There is no other way to say it, a Public school teachers matter. Tremendously.
All teachers impart information and knowledge. The good ones empower their students to become lifelong learners and to seek and value education. The really gifted ones can and do turn students in their tracks, set them on courses that will shape their lives and show them how to be moral, loving and productive people. All of us have had these teachers, and I will forever have a sweet place in my heart for them, especially those who helped grow the Precious Jewels into the young adults they have become.
Something else needs to be said as well.
In recent years, North Carolina has treated her public school educators with no respect and with little courtesy. We barely pay lip service to the work they do, and we certainly do not pay them enough to support themselves, much less a family. Once at the national average in teacher pay in the mid-2000s, the National Education Association now ranks our state 42nd in the nation and 46th in per pupil spending. Said another way, North Carolina’s teacher pay has changed more than any other state’s — and in the wrong direction. I have seen teachers I know moonlighting as store clerks and restaurant servers to make ends meet.
As Aretha Franklin might say this hardly spells R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
The North Carolina General Assembly continues to wrangle over a 2015-2016 budget with no end in sight. Among the bones of contention is a Senate proposal to do away with 8,500 teaching assistants in the early grades. The idea is to use the savings — i.e., the money that used to be teaching assistants’ salaries — to hire more teachers and reduce class size for the youngest students. If the General Assembly decides to cut those 8,500 teacher assistants loose, it will be the largest layoff in North Carolina history, public or private, and will surely cause economic ripples in communities throughout our state, especially in smaller, more rural areas still suffering from the Great Recession.
If you still might think that sounds like a reasonable plan, consider that there might not be enough classroom space or teachers to fill those new positions. Institutions of higher learning report a drop in students planning to go into teaching in North Carolina, so the notion of more but smaller classes for little ones is suspect, at best. Hmmm, I wonder if that could have anything to do with low pay, stressful working conditions and the demise of teacher tenure?
Wake County recently experienced another sort of teacher dissing. Teachers from a Raleigh elementary school had been volunteering — yes, using their own time and resources — to take books into apartment complexes, often ones with low-income and Spanish-speaking families, to read to and with children over the summer. The children loved the special attention, and all was well until the apartment complex owners tried to pull the plug on the program, saying the volunteers had not been screened. Well, they had been screened by Wake County Public Schools, and public blowback was so swift and strong that the apartment folks caved. Reading is happily underway again, but you get the point.
Education in North Carolina has hit a period of great flux. Independent, or private, schools are popping up everywhere, and charters, a loosely-regulated form of public school, are growing rapidly now that the General Assembly has allowed more and more of them. Each of us can decide for ourselves whether we agree with critics who say all this change constitutes a plan to dismantle public education, but an argument for that position can certainly be made.
It seems to me that we need our public schools and the teachers who populate them more than ever. As our society becomes more diverse and more secular, we as a people have fewer experiences in common. Public schools have been the glue that holds us together, the glue that constitutes the American experience from early childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood. Almost all of us attend public schools for at least some of our educations, and I find it sad that this almost universal American experience is becoming — less universal.
We in North Carolina talk a good game about respecting our teachers as professionals. That is all it is. We do not compensate them like professionals nor do we treat them that way. We have entered a time where what everyone’s mother warned is coming true.
We are getting exactly what we are paying for, and in this case, that cannot be a good thing.