From their perch at the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Scott Imig and Robert Smith have a prime spot to hear the concerns of N.C. educators. Many have come through their classes on education leadership, policy and teaching practices.
After N.C. lawmakers last year approved a slew of education changes, Imig and Smith heard quite a lot. Those complaints and conversations, plus visits to public schools, provided the impetus for a first-time survey of more than 600 teachers and administrators in N.C. schools published last month called “Listening to Those on the Front Lines.”
The results aren’t all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention to educators over the last several months. To say that many of the actions the Republican-controlled legislature took last year, and that GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed, have been unpopular with teachers is an understatement. And the displeasure has been nonpartisan, with educators all along the ideological spectrum expressing indignation.
Chief among the complaints is lawmakers’ failure – once again – to boost pay for teachers. That decision has left N.C. teacher pay at a shameful 46th among the 50 states (48th by a National Education Association ranking). N.C. teachers can make $10,000 more annually by teaching in neighboring Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, wrote former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt recently.
Taking that across-the-state-border trek is what some N.C. teachers are doing, the two professors noted. Said Imig this week when I called to talk about the survey: “We’re (in Wilmington) on the South Carolina border, so we’re hearing about people looking for jobs in South Carolina. If you look at places like New Hanover or Brunswick, they’re already losing teachers to South Carolina. I imagine if you looked at the northern counties, they’re facing the same issue with Virginia.”
Coupled with other legislative acts including ending teacher tenure, allowing contracts and raises for only 25 percent of the workforce, abolishing compensation for earning a graduate degree, implementing a voucher program and removing class size limits, the lack of a pay raise sent a message to educators, Smith said – not a good one. That message? “A lack of respect for public schools,” he said.
Many educators take particular umbrage at the decision to end tenure and replace it with a plan giving pay and longer-term contracts to just 25 percent of teachers that administrators deem the most effective. “To say that only 25 percent of teachers in a building are effective or working hard is a slap in the face to the other 75 percent,” Imig said. “Quite honestly, from our experience, the vast majority of teachers work extremely hard for their students. They are effective.”
Smith said the survey showed the “overwhelming sense of teachers feeling they were left out of the conversation about teaching and public schools. It wasn’t just 50 percent of those who responded. In many cases, it was 90 percent. It showed various degrees of being demoralized by the decisions that had been made. I didn’t realize the extent of how those changes were impacting teachers.”
The comments of respondents drive home that impact. Here’s a sampling:
“It makes no logical sense to try and further my own education if I teach in NC.”
“I am [getting] out of the classroom. I cannot raise a family in a career with no support, no funding, and all this stress.”
“Education in North Carolina is broken. What incentive are we providing our teachers to continue to learn and what message does that send students?”
“I am a young teacher... I have done very well so far... But I am very discouraged by the changes being made. Teaching used to be a career of distinction; teachers were respected. That is not the case anymore.”
“GOOD companies don’t run their businesses this way. Google doesn’t do this. GE doesn’t do this. Know what would make me a better teacher? $10,000 a year extra so I wouldn’t have to have 2-3 jobs.”
“Teacher morale is low at my high school. We had the highest turnover record since I’ve been here with 35 positions changing. The best teachers I know are leaving. I am leaving.”
Imig and Smith say some lawmakers have inquired about and asked for copies of their survey – and they find that encouraging. They say the survey results – with more than 96 percent saying the state is headed in the wrong direction on public education – are a “wake up call” not just for lawmakers but for parents, business people and the rest of us. People would certainly pay attention “if 90 percent of doctors or 90 percent of architects” expressed such concerns about the state of their professions, they noted.
Good analogy. Ignoring educators on this issue could bring disastrous results – just as it could by ignoring doctors about the practice of medicine and architects about the design of buildings.
In the short legislative session this year, lawmakers should take time to “listen to those on the front lines” of education. This survey shows why.
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