Departure decisions: Why teachers are calling it quits in Clark County
In mid-October, Clarence Moody packed up his superhero-themed classroom decorations and put them in hibernation.
The departing fourth-grade teacher slid a plastic tub, supply baskets and a few boxes into his van. It’s where, more than four months later, an Iron Man figurine, student-created artwork and other mementos remain.
Moody, who left the classroom to re-enter the corporate world, cannot bring himself to part with them.
“If I come back, I will be ready to go,” he said on a recent afternoon. “This is my mobility education toolkit.”
The 55-year-old is among scores of Clark County educators who have tendered their resignation or retired in recent months, exacerbating a teacher shortage and creating alarm during an already difficult period in the PreK-12 sector. As of late February, the Clark County School District had 1,270 licensed classroom educator vacancies. That’s up from 871 in early January and 777 in late August, according to data obtained in records requests.
School district officials said the large jump over the past month reflects vacancies coming online for the next academic year, such as teachers announcing impending retirements or resignations and positions being added because of projected enrollment growth.
Still, it’s a daunting number even for a district that routinely suffers from teacher shortages. Heading into the 2019-2020 school year — before COVID-19 emerged and profoundly disrupted education norms — the school district reported roughly 530 teacher vacancies.
Furthermore, an analysis by Data Insight Partners, a Las Vegas-based firm that produces education-related data, found a troubling trend: Licensed staff separations reported from August through January surged to 970, a 67 percent increase compared with the average over the past decade.
The firm calculated the number by analyzing employee separation announcements provided to the Clark County School Board of Trustees during those months. The separation lists show teachers and other licensed professionals, such as social workers and counselors, who have either departed from or announced they’re leaving the school district for reasons such as retirement, relocation, new jobs, personal or medical factors, or dissatisfaction with the district.
Moody’s name appears on an employee separation list provided to the school board in October. The reason given: “Other employment.”
Moody described his decision to walk away as “heartbreaking.” His students cried. He cried.
A father of four grown children and five grandchildren, Moody abandoned his career in human resources to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. He joined an Alternate Route to Licensure (ARL) program — which expedites the certification process for aspiring teachers who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field — and was hired by the school district in October 2015.
Moody said he loved his students, but by his seventh year in the classroom, the nagging feeling of being overwhelmed and under-supported grew stronger. Curriculum materials changed constantly, and his Las Vegas school received a new principal right before school started again. Moody said he liked his new principal but sensed that she was overburdened as well.
And then there was the pandemic factor: Moody said he thought the district lacked a plan for dealing with students’ academic deficits after the prolonged period of distance learning. He felt pressure to keep moving forward rather than revisit academic skills students missed.
“I found myself disenchanted with the whole process,” he said.
When an offer presented itself to return to the corporate world, Moody accepted. He’s working as a development and training manager for a startup company in Los Angeles.
As fears swirl nationally and locally about low teacher morale and what that portends for the profession, the numbers in Clark County indicate higher-than-normal turnover. Many have quietly departed; others have spoken out at board meetings or chronicled their decision on social media platforms. While no two departure decisions are exactly the same, employee separation data and interviews with former educators point to some common themes.
Burnout, lack of support and a sense among educators that their voices are going unheard at the highest district levels appear to be leading factors driving them from the classroom.
The pandemic reignited a long-simmering question, especially as a variety of industries felt the reverberations of the so-called Great Resignation: Is the nation on the precipice of a mass exodus of teachers?
A nationally representative survey conducted a year ago by the RAND Corporation found that nearly 1 in 4 teachers said they would likely leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Before the pandemic, about 1 in 6 teachers indicated they would likely leave their jobs.
But teachers saying they’re leaving and actually leaving are two different things.
A separate RAND survey of 292 district leaders in June 2021 suggests those departures did not occur in the magnitude feared. Instead, district leaders reported that the numbers of teachers and principals who had retired or resigned at the end of the 2020-2021 school year largely reflected pre-pandemic patterns.
While mass departures may not be happening nationwide, survey data suggesting that many teachers are at the very least questioning their employment future is worrisome, said Melissa Diliberti, assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
“What is a mass exodus and whether or not it’s occurring is certainly an open-ended question and one that I think there’s going to be a lot more work to address in the coming months and years,” she said
In Clark County, the growing number of vacancies has elicited concern from those across the education ecosystem.
State Superintendent Jhone Ebert said more teachers leaving the Clark County School District could have a ripple effect throughout the state, creating fierce competition to fill vacancies.
The Nevada Department of Education collects teacher vacancy information annually in November from all school districts. At that point in the 2019-2020 academic year, school districts self-reported 2,122 teacher vacancies. That figure dipped to 2,048 after the pandemic began in the 2020-2021 school year. But teacher vacancies surged 28 percent to 2,626 in November of this academic year.
