Correction: A previous version of this story identified Crystal Cartrette as the human resources director for Columbus County Schools. She is a school counselor for Columbus County Schools.
By Ben Rappaport
Hundreds of teachers and staff gathered inside the gymnasium at West Columbus School in Cerro Gordo on Wednesday for Convocation, an annual back-to-school event meant to drum up enthusiasm and set the tone for students’ return to classrooms.
There was an aura of excitement as the keynote speaker, Emily Francis, a teacher from outside Columbus County Schools, talked about the “power to appreciate students fully, as they are, and empower them to make big change.”
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But Francis acknowledged that it is a difficult time to be a teacher in North Carolina.
Across the state, the number of teacher vacancies increased from 3,216 in 2021-2022 to 5,091 in 2022-2023 as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, teacher burnout increased and students experienced learning loss.
Three school districts in the Border Belt — Bladen County Schools, Columbus County Schools and Public Schools of Robeson County — had a higher teacher vacancy rate than the state average of 5.41% on the 40th day of school last year, data shows. Columbus County Schools’ vacancy rate was 11.7%.
Districts don’t measure teacher vacancy rates until the 40th day of school, so there is not yet a clear picture of how many teaching positions are open for the 2023-2024 school year. There were 15 vacancies listed on Columbus County Schools’ website as of Friday, which represents about 5% of the total teaching population.
“When you consider the impact that a teacher has on an individual child’s life, even one vacancy is a major issue,” said Kelly Jones, spokesperson for Columbus County Schools.
When there is a teacher vacancy, teachers are forced to teach more students than assigned, or administrators are called on to teach, Jones said.
A drop in college students who plan to become teachers is a factor in vacancies, according to Nakeia McKiver, human resource specialist for Robeson County schools.
“There are not a lot of candidates that are majoring in education,” McKiver said.
Jones said Columbus County has witnessed a similar trend and an increase in alternatively licensed teachers.
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.
State lawmakers have promised to increase teacher salaries. The state Senate’s budget proposal calls for a 4.5% raise, while the state House budget calls for an increase of 10% over the next two years.
But raises are in limbo, as the General Assembly has not yet reached a budget deal.
Teacher pay is also determined by local supplements provided by each county’s budget. At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Bladen County Schools had one of the highest vacancy rates in the state at 22.6%, accounting for 67 openings. The following year, Bladen County Commissioners increased spending on education by 10%, from $6.8 million to $7.5 million.
Part of the spending increase went to teacher pay, and Bladen County Schools saw its vacancy rate drop to 6%, or 16 vacancies at the beginning of last school year, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction
According to the school district’s website, there are currently four teacher vacancies.
While increased local supplements have been helpful in some districts, it isn’t a catch-all solution. In Robeson County, commissioners have increased education spending by $875,000 or more each of the past three years, according to finance reports. The teacher vacancy rate for the school system, however, remains high.
Currently, there are 95 teacher vacancies within Robeson County schools, according to McKiver.
Over the past five years, vacancies have hovered between 90 and 100 at the start of the school year, according to Melissa Thompson, assistant superintendent for Public Schools of Robeson County. State data shows the district peaked at 105 vacancies last school year.
Robeson County schools offer sign-on bonuses for hard-to-staff positions and work with local education partners like Robeson Community College, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Fayetteville State University to promote pathways to the field of education.
At the Columbus County Schools Convocation on Wednesday, teachers and staff broke into small groups for professional development sessions. Lessons ranged from new technologies in the classroom to culturally responsive teaching practices. In one session, entitled “Making Self Care a Priority,” staff learned the importance of taking care of themselves so they can give their best to students.
“We all know as an educator, taking care of yourself is something we drop down the priority list,” said Crystal Cartrette, school counselor for the district. “But that ‘me time’ is especially important in the exhausting school schedule.”
Teacher burnout is one of the central drivers of increased vacancies, according to the 2022 North Carolina Teaching Working Conditions Survey, which showed about 7.2% 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 process.
Self-care practices aren’t a cure for systemic issues, but Cartrette told participants she hopes a focus on positive energy can keep teachers inspiring students.
“Being in the schools day in and day out is hard work, there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “So give yourself some credit for the work you do because this profession isn’t for everyone. But you made it a priority to inspire our students.”