When I meet a new person, our first conversation usually goes something like this.
Me: What do you do?
Them: I do Obscure Job X. What do you do?
Me: I teach high school.
Them: Wow. That must be so challenging. Good for you.
At this point I find myself in a pickle. I could simply say, “Yes, it is,” bow deeply, listen to them talk about their job in software sales, and move on with my life. Or do I spend the next 45 minutes detailing why being a teacher is, in fact, so mind-bogglingly challenging, but not for the reasons they’re probably thinking? Because, let me tell you, strangers of the internet, teaching is challenging. But it’s not the students, or the hormones informing their decisions in and out of the classroom, or the other teachers, or even the school administration that make it so difficult. It’s not even having to have the same conversation over and over again with strangers at parties. It’s the disingenuous policymakers who provide fewer and fewer critical resources to public schools, expect students and teachers to perform without them, then blame students from vulnerable communities for not meeting benchmarks that were impossible to hit in the first place.
This isn’t just an issue in North Carolina, the state where I live and work: State legislatures, a.k.a. the ones who control education budgets, have antagonized public schools to the point that teachers across the country have had enough. From its roots in the West Virginia teacher strike just over a year ago, to actions in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and, in the most striking and encouraging example, Los Angeles, teachers are walking out, banding together under the “Red for Ed” banner and hitting the streets. This many movements, this close together, is a sign that public school employees across the country are finding a collective voice in the face of rampant privatization and tax cut-driven austerity. This is the second consecutive year the North Carolina Association of Educators has organized a statewide “Day of Action,” and last year’s march, which gathered 19,000 teachers and public school advocates, built momentum that helped remind the Republican majority in the state legislature that people, lots of people, don’t want to see their public schools drained of resources in favor of school privatization.
Today, teachers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia voluntarily took a personal day in such numbers that they forced entire school systems to close. In Raleigh, NC, my fellow teachers and I will march and rally at the Capitol in an effort to demand the same things teachers around the country demand: Dignity in the classroom.
None of these teachers are marching to get away from their students; it is precisely the opposite. To slightly alter the famous words of Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, teachers around the country are sick and tired of our students being sick and tired.
This is only my second year teaching full time. I’m not that sick and I’m not that tired. In fact, for all the difficulties of the job, I love teaching. It’s the best job I’ve had, and I once got paid money to go to Iceland and write about their soccer team. Many teachers who have taught a lot longer than me will say the same. My best days leave me in a euphoric daze of connection and meaning-making and purpose.
This feeling doesn’t fade with time, either. My colleague Emily, who has taught 7th graders for nine years, told me via text: “Although teaching is stressful and tests my patience every day, the pros continue to outweigh the cons when my students break through barriers and leave my class a better citizen and person.” My own career is filled with highlights. There was the time a student brought an entire taco bar, complete with individually wrapped ingredients, and ate it in my food-prohibited classroom. Once, a group of students wrote and performed a break-up song from the American colonists to King George III, set to Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.” Recently, in a Staff vs. Students basketball game, I got crossed up so violently that it took a full minute for a crowd of exuberant students to clear the court. I’ve forged personal connections with students who’d seemed permanently isolated. I’ve convinced serial skippers to come to class more often. My students know I care about them, even when they don’t care about themselves, and that feels like a victory. My students are creative, perceptive, and often hilarious, and I am grateful I get to learn with them on a daily basis.
But remember when I said teaching is not easy? It’s not. Teachers learn a lot about their students — you would, too, if you spent 90 minutes with them every day. Distressed students come to teachers, who are potentially the only stable adults available to them, and confide in them about life, which for many teenagers is become more fraught by the day: parents facing deportation, suicidal ideation, homelessness, incarcerated family members, their own court dates, sexual assault, gender dysphoria; the list goes on. Students have cussed at me, walked out of class, shut down for days, threatened me, or stopped showing up entirely. I’ve broken up fights, picked up overturned desks, tried and failed to calm students I didn’t even know but could tell needed somebody to try. In my school district, there are 30 school psychologists for 33,000 students; often, it’s up to the teachers to do what we can to help a student facing serious issues, but even though we care, we can only do so much. These are the critical moments where teachers feel trapped, completely unequipped, and aching for more. More time to do our own jobs, more counselors, school psychologists, nurses, restorative justice coordinators, librarians, special education teachers and behavior specialists, so that we don’t have to do those jobs on top of our own.
