With the perverse logic of so many education bureaucracies, the recruiting offices of the Loudoun County Public Schools reflect an apparent belief that any space devoted to attracting teachers should be as small and plain as possible -- as if the important thing to emphasize about teaching is not the willing minds and loving hearts but, rather, the flimsy paneling and inevitable fluorescent glare.
Here, in an old converted school building in downtown Leesburg, the carpet is gray. The chairs are gray as well. On a corner table, a cheerful but oddly frank public relations video describes "students who are highly motivated to learn -- and some who are not!" The applicants show up as regularly as school buses: One day the waiting room held three nervous young women wearing blue suits and white stockings -- as if perhaps not only classroom tests but classroom clothing, too, now must be standardized -- and, on a different day, a procession of would-be substitutes, including one who was working at Rainforest Cafe and who acknowledged, to a recruiter, "Most of my background is with animals."
Into this office, one morning back in February, came Rhonda Lopez, an elementary school teacher with two years of experience at Faith Christian, a small private school in eastern Loudoun. After some internal struggle, Lopez had decided to leave Faith Chris-tian -- where her students were taught to say "excuse me" instead of "what" and parents tracked homework closely and she was free to mention God in every lesson -- to seek a job in the public schools, where, possibly, none of these things would be true. Her reasoning was pragmatic. Lopez was making about $20,000, whereas in the public schools she could earn $15,000 more -- making it easier, she and her husband hoped, to start a family. So here she was at the central Loudoun office, where recruiters were scrambling to hire as many as 400 new teachers by fall.
The interview, though relaxed, by necessity was also rapid. There was no opportunity for Lopez to show how she taught. Instead, having submitted her credentials and a handwritten (as instructed) statement of philosophy, she answered a series of questions about why she became a teacher and what her ideal classroom would look like and how she dealt with students of differing abilities. She was told not to expect a response until May -- three months away -- at the earliest.
Leaving the office, Lopez resigned herself to the prospect that it would take a while to find a public school job. The next step, she reasoned, would be to apply to another local system, like, say, Fairfax County. So she would do that, she told herself; she would do that and she would pray. "Lord," she would say, "open the doors if they're supposed to be open."
It must have been a relatively easy request for the Almighty to answer. Not three months but two days after her interview, Rhonda Lopez got a call from Loudoun, offering her a contract on the spot. If she signed it, she would implicitly be agreeing not to apply to any other school system. Like, say, Fairfax County.
In other words, Lopez wasn't the only person who was out there praying.
"I do wake up at night, particularly when I'm on the road," says Randy Richards, a recruiter who has traveled ceaselessly in the months since he was hired, making more than 25 trips to New York, Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota and even California, working to lure teachers to Loudoun. So explosively is the county growing, fueled by the influx of companies like America Online, that the school population grows by roughly 2,000 students every year; entire new classes regularly must be created in January and February to accommodate pupils who move in after September; and each fall two elementary schools are opened, so new they don't yet smell like schools, rising fresh and raw and skylit from what was, until very recently, the placid farmland of D.C.'s far western suburbs.
"You sit there and think: What else could I do? How could I bring teachers in?" says Richards one morning, breaking away to interview a special education teacher who, in conclusion, politely said, "I really need to know quickly, because I have another offer."
I have another offer: It's a statement that recruiters are hearing around the D.C. area, where school systems are falling all over themselves to hire teachers at an unprecedented rate. Because Loudoun, despite its unusual level of growth, is not atypical in terms of the teachers it needs to hire. "The volume we're dealing with is new even for us," says Mike Sutherland, a recruiter for Fairfax, a school system so incomprehensibly vast that it has more total employees than many city governments. By September, Fairfax needs to hire at least 1,600 -- count them, 1,600 -- new teachers. How many teachers is that per day between spring and fall? Fifteen? Twenty?
"I don't even want to count," Sutherland says. "I don't know the answer." He does know that not long ago, at a seminar given by a couple of corporate human resources gurus who were describing cutting-edge hiring practices, Sutherland raised his hand to ask what advice they had for the public schools. "They had no response. They couldn't imagine hiring that many people and making good intelligent hiring decisions. The only analogy I can think of is Christmas at the mall, in terms of the volume we have to deal with."
