‘That really wears on you:’ Pay, challenges of poor districts are pushing Virginia teachers out of the classroom

By: - March 31, 2019 11:20 pm

Thousands of demonstrators rallied for better teacher pay and more public school funding during a January 2018 rally at the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

After five years, Cody Sigmon is leaving his job as a teacher to become a behind-the-scenes IT employee at Ohio University.

Sigmon, 27, a middle school teacher in Chesterfield, helped organize thousands of educators across the state for several months, culminating in a January march on the Capitol to advocate for more money for public education funding.

“It makes me feel strangely like a fraud for trying to be at the forefront of the fight for better education funding and then just leave … I feel like I’m going to be disappointing people,” he said.

The number of unfilled teaching positions in Virginia increased 40 percent from 2007 to 2017 and is a “crisis” specifically in high-poverty school divisions, according to a 2017 report from the Advisory Committee on Teacher Shortages.

It’s meant school leaders have had to bring teachers out of retirement to fill positions, some students have gone entire school years without a permanent teacher and some districts have created programs with universities to feed new educators into their ranks.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe formed the committee after he had to send personal letters to ask retired teachers in Richmond and Petersburg to come back and fill empty positions, he wrote in a 2017 letter establishing the group.

“In recent months, I have increasingly heard more serious concerns about the future of our teaching workforce,” McAuliffe wrote. “It has become clear that Virginia needs bold, new approaches and fresh ideas in order to solve this complex challenge.”

In 2016, the last full school year before the report was finished, 20 percent of Middlesex County’s teaching positions were unfilled — a total of 20 positions. 

Petersburg followed with 47 unfilled positions, or 13 percent of its teacher jobs. Danville had the same number of unfilled positions, but it was 10 percent of the district’s total positions.

The report concluded that becoming a teacher can be costly and there are difficult working conditions, especially for those in districts with more students with disabilities and English-language learners. It also touched on “limited earnings potential” and said teachers don’t feel valued or respected.

Recommendations in the report included creating high school programs that encourage or start students in education training; making the licensing process easier and more straightforward and expanding residency programs that commit college graduates to certain school systems. Also, districts should do more targeted recruitment with “flexible financial support” from the state, the report said.

The committee said improving pay across the board for all teachers would be “very costly” and the state has other options, like loan forgiveness programs or discounted child care, which could alleviate financial burdens on teachers.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said pay was one of the most important aspects of addressing teacher shortages in the state. The current administration considers that and restoring support staff, like counselors, to be the biggest priorities in addressing retention issues.

The General Assembly included Northam’s proposed five percent teacher pay raise in the approved budget this year. It also included $12 million for more school counselors, down from Northam’s proposed $36 million.

In the 2017 school year, before Qarni was in his position, the state had about 1,100 unfilled teaching positions, he said. This year, it was just under 900. He said he plans to continue tracking those numbers and eventually see data broken down by district.

“I do feel that we are moving in the right direction to address teacher retention but we’re nowhere near there yet,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Higher pay can mean higher retention

In Danville, it’s not all about pay, but that does help, said Superintendent Stan Jones.

Last year, the school district spent $2 million to even out and create a more straightforward pay schedule for teachers. Teachers got raises that ranged from five to 20 percent. The school system and city will have to find funding to sustain that pay, Jones said.

Danville now has a 97 percent “fill rate,” which measures how many teacher jobs are filled, Jones said. In the past, it’s been in the 80s.

“That investment has made a tremendous difference for us,” Jones said. “We have a lot fewer (substitute teachers), mostly licensed teachers and that will have an impact on our performance.”

Virginia lags behind the national average and state raises — when they’ve happened — haven’t kept up with inflation, said Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education at the 2018 Teacher Retention Summit.

Localities can increase teacher pay and education funding on their own, but the state is also partially responsible for local schools’ budgets.

In Middlesex, retention has improved in part thanks to a big increase in local education funding, said Middlesex County Superintendent Pete Gretz.

The district has also put emphasis on things other than standardized testing — which can be “demoralizing,” Sigmon said of his own experience.

“We administer the tests, and we use the data for what it’s worth — but we invite and encourage our teachers to reach for something much bigger,” Gretz said in an email.

“The skills our economy demands today — collaboration, critical thinking, the ability to negotiate conflict while solving complex problems — those skills aren’t measured by the SOLs, and we encourage — in fact we insist — that our teachers create learning experiences and assessments that measure those skills, the ones that actually matter to student success beyond high school.”

Poverty is a major driver

Each year since 2005, about 11 percent of teachers in Virginia have not returned to their jobs, said Luke Miller, a research assistant professor in the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development. 

He analyzed data from individual school systems to better understand why teachers choose to stay, leave or move around.

The number has been consistent, except during the recession when teachers stayed in larger numbers.

The best predictor of whether a teacher would come back appears to be schools’ poverty rates, Miller said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that the poverty is driving teachers out,” Miller said. “There could be other things.”

School buildings in low-income school districts are usually in worse condition than other places, he said. And there are fewer resources, financial and otherwise, to be dedicated to education.

Cody Sigmon (left), a middle school teacher in Chesterfield County, will end his teaching career after this school year. He helped organize a teacher’s march on the Capitol in January. His husband, Jan Huebenthal (right) marched with him. (Courtesy of Cody Sigmon)

Jones, in Danville, agrees that the effects of poverty are among the biggest influences in a teacher’s decision to stay or leave.

Danville schools have one of the highest rates of poverty in the state, which often means teachers have to fill multiple roles that used to be handled by staff like counselors, school psychologists and nurses.

The state capped the number of support staff it would fund during the recession. Localities had to cut those positions or pick up their tab on their own. State funding for those positions hasn’t been fully restored.

Teachers in growing districts, like Chesterfield, also feel the pressure that comes from fewer resources, Sigmon said. He spends afternoons tutoring students in between planning lessons and organizing teachers across the state.

“We’re not dealing with the structural stuff,” he said. “We’re just constantly dodging the train that’s coming and that really wears on you.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.