Teachers turnout teaches NC lawmakers (again)

North Carolina’s teachers came to Raleigh on May 1, International Workers’ Day, not as “far left” protesters, as state Republican leaders claim, but as everyday workers given the consequential task of shaping those who will shape tomorrow.

They came not asking for better pay, though better pay they deserve. They came asking for respect. Money is a measure of that. But not the full or first measure. The ultimate measure is the extent to which they are listened to.

They have not been listened to.

In 2018, the leaders of the General Assembly heard the chants and read the signs as some 20,000 teachers and their supporters marched on the Legislative Building. The message did not get through. Instead, teachers have been offered paltry, targeted raises and one-time bonuses, and they’ve been invited to compete with each other to produce students student test scores that will bring them extra pay. They’ve been treated like trained seals, leaping for rewards dangled by the legislature.

On Wednesday, they came to assert themselves, their students and their schools’ support workers as people. They declared they will not be denigrated and the children they teach should not be denied.

Leanna Pierce, 27, a teacher at Lowe’s Grove Middle School in Durham, was carrying a sign with a photo of State Superintendent of Education Mark Johnson and the words “Shame, shame.”

“I hope the second time around they’ll realize that we didn’t forget,” she said. “We’re back again and we’ll be back again, as long as it takes.”

Gathered in bright sunlight on the broad lawn outside the Legislative Building, they chanted: “Stand up, fight back.” For Republican lawmakers, this second rally delivered to their doorstep a second notice: teachers vote, their families vote, their supporters vote.

And they will not vote for politicians who tolerate the undermining of public schools through low teacher pay, a lack of support personnel from teacher assistants to psychologists, a dearth of textbooks and basic school supplies and the wrongheaded belief that rapidly expanding school choice will improve education even as it drains resources from traditional public schools.

Leigh Yelton, 52, a first-grade teacher at Forest Park Elementary in Kannapolis, is in her 30th year of teaching. Veteran teachers like her have lost their longevity pay and have been left out of pay raises weighted toward new teachers. “I’m making less than I use to, but that’s not why I’m here,” she said, as she waited for the rally to begin. “I’m here to make sure students get the services they need, especially mental health services.”

This is their message. It is not melodramatic. It is not self serving. It is focused on improving all schools and serving the whole child.

The teachers sent that message by exercising their right to petition their government. That some Republican lawmakers — and the elected superintendent of public instruction — saw the teachers’ action as contrary to their responsibilities shows not only a poor understanding of the needs of schools, but a misunderstanding of the nature of America.

Teachers left their schools by the thousands on Wednesday to teach by turning out. Unless lawmakers learn, the state’s teachers will teach with their turnout again in November of 2020.

Barnett; 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com