ugly

I don’t want to write about money. Would much rather write about how to help teachers thrive in their work, or how to bring them the frameworks other professions have developed for sustainability, or how teaching work is beautiful and understandable through our other experiences of beauty.

But here’s the thing about teaching in North Carolina: it’s a tough way to make a living.

That’s the inescapable reality, and it has been heading that way for the last several years. I’ll let the NCAE break it down:

North Carolina’s public education system continued its five year decline in the NEA Rankings & Estimates report released on Tuesday and now holds the 48th (out of 51, including DC) spot in both teacher pay and per pupil spending.

According to the study, North Carolina teachers earn an average salary of $45,947 annually compared to their national colleagues earning $55,418. North Carolina — once a leader in the southeast — is now ranked 11th among southeastern states only besting Mississippi in average teacher compensation.

However, Mississippi ranks above North Carolina in the per pupil spending category by investing $9,427 per student and climbed to 36th in national rankings from last year. North Carolina now spends $8,433 per student and is only beating Texas, Utah and Arizona.

North Carolina topped one list on the report as the state with the steepest decline (-15.7%) in teacher salaries from 2001-2012 after adjusting for inflation. (Contributing to the decline in pay includes the loss of ABC bonuses/”merit” pay, reduction and elimination of mentor pay, retirements of teachers earning higher salaries without being replaced, and other factors.)

We are reaping a whirlwind here: the inevitable piling-up of all the ways in which teaching work has become nearly impossible to do well in the current climate of measure-to-manage and drill-and-kill (here’s an articulate casualty). But also of the impossibility of North Carolina teachers organizing for their own self-protection, and their resulting vulnerability to the steady drip-drip offensive against the nature of the work.

Exhibit A: witness the speedy demise of the radical idea that knowing more about one’s subject and one’s craft lets you do better by your students. Bill Gates and his local friends question the value of graduate study for work that, in their eyes, seems simply a matter of following “best practice” instructions accurately. Who needs a thought in their head to do what they’re told?

The national swirl of suspicion of teachers as this generation’s welfare queens reached a peak with Waiting for Superman’s hateful, false, and well-produced broadside (and the latest effort from these folks happily died the death a bad movie should – no, I’m not linking to it). Attacks on organized teachers seemed irrelevant to our state’s non-organized workforce, of course – but the charter school rhetoric sure rang true, as we eliminated the cap on the number of charter schools in NC in 2011, opening the floodgate for a complete restructuring of our most cherished public institution under the flag of competition and market-based reforms. These changes are bad for access and equity, and lead to resegregation as well as a host of other ills (others have debunked the pro-charter school argument better than I, but the bunk is plentiful and toxic, so I’m pitching in best I can).

How about this? The most dangerous idea in teaching seems to be its most sacred truth: that we teach because we love the children. The sense of vocation I work to nurture in my students – a sense of calling and purpose, a deep knowledge that they are doing something crucial in the way that only they can do it – is regularly perverted as a rationale for denying them fair or livable compensation for doing it. If you love it, why in the world would you want to be paid for it? Witness this simpering example; the rhetorical gambit is everywhere, and is expertly debunked here.

The way these exploitations and systematic de-fangings align with old, seemingly intractable, gender inequities is clear and present. Most teachers are women; this issue is a gender issue, and “77 cents on the dollar” doesn’t fully reach the issue of teacher compensation, I don’t think. This week’s terrific history of feminism on PBS recalls for me Grumet and others’ explications of how the desire to be with kids becomes a liability in a culture that resiliently associates nurture with weakness and turns the deep desire to care among our (still) overwhelmingly female teacher force into a weapon used against them.

So many others are making this argument better than I can, actually. Here’s Dave Eggers in 2011 in the New York Times, bulletproof stats from the NEA, a heartbreaking but certainly typical vignette from the Huffington Post. It’s left to me today to fume and try to speak the truth I can best tell: that a sense of vocation must not be seen as an obligation to give up the best of oneself without hope for recovery. I am still troubled by The Giving Tree and its presence in the imaginary of many of my students as an icon of powerful, lasting love: the tree ends up a stump, folks. Is that sustainable practice?

More than half of early-career teachers in North Carolina are gone before five years are up. Certainly our issue is not only new teacher retention; attrition affects the profession at all levels, and the loss of an experienced teacher is a different and equally-damaging tragedy than the departure of a new one. But those are the folks I work with every day, so their plight most consumes me. Where do they go? Do they do the calculus of how little their most sacred impulses are valued and respond by leaving to seek a more amenable setting?

I yearn for a change of heart among policy makers in NC: a renewed understanding that public school teacher salaries are not a place to find needed savings. That the political absence of institutional power afforded teachers does not justify the steamrolling of their interests. Our state’s education leaders get this. Why don’t our legislators?

The first rumblings of similar changes to my state’s university teachers are being heard in the responses to the current UNC system strategic plan. Students of the history of educational policy see where things are heading, and many of us are not happy. The difference between our plights – among many similarities – is that we are disposed to organize and talk and write and be heard. Next month will see a state-wide conference (watch this space) to expose, decry, and organize against these moves; we’ll see its outcome. Teachers can’t do this kind of mobilization as easily, by law as well as by disposition, tradition, and culture. Who will speak for them? We hope to help them find voice to speak for themselves, of course – but we also should speak in their support.

I have a personal dog in this fight, as my kids are taught every day by excellent, committed members of the North Carolina teaching cadre. The people the students I’ll teach today hope to become. May they, and all my state’s teachers, not believe the hype that their best impulses can and should be exploited as the reason why they should not be paid their worth.

So: An ugly post for an ugly topic. (Here’s a beautiful piece on a similarly ugly topic, btw – so good, go read it). Now what?

image from opensecrets.org, apparently from bigstock; no infringement intended.

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