Governor McCrory, I need your help.
I am a teacher educator at UNC-Greensboro, and this semester I have 24 student teachers who are preparing to teach social studies to middle and high schoolers. One of the things that I tell my pre-service teachers is that if a student asks them a really tough question, they should do what they can to find the answer. That is why I need your help.
Over the past six months, I have been repeatedly asked the question, “Why should I stay in North Carolina to teach?” Unfortunately I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer.
Every year, as my pre-service teachers start their internships and see exactly how challenging teaching adolescents can be, I usually get the question “Is teaching really worth it?” Almost every education major asks that question at some point during their studies as they try to reconcile the amount of work and dedication they are observing in the field with their knowledge of the low pay, increasingly disrespectful students and parents, and overall disparagement of the profession that has come to define K-12 education in the United States.
Fortunately, I have become pretty adept at answering that question. I have no difficulty making a case for teaching; as a former high school teacher and a current professor of teacher education, I can attest that teaching is the most rewarding career that one can undertake and that the fulfillment that comes with helping a student achieve his or her potential far exceeds the negative aspects of the profession.
But in response to the recent public education “reforms” enacted by the General Assembly, my current students are asking a different question that has me stumped: why they should stay in North Carolina once they earn their teaching degrees?
As someone who lives, works, and is raising a child in the state, I want to see North Carolina continue to nurture and keep energetic, young teachers in the profession, but I also have a responsibility to my students to give them honest advice. As a consequence, I have been encouraging my students to consider employment in other states once they graduate.
The concerns over public education in North Carolina are hardly confined to my students. Drs. Scott Imig and Robert Smith, researchers at UNC-Wilmington, recently surveyed 600 K-12 teachers and administrators in the state and found that they overwhelmingly disapproved of the recent education policies passed by the state legislature. Perhaps most concerning is that over 74% of those surveyed indicated that they were less likely to continue to work in their current capacity, and 57% stated that they intended to continue working in public education, but in another state.
Of course, it is one thing to make such declarations on a survey; it is another to actually follow through with them. What I am assuming that you and your staff are banking on is that these teachers who have built a life in North Carolina are unlikely to leave. You may very well be right. When I look at my current crop of student teachers, however, the majority of whom are unattached 22-year-olds, I see people who would be more than willing to move elsewhere if it meant better career opportunities.
Their concerns are valid; why should they stay in a state that ranks near the bottom of national pay averages while, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, our neighboring states (SC, TN, KY, and VA) pay, on average, $2,000-$5,000 more? Critics will claim that those average salaries are inflated due to higher pay in urban areas in those states, but one of my former students who relocated from Greensboro to Botetourt, VA (which is nowhere near the Washington, DC suburbs or Richmond) told me that she was “very pleased” with the raise she received simply from crossing the border.
The low salaries would not be as big of an issue had the legislature not also eliminated the automatic pay raise that came with receiving a master’s degree. Again, why would my students choose to stay in a state that does not plan to reward them for improving their professional practice, especially when other states will? The legislature’s decision to eliminate teacher tenure only added insult to injury.
Again, Governor, why should my students stay in North Carolina to teach? As you can see, I am struggling to find an answer.
The only response that I have seen come from your office thus far is your promise to give the top 25% of teachers a $500 raise for the next four years. My students have raised questions about how that top tier of teachers will be chosen and whether those raises will continue after 2018, and again, I don’t have an answer. I am assuming student test scores will play a significant role, but what about those subjects that are not tested or, as is the case with my students, those who teach subjects that do not receive as much attention as math or science? My students are not convinced.
In short, I see no reason to stop telling my students to look for teaching positions in other states, and I have a feeling that more and more pre-service teachers across the state will be looking beyond North Carolina once they graduate. As a North Carolinian, I am concerned that this potential exodus of young talent will hurt the long-term stability of our state, and it reaffirms my belief that the chief beneficiaries of the legislature’s education “reforms” will be our neighboring states.
But I am willing to be convinced otherwise. I welcome your reply—but please hurry; my students hit the job market in May.
Dr. Wayne Journell is an assistant professor and Secondary Social Studies Program Coordinator at UNC-Greensboro.