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Appalachia Is Facing An Unprecedented Teacher Shortage—What Some Coal Communities Are Doing To Entice More Teachers To Stay

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Roxy Todd/ WVPB
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Downtown Welch, in McDowell County, where a new 4-story apartment complex was recently built by Reconnecting McDowell, as part of an ongoing effort to attract more teachers to live in the county.

Schools are facing unprecedented staff shortages – here in Appalachia and across the country. In this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear what teachers and schools are up against, and what solutions could help keep more educators from burning out. We’ll also hear what could bring more teachers home to teach in the communities where they grew up.

Burnout among teachers has been a problem for many years. The pandemic made the problem worse. According to a poll from the National Education Association last year, 32 percent of teachers across the United States say COVID-19 has made them more likely to resign or retire early.

Cathy Jack is one teacher who has seen that in her McDowell County school system. “It is a problem. We have teachers out. And we don't have [substitutes] to cover classes, because we have to pitch in and help.”

McDowell County currently has 27 unfilled vacancies, which are covered by substitutes. This school system has had a teacher shortage for years, and the reasons are complicated.

Jack is a special education teacher of 40 years, who coaches cheerleading at McDowell County’s high school. “It keeps me young, I guess. I plan to do it as long as they'll have me.”

McDowell County desperately needs more qualified teachers, like Jack. It also needs young teachers who are willing to stay and teach. That’s what Emily Hicks decided; she teaches fifth-grade in the small town of Kimball. “I love the kids, I love the school. Being here and giving back to where I came from makes me happy.”

Unpredictability Of Teaching During Pandemic 

Another third-year teacher in McDowell is Lillian Keys. She teaches at Mount View. “When I decided to go to school for education, I decided I was going to be the English teacher that I never had. Because for the most part during my high school experience, I did not have great high school teachers.”

Keys said teaching has been difficult, especially during the pandemic, and there have been days where she has considered giving up. “Things are changing on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.”

The unpredictability of teaching during the pandemic has been stressful. If she’d been a first-year teacher, Keys said she may have given up. Instead, she’s staying. She received her master’s degree last year, and she’s now pursuing a doctorate degree in education. She hopes to one day become a principal in McDowell County.

“We are people who are unique, and we attract unique people,” Keys said. “It's just important for people to realize, we do things differently here. But if you're willing to be a part of that, then most people really enjoy it here.”

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Courtesy Cathy Jack
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Emily Hicks grew up in McDowell County and has been a teacher there for three years. Cathy Jack was her cheerleading coach. Cathy Jack has been a teacher for 40 years.

Finding Qualified Teachers—And Keeping Them

Back in 2017, reporter Emily Hanford visited McDowell County to try to understand what’s making it so tough for teachers to stay. We hear a story Hanford produced as part of the Educate Podcast, from APM Reports. What's happening in McDowell County is happening in many rural school districts across the country, though the shortage is playing out most powerfully in poor areas. These school districts struggle even more to attract qualified teachers because of geographic, social and economic isolation. The number of teacher vacancies in West Virginia more than doubled between 2013 and 2017.

We’ll also hear an updated story with two of the teachers from the 2017 story, Cathy Jack and Ann Turley.

‘It Was Quite Overwhelming’

Ann Turley grew up in this community. She left, but eventually felt called to return to teach. She got a job as a music teacher and traveled to three different schools across McDowell County..

“I felt like I needed to be so much more than a music teacher,” Turley said. “The needs of the students I was seeing every day, it was quite overwhelming. I thought I should be a social worker or a therapist, or counselor. And I needed to spend more time getting to know the children.”

Turley was teaching 600 children every week, and she only spent 40 minutes with them at a time. Many of her students were dealing with trauma – unstable homes, or not enough food, or had faced neglect or abuse – problems she didn’t always feel like she knew the right resources, or the right people, to turn to for help.

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Courtesy Ann Turley
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Ann Turley was a music teacher in McDowell County. Today she lives in Greenbrier County.

Ideally, Turley wanted to find a way to teach at one school, so she could spend more time with her students.

But the school system is stretched so thin, with teachers often wearing multiple hats and filling in for multiple classes, teaching music at just one school just didn’t seem like it would be an option.

“As a person who loves to get to know children, and to actually try to make something different happen in their lives, like it did for me as a kid. It just wasn't gonna happen with the constraints of what was there,” Turley said.

Eventually, Turley decided to leave McDowell County. We’ll hear why. And we’ll hear from other teachers who stayed.

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Roxy Todd/ WVPB
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The Renaissance Village is now officially complete, with 20 apartments in a 4-story building in downtown Welch. The building is a project of Reconnecting McDowell, a nonprofit that formed as a partnership between the West Virginia Board of Education and the American Federation of Teachers

Renaissance Village

As part of an effort to encourage more teachers to live in McDowell County, 11 years ago a nonprofit called Reconnecting McDowell began building a four-story apartment complex in downtown Welch. "This is the first multi-story new building in Welch in over 50 years,” said Bob Brown who directs Reconnecting McDowell. “So it brought a sense of excitement.”

In addition to apartments, Brown said their building, called Renaissance Village, will eventually have a coffee shop, a gift store, and a Brazilian restaurant on the building’s first floor. We’ll hear if teachers are moving into Renaissance Village, and explore the impacts of the project, which cost $9 million.

“One of the issues in McDowell County is more than half the teachers live somewhere else outside of this county,” said Brown.” “And it's really important, we think, ideally, for teachers to live in the communities where they work.”

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Roxy Todd/ WVPB
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Bob Brown is an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers and directs the union’s nonprofit, Reconnecting McDowell. He's leading a tour of the Renaissance Village in downtown Welch and is standing inside the building's meeting room.

We’d Like To Hear From Teachers

Teacher and staff shortages are a problem facing schools all over Appalachia, and our country.

If you’re a teacher, what are you feeling right now? What ideas do you have for how school districts could make this job easier? And help encourage more people to go into teaching. And stay in this profession?

We’re going to continue reporting about teachers, so we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Or send us a letter at 600 capitol street Charleston West Virginia 25311.

 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Wes Swing, Blue Dot Sessions, Jake Schepps, and Dinosaur Burps.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our interim executive producer. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

Stay Connected
Inside Appalachia Co-Host/Folkways Reporter, mason.j.adams@gmail.com, @MasonAtoms
Former Reporter/Producer for Inside Appalachia, @RoxyMTodd