Point of View

Teacher pay is the easy out when the real education issue is poverty

February 19, 2014 

Experienced teachers want our young professionals to have a raise. In fact, we really believe that all school workers and state employees deserve a raise, but we aren’t willing to let that divide us on what really matters for public education in North Carolina. That’s right. Teacher pay is not the biggest issue in public education in North Carolina – it’s poverty.

All school workers see children walking our halls each day who are not prepared to be there. They may be middle or high school students who don’t have lunch money or school supplies. Some are kindergartners starting their journey into formal education but who don’t know yet how to hold a book facing the right way or recognize the letters in their name. We have students in our classrooms each day who have bigger battles to face than whether they pass the quarterly benchmark test. Some of our students stay at home with an older sibling, cousin or even a neighbor while their parents work extra shifts at low-paying hourly jobs.

Who would have thought that North Carolina’s No. 1 education issue is poverty? Well, school staff members would. We use our own money to buy lunches, pay for field trips and school supplies. We warmly embrace the moms and dads who come in late to conferences because their bosses wouldn’t let them leave without completing just one more task. We listen when parents express frustration and guilt over leaving their child to do their homework with a family friend instead of having time at home to read with them on their own because they work more than one job. We try to enforce consistent and clear expectations while still offering compassion and comfort.

North Carolina’s legislative leaders want the conversations about education to remain around pay because that can be addressed in a relatively quick manner, giving a fraction of our teachers raises. If word got out that real change needs to occur by relieving our communities of poverty, then they’d be in a heap of trouble come November. After recent cuts to Medicaid, unemployment benefits and preschool programs across the state as well as not supporting a raise in the minimum wage, there is not much our legislators and governor can offer to show they have supported North Carolinians suffering in poverty.

And after five years of frozen salary schedules, many state employees in N.C. happen to be part of that population.

Kristen Beller is a fourth-grade teacher in Wake County.

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