Education

Have North Carolina’s teachers reached the boiling point?

LW-1031B

Educators prepare for a walk-in; others seek greener pastures

On Monday, November 4, many teachers and support staff across North Carolina plan to take part in a “walk-in” to encourage a richer dialogue between community members and educators about what is happening in the state’s public schools.

Trish Lowe, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Durant Road Middle School in Wake Forest, won’t be one of them.

That’s because Lowe is leaving the teaching profession tomorrow, November 1.

I have found that the working conditions have become untenable. The needs of our students are so great now, and coupled with no pay raises, we are going backwards financially and professionally,” Lowe told N.C. Policy Watch.

Lowe came to North Carolina seven years ago after having taught in upstate New York for several years. During her time in Wake County Public Schools, she has seen educators overwhelmed with the increasing number of students.

My first year, I taught 120 kids off of a cart that I took from classroom to classroom,” said Lowe. “I have never had fewer than 30 kids at a time in a classroom.”

The veteran teacher said it’s difficult to manage large numbers of students when their abilities cover such a wide range. “The kids needs are so tremendous, and they keep growing and changing. It used to be that 10 percent of our kids had special needs in reading, and now, based on the reading benchmarks that came in this year, we have only 12 students reading on grade level out of 140,” said Lowe.

The workload is never done. I get up at 4:30 in the morning to answer parent emails. The parents laugh at the timestamps on the messages, but I won’t have a free moment to go to the bathroom, let alone email parents during the rest of the day.”

A walk-out turns into a walk-in

Frustrated with state lawmakers’ July decision to underfund public education by $500 million, a few organizers initially planned for Monday, November 4 to be a state-wide teacher walk-out.

Teacher morale has plummeted as they have seen instructional supplies cut to the bone, 4,000 teacher assistant positions eliminated from classrooms across the state, and yet another year in which teachers receive no pay raises.

Educators were looking for a means to express their outrage, and organizers of the walk-out encouraged colleagues across the state to abandon their classrooms in an effort to bring attention to their difficult working conditions.

North Carolina teachers’ contracts, however, prohibit them from striking, and when organizers realized that walking out of the classroom could mean walking out of their jobs, plans changed.

Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, told NC Policy Watch that some of their members met with the walk-out’s organizers to come up with a “walk-in,” something NCAE was already planning for American Education Week, November 18-22.

The idea for the walk-in,” said Ellis, “is for educators to hold a gathering before school, then enter school together in solidarity, and welcome visitors throughout the day as they volunteer their time to see what goes on in the school and learn about the successes and challenges that educators deal with on a day to day basis.”

At the end of the day, educators are encouraged to hold an event that is open to the public to again talk about the successes and challenges they deal with in our schools and how to collectively address those challenges,” said Ellis.

Senate leader Phil Berger and Senator Neal Hunt blasted the NCAE yesterday for organizing a teacher walk-in upon reports that at one school, the PTA plans to provide classroom coverage for teachers who wish to gather with parents from 8am to 9am to discuss concerns.

In a joint statement, Berger and Hunt said:

Schools have a duty to educate and protect our children, not serve as marching grounds for political protests orchestrated by unions. We are deeply disturbed the NCAE is encouraging teachers to turn their backs on their classrooms and leave their students in the care of strangers who may lack formal training and background checks. Things have reached a new low when a teachers’ union is willing to abandon its core responsibility and jeopardize student safety for its own gain.”

According to the full story on Berger’s website, a Raleigh elementary school’s PTA is seeking parent volunteers to provide classroom coverage for one hour before the school day begins. Presumably, those parents will have not undergone criminal background checks.

During the 2013 legislative session, the GOP pushed legislation that would allow public charter schools to avoid conducting criminal background checks during the hiring process of teachers and staff. Ultimately, the bill that was passed required public charter schools’ criminal background check policy to mirror that of the local public school districts’.

Berger and Hunt also voted for the passage of school vouchers, which allows public funds to support private schools that are only required to conduct background checks of the chief administrators of those schools. Private school teachers are not required by state law to undergo background checks.

Greener pastures

Teacher morale is so low and teachers are finally taking it on the chin and getting angry,” said Lowe.

When the economy tanked and we were told we weren’t getting a raise, we thought we are lucky to have a job and we need to do our part and take the hit. We are optimists and thought things would get better.”

Things haven’t gotten better for educators, though. In addition to no meaningful pay raises, increased health insurance premiums and steep funding declines for public education overall, teachers have also lost tenure. Tenure was never a lifetime guarantee of a job, but rather simply a guarantee of due process in the event that a teacher faces allegations of wrongdoing or poor performance. Now teachers will eventually be forced into temporary contracts of one, two or four years in duration, depending on various factors.

And now I have the North Carolina legislature saying that my master’s degree in the field of education is not worth more than a bachelor’s degree,” said Lowe of lawmakers’ recent move to strip teachers of the roughly 10 percent pay increase that is afforded to those with advanced degrees, going forward.

That to me is criminal– I’m thinking of all of those bright eyed kids, ready to go into education, trying to get their master’s degree — what do they do now? They find that it’s a liability both financially and professionally.”

Lowe’s master’s degree ultimately featured prominently in the hiring decision of her new employer. She’s decided to move on to work at the corporate office of Keller Williams Realty, where she will work in training programs sales.

I really love teaching, it’s in my blood. I want to be the one to help make a difference in the lives of kids — but the way this system is set up, we’re just making a negative difference in the lives of children.”

Are you an educator with a story to tell about your working conditions? Head over to Your Soapbox, where we are collecting educators’ stories about working on the front lines of public education in North Carolina.

Questions? Comments? Contact Education Reporter Lindsay Wagner at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com.