Commentary

Subpar pay, burnout, pandemic disruptions and a teacher exodus

The many factors imperiling Virginia schools

August 15, 2022 12:02 am

William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)

Virginia has justifiably prided itself on its kindergarten through 12th grade public schools that have been well regarded nationally – certainly as a cut above those of most of her sister Southern states.

On average, our student outcomes and college admission statistics have been, over the decades, comparable to those of the perennial elites in 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 two or three top states – for business.

All of that is now at imminent risk as the backbone of our public school infrastructure — teachers and other educational professionals — race for the exits in unprecedented droves.

No, Virginia, this is not a drill.

We are not alone. The depletion of the professional public school educator corps has reached crisis levels across the country, with an alarm being sounded not only by advocates for teachers but also by school administrators’ organizations.

On the eve of the 2022-23 academic year, panicked Virginia school superintendents are scrambling to staff critical vacancies. In Virginia Beach, officials are trying to entice retired teachers to return to the classroom.

Kate Masters’ must-read reporting in The Mercury last week showed that in the state capital region alone, the shortage could be as high as 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 the neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield divisions, respectively.

The causes of the Great Educator Exodus didn’t pop up overnight, or even over the past year. They’ve lingered and worsened for many years and were sharpened and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teacher salaries are at the heart of it and have been for decades. Since the 1990s, Virginia has ranked in the mid- to high 20s nationally for average teacher pay. And pay raises given sparingly over the years failed to keep pace with inflation.

The average annual Virginia teacher’s salary 20 years ago was $41,743, then the 23rd highest in the land. Had pay just kept pace with the Consumer Price Index over that time, 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 data.

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

Shortages that have caused the system to buckle are approaching the point where officials fear it could snap. “I have never seen it this bad,” the head of the School Superintendents Association, Dan Domenech, told the Washington Post.

Pay, however, is not the lone factor pushing educators like John Reaves to rethink their career choices.

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

“In the end … 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 who are anywhere from AP (advanced placement) to those who probably should have a 101 environment, it just makes a single teacher trying to accommodate all of that seem like an impossible task.”

There’s the lasting learning loss that students suffered from the pandemic’s disruptions and months of remote learning that devalued the teacher’s role and profoundly corroded the classroom teaching dynamic. Reaves said that remote learning conditioned students to regard teachers as “just another voice on their laptop or phone” rather than authority figures, a dysfunction that persisted when in-person learning was restored.

There’s much less respect and appreciation for the professionalism of teachers from the public, from parents and, increasingly, from elected officials. Across the nation, culture warriors have assailed school boards, administrators, teachers and librarians over issues such as equity for LGBTQ students and the truthful teaching of America’s complicated and troubled history, particularly regarding race.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin made the alleged teaching of “critical race theory,” a graduate-level concept found on college syllabi that every school district in Virginia denied was in its curriculum, a significant and resonant issue in his successful campaign. Now governor, Youngkin’s administration has set up an anonymous email snitch line parents can use to accuse faculty of instruction or practices they consider “inherently divisive.”

Because of it all – the constraints on creativity, expanded demands and diminished esteem for his livelihood and the gratification he derived from it – Reaves had enough, likening what his job had become to “babysitting.”

“In order for the students to receive what I think they need from a teacher, it took all of my life, and I just can’t do that anymore,” he said.

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

Keeping bright, engaged and imaginative educators like Reaves in the profession is a challenge America has barely begun to grasp. Expect the problem to worsen before solutions are found.

In Virginia, the General Assembly took a laudable first step by including teachers in a 10% state employee pay raise in the new 2023-24 budget. That should elevate the commonwealth closer to the national average, but once you factor in an annualized inflation rate of 8 to 9%, the higher take-home pay is already spoken for.

School divisions desperately trying to address the short-term problem on a money-first, hand-to-mouth basis will only worsen the problem over the long term. Already, school divisions are offering incentives such as stipends to poach teachers from other districts.

As Masters’ reporting noted, Richmond is offering $2,000 signing bonuses and $6,000 in moving expenses to lure teachers from localities more than 50 miles from the city, effectively setting off a bidding war for teachers willing to pull up stakes. A billboard along Interstate 440 in Wake County, North Carolina, promises a $10,000 bonus to teachers who move to Richmond. But what about Virginia teachers who haven’t left? Will they share in the bounty fronted to incoming free agents? Imagine the resentment and the departures that will be precipitated if they don’t.

Not one of the many educators I have known got into the business thinking they would crack the Forbes Richest list. They did it because teaching was (or is) their passion. Watching current and former students flourish is a lasting source of fulfillment to them. The abiding gratitude and affection of those students, the respect for their work within their communities and the knowledge that they strengthened the foundation of a working, self-governing civil society and the economy that underpins it for generations to come are the non-monetary rewards they treasure well into retirement.

It’s past time for Virginia and the rest of the nation to financially prioritize public education, but the educator departures that now imperil America’s long-term intellectual infrastructure in the global knowledge economy require a holistic overhaul far beyond mere compensation increases.

Elected leaders from courthouses to statehouses to the White House have to seek out the John Reaveses who are taking their innovations and talents out of our classrooms and away from our children, listen to what they’re saying and fix this before it’s too late.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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