The level of commitment, professionalism and selfless dedication demonstrated daily by heroes like NaShonda Cooke, Angela Scioli, Brendan Fetters and the other teachers they represent and inspire can barely be comprehended. They instruct with generosity, patience and passion. They lift up children who face our society’s most impenetrable barriers. They push back against unrelenting tides – unwilling to surrender, or retreat, in what might be life’s greatest mission. They move beyond the classroom into troubled and threatened communities – looking our boldest problems in the face, rather than turning from them like the rest of us do.
They do all this, too often, without real compensation, support and appreciation – at least appreciation beyond the parents and students who worship them. They work for basic salaries that embarrass both them and North Carolina, in an education system dramatically stacked against the poor children to whom they have dedicated their lives. They are teachers who, as Jesse Jackson used to say, “teach because they can’t help it.”
I think Cooke, Scioli and Fetters knew what they were signing up for. This path has never been strewn with rose petals. I know they didn’t expect, however, to be officially derided for their efforts. “The elephant in the room,” Fetters explains, “is the constant claim that we are failing our students.”
The politicians who accuse them, of course, never go to their schools, never talk to the teachers. They do, though, “take away our teaching assistants, run good teachers off to other states, give us bigger classes, cut our budgets and disparage our schools,” Cooke says.
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It’s not lost on teachers of high-poverty children that all the current political energy is directed toward vouchers and charter schools, draining already inadequate resources. They “evaluate us on matters outside of our control,” Cooke says, “pronounce us broken, and then make it tougher to do our work.”
Cooke’s own daughter attends one of the high-poverty Durham schools receiving an F on the state’s new scorecard. “I know the greatness of what they do in that school. I’d never move her,” Cooke says. She gets angry when her daughter’s teachers are maligned by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
It’s one thing, I suppose, to wage war on public education. It’s another to shamelessly defame in the process.
To do her job with commitment, oddly, Angie Scioli has to be willing to work for free at her Wake County high school. That’s hardly the American way. “We lost our longevity pay this year. I would have gotten $2,000 in June,” she says. But last month, master’s degree, national board certification and past recognition as Wake County’s teacher of the year notwithstanding, she didn’t have the money to go to the grocery store. She is 44 and has been teaching in Raleigh for over two decades.
“In a strange way, I was glad for the experience,” Scioli says. She was able to see, more directly, what her high-poverty students live with every day. “It’s a gift if it helps me understand what my kids face,” she told me. But, “I’m counter-cultural, you won’t find many people like me.”
I’m mad now because I have a career that I love, that I’ve dedicated my life to, to which I have given my all, and the state has broken its promise.
She says she’s required to be a role model for her students – to be cultural, to explain to them, to model for them, that if you work hard, study hard, prepare fully, follow the rules, you’ll get ahead. But, of course, “I can’t actually believe that,” she notes. Her own situation refutes it. Still, she won’t let the realities render her defeatist and bitter. She has cast her lot in service to her students.
“So you have to be willing to be the exception,” she explains. If you are a good teacher, and you stay, you are being exploited. If you’re a lousy teacher, North Carolina gets what it pays for. “I submit to being voluntarily exploited.”
NaShonda Cooke is less the sociologist. She says she came to North Carolina 16 years ago because it was a state that cared about education. And for a long time, that seemed true. “I’m mad now because I have a career that I love, that I’ve dedicated my life to, to which I have given my all, and the state has broken its promise,” she says.
But Cooke feels a responsibility to her students, saying their life chances are central to our dignity, our sense of equality, our humanity. But it is impossible not to realize that our leaders want the public schools to fail, she says, when they treat teachers with derision, intentionally placing barriers in their path.
“Now I also have to decide, at the end of each month, which bills I can pay and which ones will have to wait,” Cooke reports. She can’t take her girls on vacation. Teachers don’t expect to get rich, she knows. But this is not the life she thought a strong educator was destined for. It’s not the life she experienced in North Carolina a decade ago.
Cooke admittedly gets discouraged some days, finding it hard to restart the crucial engines. “But I have a powerful reason to put up with it all,” she explains. “It is there in my students’ faces.” Regardless of the politicians’ scores, when her kids improve, she’s lifted up, she says.
Cooke is an eighth-generation educator. Eighth. It’s in her blood, she admits. “I’ve been offered other jobs at higher pay, but I can’t leave these kids.” She’s irrevocably tied to them. Cooke’s father is a minister. He’d say, “It’s a calling.” She believes, “God wants me here.”
Conversations with Fetters, Cooke and Scioli can remind one of the old saw that no good deed goes unpunished. Increasingly in North Carolina, we could add that no selfless and inspiring service goes without rebuke.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.