Local educators find peace after walking away

TAKE IT EASY: Katha Underwood retired from teaching four years earlier than anticipated but doesn't regret leaving. “This is the best decision I’ve made for my life in years,” she says. “It was shocking how different it was after a month of being home. People visibly look at me and go, ‘Oh, you look different! You look great!'” Photo courtesy of Underwood

In 2020, Katha Underwood was four years away from her target of retiring at age 70. She loved teaching family and consumer science courses at North Henderson High School but wasn’t as fond of the stress she’d experienced from multiple student suicides and school lockdowns due to guns on campus. Nor did she appreciate the seven-year salary freeze she’d endured in the wake of the 2008 economic recession.

“I loved teaching students how to be good parents and help their kids or future kids grow and learn — what I call ‘teacher on down,’ or what I had to do in the classroom and with the kids,” says Underwood, who lives in Saluda. “But ‘teacher on up?’ It was Stress City, with the school district, four or five different principals during my tenure and then the state of North Carolina’s disrespect towards teachers. It was very difficult.”

The COVID-19 pandemic placed additional strain on her work. Like many systems, Henderson County Public Schools shifted to virtual learning in the spring. But when in-person teaching was slated to return in fall 2020, Underwood was faced with a difficult choice.

Being over 65, she qualified as “high risk” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was given the option to take a year off, without pay or benefits but with the guarantee of a teaching job — not necessarily the same one — upon her return. With months remaining before COVID-19 vaccines would become available, and not wanting to chance bringing home the virus to her husband, whose heart condition put him at even greater risk for severe disease, Underwood retired in November 2020.

Such departures from the classroom are becoming increasingly common across the U.S. A January 2021 study by the Rand Corp., a public policy research nonprofit, found that nearly 1-in-4 teachers were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-21 school year, compared with an average rate of 1-in-6 teachers prior to the pandemic.

And in March 2021, public policy nonprofit The Brookings Institution reported that 42% of teachers had considered leaving or retiring from their current position during the prior year. Of these respondents, slightly more than half said COVID-19 was the cause. Xpress talked with several local teachers who recently left the classroom to get a greater sense of how the trend is playing out in Western North Carolina.

‘A boiling point’

Underwood’s decision resonates with Asheville-based educator Barbara Kenny, who earned a master’s degree in special education with a focus on students with social and emotional struggles. She went on to teach for nine years at a mix of private, public and charter schools and loved connecting with students, particularly helping timid or insecure youths feel confident and gain a sense of their true selves.

“There were some overarching, systemic problems in education that always were in the back of my mind. But the good outweighed the bad for a long time,” Kenny says. “Then the pandemic really brought everything into focus.”

Already feeling overextended and underpaid, Kenny struggled with the demands placed upon her and teachers across the country as administrators implemented hybrid approaches, which made it harder for her to balance her job with the human connection of working with children in a classroom.

During the pandemic, many of her former graduate school classmates visited Asheville and rented Airbnbs, from which they worked their remote jobs; Kenny had been the only member for her cohort to stay in education. Their flexibility to travel and financial ability to become homeowners despite working fewer hours served as a wakeup call.

“A good friend of mine left education and got a significant raise. She was making really good money sending marketing emails,” Kenny says of one of those classmates. “She’s behind a computer, sending emails all day, and making almost twice what I’m making. My whole life at this point is trying to plan lessons, take care of students’ social and emotional wellbeing during a pandemic and dealing with parents — all of these things that made it so incredibly hard.”

Meanwhile, Kenny didn’t have health insurance, was paying $500 a month in student loans and, despite a master’s degree and nearly a decade of experience, took home less than $40,000 a year. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “And then a series of other things with the pandemic and other ways that teachers aren’t respected within the profession and then outside of the profession just kind of came to a boiling point.”

Noting that teaching is one of the few professions where it’s only acceptable to quit two months out of the year, Kenny resigned in February 2021.

“There was this idea that, not only are you a bad employee, but you’re a bad person. You’re abandoning the children,” she says of quitting outside the summer break. “That was a really hard decision to make, but it came to a point where I just knew, for my mental and financial and personal well-being, that I had to step away.”

Laura Martin, however, had long planned to stop teaching after 15 years in the profession. In the early stages of her career, the Asheville resident had been hired by a family in Haiti to teach their three children after the 2010 earthquake displaced them from school. The experience reshaped her vision for the future.

“I got back and thought, ‘I want to teach teachers and I want to teach them in other countries where they crave education and they just don’t have a lot of the resources that we have,’” Martin says.

After teaching first and second grades at Estes Elementary School, Martin put in her notice with Buncombe County Schools in June 2021. Although the timing of her decision with the pandemic was a total coincidence, she thinks she probably would have stopped teaching regardless.

“It had changed a lot in 15 years,” Martin says. “Kids stay the same — kids are kids, and if [teachers are] in it for the kids, then we’re good. But I think that, as a whole, the community has forgotten that kids are kids, and therefore it’s changed the way that teaching has become and what we actually do.”

The great migration

Once the school year ended, Martin took a summer job as a server with the Asheville Tourists. The position was a great fit for the personable baseball fan, who saw some familiar faces among her co-workers.

“It was amazing how many teachers work there,” she says of the ballpark. “Most of their beer-pouring people who aren’t in college are teachers, because teachers don’t get paid over the summer. We are ‘doing’ people. We are not ‘sitting around’ people.”

SUMMER BREAK: After leaving Buncombe County Schools in June, Laura Martin enjoyed working for the Asheville Tourists. Photo courtesy of Martin

While she waits for pandemic-related risks to subside so that she can pursue her dream of international education, Martin is substitute teaching at Estes Elementary. She enjoys being in the classroom without the stresses of planning, meetings, calling parents and filing endless paperwork. In turn, her flexible hours allow for scheduling home repairs and other tasks that teachers typically have to save until weekends or the summer, and the decreased anxiety of her new routine has brought health benefits such as better sleep.

“Usually this time in the year, I’ve already had three massages because I hold a lot of tension, and I haven’t had a massage in a while,” she says. “I feel well. I eat at normal times now. It’s not like I’m eating really early and then I’m eating lunch at 10:30 in the morning, then waiting until dinner time.”

Martin adds that many educators don’t realize their communication and organizational skills are applicable to other professions. Kenny, for example, found that her skills easily translated to her new job at Packback, a discussion board platform for higher education.

The remote position finds her working closely with college professors, keeping her in the world of academia and building on her passions for student learning and critical thinking. In less than six months, she’s already received promotions and has exciting opportunities ahead of her — something she rarely experienced in teaching.

“If you want your career to advance, you have to leave the classroom. That’s why really good teachers leave, and unfortunately, that’s why our best and brightest of the future generation aren’t entering education, which I think is incredibly sad and going to have detrimental impacts moving forward,” Kenny says. “The pandemic really put a spotlight on what is wrong. A lot of my friends were teachers. Everyone’s left — we’ve all left.”

The Packback position includes unlimited personal time off, and the flexibility has provided Kenny with a pleasant shock. She no longer has to schedule doctor appointments for spring break, and since she’s trusted to get her work done by her supervisors, she can go hiking on a warm day with zero notice.

“It’s an unbelievable difference, as far as having just mental space for other aspects of self-care and relationships,” Kenny says. “And I think that’s unfortunate, because happy teachers are good teachers, and our system right now is making it really hard for teachers to be happy.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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