How to restore the joy and dignity of teaching

I am a North Carolina public school teacher with 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and I am pursuing a doctorate. A question I ask myself regularly is: what opportunities are there for me in our system of public education that has been surrounded by a negative narrative for so long?

Many teachers I know are either great at compartmentalizing the devaluation of our profession so they do not bring that frustration into their work with young people, or hey are counting days until retirement or the next day we have to pause and plan. Changes that are needed to recruit and retain educators in North Carolina must start with intentional steps that rebuild respect and value for the teaching profession.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dec. 28 edition included a much read article “Teachers quit jobs at highest rate on record”. In 2016-2017 the NC state average for teacher turnover was 13.5 percent. In the UNC system alone, enrollment in undergraduate education programs is down 30 percent since 2010. Most recently, the NC Public School Forum’s 2019 top ten “Issues in Education” list includes “recognize teacher recruitment and retention starts with professional treatment” at number four.

North Carolina needs to find ways to attract and keep experienced teachers in the classroom and to support their development. Yet, our policies place little value on improvement of the teaching craft. I graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree. This was just before the General Assembly cut off compensation for advanced degree seeking teachers as well as longevity pay for my veteran colleagues. As of now, when I graduate with a doctoral degree in 2020, I will receive no compensation for the skills and development this degree is giving me, unless I want to be a principal or district administrator.

Many professions provide opportunities for advancement. However, in the teaching profession, advancing usually means leaving the classroom for an administrative post. On some level, our state is beginning to see the value in recognizing the diverse ways that teachers can contribute when provided the time and opportunity. For example, 10 school districts (out of 115) are piloting “Advanced Teaching Roles” which enable teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness to extend their reach to more students and to colleagues without leaving the classroom.

Advanced roles should also be used to engage teachers with businesses to better understand local careers, collaborate with institutions of higher education, work closely with at-risk students and families, or serve as a liaison with local governments as they make critical decisions impacting schools.

To retain experienced teachers and reward them for assuming additional responsibilities will require state and local governments to commit to long-term funding that is protective of teachers’ time and acknowledges their professionalism. Examples of innovative teacher development include Brunswick County’s 2017 Teacher Academy or Alamance Burlington’s ongoing Teacher Leadership Academy.

On a weekly basis, I see so many missed opportunities to genuinely invite and empower passionate teachers with decision-making opportunities and input. Above all, decision makers at all levels of public education can contribute to morale and retention by visiting teachers and schools regularly, and by inviting us to have real and transparent conversations about education.

Despite these well-known challenges, teachers remain the most hopeful people I know. We keep coming back day after day to develop whole children, whom we consider family. In the same way we want to support the whole child, we must pledge our support to the whole teacher. More people will want to become teachers and remain highly engaged ones if their interests, pathways, and passions are genuinely cultivated and valued.

Kayce Smith is a high school Spanish teacher in Brunswick County and a doctoral student in educational leadership at UNC-Wilmington.