Each time I think about the upcoming school year, the excitement and eager anticipation I feel is accompanied by a deep awareness of the uphill battle it has been to make it this far. Though only 1 in 10 students from low-income households graduates from college, this time next year, I will be wearing a Carolina blue cap and gown and receiving a bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences.
This accomplishment will be equally a product of my and my parents’ efforts and of the hard work of the teachers who helped me every step of the way. From my seventh-grade teacher who encouraged me to apply to one of the top educational programs in New York, to all of the educators who did their part to ensure that I was ready for college, teachers have been a crucial part of my success.
We have all had teachers who’ve exposed us to the wonder of reading, math, science or art. Teachers give us the tools we need to make our contribution to the world, and there are very few careers that are so inextricably linked to the future of our society. However, while we readily admit that to teach is to lay the foundation for generations to come, this understanding does not translate into teacher compensation, especially in North Carolina.
In this state, frozen teacher pay has caused North Carolina to lag behind with a teacher pay ranking of 46th in the nation. This is not only bad news for teachers, it also is bad news for the entire state. This past year, 15 percent of North Carolina teachers left to teach elsewhere, such as in Virginia and Tennessee, where they have the opportunity to earn a living salary.
Furthermore, there is no one to fill these empty seats, as very few teachers can be recruited to work somewhere where they will be paid so little. For those who do manage to stick it out, almost one-third are forced to hold second jobs in order to support themselves and their families.
I would like to add my voice to the others all over the state pushing for the General Assembly to revamp our teacher career ladder. Teachers should be paid in a way that reflects the dignity and difficulty of their work. Through their work preparing students to succeed, they have built the career ladders that each of us, including General Assembly members, are standing on. It’s time for us to repair theirs.
Let me be clear. This is not just a call for a desperately needed pay raise. We also need to give teachers opportunities to grow in their field. The clear opportunities for advancement and professional development that exist in other fields have, for some reason, been denied to teachers. Under the current salary schedule, teachers in North Carolina have a stagnant salary for the first five years of their careers. Moreover, if they stay more than five years, they still see only small, almost negligible, salary increases each year.
Many teachers leave before they even reach the five-year mark, and for those who stay, this “step-and-lane” system does not promote growth at all. Where are the opportunities to take on new roles, become a mentor teacher or collaborate with others? These are features of many other careers that, when applied to teaching, have helped teachers become even better at their craft.
This is for Ms. McRae, Ms. Atkinson, Ms. Griggs, Mr. McMahon, Mr. Scipio, Ms. Isaacs, Mr. Ramsey, Ms. Schwartz, Ms. Morris, Mr. Langford, Mr. Unger, Mr. Weatherspoon, and for teachers everywhere. Thank you for all you have done, and continue to do, to shape the minds of the future.
It’s time for us to show our gratitude starting right here in North Carolina with a career ladder that reflects our appreciation.
Tasia Harris of Chapel Hill is a member of Students for Education Reform-North Carolina.