Former Wake County teacher Bekah Brown loved her job—and she was good at it. But after five years of her career going nowhere, and 18 months of working weekends during a global pandemic, she made the tough decision to quit in June. 

“It was really a bittersweet feeling when I finally decided, ‘OK, I’m not doing this anymore,’” Brown told the INDY. “Part of the culture of being a teacher is it attracts people who want to help, who are willing to sacrifice themselves to help their students, to help fellow teachers. It feels like you’re letting people down, especially in the middle of a pandemic when I know I’m not the only one putting in 20 plus extra hours a week.”

Brown wasn’t the only teacher who burned out this year. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, about 12.5 percent of employees in the Wake County school district—teachers and support staff—opted to leave. That’s a slight increase over the 2019-20 school year when about 11.3 percent of school employees resigned or retired. 

The attrition rate last year was about on par with the rate before the pandemic—when about 12.8 percent of teachers and staff chose to leave in 2018-19—but the reasons teachers have for their leaving have changed. 

The challenges of the coronavirus pandemic combined with a decade of cuts to public school funding have driven many teachers to resign or retire early, says Kristin Beller, president of the Wake County branch of the N.C. Association of Educators. The pandemic alone would have been an “overwhelming challenge” to teachers and staff, but systemic defunding of public schools made it a true crisis, Beller told the INDY.

In the past decade, “we lost 8,000 instructional assistant positions,” Beller says. “We lost over 5,000 teacher positions that were cut from the state budget. We lost close to $70 million in textbook funding one year. We lost master’s pay, we lost longevity pay. Those are things that help retain people.

“The coronavirus pandemic is sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

That was certainly the case for Brown, who says she felt an enormous feeling of relief after resigning. Even after her first year of teaching, “The anxiety of having to go to school on Monday never went away,” she says. Brown was having panic attacks almost every Sunday night. 

“(When I resigned), all of a sudden, it was Sunday, and I was like, ‘I can breathe,’” she says. “I knew early on, for my mental health, it was not gonna be sustainable. When the pandemic hit, it became very obvious. I had my children at home, downstairs, doing virtual learning … (and) because I’m trying to show up as my best teacher self, I’m not showing up for my family.” 

The pandemic may have pushed Brown forward, but her decision was a long time coming, she says. One factor was her fixed salary. Brown’s first year as a teacher was also her husband’s first year in an entry-level job at a financial company, she says. 

“After five years, he was making twice as much as I would make if I stayed in education for 25 years,” Brown explains. “As a fresh, coming-out-of-college kid, it (my salary) did seem like a lot of money. But then you realize very quickly, this is it. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Another former educator, Regina Feucht, was forced to retire early this year so she could look after her grandchildren at home. Feucht, in her mid-60s, was a teacher’s assistant at Abbotts Creek Elementary School before she gave up her work to help her daughter and son-in-law with childcare, she says.

Feucht didn’t want to stop working, but when her grandchildren’s daycare service temporarily closed, her daughter needed help, she says. Even now, with the kids back in school, Feucht’s daughter often needs someone on hand to pick up the kids if their classroom is quarantined or drive them to a COVID-19 test. 

“The pandemic drove the whole decision for me. I probably would have worked two or three more years. I had not contemplated retiring,” Feucht says. “I miss the work, I miss the people, I miss a lot of it.”

What the staffing shortage means 

At the start of the traditional school year, Wake County had 366 vacancies among 11,963 teaching positions, a vacancy rate of about 3 percent, according to Sara Clark, a spokeswoman for the district. That’s triple the number of vacancies in 2019 and 2020, where the county only had about 100 vacancies among 11,000 positions at the start of the school year.

Part of the increase is due to the addition of new positions this year, Clark wrote in an email. Those positions include new openings for teachers in the district’s Virtual Academy and for long-term substitute teachers at each school building. The district has since filled some of these positions, bringing the overall vacancy rate down to 2.6 percent and the rate among Virtual Academy teachers down to 4.5 percent from 18.5 percent. 

Still, the number of open positions is creating an unsustainable amount of work. With an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers, class sizes may be bigger, Beller says. Some administrators or instructional assistants are being asked to act as substitute teachers, while other educators are asked to cover classes during their planning periods. 

“Educators are regularly pulling 10 to 11 hour days,” Beller says, adding that they spend about seven hours a day with students and another three or four hours planning lessons, talking to parents, or coordinating with principals.

“But in a situation like this, when they don’t have any planning period during the middle of the day … they’re exerting more energy. Burnout is going to happen at a much higher rate.”

Instructional assistants are also spread thin, according to Beller. Instead of being assigned to one or two classes, they’re being assigned to three or four, cutting back the amount of time they can spend in the classroom. Instead of helping students, they end up doing clerical work or taking on additional lunch duty, Beller says. 

Likewise, office and support staff are asked to cover double their usual amount of work. In most schools, there are only one or two custodians who work during the day, while a contract service comes in at night to clean, Beller says. Bus drivers are doing multiple runs to and from school, starting work earlier and ending later. 

Earlier this month, one bus driver turned down a bottle of cold water because they didn’t have enough time to stop for a bathroom break, Beller says. 

“(They said), ‘I have four runs. If I stop at a school and go to the bathroom, that means I’m gonna be late dropping off my kids,’” she says. “So in addition to the impact it has on students—being able to get to school on time or get home at a reasonable time, and for parents to plan childcare—it also has a really negative effect on the actual people who are caring for our students.”

Before the pandemic, teachers and staff were able to “patchwork solve” problems that arose because of lack of resources, according to Beller. But when the coronavirus hit, staff and funding shortages severely curtailed the ability of schools to respond.

“In a time like this, we’re really going to have to prioritize,” Beller says. “In a crisis moment, when we have a pandemic happening, a shortage of staff, no hope coming from the General Assembly … in a moment like that, we really just can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.” 

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