The Clark County School District also publishes monthly reports showing employee group counts. As of March 1, the district had 18,414 licensed staff members, down from a peak of 18,615 in September this academic year. The lowest point this school year was in January, when the district reported 18,389 licensed employees.
Additionally, it’s the lowest March 1 count for licensed employees since the 2014-2015 school year, according to data compiled by Data Insight Partners. On the flip side, it’s the highest March 1 count for administrators during that same time period.
Pandemic-era difficulties, on top of existing stressors inside classrooms, could be pushing teachers to their brink, Ebert said.
“They feel undervalued,” she said. “They feel like they’re not listened to and that any requests that are being made, they’re not being implemented.”
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara, whose three-plus-year leadership of the massive school district has received criticism during public board meetings, doesn’t deny there is a retention problem.
“Of course I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m extremely concerned. I’ve been concerned since I got here.”
In early January, Jara announced $1,000 COVID retention bonuses for all full-time employees working for the district. Full-time employees will be eligible for an additional $1,000 bonus if they remain employed on May 25.
Much of the external messaging from the district in recent days, however, has been about recruitment. The district invited media members Thursday to Ronnow Elementary School to showcase the launch of a recruiting campaign aimed at existing employees — for instance, support staff members interested in one day leading their own classrooms as teachers.
Asked directly about the district’s efforts to retain teachers, though, Jara acknowledged educators want more support, consistency and time to plan during the school day. He said the district is working with principals to put together “framework and guidance on a retention plan,” noting that professional development and better materials would be part of it.
But Jara, as he has done in the past, aimed criticism at the state-mandated reorganization law that, in theory, decentralized the district and handed more decision-making power to individual school communities. He said it brings “a lot of inconsistencies, a lot of inequities” that can lead to frustrations.
“I’m not saying this is why teachers are leaving,” he said. “But I’m just saying it adds a complexity to the work that has to get done.”
But the reorganization is enshrined in state law. When pushed on that point, Jara said, “There are conversations that need to be had.”
Even so, employee separation information from August through January analyzed by Data Insight Partners shows a rise in discontent with their workplace. Fifty-six of the 970 licensed employees whose separations with the district were reported during that period cited dissatisfaction with the district as their reason for departing. On average over the last decade, 10 licensed employees have left by this point in the school year because they were “dissatisfied with the district”.
Another 58 departing licensed employees said they had accepted positions within another Nevada district. That figure is more than triple the decade average for August through January employee separation data.
Meanwhile, 104 licensed employees said they were leaving for other employment; 202 for personal reasons; 141 for relocation; 193 for retirement; 55 for medical reasons; and 10 for disability retirement. Seven departing licensed staff members were returning to school, and another seven took an early retirement incentive. Two departures were logged as “resignations,” and 70 employees separating from the district gave no reason for their departure.
During that same period, 22 licensed staff members died and another 43 were dismissed. The employee separation lists do not indicate why they were dismissed.
The employee separation announcements provided to the school board don’t tell the whole story for why someone decides to leave the school district. It’s likely that multiple reasons factored into their final decision — not just the reason given on the separation list. Still, the announcements provide a glimpse into the retention issue.
Chris Daly, government relations director for the Nevada State Education Association, a statewide education union, said a “major crisis” appears to be brewing in Southern Nevada. He worries how high the licensed vacancies will soar by summer when more teachers make decisions about the next school year.
“There’s a huge pressure on districts, particularly big ones, that have a lot of turnover to hire large numbers of teachers,” he said. “I don’t know what the prospects are going to be for places like Clark County.”
The statewide union recently launched a “Time for 20” campaign, applying pressure on current and future elected leaders to invest in educators. Specifically, the campaign calls for a 20 percent increase in educator pay, at least $20 per hour for “the workers who make our schools run” and an average class size of 20 students in core academic subjects.
While teacher pay has been a perennial concern, inflation and rising housing costs could further motivate educators to seek other employment or deter prospective teachers from entering the profession, according to education leaders, industry researchers and union officials. The starting salary, not including benefits, for entry-level teachers in the Clark County School District is $43,011.
“Rent is expensive,” said Marie Neisess, president of the Clark County Education Association, which serves as the bargaining unit for licensed educators. “Trying to, you know, afford a mortgage when you are just starting out as an educator is almost impossible.”
Substantial pay increases aren’t likely in the coming months, though. School districts operate under Nevada’s two-year budgeting cycle, meaning state funding levels are already locked in through mid-2023.
And, for teachers, pay is just one of multiple factors driving their decision to call it quits.
Jim Castellani walked out of his high school classroom for the final time in November. The engineer-turned-teacher boiled his exit down to this: “I needed help and I wasn’t getting any.”
His journey to becoming a math teacher — an idea that always excited him — came through an ARL program, which he started in 2018. The downside of the fast-track program, he said, is that it puts freshly minted teachers into the classroom without tons of experience managing student behaviors.
