(WGHP) — For Kim Peoples, being an educator is a lot like growing a garden.

She’s an Exceptional Children’s teacher at Lewisville Middle School with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Her role is to meet each student where he or she is and help them grow and blossom.

“You get individual care in here because I want someone to do that for me,” Peoples said. 

But one month into the new school year, she’s still down a classroom teacher assistant and relying on substitutes instead.

“It’s not ideal because you do need that support in the classroom,” Peoples said. “It makes a big difference in the support for the teachers.”

WS/FCS has 51 EC teacher and teacher assistant positions open. It’s an improvement from last year’s number when there were 91 openings in the EC Department, but it remains one of WS/FCS’ greatest needs.

“I think it’s just challenges in recruiting and hiring for positions in education as a whole,” said Lowana Wade, the principal at Lewisville Middle School.

She said part of that is because a teacher’s workday doesn’t end at the last bell. They also have to be certified to work in the EC Department.

“We have educators who have to go back to school so they can get the right credentialing. We have those individuals who … have heard a lot about how important it is to ensure that the EC process is followed with fidelity in terms of our meeting with our families and supporting our students by gathering data,” Wade said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into the role of being an EC teacher.” 

A 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found positions in Special Education were some of the most challenging to fill for public schools across the country with 78 percent reporting difficulty.

As for Peoples who is nearing retirement,  she hopes to inspire the next generation of EC educators who are dedicated, determined and fueled by passion. It’s not easy work, but it is rewarding.

“That day … you may feel like giving up is the day that that bloom on the flower is going to come out,” Peoples said. “And that makes you know that I’m doing the right thing. I’m here, and I’m making an impact and a difference.”

Guilford County Schools couldn’t provide a number of open positions in the EC department but did say it’s always hiring. 

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Randolph County Schools and Alamance Burlington Schools each have 36 EC teacher and teacher assistant openings. Davidson County Schools has 13 openings.

Advocates point to boosting pay as the number one solution to overcoming this challenge. 

According to the National Education Association, a teacher’s advocacy organization, North Carolina ranks 46th in the country when it comes to starting pay.