Taking on the rural teacher crisis

Taking on the rural teacher crisis

Researchers seek answers to troubling attrition rates in North Carolina’s rural public school districts

Story by Billy Liggett | Photos by Ben Brown

“No one goes to college to teach middle school,” Hayley Redding says in a quiet, empty classroom, minutes before 30 eighth graders will march in and turn the silence upside down. “They usually just kind of end up here.”

She’s joking, of course. Eighth graders aren’t so bad. But there is an unintentional truth to her words. Fewer people are going to college to teach, and not just middle school. Across the country, the number of college students interested in a career in the teacher profession has fallen 50 percent since the 1990s and has reached its lowest level in the last 50 years, according to a recent study reported by the New York Times.

And job satisfaction among current teachers is also at a low point, especially in North Carolina. The state opened the 2023-24 academic year with more than 3,500 teaching vacancies in K-12 public schools, and while that was actually an improvement over the previous year, a striking number of new hires in 2023 were considered less qualified. Over the last decade, North Carolina has seen a 51 percent drop in enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs.

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The New York Times referred to it as “The Great American Teacher Crisis.” Their opinion piece published in September proclaimed: “People Don’t Want to Be Teachers Anymore. Can You Blame Them?”

Yes, the numbers are dire, and the overall perception of the profession is at an all-time low. That’s what makes Hayley Redding such a breath of fresh air.

A Harnett County native who stayed close to home to earn her Middle Grades English Education degree from Campbell University in 2014, Redding returned to Harnett County Schools to teach English language arts and social studies after graduation. Her passion for teaching was sparked, not coincidentally, in the eighth grade when a veteran teacher chose her to tutor classmates who were struggling or those who had missed too many classes.

Redding chose to concentrate on middle school education in college, and she chose to start her career at Western Harnett Middle School not just for its proximity, but because it was a rural district with a diverse population of students with similar backgrounds as hers. Now in her fourth year, Redding calls it her dream job.

“Eighth graders are a very special breed, and I mean that in the best way possible,” she says. “You see so much growth and transition from a sixth grader to an eighth grader. And every single day is completely different. Every class period is completely different. I get joy in knowing that I’m not only teaching them skills, but I’m helping them grow as learners and grow as people.

“These children are my heart and soul. They bring me so much joy,” she adds. “That’s why I’m here.”

A study led by professors from Campbell University’s School of Education & Human Sciences seeks to learn more about teachers like Redding and the many on the opposite end of the spectrum who are fleeing the profession in record numbers.

Led by Dr. Laura Lunsford, the former assistant dean of psychology and social work and current adjunct professor of psychology (who just joined the National Science Foundation as an evaluator), “Leading Workforce Effectiveness: Teacher Retention Study” looks at the many factors leading to higher-than-normal teacher attrition during and since the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in rural school districts in North Carolina.

Hayley Redding teaches ELA and social studies at Western Harnett Middle School in Lillington. The 2014 Campbell University graduate said she chose to teach in a rural school district close to home because it’s where she feels she can make the biggest difference.


Campbell was one of two independent universities to receive a grant from the North Carolina Collaboratory as part of the N.C. Recovery Research Network. The organization joined the N.C. Department of Instruction to award $6.73 million to 20 academic research teams to understand the effectiveness of existing state and local programs supported through federal emergency relief legislation.

Lunsford and her colleagues Dr. Kathleen Castillo-Clark, Dr. Terrie Hampton-Jones and Dr. Justin Nelson have worked with undergraduate research students Rebecca Roope, Jeannie Biggs, Anya Campbell, Randi Agnew, Anna Barnak, Sarah Elizabeth Hall and Allison Cortes Rojas over the last year interviewing teachers, focus groups, school leaders and principals from rural public schools. Their goal is to learn more about the factors that influence a teacher’s decision to leave (or stay) and the challenges that arose or were revealed during the pandemic.

Their research is currently ongoing, and a final report isn’t expected until at least later this year. But already, Lunsford and her team have published two briefs on their findings, with a third expected soon.

What they’ve found so far is that the pandemic had a profound impact on the teaching profession, exacerbating existing issues regarding staffing shortages, lack of support and mental stresses while exposing deficiencies in available technology that allow teachers to do their jobs effectively.

