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'A good support system' | Oak Ridge school sees strong teacher retention despite pandemic challenges

Teachers cite transparency and honesty from the administration as reasons why they stay at Woodland Elementary.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The COVID-19 pandemic made many people wonder, am I doing what’s best for me?

Schools are no exception as districts across the nation are seeing staffing shortages from teachers to superintendents.

One school district in East Tennessee, however, has stayed together.

Michelle Large at Oak Ridge's Woodland Elementary School knew she was where was meant to be the entire time.

"This is what I'm meant to do. This is what I'm supposed to do," Large said.

Large teaches first grade at Woodland. She said she’s been doing it for 13 years and has never once thought about quitting, even with all the uncertainties that came with COVID during the 2020-21 school year.

"I've never felt like any decisions were rushed. I felt like every decision was made carefully, in regards to what is best for students and what is best for teachers," Large said.

Clark Ward is also a first-grade teacher at Woodland.

"It's great. I have a good support system, great teachers around me that have helped me through my first few years, and a great administrative staff that helps with everything as well," Ward said.

Both teachers agree the culture in Oak Ridge Schools is strong.

"We promote a culture of service, whether that be service from administrators, to teachers, or teachers to students and parents," said D.T. Hobby, Woodland Elementary's principal.

This culture has kept teachers around for the long haul, preventing blindside closures due to staff shortages.

Large said she has not seen any friends or colleagues leaving their job because they have come together during this time.

"Knowing that there is support from our teammates, our colleagues, our administrators, knowing that we have that support to do what we need to do to keep ourselves healthy," Large said. "I think that helps support people not leaving."

Competitive pay also helped teacher retention.

In Knox County, first-year teachers with a Master's degree make about $44,000 a year.

In Oak Ridge, teachers with the same credentials make $52,000 a year.

RELATED: How much do Tennessee teachers make? New report sheds light on pay gaps between districts

"I'm given a lot of leadership opportunities as well. This is my fourth year here at the school, and I am our STEM coach now. So I feel that it's more than just the money," Ward said.

Oak Ridge City Schools takes care of teachers so teachers can take care of what matters most, the students.

"It feels like I'm an important part of their life, and I am helping them to build the skills that will help them do whatever they want to do in life, no matter what it is," Ward said.