Low pay, tenure battle driving teachers out of profession

08/06/2014 12:01 PM

08/06/2014 12:01 PM

It was only his second year as a English teacher at Hillside High School and already he found himself asking, was it worth it?

Jabari Sellars, 27, had entered a profession where teachers hadn’t received a pay raise in years and would soon face the possibility of losing tenure. He worked another job during the summers to make ends meet.

The work load and low pay didn’t add up. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to teach anymore, something he loved.

Eventually he decided to remain a teacher, but not for a North Carolina public school system.

“It became a matter of deciding whether or not I wanted to support my students in the form of buying more supplies or how much food I (was) going to have for groceries, and it just became too much,” Sellars said. “I had to make the decision that if I (was) going to stay in teaching, if this is my career ... I needed to go elsewhere.”

He wanted to go to a school system that didn’t evaluate teaching based on test scores, he said. A friend in Washington D.C. recommended he look for a job there, so he did.

“It became so stifling as an educator seeing my kids feel as if they were going through the motions, doing exercises they were familiar with since third grade,” Sellars said. “It became very disturbing.”

He found Maret School, a private school with about 635 students in grades K-12.

“The moment I heard from another school that ‘standardized test’ was almost this taboo word and instead the onus was on the teacher to develop proper assessments that allow students to flourish and express who they are, I was sold.”

Sellars will teach eighth-grade English at Maret School.

Significant loss of teachers

The number of teachers leaving the Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has escalated in the past three years.

CHCCS has seen the biggest increase. From March 2012 March 2013, 165 teachers left the district. According to district numbers, from July 2013-July 2014, 424 teachers left the CHCCS district.

“Teacher turnover is the highest it’s been in a decade,” said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent of support services. “Several teachers are leaving the professions to go work in other industries. Some left mid year and left the state to go to other states where pay is more competitive. It makes it very very difficult.”

Dianne Jackson, a media coordinator at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill, said she saw four teachers at her school leave without a backup plan.

“They left without even knowing what they were going to do in the future,” said Jackson, who is also the president of the American Federation Teachers of North Carolina. “It was because they were feeling discouraged.”

7 percent raises

The state budget passed Saturday includes a 7 percent raise for teachers.

However, William Hennessee, a 28-year teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators president, said teachers are not happy. Especially those with experience, he said.

Hennessee said the raise comes in place of longevity pay. That means teachers with the most experience will essentially get the smallest raise, after losing longevity pay, he said.

“There no incentive for good teachers to stay in the teaching profession,” Hennessee said. “By simply driving an hour north (to Virginia) you can rid yourself of all this drama.”

“These are simply mal-intended actions,” he added. “(The General Assembly) is not sincere in its intentions or its motives.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said otherwise, that longevity was factored into the 7 percent raise.

At a news conference in his office, the governor said the budget provides raises for teachers in line with what he sought – calling it a 5.5 percent salary increase in addition to longevity pay, which brings the total raise to around 7 percent.

‘Really tough’ decision

Sellars, who grew up in Durham, said it is disheartening to know that he won’t be working in his home state any longer but it was a move he had to make. His salary will increase from about $37,000 to $48,500. He will bring home $1,000 more a month.

Sellars said although the cost of living goes up with his move to Washington, D.C., he will finally be able to pay his bills without his parents’ help.

“It was really tough because I was leaving students that I love to death and colleagues who have become family members,” he said. “I have so many colleagues that are 100 times better than I am in every shape or form and they are not getting paid what they ought to.”

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