WHY TEACHERS LEAVE: IW schools see uptick in midyear resignations, but less turnover than prior year and lower vacancy rate than neighbors

Published 7:51 pm Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Malaika Wainwright loved teaching at Smithfield High School, but when the city of Newport News offered her an administrative job in February with a significant pay raise the mother of three couldn’t say no.

Isle of Wight County Schools’ 35-step pay scale had placed Wainwright at a salary of just over $50,000 based on her seven prior years teaching in Suffolk, but she ended up working a second job at Walmart to make ends meet.

She’s one of 13 former Isle of Wight teachers to resign before the end of the 2022-23 school year, up from an average of seven midyear resignations for the previous four school years.

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Isle of Wight, which participates in an agreement with area school divisions not to hire from one another after June 30, was only able to find three replacements who could start midyear to fill the vacancies, according to Human Resources Director Laura Sullivan. The other 10 classrooms have, for months, been staffed by long-term substitutes or Isle of Wight teachers who took on additional duties.

Despite the uptick in midyear resignations, Isle of Wight was on track as of May to see less turnover by June 30 than it saw by the same date last year. 

From the start of August in 2021 through the end of June in 2022, Isle of Wight County Schools saw 77 vacancies, including seven mid-year departures and another 70 end-of-year resignations. From June 1, 2022, through May 31, the school division had filled all but one of the prior year’s unfilled teaching jobs.

From Sept. 6 through May 31, 56 teachers had sent Sullivan notice that they would not be returning for the 2023-24 school year. The total includes 11 retirements and the 13 mid-year resignations.

By the same date, Isle of Wight had hired 32 replacements, leaving 24 vacancies.

As of June 8, the number of vacancies had increased to 27, accounting for 6% of Isle of Wight’s roughly 430 teaching positions.

According to the Virginia Department of Education’s staffing and vacancy report, the statewide number of unfilled public school teaching jobs rose from 2,815 in 2021 to 3,574 in 2022, an increase of 758 vacancies or 26%.

The report is updated annually on Oct. 1, but doesn’t capture midyear resignations or new hires after that date until the following school year. In 2021, 3.1% of the state’s roughly 92,000 teaching positions were unfilled. By the same date in 2022, the percentage had risen to 3.9% out of roughly 92,500 teaching jobs.

Of the state’s 132 public school divisions, four of the five that border Isle of Wight were among the top 20 highest vacancy rates. Southampton County, which borders Isle of Wight to the southwest, was the worst statewide, reporting a 20.8% vacancy rate as of Oct. 1. Suffolk, which borders Isle of Wight to the east, had 8.7% of its teaching positions unfilled as of the same date.

 Isle of Wight itself managed to buck the statewide trend last fall. According to school division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, Isle of Wight lured “quite a few” teachers last year from Southampton and Suffolk. Isle of Wight surveyed its new hires at the start of the 2022-23 school year, which, according to Briggs, showed Isle of Wight’s “climate and culture” as the top reason for teachers joining the division. “Competitive pay” was also frequently mentioned but wasn’t the top response.

The 77 vacancies at the end of the 2021-22 school year, Briggs speculates, may have been an anomaly created by teacher burnout from the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. By August 2022, Isle of Wight students’ reading and math scores on the state-required Standards of Learning tests were still below pre-pandemic levels, and school administrators had seen an uptick in discipline incidents as students adjusted to being back full-time in a classroom setting.

“Education has always been a demanding profession, and since the pandemic, demands on educators have drastically increased, specifically related to the behavioral and academic needs of students,” said Isle of Wight Superintendent Theo Cramer. “Those needs are presenting new and increased demands on educators at all levels.  While we know climate and culture are vital to retention, IWCS will conduct a compensation study in the coming months to ensure all positions throughout the division are compensated competitively.”

It remains to be seen whether recruitment bonuses will be able to recover the 2022-23 school year’s losses.

Isle of Wight has offered a $1,000 referral bonus to any staff member who recruits a new classroom teacher, and $4,000 sign-on bonuses to any teacher hired in June who remains an employee of the school division for the entire 2023-24 school year. Suffolk is offering $2,000 sign-on bonuses for certain positions hired by June 30, but offers a higher starting salary than Isle of Wight for entry-level teachers.

“We all know we have a teacher shortage in Virginia and the reasons for it aren’t a mystery to anyone who’s been paying attention,” said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, a union representing more than 40,000 teachers and school support personnel.

“Our teachers are not only underpaid, but do their jobs under almost unbearably difficult working conditions. They don’t get the respect they deserve, and they aren’t given the resources they need to most effectively serve our students,” Fedderman said. “Far too many of our teachers must work second or third jobs to pay their bills.”

Malaika Wainwright

Wainwright joined Isle of Wight County Schools in 2022 for the shorter commute to her home in the county’s northern end, and for the opportunity to teach at the same school her daughter attends. 

Wainwright’s 6-11 p.m. shift at Walmart, a roughly half-hour drive from Smithfield, would often extend another 15 to 30 minutes past closing time and keep her away from home until midnight.

She’d be out of bed by 5:30 the next morning to get herself and her children to school by 7 a.m. An after-school faculty meeting at Smithfield High could easily keep Wainwright there until 4:30 or 5 p.m.

Unless the school happened to be closed, “I had virtually no days off,” Wainwright said.

The special education teacher used to supplement her income at Suffolk with stipends for teaching summer school or tutoring students who couldn’t be in class for medical or disciplinary reasons, but said she found fewer opportunities to do the same at Isle of Wight. Then, her work at Walmart started cutting into the time she would otherwise spend at home planning lessons.

“Planning for instruction is an extensive and often largely unpaid part of a teacher’s day,” Wainwright said.

State law requires school divisions to provide middle and high school teachers with one “planning period” per day “unencumbered of any teaching or supervisory duties.” But special education teachers, Wainwright said, are expected to find time between classes to write individualized education plans, or IEPs, and other reports on students assigned to them.

When she started teaching in Suffolk, she’d be assigned up to a dozen students per school year. By the time she left Smithfield High, whose 1,275 students account for nearly a quarter of Isle of Wight’s divisionwide enrollment, her caseload was up to around 20.

“The responsibility to these students is in addition to teaching and classroom responsibilities, so it really is like two jobs in one,” Wainwright said.

She’d applied for the Newport News government job last year while between school divisions, but didn’t hear back until six months into the current school year with an offer conditioned on her starting immediately. She took it.

Even if the offer hadn’t come through when it did, Wainwright said she would have left in 2024 once her daughter graduates, citing the polarization that has gripped Isle of Wight’s School Board since November’s elections.

Last year’s School Board races ended with wins by self-described conservative candidates Jason Maresh and Mark Wooster, who’d each campaigned against “divisive” and “sexually explicit” materials in schools.

Together with Board Chairman John Collick, who’d campaigned on a similar platform with the endorsement of the county’s Republican Party in 2021, the three in December began discussing plans to restrict student access to books and other materials deemed “inherently divisive” under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022 executive order aimed at eliminating “Critical Race Theory,” or the idea that American institutions perpetuate inequalities among minorities.

Following fierce opposition from students and teachers who condemned the School Board’s move as “censorship,” the board voted 3-2 in March to instead modify its “controversial issues” policy to include a ban on teaching students about “systemic racism.”

“There is no systemic racism or bigotry perpetuated by the United States or any governmental entity,” the policy now explicitly asserts. Though it no longer includes the word “divisive,” the March 9 change still drew opposition from teachers, students and the board’s two Black members, Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham.

While it was finances – not politics – that led Wainwright to leave in February, the then-proposed policy change “did create in me an overall desire to leave,” Wainwright said, contending board members who supported the policy had “turned a deaf ear to the concerns of not only teachers but also students.”

“The supporters of these policies seem less concerned with students receiving a well-rounded education and more concerned with partisanship,” Wainwright said.

Having to plan alternative lessons should a controversial topic come up and any parent object creates “so much more work” for already overworked teachers, Wainwright contends.

While Wainwright said she “for the most part” received her planning period, Chenoah Kent can’t say the same.