The malls may have an easier time of it. The District of Columbia needs between 500 and 1,000 new teachers for fall, Montgomery County 1,000, Prince George's County 1,400. In many districts, these numbers are partly the result of growth; Loudoun, for example, the fastest-growing school district in Virginia, expects its school-age population to triple between 1990 and 2003, from 14,000 to nearly 43,000. But even in more stable counties like Fairfax and Montgomery, growth is happening and populations are diversifying, creating a huge need for teachers in all disciplines, but particularly in niche areas like special ed. Meanwhile, the pool of new teachers is remaining static, even as a massive group of so-called Sputnik teachers, hired during the space race of the '60s, are reaching retirement age.
The result is a nationwide teacher shortage estimated at 2 million people.
Whether this is good or bad depends, like most things, on where you're coming from. Life is sweet for wide-eyed twentysomethings with ed degrees: "I discover from talking with new teachers that many of them have been offered 10 contracts on the spot," says Darlene Faltz, a recruiter for Prince William County, which needs to hire 400 new teachers for the coming year.
"We are virtually placing everyone," says Gary Galluzzo, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. "Most graduate with a job in hand."
For the school systems and -- oh yes -- students, the situation is not so happy. "We're all recruiting the same people," is how Mike Sutherland describes an environment in which school districts are courting the same candidates and, in some cases, picking one another's pockets.
"I used to think that this profession was different from the business world; now we use many of the same selling techniques [even though] we don't have the latitude to negotiate salaries," says Jim Person, principal of Park View High School in Loudoun, who this year lost a math teacher to what he will only describe as a "neighboring school system" in Maryland. "We're buyers in a seller's market," he says. "It's like free agency almost."
Person's comment suggests the oddest thing about this job competition, which is the fact that, avid as they are for new talent, school systems lack the one thing most likely to attract it: money. In most local school systems, starting salaries are somewhere around $30,000, a figure that's set by the school boards. Similarly, annual increases are determined solely by education level and years of experience, with veteran teachers making somewhere in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. Whether you think these sums princely or pathetic, what's inarguable is that they are inarguable. There's no getting around them, no niggling at the margins.
Such inflexibility exacerbates the teacher shortage in more ways than one. Not only do modest salaries drive people from the profession; for those who do go into teaching and stay in it, rigid pay scales create a situation in which one of the few ways for a teacher to raise his or her income is to jump from a low-paying district to one that's slightly less low-paying. This happens all the time, giving a new meaning to the familiar Beltway phrase "revolving door." Indeed, one reason so many local school systems are so hard-pressed is this constant churning, with teachers leaving Frederick for Loudoun, Loudoun for Fairfax, chasing pay raises that in some cases are so incremental they make you want to cry.
Meanwhile -- lacking capitalism's fundamental tool of negotiation -- school systems are trumpeting other enticements besides money. With the result that, in the competitive frenzy that is teacher recruiting, a weird sort of alternative economy has developed.
"What do y'all do with tuition reimbursement?"
"So you pay one-third if they're in a master's program?"
"Have you noticed the smaller divisions are the ones offering the signing bonuses? Halifax!"
"It has been very depressing at the job fairs -- just eight at Longwood! Seven at George Mason! And the Radford job fair was very disappointing!"
As gossip ricochets around the conference room of the Virginia Beach Sheraton Oceanfront, a recruiter for the Chesapeake school system fiddles with his display table, unsure whether to use the sign provided or a different one he brought along in his briefcase. Anything to distinguish his schools from the other Virginia systems that are here as well, trolling for teachers. Over in another corner, Albemarle County has erected not only a photo display that towers above the others, but an illumination system worthy of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Hard to top that. The Chesapeake recruiter sighs. Might as well use the sign provided. Beside him, his recruiting partner is about to dip into the candy they've set out in a little toy school bus, but he stops her before she can.
Not that the giveaway candy is unique. At this May job fair, everybody seems to have glommed onto the old penny-candy-in-a-school-bus trick. Alternatively, Norfolk is offering suckers in a basket. Henrico County has insulated tumblers and, naturally, No. 2 pencils. In what seems an inauspicious choice, Isle of Wight County has tucked its employment applications into handy little automotive trash bags.
