It didn't take long for Tina Jackson to miss the Houston County school system.
She had taught English in the district for 10 years, but she left for personal reasons and took a job at a Savannah school for the 2016-17 year. After a "grueling" year in a "toxic environment," she returned to Houston to teach at Northside Middle School.
"No place like home. I learned my lesson," she said. "You don't miss the waters until the well runs dry. The school culture (in Savannah) was not supportive and conducive for optimal education. Houston County has always tried to nurture a culture that breeds intelligence. The leadership makes a difference."
Both what's in a school district — and what isn't — matter when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers. Things like pay and signing bonuses can entice teachers to particular districts, but support and leadership are what keep them from moving on, education experts say.
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Paige Busbee, Bibb County's assistant superintendent for human resources, remembers a time when about 250 people applied for each open teaching position, and the district had its pick of candidates. Not now though, she said.
"There is a teacher shortage, and it's statewide," Busbee said. "That creates a market for teachers to job shop. You can't blame them. It's a very competitive market."
The number of education majors in the state's colleges dropped about 36 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to a Georgia Partnership report. In Georgia, 70 percent of teacher hiring is done to replace employees who’ve quit teaching. Forty-four percent of the new hires in 2010 weren’t teaching five years later.
A lot of the shortage can be attributed to teacher pipeline issues, said Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Educators. Not many students are choosing this career, and many people don’t consider it a preferred profession. PAGE and other agencies are working to expose more high school students to this career option.
Bibb is looking to hire between 150 and 200 teachers for the upcoming school year, which is a little less than previous years. Houston generally fills about 200 certified positions, and its retention rate has remained in the 90s in recent years, said Cindy Flesher, deputy superintendent for the district.
To fill the void, districts can hire people with limited teaching credentials. This year, Bibb County has 80 teachers enrolled in the Georgia Teacher Alternative Preparation Program, which allows people to earn their education degree while teaching in the classroom, and 70 professionals with degrees who are working on their certification, Busbee said.
The district also works with a third-party company to hire international teachers, and 11 teachers are coming from other countries for the next school year. Busebee recalled an instance in which there was too much of a language barrier, but the partnership has brought in talented teachers otherwise.
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” said Ann Coffman, manager of teacher equality for the National Education Association. “In some cases, the districts are just tying to find warm bodies, somebody who has training, to put in the classroom. Alternatively prepared teachers, the largest problem is you have people preparing to be teachers while they are supposed to be educating students. It’s really not quite equitable or fair to those kids.”
Districts have to be competitive in everything — including salary and benefits — to keep teachers from turning to neighboring systems, Busbee said. Monroe County works annually to make sure its teacher salaries are competitive, said Jackson Daniel, assistant superintendent for personnel and operations. Salaries for the Bibb County district are in line with most other districts across the state, but Houston County is ahead when it comes to pay, Busbee said.
"I definitely think the salary schedule we have for our teachers that is 3 percent higher than the state and higher than systems surrounding us entices people," Flescher said. "In addition, I think Houston County's reputation speaks volumes to those looking for positions, and we are constantly working towards building positive relationships."
Some counties offer signing bonuses for in-demand teaching positions. For instance, Monroe County pays $1,000 a year for three years to teachers in secondary math and science, foreign language and its Special Education Access program, Jackson said. Peach County has awarded signing bonuses ranging from $700 to $5,000 for hard-to-fill positions, including at the elementary school level and for high school math, said Wanda Stewart, the district's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
But those types of bonuses aren’t always enough to make teachers stick around.
“They might get somebody there, but they’re not going to make them stay,” Busbee said. “They’re only going to stay if they Iike the people they work with and if their school has a culture that’s positive.”
This will be the second year for the Bibb County district's referral bonus program. Current employees can earn $1,000 if they refer someone who is hired by the district and stays for a year. Thirty-seven bonuses were paid out last year, and Busbee expects there will be more this year.
"There's nobody better to advertise our schools than our teachers, our employees," she said. "The best recruiting is our own employees."
Bibb County hopes to try something new through a partnership with Historic Macon. Details are still being ironed out, but the district has included $50,000 in its working budget for a down payment assistance program. Board members will hold their final vote on the budget this summer.
"We're hoping it will be an opportunity for us to recruit and retain, ... the thought being if you put down roots in the community, you're more likely to stay," Busbee said. "We felt it was a win-win because it helps us support the community, and it helps us support our employees. We really don't have anything to lose."
If approved, five school employees could receive up to $20,000 toward the down payment for a home in Macon's historic Beall's Hill neighborhood. The district and Historic Macon Foundation each would contribute $10,000, in addition to what the homeowner would be putting down, said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of the foundation.
Forty-seven Mercer employees have received down-payment assistance for homes through the program since 2007.
"We realized that the school district was an obvious partner for a couple reasons," Garlington said. "It seemed like a good recruiting tool to help give them a competitive edge over surrounding districts."
Coffman said she has seen districts across the country offer incentives such as housing, reduced mortgages and loan payoff assistance. Teachers are more likely to stay if they’re invested in their communities, and sometimes that means that the best candidates are people who are already there.
Other school systems have promised to pay for continuing education for teachers to get advanced degrees and provide good mentorship and professional learning, Harper said.
Between recruitment costs and benefits, districts invest between $18,000 and $30,000 for every new teacher, Coffman said. They can save money by using strategies at the front end that make teachers want to stay.
Working conditions and support
"What teachers always cite as the thing that helps them stay is quality working conditions — even above salary," Coffman said. "If a teacher or group of teachers has a really good principal or administrators, they will follow them to the ends of the earth."
Good relationships, collaboration among teachers and support from administrators are key, Harper said. Student discipline and testing requirements can be hard on teachers too. When mentors and support are lacking, others employment options start to look more attractive.
The first couple of years can be overwhelming for teachers, so it's vital that they have mentors and support systems in their schools, Harper said. Most districts have special programs in place for new educators, but some do it much better than others. When there's a lot of teacher turnover, it's easy for schools to miss opportunities to work with the people who are just starting out in the profession.
Bibb County uses a new teacher orientation model called Get Better Faster, which aims to keep educators in the classroom through support, observation, coaching and feedback. Katessa Hammonds, an eighth-grade English language arts teacher at Howard Middle School, said that program, as well as the district's emphasis on diversity and professional learning opportunities, drew her to Bibb County, despite having no ties to the area.
A former teacher at Miller-Motte Technical College in Virginia and Georgia Military College, it was a huge transition going from higher education to middle school. Get Better Faster helped her learn how to deliver information to younger students and establish clear expectations. The continuous support and positive experiences during her first year made it an easy decision for her to sign a contract to stay at Howard Middle next year, she said.
Jackson noticed the absence of support during her year away from Houston County. It wasn't incentives such as higher pay that lured her back to Warner Robins, she said, but rather the respect from the leadership, the conducive teaching environment and the professional learning opportunities.
"Teachers want to be appreciated," she said. "We're here for eight hours, imparting all this knowledge and all these skills. We are getting them ready for life.
"I live for this. ... Working in (Houston) County, I've never called in sick. This county is a place I would love to retire in."