By Angela Scioli, John deVille, and Teacher X
This article was originally published in 2015.
I was inspired by Governor Hunt’s comment at a recent Public Schools First NC Event. He said, “Teachers need to understand if this [situation] is going to change, teachers are going to have speak up, stand up, take some risks! “
But, if you are a North Carolina teacher, you might also be scared to speak up. I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers around the state who are intimidated by the thought of public advocacy. Let’s review the facts, get past the spin, and bury that bogeyman so we can better advocate for our profession and our students.
Many young teachers (and teachers who have switched districts in recent years) do NOT have due process / tenure rights and they won’t get them back in the foreseeable future unless their local school boards decide to change that. Loss of that security blanket is new, and that can be scary. Teachers without tenure can be fired without cause at the end of any school year. They are basically seasonal employees and that makes them vulnerable to being fired unjustly. This reality should be duly noted and not dismissed.
But most veteran teachers DO have their due process rights, thanks to NCAE’s successful fight to defend those rights in court. The recent ruling that tenure rights, once granted, are a property right and cannot be revoked was one bright spot in the state courts’ ruling record of late.
Existing statutes say teachers cannot use their classrooms to further their own personal political agendas, and they can’t use school time, facilities, resources, or computers to do such work.
That leaves a tremendous amount of space and time for public educators to take full advantage of their First Amendment freedoms.
More significant is some of the less well-publicized wording in the bill, “As an individual, each employee of a local board of education retains all the rights and obligations of citizenship provided in the Constitution and laws of the State of North Carolina and the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.” In other words, you can speak, write, and advocate on your own time and resources like any other citizen can.
Here’s another section: “No member of a local board of education or employee of the local board of education exercising supervisory authority shall make, issue, or enforce any rule or policy the effect of which is to interfere with the right of any employee of the local board of education as an individual to engage in political activity while not on duty or at times during which the employee is not performing services for which the employee receives compensation from the local board.” In other words, you can speak, write, and advocate on your own time and resources like any other citizen can.
Some well-meaning opponents of the bill have led many teachers to think that hyperbolic doomsday scenarios – like teachers being banned from wearing red – are already a matter of agreed upon policy. They are not. In the 1972 James v. Board of Education case, the courts defended teachers’ rights to wear black arm bands in class to protest the Vietnam War. The courts determined that the symbolic speech did not disrupt instruction and was related to teachers’ positions as private citizens, and so wearing the armbands was allowed.
While the earlier case speaks to purely symbolic speech through the use of color, a 2006 Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, paired with an earlier decision in Pickering v. Board of Ed, clarified how verbal or written speech by public employees might be weighed. The Garcetti ruling clearly states that so long as a teacher isn’t acting in his or her official capacity as a public employee, that employee retains his or her First Amendment protections. As long as the teacher is speaking on a matter of public concern (our schools don’t have enough textbooks, our schools are too crowded, etc.), then Pickering protects that speech, so long as the educator is (a) off campus and not using public school equipment and (b) speaking to matters of public concern. In other words, they should avoid making statements that draw upon insider information privy only to employees.
We recognize some administrators, sensitive to public opinion, have directed their staff to not engage in symbolic speech. We believe such prohibitions constitute prior restraint and such speech is indeed permissible. We’re not lawyers, though. Consult yours, NCAE’s or PENC’s…..but let’s not be collectively bullied into the shadows.
With this knowledge, teachers have been taking action in advocacy. We just need a lot more of them. My friend, Social Studies Teacher John deVille from Franklin (in the mountains), another teacher friend in the East (who shall remain nameless – more on that later) and I generated a list of advocacy actions we have taken. We have, collectively:
John and I also recognize our privilege. I live in a large metropolitan area with a school board and county commissioners (for now – the state redrew their districts for 2016) which are squarely in the corner for public education and are supportive of teachers being advocates for public education on their own time and with their own resources. John teaches in the district he grew up in, and while he’s had tough moments, ultimately the community had his back. I am a veteran teacher who has taught at my school for 22 years, while John is starting his 20th year. We have a solid reputations at our schools and in our respective communities; our evaluations have always been good and we aren’t on an “action plan”. We have tenure (John was a plaintiff in the successful NCAE tenure lawsuit). We are both NCAE members and we know they will fight on our behalf because they have in the past. Neither of us are sole income earner in our families.
If you find yourself in a situation similar to ours, look at that list above and consider what more you might be doing to fight this fight. To those who much is given, much is expected.
If you do not find yourself in a position as privileged (like my friend in the East, who does not feel comfortable “going public” in every way, but is an effective activist in every sense of the word), look at the list above and consider what you CAN do. Remember the facts, not the hype. Do a careful accounting of your situation; assess your vulnerabilities politically and personally, and take that into account.
But above all, ACT, to the fullest degree possible.
If we all do what we can, when we can, as long as we can . . . we can be a powerful force in helping to save public education in North Carolina. Replace fear with calculation AND action.
Teacher, Macon County Schools
Teacher, Wake County Public Schools
Teacher, North Carolina Public Schools
By: Kristin McCarthy Faucher
Mooresville Graded School District Educator
Here is the letter I am sending to the representative who met with us yesterday:
I wanted to write to say thank you for meeting with us yesterday. We were all appreciative of your time, and realize these are complex issues. I also recognize that you were one in a room full of passionate people.
My daughter, who is in 4th grade, was in that room yesterday. She sat behind me, and on a few occasions, poked me with an umbrella when she thought I was becoming too passionate. As a parent, I wanted her to see democracy in action, and what she experienced yesterday was invaluable.
