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On the first day, a teacher at home

By Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

On the afternoon of the first day of school, Kelly Morlacci sits in her south Charlotte living room, and she thinks about the bell. It will be going off in about 20 minutes at Elizabeth Lane Elementary, the school where she taught the past three years. The students, by now, will be exhausted. The teachers, too. “I miss it,” she says.

For 28 years, Morlacci has been a teacher. For 28 first days of school, she’s spent these afternoons with the children, most of them in public middle schools and elementary schools in North Carolina. But earlier this summer, she decided to quit.

She explained why in an Observer letter to the editor this month. It was addressed to N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, and it noted how “bureaucrats” like him made decisions about education that had created a “toxic atmosphere” in schools. She wrote, too, that she had dedicated her career to teaching, and that she enjoyed every minute with her students. But now, that wasn’t enough anymore.

We’ve heard plenty this year about the dangers of an N.C. budget that hurts public education and keeps teacher pay among the lowest in the country. We’ve heard from educators about how good teachers will feel unrewarded, unappreciated, or just plain worn out.

Kelly Morlacci is a good teacher, well-liked by students and their parents. I was one of them, with a son at Elizabeth Lane. I remember Morlacci putting together a book club for fifth-graders two school years ago. She gathered the kids together during lunch time because she loved books and because, as she says now, “the kids are fabulous. They always have answers that surprise you.”

She goes quiet for a moment. “I really miss the kids,” she says.

Ten minutes until the bell. By now, if you’re a teacher, your voice is straining on that first day, Morlacci says. There’s a lot more talking today, a lot more explaining of procedures and checking details like lunch money. “When it’s done, you’re like ‘whew’ – relieved. But excited, too.”

That excitement never went away, not after her first First Day of School, or her 25th. But the days became different the past few years. Lawmakers added five days to the N.C. school calendar. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools added 45 minutes to the elementary school day. There have been new technology programs and new curricula and, of course, new testing introduced. All of which takes time, except teachers weren’t given more of it.

The result: stress. Morlacci says she can count on two hands the number of times a teacher left a meeting at her school crying or screaming. “And Elizabeth Lane is a great school with a great principal,” she says. “That’s the insanity of it – if it’s like this at a good school, imagine...”

Despite all that, Morlacci might not have quit. She is certified to teach gifted students, which is what she did at Elizabeth Lane before being reassigned – as happens regularly – to another CMS school. It gave her the opportunity to evaluate her job, her career, the disconnect in Raleigh. And that, finally, was enough. She now works for a preschool near her home.

This is how it will happen for some of North Carolina’s educators. Not with some great rush for the door, but with people taking an opportunity to evaluate their lives. Some will open their minds to the pull of something new. Some, like Kelly Morlacci, will simply say no more.

Not far from her house, South Mecklenburg High students are streaming from the parking lot. At Elizabeth Lane, the bell is about to go off. Morlacci is talking about the fifth grade, which is when she decided she wanted to be a teacher. Her dad tried to talk her out of it with warnings about hard work and low pay, but she was undeterred. “You go into teaching because you absolutely love it,” she says.

It’s something we’ve counted on for a long time, no? We’ve banked that the joy of teaching would trump the difficulty and pay that come with it. And there are still many out there, Morlacci says, so many great teachers who stay for the love of it. She understands why. “I miss it,” she says again, on the afternoon of the first day of school, at home long before she should be.

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