When I met Carly Deal in August, the 22-year-old was ecstatic about realizing a lifelong dream. She’d been hired for her first teaching job, at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s brand new Lawrence Orr Elementary School.
Her teachers at UNC Wilmington and her mother, a veteran teacher who had just retired, warned her the first year would be tough. She thought she was ready.
By October she was calling her mother in tears, ready to quit.
“I’m like ‘I don’t care what I do, I can’t do this anymore,’” Deal recalled as the school year neared its end. “The thing that got me to wake up the next morning and get out of bed were my kids.”
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Deal was one of more than 600 new teachers Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools brought on board in August. It’s a district that perennially logs a higher-than-average teacher turnover rate, in a state that’s struggling to recruit and keep strong educators.
And she’s among 220 who won’t be back for a second year. That’s a turnover rate of 37 percent, compared with a state average of 21 percent for beginning teachers.
Deal knew she’d been hired at a high-poverty school, one of 74 in CMS where so many kids come from low-income homes that the school provides free breakfast and lunch for everyone. She thought she understood the challenges that would bring.
She also knew that even though her second-graders don’t take state exams, there would be pressure to boost their reading skills and get them ready.
But she wasn’t ready for how those elements would combine to wear her down. By the time second semester began, Deal knew she had to make a tough decision about her future.
In the Lions den
Deal always knew she’d be a teacher like her mom. It became real when her 24 second-graders and their families showed up for the Orr open house in August. She had an ice-breaker ready, asking children to vote on their favorite dessert, using star-shaped magnets to choose cake, ice cream or cookies.
The first weeks passed in a blur, as the faculty worked to create an identity for the Lawrence Orr Lions and Deal taught her kids the basics of classroom behavior.
She initiated them on the color-coded discipline system of “clipping up” and “clipping down.” Good behavior earned a purple “Lion Leader” clip, while slip-ups could move a student down to yellow, orange or the dreaded red. Parents got daily reports, and at the end of each week students who stayed out of trouble could pull small prizes from a treasure chest.
Deal constantly reminded her students that not every spat required the teacher’s intervention. She had to stay focused on teaching. State budget cuts have reduced elementary school assistants, so Deal had no one to back her up.
Orr, on Shamrock Drive in east Charlotte, has more than 900 students in prekindergarten to fifth grade. Principal Kimberly Vaught says at least 90 percent live below the poverty level. About 30 percent have limited English proficiency, most from homes where Spanish or Nepali is spoken.
Most of Deal’s students spoke English, though occasionally a bilingual child had to help a newcomer. Communicating with parents was more challenging. Deal recalls using Google Translate to send a crucial note home in Nepali (she had no idea how close it came to what she was trying to say).
Vaught, who has spent much of her career as a principal and teacher in high-poverty schools, had her own theme for Orr: “Shattering platforms for mediocrity.”
She had marching orders from Superintendent Ann Clark: Reading was the top priority, the key to success in everything else.
About three-quarters of Orr students started the year below grade level in reading, Vaught said. That had to change. There was lots of testing, even for the youngest students. Teachers met daily to analyze results and strategize solutions, with the expectation they’d spend four hours a day on literacy lessons.
“It’s tough work,” Vaught said, “especially when you’re serious about it and want to do a great job.”
Deal agreed wholeheartedly on the importance of reading. She had stocked her classroom with books from her childhood and taught her students to respect them. She let the class do flashlight reading with the lights off, and they liked it so much they later voted to do it again as a reward for good behavior.
Deal was working hard, coming in at 7 a.m., leaving at 7 p.m. and falling asleep thinking about lesson plans.
But the mandates and pressure ratcheted up her anxiety, she said, and squeezed out time for activities like cutting and coloring and exploring new topics.
“Obviously I don’t know everything,” she said recently, “but I do know to the core what I think education should look like and be like.”
She was starting to doubt she could become the teacher she wanted to be if she stayed.
Stay or go?
Some colleagues left during the school year. Vaught says she lost about a dozen, or 10 percent of her staff.
On her worst days, Deal says, she joked about quitting and going to work for Chick-fil-A.
“I wanted to leave, but the kids kept me there,” she said. “When you hear a kid say, ‘My daddy just moved out, left me and my mom,’ I don’t want to be a teacher that gave up on them.”
But second semester she started looking for jobs outside CMS. In April she landed a job for next year at Wolf Meadow Elementary in Concord.
Deal leaves with a Target shopping bag stuffed full of notes from her students – not farewell wishes, but daily messages from 7- and 8-year-olds who just wanted to tell their teacher how special she is.
Deal, now 23, struggles to explain why things will be different in Cabarrus County Schools. It’s the district where her mother, Pam Deal, spent most of her career. Deal hopes a fresh start will land her in a school where she can mature into the kind of teacher she aspires to be.
Wolf Meadow is converting to a year-round calendar, so Deal starts work at her new school in July. And her optimism is bubbling back up.
“I know next year will be better,” she says.