-- Marcia Timmel takes her language arts classes at North Garner Middle School seriously – it’s why she spends her money to provide class reading materials when the school system won’t. She also takes a teacher’s role as an advocate for students seriously – it’s why she has been arrested protesting the direction of that system.
Timmel may think the current state government has not done nearly enough for students, but according to Wake County she has done plenty. The district included her among 26 semi-finalists for the district’s Teacher of the Year award after her school selected her as its nominee.
“Her life is being a teacher. This is not something that is a job for her,” said principal Greg Butler, noting she’s often the only teacher to beat him to school and stay after he leaves. “She advocates for her students, her former students, her fellow staff members, Wake County teachers as a whole. And it’s never really about her. Everything she does is about what’s in the best interest of the students.”
While humbled by the honor, Timmel cannot separate the discussion of her craft from her disagreement with the General Assembly over the course of education. For her, she wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t speak out.
The Wisconsin-born, Florida-raised Timmel has taught at North Garner for nine years after brief stints teaching in college classrooms and advocating for policy in Washington, D.C. She talks about how when she started teaching in North Carolina, the state was the “jewel of the South,” ranking in the 20s in educational spending and teacher pay. Class sizes were capped at 26. Since, she as seen the state she considers her “heart’s home” change.
“What I didn’t expect was that North Carolina would turn away from its commitment to education,” Timmel said. “I feel like the commitment is still there at the county level, but has been undercut the last 6-7 years from horrible budget cuts.”
Now she feels lucky to teach between 30 and 34 students per class as some colleagues teach 40. She deals with shortages of dilapidated books, works at a school with 100 computers for 1,100 students, and expresses dismay at teacher’s pay that has dropped 15 percent in a decade once inflation is factored in, the biggest drop in the nation. She says one of her daughters, graduating with an education degree at UNC Greensboro, has accepted a position as a nanny that pays more than a board-certified public school teacher makes with nearly a decade of experience.
For those reasons, she protested during multiple Moral Monday protests during the legislative session last summer. Police arrested her along with other protesters as she exercised what she believed to be her duty as a Catholic and as a teacher to object.
“You don’t mess with my kids,” she said.
A Common Core of passion
Though still not perfect, North Garner a decade ago represented a larger challenge. Under-resourced and traditionally serving a poor populace, Timmel made her choice because of, not in spite of, those factors.
“I was looking for a school that was going to be challenging,” Timmel said.
Then again, still-maturing and sometimes-snarky seventh graders can be challenging anywhere. Timmel strikes the balance of being the adult and authority in the room with a positive attitude toward her students, and knows how to roll with the punches when needed. She said it’s largely about “knowing their tricks,” and she has worked with the age group for 30 years between teaching and serving as a Girl Scout leader.
“First of all, I come in every morning with a sense of humor. That starts out the day right,” Timmel said. “If you don’t really love the kids, you aren’t going to survive. If you do, they can tell. They can see a fraud a mile away.”
Her boss can tell too.
“A lot of it is looking at kid’s engagement during class,” Butler said. “It’s not about her presenting information for you to write down and memorize, it’s how are you going to take this and become a better high school student, a better college student, become a successful adult.”
Butler also praised her dedication to adapting herself to the new Common Core standard, at times controversial among teachers. She says she loved the new standards, at least in her subject area. They focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening, grammar and vocabulary. They also bring more nonfiction literature and apply language skills to other subject matter. She currently has students reading the Giver while drawing a parallel to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as an attempt to create a better society along the lines of the unique rules in the novel’s world.
Timmel finds irony in the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards set forth by the Department of Public Instruction. The first of the six standards is leadership and includes a section reading that “teachers advocate for schools and students,” including “positive change in policies and practices affecting student learning.”
“That’s what makes the reaction of the General Assembly to those coming to advocate so amusing,” Timmel said.
The advocacy isn’t new. She did just that for the Catholic’s Bishop’s Conference before teaching. She also taught college courses at Wake Forest, Pensicola College (Fla.) and Moorhead State (Ky.), but ultimately decided she wanted to reach students at a more formative age.
So she took advantage of NC TEACH, an 18-month licensure program designed to recruit, prepare and support mid-career professionals. The program was de-funded by the legislature, one of many moves Timmel says is dramatically harming the state’s ability to attract and keep good teachers.
Seventh-grade assistant principal Angela Cooper, who has supervised Timmel for six years, also characterized her advocacy for both teachers and students as defining, calling her compassionate and “probably one of the most dedicated teachers I know.”
“There’s a great deal of respect for what she does here,” Cooper said. “It’s refreshing when you have someone championing you in your own building.”
Since being arrested last June, Timmel has been to court seven times. Her case was continued each time, with more protesters called to court each day than could have their cases heard. She’s seen fellow demonstrators convicted, others with their charges dropped. The advocate decided not to hire an advocate; she represents herself because she feels she knows enough of the relevant law and feels that guilty people need lawyers, not her.
“I genuinely do believe we are innocent of any lawbreaking,” Timmel said.