"No one else has refrigerator magnets!" observes Mozelle Farmer with some satisfaction, looking at the embossed magnets she and the other Loudoun recruiter, Carol Shackleford, have brought along to the fair. Today is Thursday, so this must be the job fair hosted by the Virginia Association of School Personnel Administrators. Before this, Shackleford was at a job fair in Corpus Christi, Tex. Before that, she was at the New York Minority Education Expo. And before that, she was at job fairs at Central Michigan University and Michigan State. Today alone, Loudoun also has recruiters fanned out to job fairs in West Virginia and Iowa. At this one, Shackleford and Farmer are hoping to woo likely candidates from ed programs
at such Tidewater universities as Hampton and Old Dominion.
Or even one likely candidate. A good recruiting mission in the late 1990s is a mission that lands even a single new teacher -- and many don't. To improve the odds, Shackleford erects a carpeted display touting Loudoun's "climate for success"; a map for those who've never heard of Loudoun County; and a sign informing teachers that Loudoun really needs teachers of special ed, occupational therapy, gifted and talented programs, earth science, technical education (formerly known as shop), work and family studies, math, chemistry, physics, English as a second language, marketing, foreign languages, physical therapy and business education, as well as speech pathologists, school psychologists and reading specialists. As if this would be news to anyone. Every single school district is looking for exactly the same thing: special ed teachers because so many more schoolchildren are being diagnosed as having emotional or learning disabilities; various subspecialties, because education departments produce fewer of these; math and sciences, because math and science teachers have been in short supply, it seems, since caveteachers began scribbling equations on stone tablets.
The one thing she doesn't post is Loudoun's starting salary, which for a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree is $29,619. In its infinite wisdom, the Loudoun County School Board has set the starting pay exactly 381 dollars below the $30,000 threshold that most aspiring teachers are looking for.
But most other school systems at the job fair aren't trumpeting their salaries, either. "If you're looking for money, I can give you a great place to work but I can't compete with the large school systems," says the Southampton County recruiter. Instead, what every system claims to offer is a nurturing environment with unlimited opportunity for personal and professional growth and a student body that's pleasantly diverse but not overwhelmingly so, all situated in surroundings that are not too urban but not too rural either. Hence posters saying things like "Live in a Dynamic Supportive Community" or "Outstanding Professional Development and New Teacher Mentoring Programs."
Hence, too, schemes to make the numbers look even a tiny bit better: "Some apartment associations will waive the initial deposit for teachers," says the recruiter for Chesterfield County, which needs 500 teachers by September and expects 50 percent of its work force to retire in the next 10 years. Loudoun offers to pay the teacher's contribution to the Virginia retirement system. Others reimburse for graduate school tuition. Others give hotel and restaurant vouchers to teachers who travel at their own expense -- districts typically do not pay travel costs -- for an interview. Still others find creative ways to credit teachers for "life experience" -- for a special ed teacher, this might include summers at Camp Easter Seal -- enabling them to start slightly higher on the salary scale.
It's not much.
But it's something.
Loudoun, mostly, relies on speed. Unlike any other school system at the fair, Carol Shackleford has set up a little area between her display and that of Portsmouth (proffered treat: brochures and key chains) where she will interview teachers and, if she likes what she hears, offer a contract on the spot. As the fair starts and candidates trickle in, she and Farmer stand at the table saying things like, "Are you familiar with our area?" and, "It's next to Fairfax, which some people have heard of!" and, "We're the third-fastest-growing county in the nation!"
As they do so, it quickly becomes evident that the teacher shortage is being felt much more acutely in some disciplines than in others. "There's this glut of people who like to read books and history," Shackleford explains as she gently diverts a social studies teacher by giving him a brochure and encouraging him to put his name on a mailing list. She's not rejecting him; rather, she encourages him to contact the central Loudoun office and go through the regular application process, but declines to sign him up for an insta-interview. Social studies, alas for him, is not a crisis field.
Neither is elementary education. "I knew if I sat down with the elementary ed teacher, the biology teacher would walk up," Shackleford says minutes later, explaining why she has also postponed talking to a young woman who drifted by minutes before Shackleford was scheduled to interview a biology candidate. (In this as in most emergencies, triage is essential: Which is in worse shape, fourth grade or high school science? Suffice it to say that when a chemistry teacher cruises by the table, Shackleford and Farmer flank her like Secret Service agents.) Tragically, they lose the biology teacher: Mobbed by other school systems, she never appears for her appointment. After going to look for her, Farmer returns, not exactly empty-handed, but with a band teacher who, upon being interviewed, inquires about school safety. In Loudoun, they assure her, there have been "no major incidents."
