EDEN, N.C. — Laurie Wilson hasn’t been a teacher since 2004.
“I didn’t want to leave, but when I had my first child, and then within six years, I had three more children,” she said. “So, it was really just knowing the effort. Teaching was really hard.”
What You Need to Know
North Carolina has a teacher shortage, particularly in math and special education
The teacher shortage has a trickle-down effect, leading to a substitute teacher shortage
Laurie Wilson spent six straight weeks as a substitute this year
She and many other teachers have had to fill each other's classes during their off periods
When Wilson retired, she became a homemaker and focused on being a scoutmaster with her four kids. But the classroom kept beckoning her back.
“I love teenagers,” she said.
Wilson is a mother of four, so she’s almost always busy. But when Morehead High School in Eden asked her to come in full-time for a while, she couldn’t help but say yes.
“The principal called me this year and said, ‘I have the opportunity, you can go back full-time,” Wilson said. “But it was a math job, and I’m an English teacher, and I had not planned to teach this year. So, I knew it was going to be very stressful. And I said, ‘I’ll do it until you can find someone.’”
They set a tentative time frame of six weeks. But when that time was up and Morehead still didn’t have a replacement, Wilson needed a break.
“I felt like I needed to get up very early in the morning, sometimes between four and five, so I could start studying the math, so I’d be ready for the math I was going to do that day in class,” she said.
She was so busy she couldn’t schedule a badly needed optometry appointment until she took her break.
“The day after I finished teaching, I called and got an appointment,” Wilson said. “But it was a little late because she (the optometrist) said it was already pretty bad by then, and it might have helped to come earlier.”
During her off periods while subbing, she had to sub for another teacher’s class and she didn’t have time to make it to the optometrist.
Schools around the state have been facing a shortage of teachers since COVID-19 arrived early last year.
Pandemic fatigue, low pay and poor school funding are all factors in the shortage. Plus, balancing work with leisure is one of the toughest aspects of the educational field.
“That gets really hard for me to balance the aspects of teaching and doing a really good job because I don’t want to teach if I can’t do it really well,” Wilson said. “And then also providing a quality experience for the kids and for whatever other activities I’m trying to do.”
Life’s been a little less hectic since she started her break, but a return to the classroom is imminent.
“That’s always been — even since the first child — that’s always been my intention,” she said with a smile.
If teachers tested positive for COVID-19, there was no advanced notice, so schools would have to scramble to fill the vacancy with other full-time teachers.
“People have to do more. You have to pile on a little bit of extra work, you may have to work extra classrooms,” Rockingham County Schools public information officer Adam Powell said. “You may have to kind of double up in certain areas and just take on a little bit more. So, there are definitely gaps."
Wilson stressed that she felt lucky — she’s able to take a break when she needs one. Full-time teachers don’t have that luxury.
The problem goes beyond just the Triad.
The federal Department of Education has a database that shows North Carolina has shortages at every grade in math and special education.
Some districts have even offered incentives or new programs, like Cumberland County or Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Earlier this month, Cumberland County began giving out a signing bonus of up to $10,000 for newly hired teachers and an extra $400 a month for qualified substitutes.
CMS began a new program called the Guest Teacher Initiative for 42 of its schools. Guest teachers will cover teacher absences when a substitute is not available and earn $150 per day, plus benefits.