Asheville Middle School teacher Chris Gable has spent the last decade becoming a fixture in this mountain town. Not only has he taught social studies and language arts to hundreds of its students, he also coaches young writers and budding poets, giving them the confidence they need to keep putting pen to paper.
Gable is not just a good teacher, he’s a great one—he outperformed all of his peers in his school this year as the only teacher to have exceeded expected growth in all categories.
Well-respected in Asheville for bringing this town’s children along on a path toward success, a parent even attested to his skill in making language arts interesting for students in a letter published here in the News & Observer.
Yet Gable, whose low salary qualifies his family for Medicaid and food assistance, finds himself on a path toward financial ruin, in spite of his education and hard work.
“I feel guilty,” said Gable, who is quitting his job on November 26 and leaving his beloved Asheville for a more promising financial future teaching in Columbus, Ohio. There, he figures he’ll make close to $30,000 more than his current salary, which is $38,000 for ten years’ experience and a master’s degree.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from parents and peers about the fact that I am leaving. I want to continue to serve this community, but the state legislature has made it impossible,” Gable said.
The path toward North Carolina
More than ten years ago, Chris Gable and his wife were doing a lot of research about the best place for them to settle down and raise a family. But when they stumbled on Asheville, they fell in love with it immediately and decided they would aim to move there once Gable finished his master’s degree from Millersville University’s teacher’s college just outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Gable tried for three years to land a job in Asheville while he substitute taught and cleaned windows in Pennsylvania. Just when he was about to give up and take a teaching job in the Florida Keys, Asheville Middle School called.
Realizing their dream had finally materialized, Gable pulled out of the Florida job and he and his wife packed their belongings to move to North Carolina.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Gable, “to work at such a unique school, in that we serve a very diverse population.” Asheville Middle School is roughly 54 percent white, 32 percent African-American, 7 percent Hispanic and 7 percent “Other” – either Asian, American Indian, or identifying as two or more ethnicities.
“It’s a real contrast in the classroom, because I serve at the two opposite ends of the economic spectrum. I have kids who have spent their summers in Europe, and other kids who don’t have indoor plumbing, who woke up on the floor that morning, or who are homeless,” said Gable.
“I serve those two groups and not a lot in between. It’s been a real learning experience figuring out how to adequately serve those two groups of children.”
From the start of his teaching career, Gable says he was totally overwhelmed with the amount of work he was asked to do. For the first couple of years he regularly put in 12- to 14-hour days, leaving him emotionally and even physically burnt out. One night he landed in the emergency room with a bronchial infection that wouldn’t go away.
Gable’s teaching friends in Pennsylvania and Ohio are shocked to learn the things he and his colleagues are asked to do. Each week, Gable serves as a bookkeeper, counselor, gym teacher, lunchroom supervisor, and in other roles in addition to his primary duties that involve teaching and grading papers.
“We’re asked to do a lot of things wouldn’t have to do, I think, if we had union representation,” said Gable.
“So eventually, I learned to moderate,” said Gable. “Someone told me ‘you’ll never be caught up, only varying degrees of being behind.’ I learned to prioritize, and over time I was able to adapt.”
Impacts outside of the classroom
“When I first landed the job in Asheville, we almost didn’t come because I learned that to get health insurance for my wife, it would cost more than $500 a month,” said Gable.
Now that monthly premium stands at more than $600 a month, and during the last ten years Gable’s wife has never had health insurance. The couple pays for her health expenses out of pocket, which has meant accruing a lot of debt for medical bills.
“We’ve had to pay for thousands in medical expenses, even for myself, because our insurance is so shoddy,” said Gable.
Because the couple loved Asheville so much, they decided they would make the sacrifice and pay for her medical expenses out of pocket –and in order to make this feasible, Gable decided he would clean windows after school and on weekends.
“I cleaned windows my first year here, then I started my own window cleaning business,” said Gable. “I do that full time in the summer, and during the school year, I’ll do small jobs after school and bigger jobs on the weekends, just to make ends meet.”
Then five years ago, the Gables decided to have a child.
“I realized that it wasn’t quite enough,” said Gable. “My wife was working when we first moved here, but when our son was born, we realized daycare costs would exceed her income, so she had to stop working.”
Then, two years ago, the Gables got a surprise: twins. “Since then, we have been bleeding money every month, even with me working outside of school. I can’t work enough hours to make ends meet. We’ve burned through thousands in savings and have nothing to fall back on,” said Gable.
Student loan debt is another burden, to the tune of $20,000. Gable can only make the minimum payments and he believes he is not eligible for any forgiveness programs since he doesn’t teach at a Title I school, among other criteria.
During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers decided to keep teachers’ pay frozen. Teachers haven’t received a meaningful raise for the last seven years. They did receive a 1.2 percent raise in 2010, but that’s been offset by the rise in health care premiums.
Lawmakers also enacted a raft of other changes, including eliminating master’s degree supplemental pay (but grandfathering in current degree holders), stripping teachers of tenure, and dramatically underfunding instructional supplies and teacher assistants, to name a few.
“My wife’s family is in Ohio, and we’ve been researching the pay for teachers up there. I’ve applied to ten school districts in the Columbus area that pay at least $65,000 per year based on my qualifications,” said Gable.
Gable decided to submit his resignation to Asheville Middle School and his last day will be November 26, after which he will pack up his family and move to Columbus.
“I’ll clean windows until I can secure a position in one of the school districts in that area,” Gable said.
Stories of teachers leaving North Carolina because they can no longer afford to teach here have been cropping up with increased frequency during the past several months.
National Superintendent of the Year and State Board of Education advisor Mark Edwards has a daughter who recently completed a teaching degree in North Carolina. She didn’t even try to teach here, instead leaving the state for Tennessee where she earns around $11,000 more than a teacher starting out in North Carolina.
NC Policy Watch is currently running a feature called “Your Soapbox,” where educators can tell their stories about what’s happening inside the classroom and how they are dealing with the effects of budget cuts, testing, and low salaries.
Gable wants to be clear about who has forced him to abandon his home.
“It’s not my kids or the school district—it’s the state,” said Gable. “The people who are making decisions in the legislature have made it clear they don’t value teachers and have made a situation where many people just like me–who are seasoned, quality teachers—leave.”
“The legislature has forced us to leave. And it really saddens me.”
Questions? Comments? You can reach education reporter Lindsay Wagner at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]