“Simply put, we’re looking at the supporting and inhibiting factors — beyond just salary — for teacher retention,” Lunsford says. “What is it that makes teachers want to stay, and what are the barriers or factors that make them want to leave? Which of these factors can be influenced by school leaders? We’re looking at how districts handled a crisis like the pandemic and the lessons we can learn to help our rural school districts be more resilient in the future.

“And it’s hard to learn any of this without going to the districts and talking to the teachers themselves.”

Susan Dunn followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a special education teacher. The Campbell alumna says her field has changed considerably in the last 20 years, as teachers are better trained to meet the needs of students with learning or physical disabilities.


It’s barely 8 a.m. on Day 2 of the new Hawks Opportunity Coffee Pot service at Triton High School, and Susan Dunn has already been hard at work gathering 30 coffee and tea orders for morning delivery. For the next hour, Dunn’s students in Triton’s Exceptional Children program will make lattes, cold brews and teas using an assortment of coffee makers (made possible by a parent-funded grant) and deliver them to teachers who can use an early morning pick-me-up. 

Dunn’s EC program is designed to prepare students with special needs or learning disabilities for life beyond high school, whether that means a career, college or an independent life. The Coffee Pot definitely classifies as job training, but social skills are being taught as the students knock on doors, greet the teachers, make small talk and deliver their orders.

Dunn, who is joined on this day by two assistants to lead the nearly two dozen students through the large maze that is Triton High School, seems to enjoy the controlled chaos of the morning. She beams as her students step out of their comfort zones, and by the time 9 a.m. rolls around and her rolling coffee cart is empty, she’s pleased with their progress on only their second day of deliveries.

“I think it went really well today,” Dunn says during a rare break as her students head to the library. “One thing we really work toward from the start of their ninth grade year is independence. We want them to be able to function by the time they reach adulthood, and by the time they reach their final two years here, they’re taking part in occupational rehabilitation. The growth we see is noticeable.”

“You’re going to be a teacher because you want to be a teacher and because you want to make an impact on students. There may be hold ups about pay, but I’m not here because of the money. I’m here because it’s what I want to do, and if your heart isn’t 100 percent into it, it might not be the career for you.”

Dunn earned her bachelor of science degree in special education from Campbell in 2012 and went on to earn a master’s degree three years later. She’s a second-generation teacher; her mother taught special education in nearby Benson throughout Dunn’s childhood. She grew up with a cousin who suffered from hydrocephalus brought on by spina bifida, and her cousin required specialized education.

Dunn says a lot has changed in the field in the last 20 years. She says children with special needs didn’t always get the support they needed back then, and if she wanted to make a difference in the teaching field, special education was an area that needed her.

“It’s a population that really needs more support and really needs someone to really care for them and guide them so they can show the world what they can do,” Dunn says. “They all have great talents and abilities. It’s just not always easy to see.”

“Support” isn’t just important for student success. It’s a key factor in job satisfaction for teachers, according to early findings from the research performed by Lunsford and her team. In their first research brief published in October, titled “Factors Influencing Teacher Turnover in N.C. Rural Schools,” they listed ways principals and other school leaders can influence factors to reduce teacher turnover, aside from pay raises, bonuses and incentives (which are decided by local and state governments).

Among their insights: District leaders and principals can make an immediate impact on teacher satisfaction by increasing resources and reducing job demands. The study also suggests policymakers can make investments in resources that minimize disruptive behaviors from students. One elementary teacher they spoke to lauded moves by her school to hire an instructional coach and an “interventionist” for students with behavior issues. Another teacher said her school saw “more and more … severe behavioral and emotional problems” when students returned to classrooms after the pandemic.

“One thing that became very clear to us about the pandemic was that teacher retention actually increased in the first year,” Lunsford says. “We asked a lot of teachers about this, and it looks like this happened because [when they were teaching remotely], they didn’t have to perform all the extra duties required of them in a normal school setting. Certainly, they had to prepare more [to teach remotely], but they actually had time to prepare.

Susan Dunn, a 2012 Campbell graduate, heads the Exceptional Children program at Triton High School in Erwin. In January, the program launched Hawks Opportunity Coffee Pot, a coffee delivery service to teachers that provides job skills to her students.


