In this season of extending gratitude, I fear that an important group in true need of help and encouragement will be ignored: North Carolina public school teachers. Recent polls reflect much bipartisan support for treating them better. While the majority remains quiet, our North Carolina teachers are being bombarded with signals that they are not valued.
We have let teacher pay fall below the level of respected professionals. After years of no raises, the average teacher salary in NC is $10,000 below the national average. Gap store managers make over $56,000. It takes an N.C. teacher more than 15 years to get to $40,000. Most of the teachers at my son’s middle school work at least one extra job in order to make ends meet.
Recent legislation has taken the few perks that made such low pay bearable. Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for earning a graduate degree was eliminated. We required schools to adopt the new Common Core Curriculum in the same year we slashed their text budgets. Some legislators have made it clear they want to gut the state’s education infrastructure. But those fringe voices do not represent the majority of us. They are not the North Carolina I know and love.
If we stand up for our teachers and let them know we have their backs, they may choose to stay. They may give us a year or two to turn things around.
We pay a lot to the state in tax dollars, and we should ask our representatives to take that money and pay our teachers first. They will act if we show them our bipartisan support for public education. A nonpartisan survey from October showed that in North Carolina, 76 percent agree that public school teachers are paid too little, 71 percent think we cannot keep the best and most qualified teachers with the current pay scale and 83 percent support increased pay for higher degrees.
Bipartisan support is here, but it won’t lead to change unless we speak out and show that the quality and stature of our teachers matter. Every chance we get, we should consider telling our representatives, “Pay our teachers first!” Whether our representatives are Democratic, Republican or independent, they will more likely act if we tell them teacher support is so important that it will impact our votes.
Let’s remind them that a strong educational infrastructure is good for our economy. Investing in education creates many positive market spillovers. Excellent public schools can be powerful assets in attracting and keeping talented people here. Attracting new companies is good for housing prices and businesses.
But political change takes time. Every day, the media report a story of another amazing teacher lured to another state by much better pay. My son’s amazing science teacher won’t be coming back after Thanksgiving. So if we want to keep talented teachers in our communities, we need to give them reasons to stay now.
Even if a gesture is small, it matters. Small gestures can snowball to transform a community. As this happens in my neighborhood, I am learning the alphabet of gratitude. Culbreth Middle School parents in Chapel Hill held a meeting with teachers to learn about their needs and made an action plan. Thanks to a quick and overwhelming community support system, we are responding. We bought and delivered needed supplies. We are organizing volunteers to cover teacher lunch hours. We held an early morning rally where parents and children held signs and cheered as teachers walked into work.
One math teacher was so moved by this rare sign of recognition, she burst into tears. Our children made a film this morning to support bigger than ever holiday donations in the form of cash and grocery gift cards. Many of our sister schools are also making plans to do more this year.
If you haven’t gotten started, it’s not too late.
My prayer for North Carolina is that we will show our teachers they are valued, recover our reputation for excellence in education and restore our sense of community.
This holiday season, spend time reflecting on the ingredients needed to build a strong child, a responsible citizen and a supportive community. Then dig deep, and open your heart to a teacher.
Deborah Gerhardt, mother to three public schoolchildren, is an assistant professor of law at the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill.