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- Visualize: How Seeing What's Coming Changed My Teaching - August 16, 2021
- 10 Lessons About Teaching from My Youngest Son - June 24, 2021
- Ending the Epithet “Try-Hard” Once and for All in Classrooms - June 18, 2021
- From STEM, Let's Pivot to the BRANCHES of the Humanities - May 25, 2021
- Would Education Collapse If Teachers Stopped Working for Free? - May 20, 2021
- 10 Ways to Teach Like Ted Lasso: Part II - April 21, 2021
- 8 Tips So Your Substitute Plans Don't Suck - April 14, 2021
- 10 Ways to Teach Like Ted Lasso: Part I - March 12, 2021
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teachers: Habit 3 - First Things First - February 26, 2021
We at The Educator’s Room have a quest to locate and speak with any and every Inspirational Educator we can find. For this segment, we turn to North Carolina – currently a hotbed of pro-teacher – and much needed – educational reform.
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I recently sat down with Deborah R. Gerhardt, a professor at the University Of North Carolina School Of Law. Prof. Gerhardt is also a concerned mother who wrote the article, “Pay Our Teachers or Lose Your Job: North Carolina is pushing its best educators out; we have to do something” for Slate.com.
Jake Miller: Thank you for granting me this interview, Professor Gerhardt. I know you’ve had a busy schedule the last few weeks, so I feel fortunate to catch you at such an opportune time.
Deborah R. Gerhardt: Thank you for including me in the interview. We were supposed to hold a big public education event here in Chapel Hill today, but Mother Nature had other plans. We had to cancel it because of the snow.
JM: What caused you to say “enough is enough” and not just publish your story about teacher pay in North Carolina, but to act on it?
DRG: When my oldest son was younger, he was the most relaxed, patient, creative, musical young man. Yet he wasn’t motivated much by school. When he started middle school, we were worried, but encouraged that he chose to take Latin. That choice turned out to be life changing. His Latin teacher, Susan Meyer, sparked up his intellectual curiosity. He became a better student not just in Latin, but in all of his classes. She inspired a spirit that learning can be fun, cool, and exciting. She even took him and other students to Italy on a class trip. All of those children came home more interested in history, literature, art and living a life devoted to inquiry.
A few days after they returned from Italy, Ms. Meyer got a pink slip. State budget cuts led to district budget cuts, and one world languages teacher had to go. She had the least seniority across the district, so she was fired. Even though she was one of the best world language teachers, they just didn’t have the resources to keep her. We organized a huge group of parents and students who wrote letters and attended a school board meeting demanding her reinstatement, but the school board’s hands were tied. This woke me up to see the impact of North Carolina’s educational budget cuts. But what kind of lesson would I teach my children if I did nothing in response?
As a public school professor, I know what it feels like not to get a pay raise when everything else in life is getting more expensive, but I had never visited the salary schedule for North Carolina’s public school teachers. When I did, I was appalled. How could someone be working in the teaching profession for 5 or 7 years and be earning less than $32,000? Teachers hesitate to talk about this – it’s just downright embarrassing. But we need to talk about it, because it’s something that forces them out of the profession. Or it forces them not to give all their work time to teaching because they have to take a second or third job to make ends meet.
I felt compelled to take action. After talking to many politicians and other government officials, I saw that this change needed to begin at a local level. I invited teachers and parents to my house and began the meeting by sharing the data about teacher salaries. Meg Taber, a gifted and dedicated middle school teacher had taken a survey of her colleagues. She learned out that more than ⅔ of the teachers needed to work a second job. Other teachers need public assistance to feed their children. It was an incredibly moving evening as we all learned – first-hand – of the hardships that North Carolina’s teachers are facing day-to-day.
About 50 people attended that first meeting, and the news spread quickly among those who couldn’t be there. We now have hundreds of parents connected through email and social media.
JM: You seemed to have brought together a group certainly large enough to hold your first public town meeting. Before the snow forced you to reschedule, tell me a bit about what was planned for your event.
DRG: We planned a Town Hall Supporting Public Education. While at the meeting, I was going to share more recent data on teacher salaries, as well as upcoming legislative proposals from former Governor Jim Hunt and the current Governor [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][Pat McCrory] to increase only new teacher salaries. Five teachers were going to share their economic realities and hardships. One student was to speak on fundraising efforts he has initiated. The leader of the Chamber of Commerce was going to speak on the importance of education infrastructure to the businesses community. Four State Representatives (of the 5 invited) were going to be given 5 minutes to respond to the question, “What can we do make sure the legislature hears us?” But mostly we wanted the legislators there to listen—to really take a moment and here the teachers and how deeply as parents we value and support what they are doing. Finally, we were going to close with questions from the public.
JM: Tell me a bit about Gov. McCrory’s proposal to increase teacher’s starting salary.