Chenoah Kent

Kent, a former Smithfield Middle School science teacher, said she was routinely “expected” to use her planning period to substitute for other classes with vacancies.

School administrators, she said, would publish a list of classes without a teacher at the start of each school day and would ask her and other teachers to decide among themselves who would cover which vacancies.

Sullivan confirmed it has been the division’s practice to ask teachers to use their planning periods to cover for vacancies when a substitute can’t be found, and to pay them a stipend for the extra time. A single long-term vacancy with no substitute under the block schedule Isle of Wight uses in its secondary schools creates the need for six teachers to fill in throughout the year, Sullivan said.

“That’s not a strategy that we want to use, it’s just what we do when we can’t fill a vacancy,” Sullivan said.

During the first semester of the 2022-23 school year, five teachers covered an additional class block to fill in for vacancies. During the second semester, four teachers covered an extra block due to vacancies, and another teacher picked up an additional block to cover English as a second language, or ESL, services, Sullivan said.

Schools are sometimes able to dissolve a class without a teacher and reassign students, Sullivan said, but that increases class sizes for everybody else.

According to Briggs, asking teachers to use their planning period to cover a vacancy typically occurs at the high school level. At the elementary level, where students don’t change classes, it’s not an option.

When Kent received notice last fall that her two children would no longer qualify for military survivor benefit payments, it was the final straw that pushed her to begin looking for a new job in an area with a lower cost of living.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act had eliminated the $1,480-per-month “optional annuity for dependent children” her family had been receiving. Effective Jan. 1 of this year, the money reverted to the surviving spouse of Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Findley, who had divorced Kent and remarried at the time of his 2017 line-of-duty death.

To make up for the lost income, Kent sold her home in November and moved more than 200 miles west to Henry County where she was able to find an elementary school teaching job that allowed her to start midyear.

“I almost didn’t go back to teaching,” Kent said, citing several factors, including run-ins with school administrators over teaching controversial issues.

When Kent planned to teach her seventh-graders how Black and white people were the same genetically, save for the melanin that determines differences in skin, hair and eye color, she said higher-ups shut her down.

She’d begun planning an entire unit of lessons on melanin after a student asked her in all seriousness to explain how mixed-race babies were possible. According to state data, minorities and mixed-race students account for more than 40% of the school’s enrollment. Kent says she was told she “can’t bring politics into the classroom.”

Administrators, she said, nixed another of her lessons, this one on DNA editing technology known as CRISPR, over the “designer baby” controversy that emerged in 2015 when, according to reporting by National Public Radio, a Chinese scientist used gene editing to create the world’s first genetically modified twin girls.


Paige Wohlgamuth

Paige Wohlgamuth never imagined she would become an educator, but was recruited by Isle of Wight County Schools in 2021 as a Smithfield High School science teacher for her background in wildlife biology. She left her classroom this January, citing frustration with an increasing workload.

“Classes are often 30-plus students and that is a lot for just one person to watch over,” Wohlgamuth said.

Virginia sets a maximum of 29 kindergarteners per teacher, 30 students per teacher in grades 1-3 and 35 for grades 4-6. There’s no upper limit for middle and high school classes provided the school maintains a 21-to-1 schoolwide ratio of students to teachers. Only English classes have a fixed maximum of 24 students per teacher in grades 6-12.

While the school provides its teachers with a curriculum, Wohlgamuth said teaching entails researching each topic, creating lessons and activities, and staying in frequent contact with each student’s parents.

“Especially for new teachers with no experience, there needs to be more training,” Wohlgamuth said.

Teaching to Virginia’s tests, she said, was also difficult when she couldn’t see the tests prior to her students taking them.

“The test would come and I would realize I emphasized the wrong thing,” Wohlgamuth said.

Wohlgamuth and Kent both expressed frustration with having to pay for lab supplies themselves and with their students’ eyes being constantly fixated on their cellphones.

“Back when I went to school, if my cellphone was spotted it went to the principal’s (office) and could only be returned when a parent got it, but these days you cannot touch a child’s phone,” Wohlgamuth said.

