“It’s time to stop being afraid.”
That was the message delivered by Clara Stiers, a Westlake Middle School counselor speaking at a town hall in Apex on the day educators across North Carolina took part in a “walk-in” to protest cuts to public education made by the General Assembly over the past several years.
Stiers was one of the lead organizers of a march from Middle Creek High School to Westlake Elementary on Monday that culminated in the town hall, in which scores of educators took part to shed light on the difficult working conditions teachers and other school personnel are facing in their public schools.
“I’ve seen morale go way down over the last few years. The way I see it, people are feeling trapped in an abusive relationship,” said Stiers.
Stiers told educators, parents and concerned community members at the town hall that she thinks there is a lot of fear among teachers, especially about losing their jobs–which is a great way to control people. While that may not necessarily be the reason lawmakers are cutting public education, she said, it certainly feels that way—and its time to stop being afraid.
“Today is the beginning.”
A walk-out turns into a walk-in
Monday’s walk-in was originally organized by a handful of frustrated teachers that took to social medial to promote a “walk-out” to protest the cuts made by lawmakers to public education over the past several years, which include slashing funds for instructional supplies and textbooks, eliminating thousands of teacher assistants’ positions, and yet another year of freezing teachers’ pay.
But it became apparent that a walk-out was not a prudent choice given that it would require abandoning students in the classroom, not to mention the fact that North Carolina law prohibits public employees from striking.
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,” an activity that NCAE was already planning for American Education Week, November 18-22.
The walk-in was designed to allow educators to keep the instructional workday undisturbed, instead inviting parents and community members to come to the public schools and hear from educators about their working conditions—and their students’ learning conditions.
Nancy Austin, a social studies teacher at Westlake Middle School in Apex, said that the lack of funding and support for public schools and its effect on classrooms and students compelled her to march for public education today.
“This legislation has put us back ten years,” said Austin. “Teachers haven’t had a raise in years, and I know teachers who have left the state. I’m very concerned for our schools, the state and the profession.”
Kim Price has been teaching at Westlake Middle for 32 years. She says teachers are being dumped on.
“We have lost great educators to businesses that pay their worth. We value what we do and we are very committed – but we have bills to pay too,” said Price.
“My daughter tells me the other students in her teaching program at WCU are already planning to leave the state and find teaching jobs in higher paying places,” said Steirs.
Speaking out at the Capitol
Organizers from Public Schools First NC and the North Carolina Justice Center held a press conference at the State Capitol on the day of the walk-in as a show of support for North Carolina’s 95,000+ teachers and 1.5 million students.
According to a report  released yesterday by the Justice Center that was outlined by its author, Matt Ellinwood, at the press conference, total spending for K-12 education is $563 million less for the current year than it was six years ago when adjusted for inflation.
This equates to $653 fewer dollars per student compared to six years ago and means fewer classroom teachers and assistants, no salary increase for teachers, and slashed funding for textbooks and supplies.
“Teachers are being blamed for the mythical failure of public education,” said Yevonne Brannon, Public Schools First NC, who pointed out to approximately 100 people who came to the event the fact that North Carolina has the highest number of board-certified teachers in the nation and 96 percent of its teachers are rated proficient.
Some educators who came to the press conference to show their support spoke with NC Policy Watch, but would not provide their full names for fear of retaliation.
“I’ve been an educator in North Carolina for 16 years, and I am a mother of two. I want to continue teaching, but I’m at the point where financially, I just can’t afford to do it anymore,” said Julie, a Wake County elementary school teacher.
“If I could speak with lawmakers today, I’d ask them to think about their salaries compared with ours, especially when considering what we do all day,” Julie said. “Could they survive?”
Lisa Geradi, a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Durham, told NC Policy Watch that she is so broke that she started a crowd-funding campaign  to raise money to replace her ailing 21-year old car.
“I want my job to pay me a reasonable salary for what I am doing—teaching, raising, nurturing, and inspiring the future men and women of our communities,” Gerardi said in her story that is posted online  in NC Policy Watch’s Your Soapbox .
“When I see posts on social media that say an average McDonald’s manager makes the same salary as an NC teacher who has been working for 19 years, I feel the profession is really taken for granted,” Gerardi said.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who reportedly said Monday that teachers have “legitimate gripes,” will convene the first meeting of his Teacher Advisory Committee tomorrow afternoon to address some of the issues confronting teachers in the classroom.
Rumors are circulating that lawmakers will propose a pay increase for teachers during the spring 2014 legislative session.
Retired high school teacher Carol Zimmerman, who came out today to support her colleagues currently in the classroom, has something to say to lawmakers if she gets the chance anytime soon.
“You’re in these positions now because of great teachers. Remember that.”
Questions? Comments? Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]