This is not about the fact that, according to this budget, I (and teachers like me) will never get another raise, no matter how hard we work, how much we know, how much good we do, or how challenging our work has become. But it is about what our legislators value. And what they don’t value.
I’m lucky. I love my work with public school students, and I love the kind of educators public schools attract. It attracts radicals, the quiet kind. It attracts people who still believe in democracy and its application to human lives. It attracts young teachers, men and women who were willing to go to college for four to six years, even while knowing they were moving into a profession that garners little to no respect. These young teachers know there are no well-appointed board rooms, no tailored suits, no golf tournaments, no wealthy donors, no business lunches, and no promotion to CEO or its equivalent. There is no glamour.
The higher educators rise, the more aware we become of the impossibility of lasting victories. The harder we fight for those we represent, those children whose plight keeps us awake at night, the more we hear from our legislators that those children have little worth. Public school, even in the face of insult and injury, remains an institution founded on leveling the playing field for everyone — including the poor, the sad, the damaged, and the disabled — in short, any person between the ages of four and 21 who shows up, to learn or not. But an inclusive institution like that, like us, struggles just to survive in a culture that primarily values what is most exclusive — wealth, power, and maintaining the status quo.
On the other hand, it is also too easy to sentimentalize teaching, to cast it as an honorable lost cause. That attitude has its own problems, and those who romanticize the profession unwittingly do teachers a disservice by calling our profession noble and nurturing. Saying teaching is noble is just another way of saying we do it because of moral principles, which is a justification for not paying us well. And saying it is nurturing is just a way of saying it’s largely female, which is yet another justification for not paying us well. The 2018-2019 budget caps teacher pay at $52,000. Under this budget, teachers with a bachelor’s degree in their field wiIl receive small raises each year until they reach 25 years. After that, they are never eligible for another pay increase. In place of a raise, according to the legislative report, a bonus will be provided to teachers who have achieved veteran status. That bonus is $385 a year. Divided by 12 months, that’s around $32 a month before taxes. That isn’t gratitude. It’s a passive-aggressive insult, which, in my mind, has always been the refuge of cowards.
In the county where I teach, $52,000 is still $10,000 more than the average income, and there are certainly those who would argue that young teachers have nothing to complain about. Keep in mind, however, that teachers make proportionally less now than our predecessors of 30 years ago. It is, after all, 2018. So here’s the bottom line: in North Carolina, right now, the average salary for those employed with a bachelor’s degree is $58,290. That’s $6,290 more than the salary cap for a teacher with 25 years experience.
And what has a teacher with 25 years experience actually accomplished? A veteran teacher will have instructed, encouraged, and, often, fed at least 2,500 students. Among these students, about 1,200 will have been poor. About 70 will have been homeless. About 30 will have been in foster care. About 150 will have been academically gifted, and 500 or so will have had depression, anxiety, or substance abuse issues. It is all these children, along with my dedicated colleagues and administrators, who have made my work so fulfilling for the 29 years I’ve been a teacher.
A profession that demands as much as teaching demands must have extrinsic as well as intrinsic rewards, but it doesn’t—not anymore. I can no longer recommend the work I love to anyone as long as North Carolina’s legislators remain bound to the precedent they’ve established. Even if I could, my young colleagues tell me they will likely leave the profession before they reach 25 years if the current climate prevails. So, yes, this is about money. But it is also about the dilemma created by North Carolina’s legislators, and the questions that their decisions raise again and again: When will teaching become a valued profession? And who is going to teach North Carolina’s children?