"I've always loved reading; that's my first love. I love grammar, which sounds very strange. I enjoy learning and helping people," says a veteran high school English teacher who is interested in Loudoun and knows how to diagram sentences and has a track record helping kids raise their test scores. Problem is, when she signed up, Shackleford thought she was an ESL teacher. But she's not; she just snuck in under that alias.
Truly, there is no justice in the universe. The passionate grammarian is sent on her way with a smile and an invitation to apply through the regular process, while a marketing teacher is treated like Elvis returned from the dead. For those who have never heard of marketing, it is a high school elective featuring instruction in -- among other things -- personal selling. "I would absolutely love to interview you if you have 10 minutes!" Shackleford coaxes Mel Sepos, a young man who is graduating from Virginia Tech with a major in marketing ed.
"Loudoun needs marketing teachers!" she assures Sepos, who, when asked, explains that his strengths include his "personal and social skills" and that he disciplines students by looking them "dead in the eye" and that his "classroom management skills" consist of "being organized, having things well planned." Soon it's Sepos's turn to ask questions. He wants to know whether marketing teachers are forced to teach business as well -- "We've been blessed!" Shackleford replies, assuring him that in Loudoun they are not -- and he wants to know what the student-to-teacher ratio is and he wants to know what the starting salary is and whether it's $30,000.
"Close to it!" says Shackleford cheerfully. "Just a tad under!"
"And what about the cost of living?" Sepos asks skeptically.
"A little more reasonable than if you were close to the city, and the farther you get out, the more reasonable it is!" says Shackleford, spinning valiantly. Even so, by now it's clear that Sepos is unlikely to accept an instant contract, so -- the next best thing -- she takes his name and number and e-mail address and promises to have a principal call him.
By day's end they've interviewed two band teachers, who seem in strange abundance; a middle-school math teacher who (kiss of death) would prefer to teach elementary school; a chemistry teacher who had only a provisional license; an elementary teacher who, unusually persistent, asked to be interviewed; and an older, dissatisfied man who talked darkly about how public schools are ruled by bad students and sent up so many red flags ("I'm thinking of going abroad") that Shackleford resorted to the most perfunctory questions. Not a great day. And as it will turn out, in West Virginia and Iowa the other Loudoun recruiters have not had great days either. None of the three trips will yield so much as a library assistant, at least not immediately.
Still, Shackleford and Farmer comfort themselves that, with three months to go, they have in fact hired one-eighth of the new teachers they will need in September. Fifty down. Just about, oh, 350 to go.
"I just hope," says Shackleford worriedly, "that none of them cancel."
"NOT IN ATTENDANCE" is, in fact, the phrase scrawled across two of the names on a sign-up sheet in the lobby of an elementary school where, this late spring evening, Loudoun principals are working overtime to compete for one of Shackleford's early recruits. As it happens, two of her particularly hard-won hires -- a minority candidate from New York and a native Spanish-speaker from Texas -- have indeed backed out of their contracts. The first didn't bother to explain. The second came to Loudoun to look around and then called to say she'd changed her mind.
"She said she wasn't ready to move," Shackleford says, "but I think it was the cost of living. They look at the salary and it looks good until they see the cost of living."
One person who has accepted a contract -- and stuck with her decision -- is Rhonda Lopez, the fourth-grade teacher from Faith Christian. Typically, an elementary school teacher would not be offered an early contract -- early contracts being reserved for crisis fields. Instead she would follow the usual process, which is to say she would undergo a preliminary interview with a recruiter, then, her name now in the Loudoun database, wait to be contacted by a principal. But Lopez -- like several other new hires -- was offered a contract almost immediately because, in addition to her teaching experience, master's degree and other clear qualifications, she is African American. Loudoun, like other D.C. area systems, is eager to expand its work force to meet the needs of an ever more diverse student body (the goal is a work force in which minority teachers are proportionate to minority students), and so minority candidates are a sought-after category, like physics or math or special ed.
"Just a secret between us, it's the best school in the county!"
Radiant and energized, a little nervous in her best black-and-white suit, Lopez has not only accepted but, as instructed, shown up at this "Meet the Principals" night, in which some 30 administrators are vying for the chance to land one of 19 early recruits. With early hires, the normal process is reversed: First they are hired, and then a principal picks them. In Lopez's case five principals have picked her -- or picked the chance to interview her, promote their own programs and, jokingly, disparage those of their colleagues. "Don't even talk to this guy!" the principal of Ball's Bluff Elementary tells Lopez as, his 20 minutes up, he cedes his chair to the head of Loudoun's gifted and talented program, who in turn gives way to the principal of Round Hill Elementary, who is displaced by the principal of Sully Elementary, who -- like all of them -- attempts to sell his school to Lopez, confessing that it is, yes, an older facility but hastening to point out that Sully got a small addition in the 1970s and is having a new gym built. Moreover, he adds, he has established a partnership with a landscaper who will soon be bringing in "heaps of flowers."
"Wow!" says Lopez, sincerely.
It's all very orderly, all very good-natured; but the competition among principals is keen and real. The last person who has signed up to interview Lopez is Deborah Cookus, the gregarious novice principal of Guilford Elementary in Sterling. The exchange begins with pleasantries: By now both Cookus and Lopez are punchy and exhausted, so when Cookus asks Lopez how she keeps her students in line, Lopez starts talking about "the look."
"The look!" Cookus says, delighted, knowing exactly what Lopez means. They are talking about that Medusa-like expression that teachers get on their face, the look that can strike a kid to stone from 100 yards.
"I'm going to write that down!" Cookus jokes. "Mastered the look!"
But the joking lasts just a minute: Cookus, like all the rest, is serious about staffing her school, and she has a diverse, not terribly affluent student body, many of whom are from immigrant families where the parents work two or three jobs, and even though she herself lives in West Virginia, she gets to school early in the morning and stays late at night to serve these needy families. And the most disheartening thing, she confesses to Lopez, is the rate at which teachers are, shall we say, defecting to places run by her friends and colleagues.
"I tell principals to stay away from my staff. Don't even talk to them!" she tells Lopez. "Because that's what happens -- I just, if someone comes in and says, `I want to talk to you,' I say, `Is it good news or bad news? If you're going to tell me that you're going to another school, no you can't talk to me!' Oh, I understand -- they have kids and they want to move closer to home. But I have a population that needs these people!"
In other words, a constant sort of intramural competition takes place even within the Loudoun system. In a funny irony, the growth of the county -- the relentless construction of schools to educate an affluent, demanding population that has moved to the suburbs in part because of these schools -- makes it harder for schools to provide the stable, excellent education the newcomers expect. Which is to say: When new schools open, as they do every year, they are staffed by new teachers and by veteran teachers, and the veteran teachers have to come from somewhere. Often, where they come from is other Loudoun schools. Which then must find their own new teachers. Growth creates an educational undertow where teachers are sucked along by an ineluctable current; the new schools beckon teachers not with money but with shiny halls and bigger classrooms and fancy computer stations and well-stocked libraries or, as they're called now, well-stocked media resource centers.
Several days later, during a conversation in her office at Guilford, Cookus explains how the domino effect works and how pervasive it is. "I lost three of my second-grade teachers in one fell swoop," she laments, describing what happened last year when a new elementary school opened in Loudoun, drawing several first-grade teachers away from Algonkian Elementary, which in turn drew teachers away from her. "There was one person left on the Algonkian first-grade team who had taught here, and she got her little self on the phone because she wanted her friends [from Guilford] to join her. They took her up on it and the rest is history."
Waiting for the dismissal bell, Cookus recalls how different the recruiting process used to be. She herself was hired as a fledgling teacher into a West Virginia school system more than 25 years ago: The interviewer had spent his own summers as a busboy at her uncle's restaurant. Now, teachers come from applicant pools of 150, and nobody knows anybody else or stays anywhere for long. Yet good teachers are as important as ever, and bad teachers as devastating as they've always been: "If you have a teacher who is cold and uncaring, it can turn a child off for the whole year, and a bad year can turn a child off from school."
Not that change is always bad. When bad teachers leave, that's good. But when so many teachers leave, good or bad, that's destabilizing. Last fall, for example, Cookus hired three new teachers to replace the second-grade teachers she lost. Of those, two are now leaving.