Instead of more, the North Carolina legislature has in recent years provided less and less to public schools. What once was a leader in public education is now a shell of its former self. How? The students didn’t change and neither, for the most part, did the teachers. But the legislature acted to promote privatization and simultaneously hamstring public schools in a way that pushed more and more parents to flee for the new charter options. In 2013, the state eliminated advanced degree pay for future teachers, ending the incentive for teachers to attend graduate-level programs, and more recently eliminated retirement benefits for teachers who enter the profession after 2021. Yes, you read that right: The legislature is taking away a major motivation to work for the state (i.e., the prospect of a state employee retirement plan) for every future teacher.
This is all happening as a staggering number of families are opting out of the public school system altogether, something that school privatization evangelists and the (largely Republican) lawmakers who represent their interests are only too happy about. According to the Raleigh’s News and Observer, roughly 19.2 percent of the state’s 1.8 million kids are enrolled in private, charter, or homeschools, thanks to legislative decisions made in the name of “school choice” and “individual freedom.” Many of these schools are privately run but publicly funded, and while the system’s cheerleaders claim that everyone has a chance to send their child to the school that works best for their needs, the dollars earmarked for public school tend to be siphoned off in such a way that flows upward. This practice leaves the most vulnerable students — those who can’t afford the charter school uniform or can’t find a ride to school in the morning, those who have emotional or physical needs that can’t be met by an alternative school — in increasingly strapped public school systems. Much like the white-flight private school boom that came about as a response to forced integration in the 1960s and 1970s, the “school choice” movement is a thin veneer for “concerned” parents to quietly resegregate children based on class and race. Only this time, it is taxpayers who are picking up the tab.
Notice that I’ve spoken very little about teacher salaries. Privatizers want to undermine this mass teacher movement by citing the fact that North Carolina ranks 29th in the nation in terms of average teacher salary, effectively reducing the rhetoric to “Greedy Teachers Want Cash.” While it’s true that a central goal is to secure a five-percent across-the-board raise for teachers, given that our state ranks 49th in wage competitiveness and that average teacher salary has not reached pre-recession levels when you adjust for inflation, that raise would effectively serve as a cost-of-living increase rather than a fat payday.
And they’re off! pic.twitter.com/IqgVwBZpfW— The News & Observer (@newsobserver) May 1, 2019
But the crux of the movement is about funding programs and positions that will rededicate needed resources to public schools and our students. We are asking for North Carolina to fund counselors and other support staff up to the national average. Right now, the national average ratio for school psychologists to students is 700-to-one (the recommended range is 500-700-to-one); in North Carolina, it’s 2,100-to-one. We’re asking for North Carolina to join the 33 other states that have closed the Medicaid gap, which would benefit 500,000 people, including public school parents, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. And we’re asking for North Carolina to restore the advanced degree pay and retirement benefits. That’s it. Not a teacher aide in every class, and certainly not the sort of salary bump that would put a Mercedes in every teacher’s driveway. We simply want a more solid foundation from which we can grow and shape our students.
So far, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has responded to our demands by pulling even further to the right. First, lawmakers offered every teacher $400 to spend on their own supplies! The catch? It would come from money already given to public schools. When that didn’t work, they resorted to even more draconian tactics. Phil Berger, the majority leader in the powerful N.C. Senate, dismissed the event as having been organized by far-left partisans. And in a fittingly dystopian turn, one proposed N.C. education budget included a provision that teachers can only take personal days — the type we took to force districts to close ahead of the rally, but which are, with very few exceptions, used for personal reasons like, you know, family illnesses and stuff — if the district can find a substitute. In other words, rather than trying to address our concerns, the legislature tried to take away one of our primary ways of speaking out.
