My story as a teacher began in 2007. As luck would have it, I was hired the same year teacher salaries were frozen. In my seven years as an educator, I have never received a step increase. Taking inflation into consideration, I make less today than the day I started.
Even more strangely, I mentor a first-year teacher this year who has his master’s degree. And while he receives increased pay for his master’s degree – as he should – it also means he makes more than I do. But I am a patient person. In fact, all teachers have that in common. You can’t work effectively with children if you lack extra reserves of patience!
So we’ve been patient, and we’ve waited for the economic downturn to right itself. We’ve been patient as we go year after year without the raises originally promised us. We’ve been patient even though our budgets have been slashed and we’re expected to do more with less. We’ve been patient while our class-sizes have grown and our support staff has shrunk.
Not only has our pay remained stagnant, but our job is more difficult. When I began teaching at Culbreth, I taught four classes and had 85 students total. I also had a teacher assistant who came to my second-period class every day to assist me with three students with autism who needed extra support. Our building also had three reading specialists, six teacher assistants, an experienced staff and high morale. Today, I teach 117 students over five classes, and next year is projected to be even larger. I have no teacher assistant help unless I’m giving a test. We are down to just one reading specialist, half the number of teacher assistants, several of our most experienced teachers have left, and morale is the lowest I’ve ever seen. Our ability to teach our students effectively is being diminished, and our patience is waning.
Not only is our patience waning, but our strong sense of fairness also is having a difficult time reconciling what is happening to public education in the state of North Carolina. When I accepted my job as a teacher in 2007, I signed a contract – a contract that said I would receive very modest increases to my salary each year. Considering there are no other avenues for advancement as a classroom teacher, this made sense. Now, having never received the step increases I was promised, I have lost $11,360 in salary.
This year alone, I should make $5,400 more than I do. Without this income, I and many of my colleagues have taken on second jobs or are coaching and tutoring at our schools to fill the void. In fact 70 percent of the staff at my school must supplement their incomes this way to make ends meet. Even then, three staff members at Culbreth qualify for food stamps.
Then we saw the state pass tax breaks for the wealthy and further slash education budgets last year. And we began to realize: This is no longer a matter of patience. The treatment of public education in this state is an injustice. And since we teachers have no ability in this state to organize, and we don’t have enough money or clout to influence legislators, we have no choice but to speak with our feet.
North Carolina teachers are leaving. They are either leaving to teach in another state or leaving education altogether. I recently sent out a survey to the 60 staff members at my school. What I learned was telling. We’ve already lost three experienced teachers during this past school year. We can expect to lose three more. Another 10 staff members are still weighing their options and have not committed to next school year.
And it only gets worse. I asked the staff what they would do if the state doesn’t improve teacher salaries in the next legislative session: 38 percent say they will look for jobs outside of education or in other states. Another 18 percent were undecided. That’s 56 percent of Culbreth’s staff who are not confident they can remain educators in this state if our salaries don’t improve. We are facing a crisis, one that must be addressed, and soon.
I love what I do. But as much as I love it, I also can’t abide, nor can I afford, to be treated so unfairly. I wouldn’t want my students to put up with a bully or settle for less than they deserve, and I don’t want to set a bad example by accepting less for myself. I refuse to leave the job I love until I’m satisfied I have done everything I can to save public education in North Carolina. Educators need residents to stand with us and to make it clear to our legislators that, when it comes to public education, we have high expectations, and we won’t accept less than your best.
Megan Taber is a social studies teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill.