On Wednesday, May 16, teachers joined their colleagues from across the state in Raleigh for what is being called “the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators estimates that up to 30,000 people participated in the March for Students and Rally for Respect. Dressed in #red4red and carrying signs that ranged from humorous to poignant, they painted an impressive picture marching from NCAE’s headquarters toward the state legislature.
On the first day of this year’s legislative session, these teachers convened in Raleigh to demand that their elected representatives take numerous measures to improve teaching and learning conditions in the state of North Carolina. Although a Republican-led North Carolina legislature points to increased education funding and five straight years of raises for teachers, North Carolina remains 37th in the nation in teacher pay and 39th in terms of per-pupil spending.
“The state is spending $9,528 per student compared with the U.S. average of $11,934,” says Highland Elementary School Counselor Tracy Schledorn. “This increase could cover increased support personnel (nurses, social workers, psychologist, counselors), decreased class size, increased teacher assistants, and restoration/construction/security of our buildings.”
“We spend more to house inmates than we do funding our students’ education,” adds Crown Point Elementary Teacher Marybeth Kubinski.
“Our students deserve more” continues Schledorn. “As a new mother, and someone who holds education invaluable, I want more for my daughter. I don’t want to have to consider moving to another state so she can be provided with a well-funded education.
NCAE is asking its state legislators to bring North Carolina’s teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures to the national average over the next four years, and to cease corporate tax cuts until these two measures are accomplished.
One of NCAE’s most talked-about and controversial demands is their appeal to raise teacher salaries. In March of 2018, the state’s education department claimed that average teacher pay had reached $51,214; however, many teachers seem to find that number laughable, and it’s difficult to find many teachers who earn that amount on a pay scale that maxes out at $51,300 with 25 years of experience.
“Raising teaching salaries would help encourage the best and brightest to become teachers,” says Queen’s Grant Latin Teacher Bennett Henkel. “Teachers are one of the few salaried positions not eligible for overtime. All salaries should raise over time to adjust with inflation.”
“Why is treating professional educators as professionals an issue of greed?” questions Schledorn. “We are educating your children! Why would you NOT want to attract the most qualified and best trained? The number of people coming into education programs is alarmingly low.”
“I currently know over twenty personal friends and colleagues who have part-time jobs, in addition to teaching, to support their families,” says Northeast Middle School Teacher Assistant Heather Pipkin. “These are people who are professionals in their field, all with college degrees and some with a Master’s degree. No teacher is expecting to be rich in this field of work. Every teacher knows we do not do this for the money. We do, however, want to be able to have a decent salary that is comparable to the rest of the nation.”
In addition to raises that bring teacher salaries in line with the national average and the current cost of living, teachers are requesting various other measure to improve working conditions: reinstatement of masters and doctoral pay, longevity pay, and career status; lunch and planning time free of additional duties and student supervision; improved options for affordable health insurance; and protected pensions and healthcare for current and future educators.
“The reason I left my own classroom as a teacher and became a teacher’s assistant, is because of the amount of time I had to put in outside of teaching hours at my previous school,” says Pipkin, who is a new mom. “I worked a minimum of sixty hours a week working on grades, displaying artwork, collecting portfolios, working on drama sets, lesson planning,leading the school’s art club and more! I knew this was not a path I could continue down and still have time for my own family.”
The march was about much more than money for teachers. In fact, for many teachers, other goals took precedence. “My main goal is to let the General Assembly know that teachers have a voice,” says Henkel. “A pay raise is not my main goal but making sure every student, whether at a county public or charter, is given the resources needed to succeed.”
“Public schools are expected to provide more with increasingly less,” says Scheldorn, who serves as 504 Committee Chair, Student Council co-advisor and Hawk of the Month Coordinator in addition to her paid position as school counselor. “Our current enrollment is 740 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, but we are preparing for at least two more classes next year. I am the only school counselor while the ASCA recommended ratio is 1:250. Most days, I eat lunch while working with a student or in a meeting. I spend hundreds each year on books, supplies, professional development, and student materials. I have no designated planning time and, most days, I do my planning at home. My work week is generally 50-60 hours. Yet, I never feel that I get to dedicate the time I want to to any given task: planning, teaching a lesson in the classroom, parent contact, or student intervention . . . There seems to always be a waiting list; for every need met, another one (or five) take its place.”
“Class size is currently an issue at every school,” says Pipkin. “Students are over crowded into rooms and not able to be given individual attention. Schools are adding trailers as classrooms which come with problems like mold, size constraints, rodents, roaches, flooding – the list is endless.”
“The building in which I work is the newest in our district at only 11 years old,” says Scheldorn. “However, there are constantly mice droppings on tables/desks or mice roaming through the rooms or walls. There are also already leaks and cracks and we are converting workrooms and closets into classrooms because we are beyond capacity. The two buildings before this were built in 1960 and 1950 and are literally falling apart.”
Critics of the rally denounced its timing, chastising teachers who attended for depriving their students of instructional time. Flooded with requests for personal days, at least 42 school districts across the state, including CMS, chose to cancel classes and make the day an optional work day.
Although many GOP leaders dismissed Wednesday’s events as a partisan rally, not all teachers in attendance agreed. “It’s important to my family that we emphasize that education is a bipartisan issue” says Queen’s Grant Drama Teacher and registered Republican Elizabeth Mills, who traveled to Raleigh with her husband and parents. “People who might like to vote Republican can’t because of their choices about education. We should not have to choose between conservative values and education funding.”
Hundreds of educators and supporters unable to travel to Raleigh for the day gathered uptown in First Ward Park. “Our purpose was to unite with those going to Raleigh and show the General Assembly, who’s meeting today for the first day of the 2018 legislative session, that we are united, we have had enough, and we are not going to be underfunded any longer,” says Elena Richardson, who organized the Charlotte Rally. “We are not going to settle for sub-par conditions and sup-bar spending. Our students are suffering. Our teachers are suffering. We’re not going anywhere, and we are going to be showing up in mass numbers to this midterm election in November.”
Those who gathered in both Charlotte and Raleigh are hopeful about their impact and the future of education in North Carolina. “I am optimistic that legislators will see the critical point at which our public schools are,” says Scheldorn, “and that our community sees the needs and holds NCGA accountable through advocacy and the ballot box.”
“I hope our legislators take notice that we are here and we will not remain silent,” says Pipkin. “We have valid needs that should be addressed. I hope the sea of red that comes to Raleigh will remind them of how many people will be looking for a change. Come election time, we will see who has the best interest of our students in mind.”
“Teaching is my passion,” continues Pipkin. “I love watching my students grow and learn. Ask any teacher about the ‘Ah Ha!’ moment. It is the moment that a student who has struggled to grasp a difficult concept finally gets it. The look on their face and change in their demeanor is worth everything. I will never give up on teaching. The only question for the future is will I be teaching in a NC Public School?”