Cellphones have become “a nightmare,” Kent agreed. If one teacher allows it, the students expect it of all their teachers, Kent said.


School Board members react to departures

Collick, after being provided with Isle of Wight’s midyear and end-of-year resignation totals as of May 31, said he was “unaware” of any former teacher having left specifically due to the controversial issues policy change, or the ban on “sexually explicit” materials in elementary and middle schools the board had approved in February.

Of the five former teachers the Times interviewed, two of whom insisted on anonymity, only one cited the policy changes as a primary reason for resigning.

From the beginning I have said we wouldn’t lose teachers as a result, and I believe I was fairly accurate,” Collick said, adding that “more than a handful of teachers have personally told me that, as both parents and teachers, they’re grateful for these policies.”

“I have been thanked more in the past two weeks for standing up for parents and teachers, than I have been vilified in the last six months,” Collick said.

The controversial issues policy, Collick asserted, does not prohibit teachers from teaching anything controversial. Rather it “recognizes that controversial topics are vital to education,” Collick said. “Teachers must maintain safe and respectful environments, using appropriate curriculum, based on students’ knowledge and maturity levels, without bringing their personal biases or ideology into the classroom.”

Maresh, who’d written the changes to the controversial issues policy, attributes Isle of Wight’s midyear and end-of-year departures to statewide and nationwide trends rather than the policy change.

Teacher attrition is, and has been, a growing trend across the country, not just Isle of Wight,” Maresh said. “We are very fortunate to have great teachers in our schools, and the IWCS staff works hard to retain those teachers and hire new [great] teachers as vacancies become available,” Maresh said.

Smithfield High School junior Jasmine Johnson, at the School Board’s June 8 meeting, presented results from her anonymous survey of 117 teachers divisionwide, two-thirds of whom indicated they planned to return to Isle of Wight next school year, and more than half of whom said the March 9 policy change had no impact on their decision to stay or go. Johnson, however, contended the policy had driven three history teachers at her school to resign.

Maresh, reacting to Johnson’s presentation, asserted the policy change “in no way restricts the teaching of history” but contended “parents or guardians have the sole responsibility for guiding their children’s views on controversial topics.”

“I will fight for that until the end of my time on this board,” Maresh said.

“I feel there is still a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to policy changes,” Wooster told the Times. “One of the most important duties the teachers, staff and school board have is to protect the students in our school system from both external as well as internal threats.”

Wooster said he began working in December with Isle of Wight’s central office staff to revise the division’s “instructional materials” policy, “to prevent students from being exposed to sexually explicit content that would be age inappropriate.”

The “sexually explicit” policy change, which the board voted 3-2 to adopt in February with “nay” votes by Tynes and Cunningham, prevents student access to explicit content in elementary and middle schools and requires 30-day parental notification ahead of using any such material in a high school class.

Prior to the vote, the policy included only state-mandated language giving parents of students in all grade levels notice and the ability to opt their children out of reading the material. As of June 19, the only book listed as “sexually explicit” on Isle of Wight County Schools’ website in accordance with the policy was George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” which is taught in advanced-placement and dual-enrollment high school English and journalism courses.

“I will state an individual’s personal political viewpoints and beliefs should not be brought into the classroom, however the history and process of politics should be freely taught,” Wooster said.

Cunningham declined to comment for this story. Tynes did not respond to the Times’ requests for comments.

“Teacher salary does play a big role in retention,” Wooster said, also asserting his view that under state law, teachers “should not be assigned other tasks or duties during their required planning periods.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, average salaries for Hampton Roads area secondary school teachers were roughly $11,000 lower than those of teachers in the Richmond metro area as of May 2022, though Hampton Roads’ elementary school teachers earned more on average than their Richmond counterparts. Virginia K-12 teachers, however, earn a higher statewide average salary than their counterparts in North Carolina.

Despite the planning period issue and Isle of Wight having to compete with larger Hampton Roads school divisions with more money to pay their teachers, Wooster contends teaching in Isle of Wight still has its appeals. He attributes Isle of Wight’s lower attrition rates than its neighbors to the county’s “rural setting and lower number of students” compared to neighboring localities.