Below-average pay, burnout, pandemic-related disruptions and teacher exodus

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Virginia rightly prides itself on its K-12 public schools that have been well regarded nationally – certainly a cut above those of most of its sister states to the South.

On average, our student achievement and college admissions statistics have over the decades been comparable to those of the perennial elites of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The Commonwealth’s educated workforce has been reflected in Virginia’s frequent rankings as the best state – or among the top two or three states – for business.

All of this is now under imminent threat as the backbone of our public school infrastructure – teachers and other education professionals – rush in for the unprecedented mass releases.

No, Virginia, this is not a drill.

We are not alone. The burnout of the body of professional educators in public schools has reached crisis levels across the country, with alarm being sounded not only by teacher advocates but also by organizations of school administrators.

On the eve of the 2022-2023 school year, panicked Virginia school superintendents are scrambling to fill critical vacancies. In Virginia Beach, officials are trying to entice retired teachers back into the classroom.

The essential of Kate Masters reports in The Mercury last week showed that in the state’s capital region alone, the shortage could reach 1,000, according to an estimate by Richmond School Board member Elizabeth Doerr. Masters documented 163 unfilled teaching slots in the city’s schools, and 211 and 243 in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield divisions, respectively.

The causes of the exodus of great educators did not emerge overnight, or even in the past year. They have persisted and worsened for many years and have been sharpened and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teacher salaries are at the heart of this and have been for decades. Since the 1990s, Virginia has ranked in the mid-to-twenties nationally for average teacher salary. And pay rises given sparingly over the years have not kept pace with inflation.

Twenty years ago, the average annual salary for a Virginia teacher was $41,743, then the 23rd highest in the country. If the salary had kept pace with the consumer price index during this period, the average today would be $68,726. Instead, it’s just under $60,000, good for 25th place, according to the most recent state. Department of Education and National Education Association The data.

Even so, the system has held up so far. Virginia ranks 10th for pre-K performance through high school in latest US News & World Report’s Education Rankings.

The shortages that have brought the system full circle are approaching the point where officials fear it is breaking. “I’ve never seen him look so bad,” said School Superintendents Association head Dan Domenech. told the Washington Post.

Salary, however, isn’t the only factor causing educators like John Reaves to rethink their career choices.

There is burnout – the result of overwork as fewer teachers preside over more crowded classrooms representing levels of student achievement ranging from advanced to remedial.

“At the end of the day…I was teaching classes with a high concentration of students with diverse needs,” said Reaves, a 2007 graduate of Henrico’s Mills E. Godwin High School, who returned to his alma mater to teach English for five years. “When you have 25 kids going from AP (advanced placement) to those who probably should have a 101 environment, it makes one teacher trying to accommodate it all seem like an impossible task.”

There is the lasting learning loss that students have suffered from the disruptions of the pandemic and months of remote learning that have devalued the role of the teacher and deeply corroded classroom teaching dynamics. Reaves said remote learning conditioned students to view teachers as “just another voice on their laptop or phone” rather than authority figures, a dysfunction that persisted when in-person learning has been restored.

There is much less respect and appreciation for teacher professionalism from the public, parents and, increasingly, elected officials. Across the country, culture warriors have attacked school boards, administrators, teachers and librarians on issues such as fairness for LGBTQ students and truthful teaching of the complicated and troubled history of the America, especially when it comes to race.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made the alleged teaching of “critical race theory,” a college-level concept found in college curricula that every school district in Virginia has denied is in its curriculum, an important issue and resonating in his successful campaign. Now governor, Youngkin’s administration has set up an anonymous email line that parents can use to accuse teachers of teaching or practices they see as “inherently divisive.”

Because of it all – the constraints on creativity, the increased demands and diminished esteem for his livelihood and the gratification he derived from it – Reaves was fed up, comparing what his work had become to “Baby sitting”.

“For students to get what I think they need from a teacher, it’s taken my whole life, and I can’t do that anymore,” he said.

Reaves therefore left Godwin in June to pursue a new career as a screenwriter, a passion he and his wife, Sara Roan, indulged in producing independent films. “You and him and me,” a drama the couple shot “cheaply” in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, won a competition at the Gila Valley Film Festival in New Mexico.

Keeping bright, committed, and imaginative educators like Reaves in the profession is a challenge America has only just begun to grasp. Expect the problem to get worse before solutions are found.

In Virginia, the General Assembly took a laudable first step by including teachers in a 10% salary increase for state employees in the new 2023-24 budget. This should bring the Commonwealth closer to the national average, but once you factor in an annualized inflation rate of 8-9%, the higher take home pay is already factored in.

School divisions that desperately try to solve the problem in the short term by putting money and money first will only make the problem worse in the long term. Already, school divisions are offering incentives such as stipends to poach teachers from other districts.

As Masters reports noted, Richmond is offering $2,000 signing bonuses and $6,000 in moving expenses to lure teachers from locations more than 50 miles from the city, sparking a bidding war for teachers willing to up the ante. A billboard along Interstate 440 in Wake County, North Carolina, promises a $10,000 bonus to teachers moving to Richmond. But what about the teachers in Virginia who do not have left? Will they share the bonus offered to incoming free agents? Imagine the resentment and the departures that will be hastened if they don’t.

None of the many educators I have known went into the business thinking it would break Forbes’ richest list. They did it because teaching was (or is) their passion. Seeing current and former students flourish is a lasting source of fulfillment for them. The continued gratitude and affection of these students, the respect for their work within their communities, and the knowledge that they have strengthened the foundations of a self-reliant, self-reliant civil society and the economy that underpins it for future generations are the non-monetary rewards. they cherish until retirement.

It’s high time for Virginia and the rest of the nation to prioritize public education financially, but the departures of educators who are now jeopardizing America’s long-term intellectual infrastructure in the global knowledge economy require a holistic overhaul far beyond simple compensation increases.

Elected leaders from courthouses to statehouses to the White House must seek out the John Reaves who are taking their innovations and talents out of our classrooms and away from our children, listen to what they say and fix it before it is too late.

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