"When we went to school, we knew who our teachers would be," she says as the bell rings and she goes on the PA system to say she hopes everybody had a great day at Guilford Elementary and then heads outside to direct her charges onto the buses. "That's not true anymore."
"I realize you have left for the weekend . . . Please return my call on Tuesday . . . It is urgent that you do so . . . We would like to make you an offer and if you accept on Tuesday you will be eligible for a signing bonus of $1,000!"
In his office at 3 p.m. on the Friday before a holiday weekend, Fairfax County's Mike Sutherland is hunched over his desk in a plastic-walled cubicle, working, as he does every day, on staffing a school system that, with 156,000 students and nearly 19,000 full-time employees, is far, far larger than Loudoun's. It's an almost unimaginable job: not only finding warm bodies, but finding warm bodies who are both willing and well-qualified. So huge is the need, and so easy does Fairfax wish to make the process, that the county no longer even requires a formal application. All a teacher need do is send a resume and the county will scan it into a computer, send the applicant a postcard with an 800 number, conduct an automated push-button interview and, if all goes well, follow up with an hour-long phone interview with an actual person. At that point a teacher's file becomes part of a huge database wherein principals may hunt for candidates using search terms like "algebra" or "team teaching" or "cooperative learning."
Such automation is cutting-edge but unwieldy. Electronic interviewing is awkward, computer searches are only as effective as the person doing the searching, and Loudoun sometimes wins applicants just by nailing them faster. But often, Fairfax will eventually snatch them back by dint of its relative affluence: A five-year veteran with a bachelor's degree makes about $37,000 in Fairfax, compared with about $33,000 in Loudoun. Moreover, like other hard-put school systems, Fairfax has begun offering signing bonuses of $1,000 to teachers in certain disciplines. And some of the signees are coming from . . . Loudoun County, where, after a teacher has moved from an old school to a newer school, and from that new school to a newer one still, there eventually seems only one option. A bigger move still.
"I needed to improve my financial situation. That's the primary trigger."
So testifies Deborah Roudebush, a teacher at Potomac Falls High School, a fancy, newish, high-ceilinged high school near the river in Loudoun. Roudebush, twice a county finalist for The Washington Post's annual Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, is that rare and sought-after thing, a teacher of physics. Not just that, she's an enthusiastic, effective teacher of physics who describes herself as having the "teacher gene," who is so good and committed she teaches other physics teachers how to teach physics better, and who loves teaching teenagers. "I know that sounds weird," she allows. "It surprises me, too."
It also seems to surprise Roudebush, a little, to remind herself that she won't be teaching in Loudoun come fall. For some time now, she has been augmenting her roughly $45,000 salary by working as a department chair, which earns her an additional $2,100. When the school lost a computer science teacher, she was able to earn approximately $3,200 more by teaching a computer science class simultaneously with -- and in the same classroom as -- one of her physics classes. And she is tired. Tired and worried. Her husband lost his job, so their family, for now, relies solely on her income. Which is hard. Even so, she did not want to leave Loudoun. She tried to find a way to stay in Loudoun. In fact, when the stress became too great she approached the central office with a proposal that it create a pay category for people, like her, with doctoral degrees. It seemed, to her, a workable idea. Other school systems pay people for doctorates. Loudoun doesn't. Loudoun, she said, should.
Loudoun did not respond.
She called Fairfax.
Which was immediately interested. And which does pay people for doctorates. Talking to the Fairfax recruiters, Roudebush pointed out that Loudoun pays the teacher's contribution to the Virginia retirement system, and that to make a move worth her while, Fairfax would have to pay at least $50,000.
Fairfax conferred with itself. Some rules were bent. Roudebush doesn't know exactly what happened. All she knows is that Fairfax came back with $56,600. She will never forget the day she got that letter.
"An $11,000 difference," says Roudebush, her voice trembling after describing the difficulties of life just now, and the excitement of being courted, and the thrill of being valued. Fifty-six six. "And I don't have to be the department chair and I don't have to teach extra classes."
And the rest is history.
