Low pay, lack of resources lead to burnout in southeastern NC schools, teachers say

By Ben Rappaport


It’s an epic vocal trio of Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Tensions are rising within George Washington’s presidential cabinet. Jefferson can’t take it anymore.

“If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse,” Jefferson raps in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” “you can’t put it out from inside the house.”

Those lyrics hit Kaylan Ganus like a brick. It was the wake-up call the public school teacher had needed for some time. The thing she couldn’t admit to herself.

“The burnout hits when you’re doing that without resources and without pay,” Ganus said. “Quite frankly, I think what we’re seeing is a very natural reaction to an unfair system.”

Ganus was a teacher for six years before she made the same choice Jefferson did in 1793: resign. She taught in Scotland and Pender counties from 2017 to 2021 before leaving the classroom to work at Western Governors University, an online college.

More teachers in rural southeastern North Carolina are leaving public education. According to a recent report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 11.5% of teachers across the state left the profession during the 2022-2023 school year, up from 7.8% the previous school year.  

That rate was higher in Robeson and Scotland counties. In Robeson County, 12% of teachers left the profession in the 2022-2023 school year — a loss of 150 educators. The rate is a 5 point increase from the 2021-2022 school year when the district lost 102 teachers. Scotland County Schools saw 11.6% of teachers leave — a loss of 46 teachers and a 2 point increase from the previous year. 

Attrition rates are even higher for teachers in their first three years of the profession, at about 15% across the state.

“These trends highlight the importance of providing enhanced support for early-career educators, including those who enter the profession through the residency license pipeline,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said in a press release. “With nearly half of new teachers coming to us through alternative teacher preparation programs, we need to take a close look at how to better differentiate supports for those educators.”

Teacher burnout

While the turnover rate is high, school districts still hired more teachers than they lost:  11,000 new teachers were hired, and 10,000 left. The statewide teacher vacancy rate — the number of positions not filled by a fully licensed, permanent teacher — is 6.4%, according to NCDPI.

Three school districts in the Border Belt — Bladen County Schools, Public Schools of Robeson County and Scotland County Schools — had a higher teacher vacancy rate than the state on the 40th day of school last fall, data shows. Bladen County Schools had the highest vacancy rate in the region at 10.4%, or 28 openings.

A 2023 report by the National Education Association showed teachers in North Carolina have some of the lowest starting salaries in the country, with the state ranking 46th for starting pay at $37,676 and 36th for overall teacher pay. 

The base salary for beginning teachers increased by $2,000 this school year and is set to rise another $2,000 next school year. The state budget provided an average teacher raise of 7% over two years, but the state’s most experienced teachers are slated to get 3.6% raises during that time.

Low pay is coupled with excessive burnout. Ganus attributed part of her burnout to the poverty that grips rural southeastern North Carolina.

“The kids are coming in without their basic needs met,” she said. “Those needs have to come number one.”

According to the 2024 Teacher Working Conditions Survey, a majority of teachers in Scotland County Schools, 56%, believe students are coming to school without their basic needs met. That includes school supplies, clean clothes, food and proper sleep. 

Jerome Purdie, a former Robeson County teacher who now works in Hoke County, said he frequently keeps food in his classroom because students come to class hungry.

“I can’t teach you if your stomach is growling, you have a headache and you’re sleepy,” he said. “Teachers are so often put under intense scrutiny, asked to go well beyond the lesson plan, and there’s just no support there.”

Purdie took a two-year hiatus from K-12 education to work at Fayetteville State University before returning this school year. He said he left Robeson County schools because of changing and growing demands that became overwhelming. Those demands included taking on more students, teaching extra classes and handling a decline in parental involvement. The final straw, he said, came in 2021 when he was told six days before the start of the school year to implement a new curriculum.

The Teacher Working Conditions Survey said 6% of teachers and other school staff statewide were planning to quit the education field. According to the survey, teachers cited increasing underappreciation for their work and a lack of voice in their schools’ decision-making process.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, the most common reason given for leaving education was a career change, which 17.2% of teachers reported. The next most common reason given was retirement with full benefits, at 13%.

Despite the lack of support and low pay, Purdie returned to education because he felt it was his calling.

“I’m placed in different dynamics to be a bridge builder,” he said. “I’m there to lift as I climb.”

‘A broken system’

All teachers who spoke to the Border Belt Independent — both current and those who left the profession — said they had a passion for making an impact on the lives of young people. The factors leading them to question whether to stay in education were systemic forces beyond their control, like lack of funding.

Schools in the Border Belt region consistently struggle for funds. Robeson County spends $656 per traditional public school student, ranking 99 among the state’s 100 counties, according to a report from the Public School Forum of North Carolina using 2020-21 school year data. Columbus County spends $1,180 and ranks 94.

Mary Alice Smith, a teacher in Robeson County, has worked in education for 22 years. She said she was sympathetic to many of the reasons teachers do not stay in the field. 

“I’m constantly coming early and staying late,” she said. “I don’t get paid for that time and I know that’s what all my peers are doing, too.”

Smith said student discipline and parent involvement have also gotten worse over time, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 60% of teachers in Robeson County believe disorder in the classroom and physical conflicts between students are major student conduct issues, the survey shows. Smith says fixing these issues begins in the home because parents and guardians are children’s first teachers.

“We are constantly trying to play motivational coach for our students,” Smith said. “It’s really hard to feel like you’re always fighting up a hill with them.” 

Teachers like Ganus got tired of fighting on that hill. And just as Jefferson’s ideological differences with George Washington led him to resign, Ganus said leaving education was her own act of defiance.

“If we want to see any sort of change,” she said, “then I think we’re doing exactly what we need to do, which is leave the profession. The standards we are held to are not equal to what you’re providing me. It’s a broken system and maybe it takes enough people leaving to fix it.”