The evening before the march, legislative leaders introduced a budget plan that would give raises to teachers, principals and non-certified staff, as well as restore the advanced degree pay that was eliminated in 2013. To myself and other teachers I spoke to, these felt like concessions directly related to the Day of Action demands. Despite the salary bump, this budget failed to meet our demands for increased funding for support staff, Medicaid expansion, and retirement plans for future teachers. As my teacher friend Tracey texted me late on Tuesday night, “[Legislators] think they’re a lot better at this than they are. Tens of thousands of people in the street tomorrow should be a pretty clear message [that this isn’t enough].”
I teach Civics & Economics. For those of you who don’t remember, it’s essentially a semester-long primer on how the U.S. government and economy work. My students are almost entirely black and brown and many live at or below the poverty line. You could say that I teach about political institutions — the same institutions in which Americans currently have a historic lack of faith — to a population of students who never had much reason to place their faith in them to begin with.
Knowing this, I don’t spend a ton of time with the textbook. There’s absolutely nothing in there that is relevant to their lived experience. (Until this year, North Carolina teachers used a Civics textbook from 2007, which, due to its age, did not include a single mention of Barack Obama.) I want to talk about government as it matters to them. When I cover elections, I teach it through the lens of voter suppression. I teach about racist voter ID laws and racist gerrymandering practices instituted by the North Carolina legislature, both of which federal courts later found to be unconstitutional. When I cover the justice system, I teach it through the lens of mass incarceration. I talk about how a combination of cash bail, plea bargains and harsh sentencing mean one in three black men born in the year 2000 will spend time in jail or prison in their lifetime — and that every state has seen bigger increases in spending for corrections than for public education. When I cover the Bill of Rights, I teach it through the lens of our government’s penchant to withhold those rights from those it does not see as fully deserving. From slavery to lynching to ICE kidnappings and deportations, I continually ask students to assess our political institutions by the way they treat the most vulnerable.
So when I teach our education system, I teach it through the lens of school choice and its devastating effects on public schools. I need my students to know that the holes in my classroom floor, the teachers who abandon ship for a state where they are paid better, the armed School Resource Officers patrolling the hallways, the lack of creative outlets during the school day, the never-ending string of high-stakes testing are all, directly or indirectly, a result of decisions their government has made. This is the environment in which we as a society expect our young people to succeed. But it’s one that many otherwise right-minded Americans would demand to speak to a manager if they had to endure for more than a few minutes. We shouldn’t be surprised when that institutional neglect is reflected right back at us in disruptive students and dropout rates, school discipline statistics and plummeting teacher satisfaction. As teachers and students and public school advocates, those of us marching today must assume that, even if this was not the plan all along, that one of the reasons that conservative lawmakers are utterly negligent about fixing this broken system because as it stands, it works to their benefit.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that in many ways, I am the least appropriate spokesperson for greater investment in public schools. I am a person with as many privileges as can be imagined in this country: I’m an able-bodied, white, cisgender, hetereosexual male who graduated college without any student loan debt. But this isn’t about me, or any single one of us. I am surrounded by students, teachers, administrators and support staff who need our legislature to meet us on these demands. Highly qualified public school teachers should not feel pressure to switch jobs or move to another state just to pay their bills. Students should not have to miss any more school because they’re sick, hungry, in trouble, or feel alienated, and if they come to their teachers with issues like those, those teachers should not feel at a loss when it comes to helping them get help. We are not marching on May 1st for ourselves. We are marching for each other. For everybody.
Today, thousands of us who love public schools take to the steps of the Capitol in Raleigh to demand witness from lawmakers who seem bent on ignoring and undermining us. However they may paint us, we are not revolutionaries trying to forge a new path. We are realists who see ways the current path hobbles our most vulnerable students. All we ask today and in the future is that those who pave this path, not make it any rockier.
The views contained in this piece are solely of the author.