“Many of them were happy to just have a job, too, because they saw their friends and family members losing jobs when businesses were closing in that first year. So, many stuck it out.”

Support is vital in Dunn’s position at Triton High School. Her students need extra eyes at all times. If there is one area where she says her school could improve to support teachers, it’s staffing.

“Our department is short-staffed, and I’d say it’s a problem everywhere,” she says. “I’m head of our Exceptional Children department, and we’re currently short on teachers. I don’t think it’s a lack of trying though. We just can’t find anybody willing to take these positions.”

The stats support Dunn’s claim. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, North Carolina is one of 12 states that saw a decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities in 2021. Not helping is the fact that the National Education Association ranks North Carolina 46th in the nation in beginning teacher pay and 34th overall in average teacher pay.

Harnett County Schools had a teacher attrition rate of 14.9 percent in 2022, losing 185 of its 1,313 teachers that year. Harnett’s rate is nearly double the state average of 7.78 percent, but lower than some of the hardest hit districts like Northampton County Schools (18.92), Hertford County Schools (16.67) and others in the highly rural northeastern part of the state.

Dunn has a twin sister who recently left Harnett County Schools to teach in the more urban Wake County Schools, though she declined to say why her sister left. Personally, despite the staffing concerns, she says Harnett has supported her and her department well during her time there, and she points to the support of parents — like the ones who helped provide the supplies needed to launch her students’ coffee delivery program — as a key reason for her job satisfaction.

“I think it’s really important that teachers have good support from their administrative team,” Dunn says. “I know we are short staffed, but as long as everyone works together and we have supportive staff members at this school, we’ll remain a well-oiled machine.”

“I had teachers growing up who were always there for me, who let me know how smart I was and how amazing I was. The fact that I get to do that for others is what I love most about teaching.” — Jamecia Hardy


The WiFi’s a little iffy this morning at North Harnett Primary School, but it doesn’t stop Jamecia Hardy’s class from taking part in one of their favorite early morning routines — the Affirmation Song from the animated series “Doggyland,” created and voiced by Snoop Dogg himself.

Dancing on the carpet at the front of the class and watching on a large digital white board, the nearly 20 students repeat positive messages like “Today is going to be an amazing day,” “I get better every single day,” “My family loves me so much” and “I care about others.”

“My goal every day is to make sure they know their teacher loves them and is one of their biggest supporters,” says Hardy, a 2015 Campbell elementary education graduate who originally wanted to be a dentist before discovering her passion to teach. “Academics, of course, is always the big goal, but I want these children to know they can come to me for anything. I had teachers growing up who were always there for me, who let me know how smart I was and how amazing I was. The fact that I get to do that for others is what I love most about teaching.”

The word “love” and other positive messages can be found throughout her rose gold and blue classroom, as well as various dream catchers and images of flowers. But make no mistake, Hardy’s is a 21st Century classroom, and much of this morning’s lesson on letters, sounds, phonics and math is reliant on a solid internet connection (which becomes more reliable after the school announces a network switch over the intercom).

“It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. The the impact that you have, the things you learn from your kids and the relationships you build are amazing. There are so many teachers out there who are happy and who love what they do. My goal is for my students to know that their teacher loves them and is one of their biggest supporters.”

Of all the challenges for teachers the pandemic exposed in 2020, perhaps the most glaring was the digital divide when schools transitioned to emergency remote teaching. According to the second research brief published by Lunsford and her team in January, rural school districts were unprepared for the transition (as were many families), and many suffered as schools worked through those issues. As one superintendent in their study put it, “We were forced into the digital age.”

More than 1 million K-12 students were forced into fully remote or hybrid learning in the early months of the pandemic through 2021. At home, remote learning requires access to a computer (many districts provided laptops) and access to reliable high-speed internet for video streaming. According to Public Schools First NC — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education issues in the state — 30 percent of K-12 students in North Carolina don’t have a reliable internet connection at home, and 24 percent don’t have the equipment necessary for remote learning (though the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction says every student had access to a laptop by 2021-22).

Not surprisingly, the digital divide is greater in counties that also experience the highest rate of teacher attrition. In Northampton County, which leads the state in attrition rate, roughly 57 percent of homes don’t have high-speed internet.

Dr. Kathleen Castillo-Clark — assistant professor of professional education, program coordinator for Campbell’s elementary education program and lead author for the research brief published in January — says a big part of their study is to reveal the big lessons learned from going remote.

“Which districts had good infrastructure for technology and support, and how did they transition when everything went online?” she says. “We’re finding that in schools that had a solid infrastructure and in-house tech support in place, teachers had an easier time transitioning to emergency remote teaching and reported greater job satisfaction compared to schools with less support.”

Other insights from their research: Districts should invest in developing teachers’ Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge — or TPACK skills — to make them better equipped and to lower the chances of job burnout and emotional drain. State leaders should also accelerate broadband access and uniform tech support across all counties. Said one superintendent: “Hotspots [in rural areas] have provided some measure of mitigation for lack of internet at home. It’s not going to solve everything, but it does help to kind of level the playing field for those families who do not have serviceable internet.”

The big takeaway from the research is that leaders should pay attention to the increased job demands in rural schools that come with emergency remote teaching or hybrid learning. The pandemic led to higher levels of burnout, particularly among older teachers with less tech savvy, because their schools placed little to no emphasis on TRACK prior to the shutdown.

An anonymous superintendent in the study said the pandemic was a lot of weight to bear for teachers and students.

Jamecia Hardy, a 2015 Campbell University graduate, teaches kindergarten at North Harnett Primary School in Angier.


“I think there were a lot of people who got discouraged because they weren’t cut out to work in a virtual environment,” they said. “Our kids weren’t cut out to work in a virtual environment. Our parents weren’t cut out for that. I don’t think [teachers] enjoyed delivering instruction the way they were delivering instruction. It was like a tidal wave. It just swept a lot of people up.”

The pandemic in spring 2020 was especially hard on Hardy’s kindergarteners that year, a group that would end up spending the first two-plus years of their educational journey either learning remotely or going back and forth between remote and in-class instruction. Those early years are vital both socially and academically. The children she has today were still infants when COVID first hit, and they’re already better equipped to learn in a post-pandemic environment.

“The first thing I have to do is make sure these children feel safe here,” Hardy says, “because many of them have never been away from their parents before this, especially during COVID. Routines are important at this age. Once they’re comfortable in this environment, it makes teaching them much easier.”

The affirmation song, the vocabulary words, the phonics lesson — they’re all done using a monitor or whiteboard instead of a chalkboard. They’re all reliant on good WiFi and good equipment. Hardy says she’s well equipped at North Harnett Primary, a rural school by definition but one that is seeing an influx of new students as nearby Angier continues to grow in population.

“I’m from Raleigh, and I think the schools in Raleigh are great,” she says. “But there are amazing schools beyond Wake County, where teachers feel the love and get the support they need to do their jobs.”

Hayley Redding, who teaches eighth-grade English Language Arts and social studies at Western Harnett Middle School, said she promotes creativity and critical thinking in her classrooms. “When you’re a teacher, you can make a difference. It’s so rewarding to see them grow right in front of your very eyes.”


The wall behind Hayley Redding’s desk in her classroom at Western Harnett Middle School is adorned with anywhere between 75 and 100 photos of her and her students from the past two years. Selfies, group shots and photos from school events. Smiles and hugs are everywhere.

Above the photos are four big letters, “LYSM.” Asked what they stand for, Redding laughs.

“It’s my ‘Love You So Much’ wall,” she says. “I only get these children for a year, but a great thing about working here is most of my babies are right up the hill at [Western Harnett High School] and I get to keep seeing them.”

Babies?, she’s asked.

“Well, I don’t have children of my own yet, so yes, these are my children,” she says. “And they just … they impress me every single day. I love watching them learn, and I love giving them a platform to experiment, be creative and become a leader. They’re just so impressive.”

Redding loves her job, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Staffing shortages — everything from teachers to bus drivers — have a domino effect and weigh down current teachers with extra burdens. Redding has had to take on planning lessons for classes other than hers in the past because those positions weren’t filled or were taken over by long-term substitutes with little to no training.

“You can make a difference, and you can see that difference right in front of your eyes. It can happen in a class, in the hallway or even after school. You’re really making a difference in these children’s lives, and they are going to remember you for the experiences that you created for them.”