DRG: It’s just terrible. We have to begin somewhere, but I don’t understand how someone with business experience would raise the starting salary of entry level employees while salaries of the most talented, experienced people are going to remain the same. It doesn’t make sense, and we’re going to lose many great teachers if it is enacted. In fact, it seems designed to chase our best talent away. They’ve been serving our children for the longest time, waiting patiently for the state to do the right thing and finally raise their pay. Instead, each year, the legislature makes their job harder with budget cuts, and fails to compensate them fairly as the cost of everything else in life increases.
JM: Since much of your advocacy focuses on teacher pay, what do you think the average teacher salary in North Carolina should be?
DRG: Ideally it would be above the national average, but since we are so close to the bottom (Editor’s Note: North Carolina ranks 46th in national salary), a reasonable first step is to increase our teachers’ salary to the national average. Keeping talented veteran teachers by paying them more isn’t the only problem – higher class sizes, huge cuts to textbook replacement, and other issues certainly are there – but increasing salaries is where we need to begin.
The teaching profession needs to be respected; they work their butts off, and not everyone can do what they do, especially for what little they earn. In fact, people in our state are so turned off by society’s lack of value for teachers. As a community, it seems to be a no-brainer that this is where we put our money.
JM: You recently co-created a fundraising group called “Pay Our Teachers First.” Share with our readers the concept of your program and what you hope to accomplish with it.
DRG: We want our state government to use our tax money first to pay our teachers a competitive salary so we can continue to attract and keep top teaching talent in North Carolina. This past holiday we sold “Wear Red for Public Ed” t-shirts for the holidays. We raised $11,000, and donated it to the teachers by giving about $140 to all the people at our schools just because they deserved it. I certainly wished we could have raised more, but passing out those envelopes when none were expected did fill the building with the joyful spirit of the holiday season.
Being involved in this group has really made me see the potential of bringing a community together. I have three children and a full time job, but try to give at least some time each day to work on this cause. The next step is to meet with a bi-partisan panel to show them that they will either support this incredibly important issue or they’re going to be voted out (“pay our teachers or lose your job”).
JM: What would you say makes North Carolina’s educational problems unique in comparison to the rest of the United States?
DRG: Our state has shown it’s possible to change education in a bi-partisan manner for the better. How? It’s happened before. Former Gov. Hunt said that, if elected, he was going to make North Carolina “The Education State,” and he made it happen.
Our colleges provide a fantastic public service for a relatively low-cost, and teachers were making about the national average then while cost of living was relatively low. We were a progressive, teacher-friendly state that has pulled the rug out from its educators. We’ve gone from being “The Education State” to having education be its black eye. In fact, there are t-shirts that parody our state motto (“First in Flight”) by saying “First in Teacher Flight.” We need to reflect on our priorities. We need to think about what we value and act accordingly.
JM: If I told you that many teachers in my native Pennsylvania move to your North Carolina to teach for a few years, earn their stripes, and then hop on their return flight to teach in my state, what would you think about that?
DRG: I would not be surprised. North Carolina spends less of a percentage on public education than our neighboring states, and we’ve actually decreased funding. There are not many competitive opportunities here for teachers, so if they can move elsewhere (as one to applicant turned down a job at our school for a job in Kentucky to earn about $10,000 more), it’s hard to overcome.
That’s not to say we don’t have amazing talent in the North Carolinian classrooms, but we’re going to continue to hemorrhage some of our best teachers – and it’ll happen as soon as this summer if Gov. McCrory’s “solution” is passed.
JM: How do you see the problems in public education matriculating into your and your colleagues’ classrooms in higher education?
Like you previously said, every year we lose good, talented members of our community to a different area that values public education more. The most difficult thing is to go to conferences across the nation and realize that there are places that value teachers much more than North Carolina. We must fix the K-12 issue, and I would go to just about any length to make that happen.
JM: What improvements have you seen made since you wrote your article for Slate?
DRG: To be honest, not many. But more people are discussing the issue. More people seem to be aware of the facts and understand its importance. Even the legislature is hearing us. I know that teachers realize that we hear what’s going on in their world and that there are people who are advocating for them. While we haven’t yet done what we need to do to help them pay their bills, we’re at least providing them comfort in making it clear we hear their concerns and we will not be satisfied with any representative— Democratic or Republican—who does not work to fix their circumstances.
JM: How do you think teachers can better involve parents, the community, elected officials, and other stakeholders to solve these outstanding, unresolved issues not just in North Carolina, but across the nation?
DRG: Public education advocates are doing a great job of using social media to raise awareness. We are quickly connecting people to improve public education. However, there is no substitute for having a meeting at someone’s home or at a school where parents can learn, first-hand and in-person, about how a lack of respect for educators affects our teachers.
In North Carolina, it starts with paying teachers enough to get by and do great things for our kids. Instead of going home and fine-tuning their lesson plans, these teachers are taking orders at a restaurant or helping people try on shoes at the shoe store. Sometimes we hide behind the data and social media – one-on-one conversations cannot allow that. We need to confront this reality and work together to fix it. Our children our depending on us.
Do you know an Inspirational Educator? We're looking for involved teachers, counselors, psychologists, principals, aides, support staff, and more who are changing the face of education. Share their incredible story with @MrJakeMiller[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]