More than 30 Hamilton County teachers have resigned so far this school year, nearly double the number for the same time frame in 2018, according to data the Times Free Press has obtained from Hamilton County Schools.
The number is much higher than last year, and while some district officials are concerned, they also say that there's nothing unusual leading teachers to seek out other opportunities.
The Hamilton County school district employs about 2,800 classroom teachers in 76 schools, according to 2018 data from the Tennessee Department of Education. So far this year, 20 of the district's schools have lost a teacher.
After the first quarter of the 2018-19 school year, 32 teachers had put in resignations. There were another 32 vacancies at the school level due to both resignations and unfilled new positions included in the district's FY 2020 budget. In 2018, 17 resignations were submitted by fall break. And in 2017, 22 teachers had resigned by the same point in the school year.
"It was concerning that our numbers [were] a little higher, and we started digging into that," said Keith Fogleman, chief talent officer for the district. "We always try to look at this data and look at our resignations — the deeper you go, the more information you find. We're trying to look and see what this is telling us."
District leaders and Hamilton County school board members have been concerned about reports of increased student behavior and discipline problems prompting teachers to quitting.
School board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, has been particularly vocal about her concerns that teachers are leaving the classroom because of student behavior problems. Last month, she called a special meeting of the board's discipline committee to discuss the district's new Code of Acceptable Behavior and concerns that had been raised by school staff.
"I know of a teacher who was hit in the face — and these kids amazingly end up back in the classroom. If this code of discipline is allowing that to happen, we need to trash it and start all over again," Thurman said previously. "It was meant to give the principals autonomy. It seems like when teachers ask for help, they don't get it."
But Superintendent Bryan Johnson has said student disciplinary infractions have not increased significantly this year, and Fogleman said classroom management reasons didn't seem more prevalent than other years from data collected during exit interviews the department attempts to conduct with teachers who are leaving.
"There have been some teachers who have told us the fit [wasn't] right for them, and that has been more so in our urban schools. We have teachers who maybe took on something they weren't ready or weren't prepared for," he said.
Other reasons for resignations include teachers leaving the profession entirely, a spouse being relocated, returning to school and even promotions within the education community. One career and technical education teacher at a high school returned to his original profession: construction.
Of the resignations, many have been in the Opportunity Zone — the district's highest-needs and hardest-to-staff urban schools — including Brainerd High, Calvin Donaldson Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle School and four other schools. Across these schools, 13 teachers have left, with three each departing from Orchard Knob Middle School and Tyner Academy. The district also confirmed that three teachers have resigned from Tyner Academy, contrary to other media reports. The school is working to fill two vacancies: an exceptional education teacher and a technology and networking institute teacher.
But the problem isn't unique to the city's urban core.
East Brainerd Elementary also lost three teachers and Signal Mountain Middle/High School, Ooltewah High and East Ridge High each lost two.
Oftentimes, positions are filled with interim replacements, possibly until the end of the semester or for the remainder of the school year. In most cases, classes are covered by a mix of other teachers, administrators or long-term substitutes until an interim teacher is found for those students.
Recruiting and retaining talent
Since Fogleman was named chief talent officer by Superintendent Bryan Johnson in 2018, much of the district's human resources efforts have been focused on recruiting and retaining early career teachers and bolstering new teacher supports.
Nearly 90% of the 181 first-year teachers in Hamilton County classrooms during the 2018-19 school year returned this August, up from 74% the previous year.
But Fogleman said there are still challenges — some of the resignations this fall have been by second-year teachers.
"About 60% that resigned were in the first three years in the building," Fogleman said.
Research shows that teachers are most likely to leave the profession in the first three to five years, but Fogleman said the district doesn't only lose teachers who are leaving the profession, but loses them to surrounding districts.
At least one second-year teacher who resigned is believed to have taken a position with Cleveland City Schools, Fogleman told the Times Free Press.
"In our action plan, one of the areas we're working on is teacher retention," he said. "We think the things we're doing with our first-year teachers — the New Teacher Network — is working."
This year, every school has a lead mentor in the building that serves as a mentor not only for first-year teachers but also those teachers who are new to the school or the county.
In the district's FY 2020 budget, changes were made to certified employees' salary schedule and the minimum base pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree was increased — all efforts to appease the call for higher teacher pay that continues to be a rallying cry for educators across the community.
The vacant positions waiting to be filled include at least a dozen of the more than 180 new positions included in that budget, and a large majority of all the positions that are vacant are exceptional education teachers, one of the hardest positions to staff.
The district is holding its first official recruiting event on Nov. 13 at Ooltewah High School. District officials anticipate hiring approximately 300 teachers for the 2020-21 school year, which is on track with the average number each year.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.