When teachers gathered in Raleigh on a cold January morning to protest a controversial class-size cap, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox joined them.
When thousands of CMS teachers filed for leave to attend a May “Rally for Respect” at the state capital, Wilcox closed schools and told teachers “I encourage you to stand tall.”
Now that North Carolina teachers are talking about forming a Teacher Congress to address grievances with the General Assembly, Wilcox has this to say: “There’s strength in numbers and there’s strength in a unified voice. I’m hopeful that our politicians and others will listen.”
In his first year leading North Carolina’s second-largest district, some teachers in Charlotte and across the state have come to see Wilcox as their advocate.
“From what I’ve seen he’s really a teacher at heart,” said Justin Parmenter, a CMS teacher who credits the superintendent for allowing people like him to speak up on public policy.
Their support may be put to the test in the coming year, as Wilcox talks about pursuing strategies that raise hackles among some educators.
For starters, he told principals in June that he wants to start talking about ways to move successful teachers into schools where students are struggling.
“Is it right that one school with a … magnetic principal has all the best teachers? Or should we take a look at some teacher outcomes and say, ‘You’ve earned the opportunity to work with kids who are perhaps a little less high performing’?’’ Wilcox said at a June 21 leadership meeting. “And that starts to get people right where they live, right? But maybe it’s time that we begin to think about that.”
Over the years CMS has tried a number of incentives, including hefty bonuses and the opportunity for principals to recruit teacher teams, to entice top performers to struggling schools. Previous superintendents have broached the topic of mandatory transfers, but the school board has always said no. In a district that routinely loses more than 1,000 teachers a year and competes with private, charter and neighboring district schools, the fear is that unwanted transfers would simply drive off the best of CMS.
In an Observer interview after his speech to principals, Wilcox said he’s not ready to roll out specifics on how to move teachers. Ideally, he said, teachers would be persuaded that a change is in their own best interest.
Wilcox is also talking about setting tighter controls over what is taught at each school and in each grade level to ensure that all students get the same rigorous instruction. And he warned principals not to tolerate teachers who write off the most difficult students or take shortcuts, giving vivid descriptions of teachers who let students sleep, teach rote lessons or rely on movies to fill class time.
“We’re going to take teaching to the level it deserves,” Wilcox said. “We will celebrate our teachers but we will also demand more of our teachers in terms of their interactions with kids.”
Wilcox told principals he will continue the push to reduce suspensions and provide alternatives that keep students in school. While some offenses merit removal, he said, some can be traced to a lack of teacher skill.
“We sometimes think that the way to calm a class down is to get louder than the class, or the way to bring someone back in line who’s cracking up the class is to humiliate them in front of their friends, because as an adult I’m quicker and wittier than Johnny is, who’s 11 years old,” Wilcox said. “And so I talk to Johnny in a way that humiliates him in front of his friends, and then I wonder why Johnny comes back at me, and then I go back at Johnny, and I throw Johnny out of class and say Johnny was insubordinate. You wonder who got what they wanted there.”
Kelly Van Horn, a longtime CMS teacher who left for another district in October, says she supports efforts to provide teachers and students with support to avert suspensions. But she said “reduce suspension” mandates can lead some schools to overlook dangerous behavior.
Wilcox didn’t create that problem, Van Horn said, but she said she was disappointed that he declined to talk with her about her safety concerns.
“How do we make sure it’s a safe school for all students?” Van Horn asked.
Wilcox said he won’t blindside his employees with mandates they don’t understand or haven’t had a voice in.
“I’m more comfortable suggesting change ... then give it time,” he said. “People come in and say ‘We’re going to do this now’ and then the change doesn’t sustain itself.”