Point of View

Watching as NC Republicans shred our social contract with students

February 10, 2014 

I am a public school educator because I know that an excellent public school increases my entire quality of life – and everyone else’s. North Carolina must immediately and drastically reinvest in our education system.

Last year our home was broken into by a recent high school dropout. He took things that had sentimental and irreplaceable value. The property damage and loss, the police work, court time and incarceration costs surrounding this one drop-out’s crimes could have funded several teaching positions. Investing in education is purely selfish for all of us.

My favorite book is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I have taught it so many times that it has become a part of my intellectual landscape. As Atticus says in his closing argument in the trial of Tom Robinson, “I’m no idealist.” His convictions stem from the “living, breathing reality” of his work. It doesn’t matter if your children are in private school or if you have no children. Funding public education fully and properly is not altruism. If children are not educated, they will damage our lives and cost us money.

What we build in our public school classrooms is the social fabric of this country. Not only do we want to prepare students to excel and to tap the skills and minds of generations for their contributions to our world, we also establish that essential bond that is the social contract. Citizens act differently when a social contract is present. If they feel a part of a community, their behavior becomes more constructive and positive, and they complete their educations.0

Public schools and teachers are the ambassadors of the social contract for so many students who lack this sense of belonging at home. We reach across barriers of gender, age, race, socioeconomics, culture and language, and teach the social contract. We engender loyalty and participation by giving respect, opportunity and dignity to children who may or may not get this at home. We do this through personal relationships that show students they are personally known and important to us.

Schools are the gateway to the social contract. We create buy-in to the sense of greater good, to the formula that hard work equals success, to the foundations of rule-following and respect for self and others. When we erode the ability of schools and teachers to provide their end of the social contract, we lose kids, and we all pay.

At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout stands on the Radley porch and looks back at her community from a new perspective. From the porch, she reviews the novel’s events and sees them all again. Scout has witnessed so many things that a child should not.

I am standing on the Radley porch. From here, I look back and see my family move here eight years ago to be part of an American dream where everybody in North Carolina knew that kids and education are what matters. I see my children enter kindergarten and learn to read, taught by one of the professional heroes of my life. I see them grow through the commitment and passion of teacher after teacher. We make it through times tables and on to slope and algebra. I see myself praying these teachers stay as everything gets harder and harder.

I see my teaching husband and I take on more students and duties as our class sizes increase from 20 to over 30 in a few short years. I see us rewrite what we do and retrain ourselves and collaborate with colleagues to adapt to Common Core. I watch as we struggle and take on tutoring, night school teaching and test-question writing to earn money to keep up with bills. I watch my colleagues’ disbelief and shock at feeling deserted, with students looking to us to keep it all going. I cannot protect or comfort them. I feel it, too.

I see myself at the end of a week, exhausted body and soul from trying to keep my students from feeling that the social contract is stretching thinner and thinner. If they sense the desertion, we are all lost. I see a government exploit further the golden character of teachers who put students and greater good above themselves.

What Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers have done is undermine the very social contract we rely on for our well-being. At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Sheriff Heck Tate realizes that he has made mistakes and does something out of character, hoping to make amends. He tells Atticus that if he doesn’t try to fix what has happened, “It would be a sin.”

What Tate does is radical and immediate. McCrory can follow his example. I hope he hasn’t forgotten everything he read in school. It would certainly be a sin.

Alice Verstrat is a National Board-certified English teacher at Garner Magnet High School. In 2006, she and her husband, also a National Board-certified teacher, moved from Istanbul, Turkey, to North Carolina because of the good schools. They are natives of Maine.

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