for example, recently said just 40 people had applied for more than 170 special education teaching positions the district had available. Officials there are scrambling to bring back retired special education teachers as well as looking at who in its pool of paraprofessionals could be certified before school begins for the district on Aug. 5. The district had 282 total openings on July 17.

But 900 teachers left the district during the past school year, representing more than 20 percent of its full-time classroom teacher workforce. A list of initiatives to recruit and retain teachers supplied by the district was heavy on recruitment plans, and included one item — partnering with principals and professional learning — to address schoolhouse conditions.

A 2016 Learning Policy Institute study found that key factors in why teachers leave included a lack of administrative support, teacher dissatisfaction with testing and other accountability pressures, working conditions and opportunities for advancement.

According to the study, teacher turnover is higher in the South, where class sizes are larger and pay and education investments are lower. Turnover rates also are higher in where students of color largely make up the enrollment.

Cornelius Minor, a New York-based educator and author of several education books, said he felt underprepared after recognizing the needs of the students when he entered the classroom.

“Schools are a reflection of the unchecked racism, classism, sexism and ableism that is rampant in the communities that house them,” he said. “When kids walk into my classroom, they walk into my classroom both explicitly and implicitly traumatized by the conditions of the community in which you live. My job as a teacher is to be either OK with that or to work to undo it.”

Minor, a product of Clayton County Schools, said he left the classroom in 2010 because he got an opportunity to learn more that could help with the experience. Through the consulting firm he runs with his wife, Kass Minor, those lessons are given to other educators.

“As a young person coming out of (Florida A&M University), I was like, ‘I’m about to change the world,’” he said. “I get to the classroom and I’m like ‘I’m so not ready.’ It’s not enought to teach kids to conjugate a verb. That’s the tip of the iceberg.”

To reduce turnover, districts have launched task forces, offered incentive pay and increased opportunities for mentorship and professional development. 

While Cobb County Schools officials did not release information on how many teachers it lost during the 2018-2019 school year, they pointed out that the district has historically had the lowest teacher turnover of metro Atlanta districts. Just 20 vacancies are left to fill before school starts on Aug. 5.

“We have even further increased our focus on teacher recruiting and retention,” officials said, “as evidenced by an additional new director-level [human resources] position dedicated to recruiting/retention efforts.”

Gwinnett County Schools, which has little trouble recruiting teachers, saw 1,432 leave the system during the last school year, including 269 who retired. Officials said the district had 62 vacancies as of last week, with about half of them for special education positions. In addition to recruiting through job fairs and programs where they partner with colleges, the district recently began offering opportunities to high school graduates, well in advance of them attaining their degrees.

“We also are growing future educators by providing letters of intent to recent Gwinnett County high school graduates who have enrolled in post-secondary education programs to become future teachers,” officials said.

For years, Atlanta Public Schools has sought to offer contracts to teachers earlier than surrounding school districts as a head start to the teacher recruitment season. Officials have said the practice allows them to fill positions sooner. As of July 17, the district had 25 vacancies.

In addition to the early contracts, the district’s 2015-2020 strategic plan calls for looking for candidates for high-need positions as early as the fall, including high-performing teachers in the prospective teacher screening process, increased its professional development offerings and provided more flexibility and innovative thinking through the district’s charter system operating model, which allows flexibility from some state regulations.

Clayton County Public Schools’ professional learning department has developed a number of courses to continue supporting new and veteran teachers in an effort to boost morale and work on retention. The district lost 570 teachers last year, and had 187 vacancies as of Wednesday.

“Over the course of the past few years, Clayton County Public Schools has worked to strengthen the screening and hiring process for new teachers through the establishment of a Retention Task Force,” district officials said. “As a result, the strengthened process has allowed the district to improve retention rates as well as the recruitment of new teachers.”

X