When in-person learning resumed this academic year, high school students came back after nearly a year and a half of distance education. Castellani found himself leading a classroom with 48 desks and students whose school behaviors had deteriorated during the pandemic period. He enjoyed the bright spots — seeing students motivated by certain lessons and the camaraderie of department colleagues — but said his calls for administrative support largely went unheeded.
“At the end of the day, I was suffering in the classroom,” he said.
Castellani left and scooped up a part-time job making $14 an hour at Bass Pro Shops, where stress was minimal in comparison. Nowadays, the 47-year-old is meandering around the country in a travel trailer, looking for where he might want to settle down while contemplating his next career move: Back to engineering or give teaching another shot somewhere else?
“My options are open,” he said. “Right now I just want to reflect for a little bit and really take stock of all that I’ve learned and, honestly, like, what did I do wrong? What could I have done better?”
Kaitlyn Cline, 27, also left the school district mid-year after realizing job stress was eroding her mental and physical health. She grew up wanting to be a teacher and spent six years in the classroom, mostly at the kindergarten level.
Cline entered the teaching profession feeling inspired and, in her words, “out here to change the world.” Single and living alone at the time, she logged 10- or 12-hour days trying to be the best teacher she could be. But she couldn’t maintain that pace as the years went by and her personal life evolved. She’s engaged and eyeing the next chapter of life.
“I just constantly started to feel behind,” she said. “It was difficult to just complete everything that’s expected of me.”
Cline said her to-do list outside of actually teaching felt neverending: lesson planning, logging and analyzing academic data, making copies, gathering materials, communicating with parents, keeping her classroom organized. Plus, she said the pandemic era added the extra responsibility of ensuring safety within the classroom. Her young students weren’t eligible for COVID vaccines at the beginning of the school year.
Cline said worries about her medical insurance, given ongoing issues with the Teachers Health Trust, also fueled her decision to leave. She left the district in late January to become an executive assistant for a tax and audit firm.
“I work from home. It was better benefits, more pay,” she said. “Really, it was a no-brainer. And I’ve just felt such a weight lifted since I started this job being out of education and all the stresses that come with it.”
Not everyone who bids goodbye to the school district is leaving the profession, though.
Elizabeth Campbell — who spent 25 years teaching in Clark County, most recently at a career and technical academy — moved to Taos, New Mexico, in August. The decision partly stemmed from her husband’s retirement and their desire for a locale with four distinct seasons.
But Campbell said mounting frustration with the school district made it an easier choice. She doesn’t fault her coworkers or principal. Her beef lies with the upper administrators and leaders, whom she said did not take into account how policy decisions were burdening teachers at the ground level.
She pointed to wellness checks during the pandemic as an example. Although a well-intentioned idea, Campbell said she was assigned wellness checks for 25 students who were not in her classes, adding three to four hours of extra work each week.
While all places have their pros and cons, Campbell said she is enjoying teaching in her much smaller new school district in New Mexico.
“It would be nice if teachers in [the Clark County School District] had sort of a cohesive policy and understanding of vision and a plan for going forward,” she said.
For months, Evan Scherr, a middle school computer science teacher, has been weighing this question: Should he stay or should he go?
Low morale within the district, health insurance frustrations and what he described as an overall devaluing of teachers have left him grappling with a career decision. He doesn’t see district leadership making good-faith efforts to turn the tide, so he recently settled on an answer to that question.
He is departing the district and profession at the end of the school year. Scherr said it’s his way of taking a stand, especially for fellow teachers who feel similarly but can’t do so.
“They’re not going to change anything, not going to address retention,” he said. “If you’re not going to take care of people that you want to take care of the kids and the students … we’re just going to part ways at this point.”
Scherr has not formally submitted his resignation but made plans to do contract work building training modules for a friend’s insurance company. He is looking forward to volunteering in his sons’ classrooms next year rather than leading a classroom of his own.
But the overall state of education in Nevada discourages him. He said the bar needs to be raised beyond the prospect of students landing jobs along the Las Vegas Stirp.
“This city can be so much more than it is,” he said.
Scherr and his family may not call it home for long. They’re considering a move to Toronto in a couple of years after his wife finishes a master’s degree program.
As for Moody, the fourth-grade teacher who departed in October, there is a new question on his mind: Should he return to teaching and Las Vegas?
He doesn’t regret his decision to walk away. Moody, who maintains an apartment in Las Vegas and visits some weekends, said it’s what he needed at the time. But the gravitational pull of a classroom filled with children who bring him joy may lead him back to the profession. He knows his presence as a Black educator with a business background is important for many students who may look to him as a role model.
That’s why his van remains full of his teaching supplies.
“I know in some way, shape or form, it will be used again,” he said.
And when and wherever that day comes, his superhero classroom decor can come out of hiding.