We ask teachers to do a lot in this country. A good friend of mine teaches fourth grade science and history, and he tells me that at the beginning of every year, without fail, he has to go into the boys bathroom and tell the 9-year-olds to not pee in the sink. “Yeah, it’s funny,” he says. “But you just can’t have kids peeing in the sink.”
When some 150 teachers gathered in Raleigh this year to discuss to the future of the profession, these are the kinds of stories they told. Amanda Clapp, an 8th grade teacher in Jackson County, North Carolina, talks about a boy who had planned to drop out of school and take over his father’s hauling business. “My daddy takes out the trash,” he told her. “I’m gonna take out the trash.”
North Carolina’s teachers are tasked with a unique responsibility; We ask them to train our children into adulthood, while also preserving and protecting them from the realities of what has become a complex and embattled education system.
At the Emerging Issues Forum this year (a conference that brings educators, lawmakers and other interested parties together in Raleigh), we sat down with teachers who have been recognized as among the best in their school districts. For some of them, teaching is old-hat - they've been at it for decades. Others are as green as they come. We asked them about some of the issues that have become most contentious in recent years - evaluation, pay, and teachers leaving the profession. Their answers help paint a picture of what life is like inside the classroom, where one morning you might be teaching a student how to tie a tie, and that afternoon you might be having to negotiate next year’s salary.
“Because let’s face it, if you’re the teacher and every day is a grind, and you’re not enjoying the students and the students aren’t enjoying you - Trust me, I don’t care if it's kindergarten or twelfth grade, typically, the teacher knows,”
- Jim Key, assistant superintendent in the Durham Public Schools
Evaluating a teacher is one of the most high-stakes processes in public education. It can have lasting effects on someone’s career, and on the students they are responsible for. It also happens to be one of the most subjective processes in public education.
These are the standards by which teachers are evaluated in the state of North Carolina. In paper form, the checkboxes and comment section alone take up more than 20 pages. Every principal in every public school in the state must fill out one of these forms for every one of the state's 95,000+ teachers. That’s roughly two million pages of evaluations a year.
Dr. Lynne Johnson, Director of Educator Effectiveness for the state of North Carolina says the evaluation processes were developed “as a growth tool. They were not developed as a tool to fire teachers." Ultimately, the state wants to help teachers become better teachers - that’s in everybody’s best interests. And that point isn't lost on teachers. Even those recognized as the state's finest understand the value of constructive criticism.
One bad evaluation isn’t enough to fire a teacher. It takes a few rounds, with the teacher being placed under greater supervision and restrictions each time. Despite the reassurances, teachers are feeling the pressure. There are efforts in the state legislature to tie teacher pay to evaluations and student performance. And many teachers seem to feel that they aren’t evaluated on some of the most important aspects of their jobs.
Given how subjective many feel the evaluation process can be, there's understandable pushback against the idea. Republican state senator Jerry Tillman is chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Education. As much as others in the state say evaluation is not meant to get rid of teachers, Tillman has not been bashful about his ideas about the future of evaluation and teacher pay. He, like many Republican lawmakers, want the two linked.
"I do think that paying the best teachers and the worst teachers all the same is a thing that will phase out," Tillman has said. "I do think that day is coming to an end and it’s probably not very far away. Maybe a year.”
In April, Wake County announced that more than 600 teachers had left their jobs mid-way through the school year. It was a 41% increase over the year before.
Wake County isn’t an anomaly. Last year, statewide, more than 13,000, or 14% of teachers left the profession. That’s about a 2% increase from the year prior.
In terms of percentage, Eastern North Carolina has been hit the hardest. Northampton County schools lost more than one-third of their teachers last year, with neighboring Halifax County schools losing almost as many.
It’s possible there are any number of reasons this is happening. The economy is getting better, meaning older teachers may finally feel more comfortable retiring, for example.
But when you talk to teachers, there's one issue that comes up consistently: Pay.
North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay. That’s down from 25th six years ago. In that same time, teachers have gotten only one across-the-board raise.
Looking at the reasons why teachers are leaving the profession, it’s clear that they are not being terminated as many feared would be the case with more stringent evaluations and the erosion of career status. What’s also clear is that whether out of convenience or necessity, teachers are choosing to leave.
It's also worth noting the concern that there are fewer teachers entering the profession. The UNC system is responsible for training about one-third of new teachers through four-year education programs. It's the state's largest source for new teachers. But enrollment is down. At NC State, 97 students enrolled in the School of Education this past year. That's down from 122 the year prior. So with fewer educators entering the pipeline, and more and more leaving, what do you do?
In some ways, things might be changing.
The week we spoke with these teachers, Governor Pat McCrory proposed increasing the starting salary for first year teachers by 14-percent over the next two years. That would bring base pay up to $35,000.
Just ahead of the legislative session in May, the Governor proposed another pay increase -- an average 2-percent for most teachers, plus $1,000 for every state employee. Even State Treasurer, Janet Cowell, got in on the teacher-pay action, saying she had found money in her department to cover the cost of raising salaries.
For their part, lawmakers are also considering across-the-board pay raises (but they could come at the expense of teacher assistant jobs and with the caveat of having to give up job protections.)
Teachers don't seem convinced. It's an election year, and so a lot of promises are made without a clear path towards fulfilling them.
In an email exchange with state senator David Curtis, Sarah Wiles, a science teacher in Charlotte/Mecklenburg said she's tired of being used as political capital.
"I am also sick and tired of politicians making my profession the center of attention and paying it lip-service by visiting a school, kneeling next to a child, shaking my hand and thanking me," Wiles wrote. "...telling the nightly news that I deserve a raise, and then proceeding to speak through the budget that I am not worth it."
The senator's response? A multi-point retort, highlighting the benefits of teaching in the Tar Heel state.
"I support the teacher pay raise but am very concerned that the teachers union has successfully presented to the public a deceptive view of total teacher compensation that is simply not consistent with the facts," wrote Curtis. Essentially saying, teachers don't have it as bad as a lot of people think.
So this is where we are: a fundamental difference of opinion on a problem everyone could benefit from by solving. Teachers feel they deserve more: those in charge want them to prove they deserve it.
There's no question that the education profession is changing dramatically. And change is almost always tough. The question before us now is; How tough does it need to be, and how tough is it actually going to be?