Standing up for my students at ‘Moral Monday’

June 22, 2013 

As a public school teacher in North Carolina who is grounded in and devoted to my community, engaging in civil disobedience at this past “Moral Monday” was just one more step in standing up for the future of my students.

In my seven years in Durham’s public schools, I have learned a lot about what it really means to stand up for students. When I came out of college straight into teaching, I believed that teaching English was going to be about, well, teaching English. I thought that my task was to impart in my students a love of, or at least a less fervent dislike for, Shakespeare and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Within a few short weeks I learned how mistaken I was. Sure, there was still room for Boo and the Bard, but teaching was really about providing stability, respect, and compassion to teenagers desperate to learn in a system that was failing them.

It was about talking to K about why he shouldn’t drop out. It was about visiting J in the hospital after her miscarriage. It was about tutoring 15-year-old T so he could move past a fifth grade reading level.

Because that was what my students needed, that’s what teaching became for me. It is what teaching means for thousands of teachers, counselors, teaching assistants and other public school workers across the state, as we prepare our students for successful futures, not just academically, but in every way.

We work long past our salaried hours to create instruction that challenges our students to grow as critical thinkers. We advise clubs where our students can express themselves. We coach sports to promote health and self-discipline. We counsel the crying, laugh with the happy, protect the bullied and motivate the discouraged.

We do all this not for professional gain but because we firmly believe that these children are worth everything we can give them. We do it because what we teachers want is no different than what our students need.

What the General Assembly wants, however, is in stark contrast to what the children of North Carolina need. In their pursuit to destroy public education through funding cuts, school vouchers that favor private companies and the elimination of master’s degree pay, the legislature shows how little it cares about the quality and longevity of those educating our kids.

I am a seventh-year teacher whose pay is frozen at the second-year rung of the pay scale, in the state with the fourth-worst teacher pay in the country. I have seen dozens of other successful teachers move on to other professions or other states so they could sustain themselves and their families. My students regularly ask new teachers “will you be here next year?” because they have grown accustomed to the high turnover rates that plague our schools.

And it’s not just education legislation that is bent on destroying our most vulnerable communities through persistent instability. The General Assembly is curbing voting rights, letting unemployment benefits expire and repealing the Racial Justice Act, all while giving tax breaks to corporate giants.

My students aren’t naïve. They know that their communities are being marginalized. Last year, a student at our school was murdered. In the weeks that followed, my students and I cried out in anguish and anger and asked the toughest questions one could imagine: Why did this student end up where he was? What could any of us have done? How can we keep this from happening again?

Our teenagers know to ask these critical questions, but the leaders in Raleigh have failed to ask them: How do we make sure justice is served for all North Carolinians? How do we transform struggling communities into havens of health and stability? My students create solutions, like organizing a march to the early voting polls and a memorial for their classmate. Meanwhile, politicians ignore humanity and count campaign contributions.

Next school year, as I always have in the past, I will tell my students every day that they are important and loved.

What I wish I could tell them is that the people in power agreed – that our General Assembly believes in their futures just like I do. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to do that. I will get to tell them, however, that thousands of North Carolinians testified to their worth during the “Moral Mondays,” and that a movement that believes in them is growing.

This movement is not the work of “outside agitators,” as the governor believes, but the best and bravest that our state has to offer. It’s a movement led by and fighting for the well-being of 9.7 million insiders – the people of North Carolina who desire a healthy, sustainable future in our state for generations to come.

Holly Jordan is a National Board Certified Teacher who lives in Durham. For the past seven years, she has taught English in Durham Public Schools.

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