Dwayne Simmons had one thing on his mind as he stood in the blistering heat of First Ward Park: money.
Simmons, a seventh-grade teacher at Ashley Park, spoke with fellow teachers near the entrance of the park Wednesday, as he held a poster that said "Because of teacher pay, ramen noodles are my bae."
Teaching is his passion, he said, but it can be stressful, too, at times, to live paycheck to paycheck.
"We have the power to mold the future," he said. "I know I'm making a difference, so I know the importance of my job. I just wish I could live off of what I get for doing it."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
While thousands of teachers and educators convened at the state Legislature in Raleigh on Wednesday, Simmons joined educators in the Charlotte region who stood in solidarity by having a demonstration of their own. They were all raising awareness for higher pay for teachers and more funding for education.
Several hundred people filled the park in uptown. Many wore a red shirt, some featuring the word "respect" inside an outline of the state. They held signs to express grievances with their daily work. One said, "Teacher (noun): an endangered species," while another simply demanded the state "Make Education Great Again."
Like their counterparts in Raleigh, the educators talked about a clear a path toward achieving their goals.
"We must turn out the vote this fall, and the future of North Carolina schools hinges on this midterm elections," Elena Brown-Richardson, a teacher at Carmel Middle School, told the crowd.
Brown-Richardson helped organize the local gathering when she realized that, despite the desire from many local teachers to travel to the main event in Raleigh, not everyone was capable of attending. The gathering in uptown was a way for those teachers to still have their voices heard, she said.
In a speech, she described the daily stresses of a life in education. The crowd of teachers cheered in agreement, as she spoke of poor learning conditions for students and work for teachers that extends beyond their normal hours. She often works 60-hour weeks when planning and grading is factored in, and doesn't feel the compensation reflects that, she said.
She hoped Wednesday's events would lead to meaningful improvements that would benefit students.
"One of the most important lessons we will teach our students all year might be today, ironically, when we are out of school," she said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was one of at least 42 school districts across the state to close for the day in light of the protests.
An estimated 19,000 people attended the larger demonstration in Raleigh, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. It's the largest organized political action by teachers in the state's history.
The protest comes after recent teacher strikes and walkouts in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Sherrie Dame, who helps tutor small groups of students at a school in Mooresville, doesn't have her pay funded through the state like other teachers. Instead, she said she was mostly at the rally to support educators like the ones who teach her children.
Dame brought her kids to the protest to show them how teachers are raising an issue on their behalf.
"It's wonderful," she said. "For them to see their teachers and the people in their community out advocating for them and to make positive changes in their community, I don't think there's a better lesson that they could learn."