And training is a key to job satisfaction (at least to hers). Being in a class is a much different experience than any new teacher can anticipate, she says, even for college graduates.

“I feel like many feel overwhelmed with all of the responsibilities,” Redding says. “My degree at Campbell prepared me for this — especially the writing — but I’ve seen other new teachers come in and quickly realize teaching is not for them. It’s not what they envisioned, or it’s not what they prepared for.”

The third research brief from Lunsford’s team at Campbell (expected to go public in March) deals with lessons gleaned from teachers and the effectiveness of Educator Preparation Provider programs (EPPs) like Campbell’s School of Education & Human Sciences. The big question they ask is, “What can these programs do to better prepare teachers for the challenges they’re currently facing in the post-COVID era of American public school education?”

“The end goal, of course, is to address our state’s teacher retention crisis, because that affects so much when it comes to educating our children,” says Castillo-Clark.

The shortage of qualified teachers with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in education has led to a spike in one-year emergency (and “residency”) licenses in North Carolina that allow teachers to apply as long as their degree includes 18 hours in a content area they desire to teach. Residency licenses can be renewed twice while the other types are limited and renewed on a case-by-case basis by the school district.

According to a 2023 article on edsurge.com and data collected by Kansas State University, North Carolina ranks in the Top 5 for states with the most “underqualified teachers” — in 2021, 14.7 percent of the state’s teachers were considered underqualified.

“The lack of quality-trained teachers is impacting our students,” Castillo-Clark says. “Many teachers are coming in without a teaching license and have never taught in a classroom before. We’ve spoken to HR directors who used to never hire teachers without a license, and now they’re bringing in just about anyone who turns in a resume. They arrive unprepared for the workplace conditions and added demands of the job, and that pressure trickles down to their classroom instruction and interactions with students in the classroom.”

She adds, “At Campbell, we’re developing professional skills outside of teaching. We’re setting our graduates up to meet the workplace demands of the profession by offering resiliency workshops and embedding trauma-informed practices into our curriculum. Additionally, we have redesigned our teacher preparation coursework and prioritized social emotional learning.

“Social emotional learning is no longer considered a ‘soft skill’ in this profession. You need to learn it so you are better prepared.”

Dr. Laura Lunsford, the former assistant dean of psychology and social work and current professor for the School of Education & Human Sciences at Campbell University, is leading a team of professors and students in research to determine the factors behind troubling attrition rates in North Carolina’s rural schools.


It doesn’t take months of in-depth research to conclude that teachers impact lives. But that research does exist. The ING Foundation — a grantmaking charitable foundation that promotes education and basic human rights — found 88 percent of Americans say they had a teacher who had a “significant, positive impact” on their lives.

Rebecca Roope found her “course-changing” mentor later than most. The senior psychology major from rural Hays, North Carolina, says she found several impactful mentors when she arrived at Campbell University in 2020, but Dr. Laura Lunsford stood out the most. Lunsford opened her eyes to the career opportunities afforded by a degree in the field, and when she asked Roope to consider volunteering for her research project on teacher attrition in rural communities, she jumped at the chance.

“For four years now, Dr. Lunsford has encouraged me to do things out of my comfort zone,” says Roope, who’s set to graduate from Campbell in May. “She knew this research went well with my interest in school psychology, because I know I’ll be working with these teachers one day, helping them acclimate and handle behavioral issues that maybe they’re not trained for. They want to focus on teaching and lean on people like me in this profession to come in and help.”

Roope, Jeannie Biggs and five others are listed as undergraduate student researchers in the study, doing everything from website work to data analysis and, in Roope and Biggs’ case, interviewing teachers and administrators in the chosen rural districts.

In addition to being a great educational experience for the students, the work has also given them a deeper respect for the teaching profession as a whole.

Dr. Kathleen Castillo-Clark, assistant professor of professional education and program coordinator for Campbell’s elementary education program, says their teacher retention research will go a long way toward improving the school’s curriculum. | Photo by Evan Budrovich


“One of the things that shocked me throughout the process is the way we all view teachers now … teacher appreciation,” says Biggs, a junior psychology major from Benson. “They just aren’t as appreciated as we might think they are or as they used to be. I think you see in other countries that teachers are more widely celebrated and respected.”

