‘Breaking point’ — DC-area school systems grapple with teacher resignations

Bobbie Verdegaal has taught at the same D.C. school for seven years, but she said she recently reached her limit.

Before the pandemic, she taught science and most recently worked as an instructional coach. But so many teachers had quit, that school leaders asked her to return to the classroom to teach sixth grade science for part of the 2021-22 year.

Students returned from months of virtual learning increasingly distracted, she said. They struggled to focus, and even if they were allowed to keep cellphones on their desks while finishing assignments, they became distressed at the thought of being unable to check their screens every few minutes.

There was also an uptick in student fights, Verdegaal said. Kids cursed at her more often, and the changes in behavior were most noticeable as she roamed the hallway and worked during breakfast and lunch duty.

“The amount of disrespect that teachers have to deal with from students on a daily basis — it really wears on you … it’s going to lead a lot of teachers to their breaking point,” Verdegaal said. “Why are we using such disrespectful language to our teachers? Why are teachers being cursed out? Why are we being threatened with TikTok video trends?”

Verdegaal, 38, said she isn’t close to retirement and views herself as a lifetime educator. But in February, she told her principal that she wouldn’t be returning next year. That same week, the school’s librarian and two other teachers said they didn’t plan to return either. Verdegaal said it seemed like so many teachers were quitting that she was just another one on the list.

As school systems work toward student growth and recovery from the pandemic, many are losing educators such as Verdegaal, who describe themselves as burnt out and taking a break. The resignations leave counties pressed to fill vacancies before the start of the next school year.

Across the D.C. region, some jurisdictions are reporting an uptick in teacher resignations, citing burnout from the pandemic and a reduction in students pursuing careers in education. To fill those vacancies, they’re considering creative ways to recruit young teachers.

A National Education Association survey released earlier this year found 55% of educators nationwide are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned.

And Dawn Williams, dean of Howard University’s School of Education, said the university is noticing that fewer students who pursue careers in education go into teaching. Some become psychologists, counselors or social workers.

“It’s a disturbing trend,” Williams said. “It is even more disturbing as we’re starting to see a significant departure from the field of teaching that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

‘Mental stress’

At a work session this week, Fairfax County School Board members discussed ways to market teaching as a career path and attract new teachers.

Nearly 900 teachers have resigned in 2022, about 200 more than in 2021, according to school system data obtained by WTOP through a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s the largest number of teachers who have quit in the county in the last five years.

While teacher retirements across Virginia’s largest school system have remained mostly stagnant, resignations have spiked. In 2018 and 2019, more than 600 teachers left the county. In 2020, 460 resigned. In 2021, 716 quit. The data is limited to teachers and reading teachers and don’t include librarians or guidance counselors.

Michelle Reid, in her first month as superintendent, said some prospective teachers are reluctant to accept a job in the county because of the lack of affordable housing, according to the school system’s human resources department. She said she hopes to work with the Board of Supervisors to address that challenge.

Last year at this time, the county had about 520 vacancies. It currently has more than 830, county officials said.

Fairfax County officials said nearby jurisdictions are also experiencing similar challenges.

In Loudoun County, for one, attrition data for licensed teachers spiked in 2020-21. It lost 370 teachers in 2020-21, and more than 330 to date for school year 2021-22. During the 2018-19 school year, 334 teachers resigned, according to county data.

Schools in Arlington have recorded 284 total resignations and retirements, a spokesman said.

Prince William County schools haven’t responded to WTOP’s request for retirement and resignation data.

D.C. Public Schools similarly saw a spike in teachers leaving the city. From January 2022 through the beginning of July, 372 teachers resigned. Between January 2021 and June 2021, about 250 teachers quit, a spokesman said.

The spokesman said in a statement that the city’s progress in hiring new teachers is ahead of where it was at this time last year.

Chandler Gennard, a teacher for 21 years, including six in D.C., is returning to the school system next year after considering other options.

“I’m an elementary school music teacher,” Gennard said. “But we would have staff out or staff not hired, and I would have to go and cover a class on a minute’s notice. It would be a random class that I had nothing prepared for. It’s just the mental stress of that.”

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the state’s largest school system, a spokesman said nearly 400 of its open positions are for teachers, and about one-third of those vacancies are for special education teachers.

However, the county hasn’t seen a large spike in teacher resignations over the last four fiscal years, according to county data. More than 570 teachers resigned between July 2021 and June 2022. More than 600 left the year prior.

Madeline Hanington, the county’s recruitment specialist, said top reasons for resignation include retirement, personal reasons, a new job, home responsibilities and relocation.

“A lot of students love the IT world and technology, so how are we going to compete to attract these students to MCPS?,” Hanington said. “It has to be with pay and any incentives we can offer.”

In nearby Prince George’s County, of 10,000 teachers, about 180 retired and more than 550 resigned, a spokeswoman told WTOP.

‘Teaching is hard’

Tomas Rivera-Figueroa, a supervisor in Montgomery County’s recruitment office, said universities in the last few years haven’t been producing as many teachers as in the past, making it challenging to fill vacancies.

So instead of focusing only on universities in the D.C. region, he said, the county is expanding its reach.

Hanington, also in Montgomery County, said in many cases, students surveyed indicate they may not want to pursue careers in education because of low pay.

County officials have altered their approach, attending in-person events more often than virtual ones, because they’ve noticed virtual recruiting events don’t draw as large of a turnout. They recently flew to Texas and New Mexico to recruit bilingual teachers, Rivera-Figueroa said.

“Teaching is hard,” Rivera-Figueroa said. “For a lot of young people, they’re making that cost analysis of getting a bachelor’s and the return on that investment … Our salaries tend to be on the higher side. But when you compare our salaries to other employments in this area, that require the same level of educational attainment, is it comparable?”

Williams, of Howard University, said universities can help by creating pipelines to local school systems, and some jurisdictions have education academies for students to learn about careers in education.

She said it’s essential for educators and universities to help incentivize people to go into the teaching profession, and compensation is a part of that.

“It is not equal access across the United States,” Williams said; “every school district is able to set their own pay scale. But we have to look at education; we have to professionalize it to a higher level, or else we are not going to be able to attract and retain the foundation of what does help us to remain as a strong nation.”

“The sales pitch around teaching needs to change,” said Fairfax County School Board member Karl Frisch. “We talk about (how) we can’t pay you what you deserve, you’ll kind of get respect — depending on who you talk to. It won’t be easy, but you’re going to love the kids, right? That’s not much of a sales pitch. We’re working as a school system to address those things.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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