"I'm not hesitant. I'm -- inquisitive," says Rhonda Lopez, leaving the parking lot of Faith Christian one hot afternoon and driving a brief distance, past several new construction sites and several enormous dirt mounds, to the public school where she has been assigned to teach come this fall. As it turned out, nobody who interviewed Lopez at "Meet the Principals" night managed to land her. Instead, Lopez's request to teach near her Ashburn home was honored, and so she'll be starting at Potowmack Elementary, a school located near Cascades and several other massive developments. Essentially, Potowmack was constructed to serve a vast field that now grows nothing but houses and more houses and more houses: so many houses, with their blinds drawn and their sport utility vehicles in the driveway and their owners who work in government or computers or who knows where, that four years after it opened Potowmack is already too small. So a new elementary school, Horizon, is opening two streets away, and as a result 300 students will be leaving Potowmack for Horizon this fall, and 100 new students will be coming to Potowmack from somewhere else. The next fall 100 more new students will come. And the fall after that, 100 more. As a result of all this pupil-moving, teachers have decided to move as well. This year, Potowmack will open without 13 of last year's teachers.
At least six of those -- as it happens -- are going to Fairfax County.
Because that's how things work.
All these schools. All this coming and going.
"When I was 20, $24,099 looked like a lot of money."
This is not Rhonda Lopez talking now. This is Marci Dietrich talking. Also at Potowmack Elementary. Also in the parking lot. Also on a hot afternoon. Marci Dietrich is one of the 13 teachers who are leaving. Nine years ago, she began teaching elementary school in Loudoun County. Like Lopez, she was courted by Loudoun; like Lopez, she came to Loudoun because a recruiter found her, believed in her, wanted her and, crucially, got to her first. "I was the valedictorian in my high school," says Dietrich, a young woman with long blond hair who dresses, much like Lopez, in matching two-piece suits. In their own ways, both seem the kind of committed, exuberant teacher whom young children would just naturally love and wish to please. "Everybody said, `Why are you going into teaching? You're too smart!' Isn't that sad?"
Dietrich went into teaching anyway. She loved it. She still loves it. She also can't afford it. Or rather, like so many other veteran teachers, she can't afford to stay in Loudoun. Not when, nine years in -- so successful that she has twice been nominated for an Agnes Meyer, so beloved that a student once taped her feet to the floor rather than leave Dietrich's classroom for the summer -- she is making just $37,000, not much more than beginning teachers. How good things look at first. How quickly they change. How slow and small the raises are.
"I have a friend who sells lingerie for a retail store. She makes as much as I do," says Dietrich, who describes the second jobs she has held, over the years, to support her teaching habit. "I waited tables at a retirement home for $4.25 an hour. I waited tables at restaurants. I worked at a tanning salon. I taught summer school. I taught computer camp in the summer. I coached high school cheerleading to supplement my income. Right now I work in financial services part time." And one day -- not that long ago -- she went to a job fair in Fairfax. Just out of curiosity. She didn't intend to work in Fairfax. But a recruiter got to her, and turned her, explaining that in Fairfax she could make $6,000 more than she does now, plus she lives in Fairfax so her commute would be shorter. Before she knew it, she was signing a new contract. To work in Fairfax.
That, then, is the endless cycle of teacher recruiting: a cycle that includes not just Rhonda Lopez, who is coming, but also Marci Dietrich, who is going, and, in between, people like Carol Shackleford and Deborah Cookus who are doing the best they can to make sure that five weeks from now, when the doors of the schools again open, there will be someone -- Dietrich, Lopez, someone -- to teach the children. It's a sort of ceaseless, restless migratory pattern driven not so much by need or hunger as by a complex mix of commitment, pride, exasperation, fatigue and changing personal reactions to numbers that themselves cannot change.
Throughout, the one constant seems to be this: While there is always a school system that pays slightly better, there is always a school system that pays slightly worse. And it is these incremental differences that keep the recruiting process moving. Ultimately, perhaps, the most startling thing about recruiting is how low a sum it takes to woo a teacher. How small the enticements are -- and how effective. Fifteen thousand dollars is what it took Loudoun to get Rhonda Lopez; six thousand dollars is what it took Loudoun to lose Marci Dietrich. Six thousand dollars. A little. A lot. Which is it? Well, it's enough for Marci Dietrich to figure that now, things will be easier. "At least now I can consider children," she says, even though she's losing a whole set of other relationships. "I love Loudoun. This is home," she emphasizes, as she gets in her car to interview for a job teaching math at a Fairfax County middle school, which, if she accepts it, will mean she gets that $1,000 signing bonus.
A thousand here.
A thousand there.
Which is it?
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for the Magazine.