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Why Virginia teachers are leaving the classroom: ‘We are already at bare bones’

RICHMOND, Va. -- On a warm summer night, Sarah Pedersen and Brad Mock sit in the living room of their Church Hill home playing with their 1-year-old daughter, Eleanor.

"You want to get a book, Eleanor?" Mock asked the rambunctious toddler.

Eleanor's parents love watching her learn, but worry about what lies in the future.

"Having that little one has made it that much more of a passion for us educating," Mock explained.

The young couple have been educating students in Richmond Public Schools for nearly five years.

Mock teaches eighth grade civics and economics at Martin Luther King Junior Middle, while his wife teaches sixth and seventh grade social studies at Binford Middle School.

Both share a passion for their work, but admit teaching in the Commonwealth isn't easy.

"I love my job. I don't want to do anything else," Pedersen stated. "We are fiercely committed, but that commitment comes with sacrifices and challenges."

The Virginia Department of Education reported in 2016 that as many as 1,000 teaching positions remained vacant - and the problem persists.

Just weeks before the first day of classes in 2018 and RPS has 52 open teaching positions. There are 41 vacant teaching positions at Henrico Public Schools. Chesterfield Public Schools are currently searching for candidates to fill 39 positions. Hanover Public Schools reported they were full.

Why are Virginia teachers leaving the classroom in droves?

"They leave primarily because they don't feel supported in a city or a Commonwealth that doesn't compensate them properly," Pedersen explained. She frequently speaks with former colleagues who have left the teaching profession for a job in the private sector.

Virginia Education Association (VEA) President Jim Livingston explained that Virginia teachers are underpaid compared to others throughout the country.

"Right now, Virginia pays teachers $9,218 less than the national average salary for teachers. When you consider pay in constant dollars, average teacher pay has actually decreased 8.5 percent since the recession," Livingston said.

Livingston explained that educating the future generation is becoming a career that requires individuals to choose between their job and raising a family.

"There are numerous school divisions in our state where teachers can work for 20 years and still are paid less than $50,000—that’s a starting salary for many young people graduating from college and beginning their careers," he stated.

Pedersen explained often educators feel overworked - with the requirements that come with Standards of Learning tests, frequent meetings about data, and the expected duties of teaching.

Those requirements are more strict when schools are unaccredited. Both Mock and Pedersen teach at schools that were denied accreditation in 2017.

"Your teachers have to sit in endless professional development by the state that doesn’t really lead to students learning more, we have far more stringent requirements for our lesson plans, and we have meeting upon meeting on data," Pedersen explained.

Often educators come to a head with the decision whether or not to stay around their fifth year teaching.

"When Brad and I got married five years ago we expected to have a large family. After our daughter's one year we are concerned that perhaps we are raising an only child," Pedersen feared.

Dr. Jesse Senechal, interim director of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium with VCU's School of Education, wrote about the issue in his 2016 study, 'Understanding Teacher Morale.'

Superintendents from seven Central Virginia school districts asked him to interview instructors and administrators about how much they like or dislike their professions.

"You're pretty much always in a situation as a teacher where you have way more work to do than you can possibly do. So, you have to make decisions on what gets done," Senechal explained.

Senechal found when teachers feel overloaded and undervalued, they do their students a disservice.

"It leads to frustration, which leads them to lose hope in their profession and ultimately to leave," he stated.

When school systems lack enough teachers in the classroom to go around, those schools rely on substitutes or individuals not qualified to teach.

"We already at bare bones - at our best we are bare bones," Pedersen said. "If you're used to being in an underfunded situation you just start to think you deserve it."

Sarah Pedersen and Brad Mock

RPS officials said they're working to fix the problem.

Richmond Schools Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko said long-term substitutes will fill open positions to ensure a teacher is in the classroom on the first day of school.

More than 50 vacancies have been filled at RPS in the last two weeks and they hope to have more in place on September 4.

"Getting [teachers] here is part one. Part two is keeping them here and making sure they’re successful. A lot of that is making sure they have the right support, the right resources and the right leadership so they can be successful," RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras explained.

The school districts included in this report said they were confident they'd fill their open positions by the first day of classes.

Pedersen and Mock both said they're optimistic Kamras and his new administration are on the right path to creating better work environments for teachers.

Lawmakers are also working to make it easier to become a teacher in the Commonwealth.

The General Assembly approved legislation making various changes to teacher licensure requirements, according to the VEA. A new law makes it easier for individuals with provisional licenses to teach in the classroom while taking required courses.

The budget approved by the 2018 General Assembly and signed by Governor Northam also included $131 million for a three-percent pay raise for state-supported teachers and school support staff that will go into effective on July 1, 2019.

Programs like the Richmond Teacher Residency (RTR) at VCU's School of Education help prospective teachers learn what to expect when they step into the classroom.

RTR is aimed at placing student teachers in the classroom while obtaining a degree. Both Mock and Pedersen participated in the program prior to becoming full-time teachers at RPS.

Meanwhile, Mock and Pedersen often advocate in the community to make life easier for all teachers. Their goal is to create an ideal learning environment at Richmond Public Schools not just for their daughter, Eleanor, but for all children.

"We do everything we can do make sure our students know that we care about them and they're important and that they're smart," Pedersen explained.

However, Livingston said that there is much more needed to be done to help Virginia's teachers.

"We must make teaching a profession of choice for our best young people - our kids deserve that," he stated.

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