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School culture a bigger draw than salary, teachers say
Gainesville and Hall educators say they feel support from system
Gabriel Espinoza, a fourth-grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy, sorts through supplies as he prepares for the new school year. - photo by Tom Reed

It is a concern of any company or organization: keeping talented employees under its roof for an extended period of time.

The same is true with school systems, which have an estimated 40 percent of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years.

But those teachers may not be leaving because of their paycheck or the students they teach. According to a report from The Education Trust:

“Despite widespread assumptions that students are the primary cause of teacher dissatisfaction, research shows that the culture of the school — particularly the quality of school leadership and level of staff cohesion — actually matters more to teachers’ job satisfaction and retention, particularly in high-poverty schools, than do the demographics of the students or teacher salaries.”

Local teachers seem to agree.

“In general, people get into education because they want to make a difference in a child’s life — they enjoy being with children,” said Gabriel Espinoza, a fourth-grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy. “But when the leadership, environment and culture is rough, yeah, your heart sinks sometimes and you don’t want to be there. It has nothing to do with the kids.”

Espinoza spent time in the Army and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office before becoming a teacher five years ago.

He said that teachers can sometimes feel the pressure of federal requirements that come with taking federal money, including Race to the Top funds.

But he said in the Gainesville City School System, teachers are generally in sync with school and system-level administrators.

“At least they’re all on the same page — and that’s the nice thing,” he said. “You don’t have one principal say: ‘I’m going to do it this way,’ and another saying: ‘I’m going to do it that way.’ We’re all on the same page.”

The average salary for a Gainesville City school teacher is about $53,000, not including benefits.

Teachers at Hall County’s World Language Academy know how that culture and school environment can translate into career satisfaction.

“I absolutely love it because it’s like a big family,” said Ruby Castro, a fourth-grade teacher at World Language. “If you are here, you’re part of the family.

“We may not have the best salaries, but we have the best environment, and it’s much better.”

Most of that culture is brewed at the school level, but some of it is guided from the top.

“I’ve said for a long time that whether you’re working at Home Depot or whether you’re working at Lyman Hall Elementary or whether you’re working for a church, people want to feel like they’re a part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” said Will Schofield, Hall County superintendent. “You cannot underestimate the power of culture in terms of keeping people in a profession, including teaching.”

Hall County’s average teacher salary is about $54,000. The average state salary is about $45,000, according to the Georgia Association of Educators.

“If we wanted pay to be the most important thing, we wouldn’t have become teachers,” said Bridget Rodriguez, English teacher at Flowery Branch High School and immediate past president of the Hall County Education Association. “It’s not about us. It’s not about pay. It’s about the students.”

She said even through droves of budget cuts and workday reductions, teachers still want to be in the system.

“What I love about being in Hall County is it’s student-oriented and it hires people who are student-oriented,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Rodriguez pointed out that setting a positive culture within a school is not only important for retaining teachers, but also making those teachers more effective.

“This is all about students,” she said. “If you were a student and you came into a room of a school that didn’t have that culture, that would be a miserable thing to do for 180 days.”

Teachers at both systems said the leadership has an “open-door policy” and feedback, on both sides, is expected and wanted.

“Sometimes, as a leader, it’s easy to say: ‘This is what we have to do’ or ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” said Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville City superintendent. “But we need to make known the results you want to get, but don’t micromanage how (teachers) get there. That’s huge. They’re intelligent and creative and they don’t want that stifled.”

According to The Education Trust’s report, about 70 percent of teachers in a positive school culture feel satisfied with the feedback from administrators, compared to 35 percent of schools with “poor” culture.

“Building those relationships with the people working here and the people in charge made it an awesome environment,” said Kirkland Moore, physical education teacher at Centennial. “You can’t get better if you don’t get feedback.”

That kind of environment keeps teachers around, both officials and the report said.

There’s some truth to it, too, said some teachers.

“I would stay at (World Language),” said Carmen Chapman, fifth-grade teacher at World Language. “I like the approach that they have. They’re opened-minded ... I wouldn’t leave to go to another school.”

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