Op-Ed

A sad day when aspiring NC teachers need a backup plan

rwillett@newsobserver.com

It was a watershed moment in my teaching career but also a disappointment.

A student asked to be a teaching assistant in one of my classes. She was brilliant – 4.8 GPA, an all-state athlete and editor of the school newspaper. Best of all, she was thinking of becoming a teacher.

We spent the semester working with a group of low-performing ninth-graders. As my student read with them, edited their writing and learned from my mistakes, her passion for education grew.

She has been accepted to college, plans to major in education and is applying for scholarships to drive down her student loans. When she asked me to write a recommendation, I agreed under one condition: that she create a backup plan in case teaching isn’t a viable career choice five years from now.

It killed me to discourage her, but I couldn’t help but think about my own career. Ten years ago, North Carolina was an attractive destination for teachers. The state offered competitive salaries and several affordable pathways to the classroom.

I took advantage of one such pathway when I moved from Ohio for Wake Forest University’s Master Teacher Fellowship, a 13-month program that provided students a full scholarship, master’s degree and teaching license.

Many of my classmates were also N.C. teaching fellows. They graduated atop their high school classes and received free undergraduate degrees in exchange for a four-year commitment teaching in one of North Carolina’s public schools. They could have been doctors, lawyers or business leaders, but free undergraduate and graduate degrees made teaching a viable option.

We entered the workforce in 2007, as ready as we could have been to lead our own classrooms. Still, the first few years were a struggle. I was one of eight new teachers to join my high school for the 2007-08 school year. My colleagues and I spent years listening to mentors, rewriting lesson plans and figuring out teenage behaviors. I didn’t believe my students received an experience on par with the other members of my department until 2011, my fifth year of teaching. By then, I was the only one left.

Today, many of my Wake Forest classmates are still in classrooms throughout the state. They earn supplements for master’s degrees and National Board certification, but they’re also serving as new-teacher mentors, department chairs and club sponsors without extra pay. They grow their own students and serve as leaders at their schools, but without supplements for extra duties, they settle for step increases every five years on the state’s experience-based pay scale.

In other words, we are one-third of the way through a teaching career but already 80 percent up the salary ladder. Twenty years from now, we’ll earn, at most, $12,200 more than today.

Becoming an effective educator takes talent, but also time. As we approach a decade in the classroom, students, parents and colleagues see a vastly different version of the teachers we were in years one and two. We’re ready to lead, even if it means working extra, but there’s no financial incentive to do it.

How, then, can North Carolina make teaching a more sustainable and appealing career choice?

It begins with restoring affordable pathways to the classroom for top high school students. Wake Forest’s excellent graduate program still exists today, but the NC Teaching Fellows program does not.

Additionally, legislators must increase pay for schools’ most valuable teachers. Every school has a core group of educators who mentor colleagues, lead professional development sessions, serve as department chairs and sponsor clubs. They deserve compensation for the extra duties they perform.

Possible solutions for both issues already exist. Last year, House Bills 661 and 662 proposed to create competitive scholarships for undergraduates and alternate-route candidates and to increase pay for teacher leaders, respectively. Both were included in the 2015 House budget, but neither made it into the Senate budget.

Lawmakers have made significant increases to teacher pay, but it’s not enough to convince talented high school and college students that teaching is a sustainable career. A desire to serve kids and a competitive starting salary might attract talented young people to the classroom, but it won’t keep them for long.

My student is exactly the type of person I want teaching my own children. If our state creates better opportunities for aspiring teachers to receive financial aid and earn more for extra duties, one lucky school will hire her someday. If not, her backup plan will come in handy.

Bryan Christopher teaches English and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham.

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