As school starts, more teachers needed to fill holes

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By Mackenzie Mays, Staff writer 
In 2012, at least 1,850 teachers retired in West Virginia —about 230 more than the state saw in 2008, according to the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board.

Those numbers don’t include members of the Teachers Defined Contribution Retirement System, which has a smaller membership than the state’s Teachers Retirement System and was closed to new members in 2005.

Last year, in Kanawha County — the state’s largest school district — 216 teachers quit their jobs. About 75 percent of those were retirees.

The state’s teachers unions have been warning of what a baby boomer mass exodus will mean for the public education system, urging officials to increase teacher pay and provide more mentoring and benefits to new teachers in order to attract and retain them.

Union leaders have also stressed that the state is losing teachers due to more than just retirement — pointing to teachers who drive across state borders to work for higher salaries.

Kanawha County saw an 11 percent turnover rate for teachers in 2014 — significantly higher than it was several years ago, according to Carol Hamric, director of human resources for KCS.

“It’s starting to be a little unhealthy,” she said. “Baby boomers are retiring at a rapid rate. It’s like this all over the country. It’s not just school districts — it’s the whole workforce. But I think in school districts, it’s a bad thing because higher ed isn’t turning out teachers. We have a low supply and a high demand right now. Unless higher ed turns out a lot of teachers, we don’t have people to fill the vacancies.”

In 2013, about 1,700 college students in West Virginia majored in education — a decrease of more than 8 percent since 2008, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Aspiring teachers made up about 13 percent of the state’s total college graduating class in 2012, according to the HEPC.

Those numbers are no surprise, said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, which launched a competitive pay campaign for teachers last year in an effort to keep more teachers in-state.

“It’s here. It’s happening,” Lee said. “You’re really just seeing the upper tip of the iceberg, and it’s going to get worse in the next few years. I know we’ve been saying that every year, but it’s to fruition.” 

The average teacher in West Virginia earns about $45,000 annually, ranking the state 48th in the country when it comes to teacher compensation, according to the WVEA.

West Virginia teachers just out of college make about $32,000. 

The WVEA’s campaign strives to make the starting teacher salary in West Virginia $43,000 by 2019.

Last September, at least 80 teachers in the state retired over the course of the month — more than any monthly retirement numbers in the state’s history, according to Lee.

“The burnout is very high,” Lee said. “We have to attract people into the profession and entice them to come and teach in West Virginia.” 

Christine Campbell, president of the state’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said state legislators know about the problem, but instead of focusing on fostering new teachers, they are looking for ways to keep teachers at retirement age on board. 

“That’s just a Band-aid on the problem. We need to be focusing on teachers in the first 5 years with job-embedded professional development and strong mentor programs so that they feel supported,” Campbell said. “We tend to do what’s the easiest fix right now because we know we’re in a tight budget situation, and if you really are going to invest in education, it costs money.”

Campbell said the solution is more collaboration between legislators, the state Department of Education, the k-12 system and the higher education system to work on things like college-prep programs and other investments in young teachers.

“What are we actually doing to make sure that we’re not top-heavy and that the education dollars that West Virginia taxpayers are putting into the system are used at the classroom level?” she said. “What is the state Department [of Education] doing to encourage high-quality educators in every classroom? 

Emily McMillion is one of the state’s beginner teachers. 

On Friday, the first day for Kanawha County teachers, she categorized books in her classroom at Marmet Elementary School and pinned up a “teacher helper” poster — not unlike when she played school as a girl. 

“I would tape papers onto my walls and read aloud to my friends,” said McMillion, a 24-year-old who teaches the first grade and grew up in the KCS system. “I always wanted to be a teacher. I never questioned it.” 

McMillion understands teachers’ frustrations — she recently purchased some materials out of her own pocket — but she hopes that the passion for teaching, and the need in West Virginia, is enough to keep other teachers going, like it is for her.

She gushes about a girl whose parents say their daughter acts just like Ms. McMillion — mimicking her mannerisms at home and talking with her hands. 

McMillion lives in walking distance to the school and stocks her freezer with Popsicles and her fridge with juice boxes — anticipating the frequent knocks of neighborhood kids during the summer months. 

There’s a boy who called her ‘Miss Sunshine’ for weeks before his parents explained that it was because of her seemingly permanent smile and her kindness with the children. 

“It made him want to be at school — I made him want to be at school, and I thought, wow that’s amazing the impact you have,” she said. “You go to the grocery store and a student runs up and hugs you like you’re the president. You just get this feeling that you really mean something to somebody, which is great.”

“When you walk into the classroom, it’s not about you, it’s about the kids,” she said. “Some kids you’ll never get to, but you never stop trying. If you don’t get that, then you signed up for the wrong profession.”