Educators march to the statehouse in Raleigh. Photo Credit: Lindsay Wagner, Public School Forum of NC.

By Lindsay Wagner

Following a wave of teacher demonstrations across the United States, roughly 20,000 educators from across North Carolina converged in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday to ask their state’s leaders to do more for public schools.

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John Fischer, Cumberland County visual art teacher and retired army veteran. Photo Credit: Lindsay Wagner, Public School Forum of NC.

John Fischer, a retired veteran from Cumberland County who has spent the last six years as a second career elementary school visual arts teacher, was one of those thousands who made the drive to Raleigh from Hope Mills so that he could tell his lawmakers why he needed their help.

When Fischer decided to go into teaching six years ago, he had a classroom of his own. But for the last three years he’s had to put his art supplies on a cart and move around from classroom to classroom and school to school. And he rarely sees a teacher assistant in his classes, making it challenging to teach his young students effectively.

“We have got to start doing a better job of supporting our classes and teachers. It just doesn’t get any simpler than that,” said Fischer.

Fischer said he is thankful for the progress North Carolina has made when it comes to raising teacher pay over the past several years, but even with his military pension, he’s barely making it. And too many of his colleagues are struggling to get by even with second or third jobs.

Beginning in 2014, North Carolina teachers have steadily seen increases in their salaries, after years of stagnation that brought the state down to 46th in the nation for teacher pay. Today the state ranks 37th—but when adjusted for inflation, teachers are still being paid 9 percent less than what they were before the Great Recession, and along the way there have been increases in health insurance premiums and student spending figures low enough to force many teachers to open their wallets in order to ensure their students can learn.

“I spend $60 a month on art supplies just so I can teach my kids,” said Fischer, as he waited for the march to begin. He teaches in three different elementary schools in Cumberland County, one of which is Lucile Souders Elementary, a high poverty school where all students receive free lunch.

“We ask them to bring art supplies, but they just can’t. These kids are poor,” said Fischer, who resorts to fully stocking his mobile classroom by digging into his own wallet each month.

This week’s demonstration, which organizers called a “March for Students and Rally for Respect,” was spearheaded by the North Carolina Association of Educators. When thousands of teachers began asking their schools for personal days on May 16, more than 40 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts opted to close for the day. In many districts, alternative plans were made to ensure students had access to food and the ability to take scheduled exams on the day of the rally.

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Amanda Hightower (L), one of three Vance County educators at Wednesday’s march. Photo Credit: Lindsay Wagner, Public School Forum of NC.

Amanda Hightower, a third-grade teacher from Vance County, echoed Fischer’s concerns about the loss of teacher assistants.

“We need our TAs back,” said Hightower. “We can’t really effectively teach without them.”

Third grade is a pivotal year when it comes to reading proficiency. North Carolina enacted legislation known as “Read to Achieve” a few years ago, and as a result, students must undergo a battery of tests and portfolio assessments to ensure they are reading on grade level—or risk being held back. The loss of TAs, says Hightower, makes it even harder to ensure students will be reading proficiently. She complained about the loss of instructional time to Read to Achieve testing, as well.

“My students are tired of tests, and I’m tired of not having enough time to teach them,” said Hightower.

The muggy heat and occasional downpour didn’t deter thousands from queuing up at the south end of Raleigh to march north to the state capitol, where lawmakers were gathering for the first day of the 2018 legislative session.

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Renee Friday (L) and Pam Deal, retired Cabarrus County educators. Photo Credit: Lindsay Wagner, Public School Forum of NC.

Following the eight-block march north to the General Assembly, sisters and retired educators Renee Friday and Pam Deal, who both still substitute teach in Cabarrus County schools, waited in a security line in the hopes of speaking with one of their legislators about the classroom conditions they’ve seen deteriorate over the past several years.

“So we’re seeing class sizes going down in grades K-3; that’s great,” said Friday of recent legislation aimed at dramatically reducing the number of children in those classrooms. “But guess what? Fourth and fifth grade classes are ballooning in size, instead. Sometimes I see 30 or 35 kids in one class. How is that helpful in the long run?”

Friday said she wanted to tell her legislators that for every thing that they “give” teachers—recent pay raises, for example—they seem to also take something away. Lawmakers mandated smaller classes in grades K-3 but didn’t provide enough resources to ensure that classes wouldn’t grow in size in upper grades. They’ve enacted increases in base teacher pay, but they also took away supplemental pay for advanced degrees and longevity pay. At the same time, rising health insurance premiums are taking significant bites out of teachers’ paychecks. There always seems to be something that happens that negates the good—and, Friday said, that’s too often overlooked in legislative deal making.

A long line of teachers waited outside the office of Rep. Chris Malone (R-Wake), where a large poster was plastered to his window that said there’s been an average teacher pay raise of 19 percent since 2013.

Educators who emerged from Rep. Malone’s office said it was a lengthy and productive conversation marked by moments of defensiveness and frustration.

Many other teachers who walked the hallways of the legislature remarked that they were glad they were able to speak with so many of their lawmakers and give them first-person accounts of the sometimes decrepit and often challenging conditions in which they are teaching.

The General Assembly is expected to move quickly this year and wrap up a budget deal in the next couple of weeks. If the conversations teachers had with lawmakers this week don’t have an impact on the allocation of resources for classrooms, what’s next? Cabarrus County educator Pam Deal had a quick answer to that.

“Teachers vote.”

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