The ING Foundation — in the same study that found 88 percent of Americans credit a teacher for having a “significant positive impact” on their lives — also found the same percentage wish they had told their teachers how much they were appreciated for their efforts. Roughly 94 percent agree states could be doing more to recognize good teachers, and overall, the study found teachers receive less gratitude than social workers, nurses, clergy and doctors.

“It’s interesting, because we talked to a lot of principals, and they agreed that teachers were underappreciated, but they also felt like that was out of their hands,” Roope says. “For things teachers are looking for [better pay, better support], they’d say that needs to come from someone higher up. But when we asked the next person up, they’d say the same thing. So where does it all start? Who is responsible for supporting our teachers?”

When Lunsford, Castillo-Clark and their team of professors and students set out to conduct their research, the goal was simple: Address North Carolina’s teacher attrition problem — particularly in rural districts — and get to the heart of why teachers are leaving for other schools or leaving the profession altogether. “We saw trends, but we didn’t know enough,” Lunsford says, “so we thought it would be interesting to get out and actually talk to the teachers.”

“Campbell University is a teaching institution,” she adds, “but we [as professors] are also scholarly active. This study is a nice example of applied scholarship with an interdisciplinary team, which is something I think Campbell truly values.”

Dr. Chris Godwin, assistant dean and chair of Professional Education,  adds that the program at Campbell places “value add” on faculty “teaching future teachers applicable skills and research-based pedagogies in ways which move these skill sets from theoretical research to actual classroom practice as students teach real “humans.”

Their work will really begin when the study is complete. Lunsford says her team is working with the state’s Department of Public Instruction to not only gather data, but share their findings. They plan to attend the North Carolina Association of School Administrators’ Conference on Educational Leadership in Wilmington in March to strengthen their partnership with that group and advocate for teacher support.

From left: Associate Professor and Director of the Teaching Scholars Academy Dr. Terrie Hampton-Jones, student research assistants Jeannie Biggs and Rebecca Roope and Dr. Laura Lunsford have spent the last five months researching rural school districts throughout North Carolina to address high teacher attrition rates in those areas.


An immediate effect from the study is already visible in classrooms at Campbell’s School of Education & Human Sciences. According to Godwin, the biggest hurdle in teaching right now is “erasing” the learning loss which occurred across the board among students during the pandemic.

“Educator preparation programs have had to strengthen training in literacy and mathematics to address these learning losses and prepare preservice teachers in understanding how to scaffold instruction based upon the learner’s readiness,” Godwin says. “School districts across the state are creating more pathways and support programs to address teacher recruitment and retention efforts. Based on recent data, North Carolina is making gains in addressing our students’ learning losses due to the pandemic.”

Dr. Alfred Bryan, dean for the School of Education & Human Sciences, says Campbell professors in the program have learned to be flexible in their approach to training future teachers. 

“We put a lot of focus into our traditional undergraduate teacher education candidates but have expanded our efforts to include residency and MAT students,” he says. “These candidates have college degrees and return to add licensure.”

Castillo-Clark says courses at Campbell are preparing teachers for a post-COVID career in the field by focusing on social emotional learning and other areas — outside of just “teaching” — so the surprises of the profession are kept to a minimum. But the study, she says, could also mean modifying current courses based on their findings.

“Teachers are saying they could be better prepared, so we have to look at how this impacts what we’re doing at the teacher preparation level and how we can modify what we do to meet those demands,” she says. “Because these post-pandemic trends, they’re not going away.”

The numbers currently aren’t telling a positive story, and they — combined with the divided political climate and clashing views on public education in the state — were bad enough for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to declare a “state of emergency” for public education in 2023.

But for the professors and students involved in the research at Campbell University, there is a unanimous optimistic outlook. Castillo-Clark learned a new phrase at a recent conference she attended that she’s kept with her throughout the study — “COVID keeps.”

“They’re not always easy to see, but there were silver linings to the pandemic when it comes to education,” she says. “It’s helped shine a spotlight on the workplace demands of our teachers. Now, we are talking about it. It’s important to have these conversations so we can change how we prepare teachers to meet those demands and impart real change.”

Learn more about the study here.