Raleigh teacher NaShonda Cooke has become one of the national faces for what it’s like to be a teacher in America by appearing on the cover of the latest issue of Time magazine.
Cooke is on one of three different covers for the Sept. 24 issue of Time that shares the stories of 13 U.S. teachers talking about how hard it is to make a living. Cooke, 43, a teacher at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, shares about how despite having 20 years of experience she skips doctor’s appointments to save on the co-pay and can’t afford to fix her car or save for her children’s future.
“My co-workers are just grateful that I’m speaking out in terms of teachers having a tough time financially,” Cooke said in an interview Wednesday. “Most of us still have a hard time taking care of our families.”
The Time article comes during a year where teachers around the country held marches, protests and in some cases strikes to protest working conditions.
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Cooke says she makes about $69,000 a year — which is higher than the $50,861 average salary for a North Carolina teacher estimated by the National Education Association. Cooke says her salary reflects all the extra duties she does at school, her extra pay from being a nationally certified teacher and how she’s grandfathered into a program that used to give extra pay to teachers who have advanced degrees.
“Before we judge that she doesn’t make enough, we need to acknowledge that there are millions of families in North Carolina that would love to make $69,000 a year and the benefits she receives,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.
Cooke said that while she earns more than many teachers, she’s also a single mother who has to use 30 percent of her salary to pay her rent in Raleigh. She also has to pay a variety of other expenses, including student loans and rising health insurance costs.
Part of the reason she left the Durham Public School System in 2017 was that the Wake County school system paid more, Cooke said.
Cooke worries about saving enough to pay for her 14-year-old daughter’s college education. She also has to deal with the needs of her 11-year-old daughter, who has autism.
“I can’t tell you how many letters I got this summer that said final notice,” Cooke said in the Time article. “It’s not about wanting a pay raise or extra income. It’s just about wanting a livable wage.”
The Time article also comes as state Republican legislators have trumpeted five consecutive years of teacher pay raises as part of this year’s election campaign.
“While there is always more work to be done, the facts speak for themselves — teacher pay has increased dramatically under Republican leadership,” Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement. “We thank Ms. Cooke for her service but it’s important that we put this in perspective; when Democrats last controlled the General Assembly, thousands of state-funded teaching positions were eliminated, teachers were furloughed and their pay was frozen.
“We’ve passed five consecutive teacher pay raises, giving teachers an average $8,700 — or nearly 20 percent — increase to their base salary since 2014, with close to half of all public school teachers in the state receiving at least a $10,000 pay raise. Even according to the national teacher union’s own rankings, North Carolina ranked #2 in the U.S. for fastest rising teacher pay from 2016 to 2017.”
But Cooke said the recent raises still leave teachers making less than what they did before the recession of the late 2000s, when adjusted for inflation.
Cooke is getting the national attention after a life of being what she calls an advocate for higher teacher pay and education spending. She spoke last year in Durham as part of “A Day Without A Woman” national protests and urged fellow educators to take part in the May 16 mass teacher protest in Raleigh.
Cooke is also a member of the board of directors of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators and vice chairwoman of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Teacher Advisory Committee.
“The Time article doesn’t mention her activism, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of ‘just a teacher’ which Ms. Cooke is NOT,” conservative blogger A.P. Dillon complained on Twitter.
The veteran educator credits her advocacy to her family, which can trace its history of teachers back eight generations. Her grandfather worked in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and her grandmother and mother took part in marches where police turned fire hoses on them.
“Advocacy is not new,” Cooke said. “It’s not something that I do for myself. It’s part of who I am advocating for others who may not be as comfortable articulating their personal struggles.”