My daughter is quiet. She is an observer. She is also very smart. At one point in the meeting, she started drawing in my planner. Later, when I looked in it, I was surprised at what she had drawn.
On the way home yesterday evening, I took the opportunity to ask her about it. I am no way trying to be disparaging, but that drawing is her interpretation of you during our meeting. Her actual words were, “Mom, he said he was not qualified to answer that question a lot of times. How is he not qualified? I thought he was our person in government.”
What followed was a discussion about the amount of information regarding legislation that you are inundated with, and the reality that many times, items are voted on and snuck through bills without the knowledge of the people actually voting (such as the pay scale that you admitted to not knowing about the actual percentages of who received what amount, only that it was a 6% average). I am aware that there is so much behind the scenes going on in your position that we, the public, know nothing about.
But, my point in all of this, is that I defended you to my daughter. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. I am not so sure however, that you, or any legislators within your party, are giving that same respect to my colleagues and me. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes every single day in one classroom, let alone one school, that the general public (and apparently our own legislators), have no idea about.
I am asking that you give me, and my colleagues, the same courtesy as I gave you. I want my daughter to have faith in our government. I don’t want to influence her with my negative feelings toward the NCGA, that have come from being beaten down and disrespected over the past 22 years of my service to the children of our state.
You seem like a decent man. You were open to meeting with us all. You were polite and respectful, which I have heard was not necessarily the same experience as others had yesterday. I have faith that you have done the best with the information you had. But as I say to students every day who make mistakes, “When you know better, do better.”
What my ten-year old daughter, myself, and my colleagues took away from yesterday’s meeting was that perhaps, you simply do not know enough about the issues of education with which you are responsible for voting. I understand that you cannot be an expert on every issue. But we, the teachers, ARE experts in our field, and we are begging and pleading for you to listen to us! Thousands of educators paid for their own transportation, and traveled many miles and back in one day, to be able to return to our schools today. This was not out of greed. It was out of necessity!
After having time to process, as a lot of information was thrown around that room yesterday, I realized no notes had been taken. So, I wanted to take the opportunity to reiterate some of our main concerns to you in black and white. This way you can refer to them, investigate them, and hopefully ask some really tough questions to members of your party. The effect of these decisions being made to the detriment of our children (who have no party affiliation whatsoever), will be felt for years to come.
These issues are in no particular order:
What is happening to veteran teachers in this state, is flat out wrong. In no other profession, do you lose pay for your years of service. Longevity pay is the equivalent to an annual bonus for state employees, which you receive after ten years of service. All other state employees still receive it—except, now, teachers. Please investigate and attempt to justify this. Here is an article you can start with for perspective.
As a more experienced teacher (now in my 23rd year), I did not benefit from the first round of pay increases after our pay freeze from the recession. Several times you said when I mentioned losing money in our discussion with you, that I must be wrong. If I hadn’t seen a raise in my paycheck, that there must be a mistake. Please consider this quote regarding the increases that began again after the freeze:
“The operative word here is “average.” Beginning teachers saw an average pay hike of over ten percent, yet the more years a teacher had, the less of a “raise” was given. The result was an AVERAGE hike of 6.9 percent, but it was not an even distribution. In fact, some veterans saw a reduction in annual pay because much of the “raise” was funded with what used to be longevity pay. And as a teacher who has been in North Carolina for these past ten years, I can with certainty tell you that my salary has not increased by 6.9 percent.”
Add to this, the increasing cost of healthcare, we have lost money. Now, with the new proposal, those with the most experience, will be once again receive absolutely nothing.
North Carolina requires highly qualified professionals to teach in our schools. Yet, teachers can now receive no compensation for obtaining a graduate degree. So, in essence, if a teacher pursues higher education, they will lose money due to receiving no pay increase for their degree, but accruing student loan debt.
Bonus Structure/Merit Pay:
Initiatives like merit pay, and bonuses for test scores, have no place in our education system. You heard it coming straight from the mouths of teachers who were the recipients of some of this money. We recognize that it is the combined efforts of a school community to make a child successful, along with the teachers that came before. You cannot justify rewarding a particular set of teachers from a certain subject, or grade level. That money (to the tune of approximately forty-one million dollars), could have been better spent adjusting the base salary of all teachers.
Charter schools drain valuable resources from public schools, under the guise of giving parents “school choice”. Over $513,000,000 of taxpayer monies were distributed to the 167 Charter School in North Carolina in 2017. All the while, they are given financial and educational flexibility and freedoms that public schools are not. Charter schools are only required to have 50% of their teachers certified. Charter schools can also be exclusive, whereas public schools are all-inclusive. Charter schools may also be run by for-profit, out of state companies. They are essentially taking public, tax payer money, as their profit. There is so much additional, alarming information on the matter of charter schools, but the articles below would be a great starting point in your investigation.
“It has been shown that much of the money from Opportunity Grants has been used in tuition costs for small (oftentimes religious) schools who do not have to show test results unless they garner an extremely high amount of money from the voucher system. It’s like they do not even have to show growth, the very variable that lawmakers continue to hark on for public schools.
Put simply, legislation creates a moving and insanely difficult target for public schools to show proficiency that then creates a false need for vouchers to schools that do not even have to show any growth, a need so great that it will cost almost $900 million dollars in the next ten years to “fix”. That is almost one billion dollars going to a program that has failed to show any effectiveness.” If that is not alarming, I do not know what is. That money could go a long way in improving the conditions of our public schools!
In closing, while we did touch on other areas of concern, such as The Education Lottery, retirement benefits, testing, and teacher retention, I believe I have given you a good place to start. I will follow up with insight into these issues, and please feel free to share any and all information to the rest of your colleagues.
Public education should not be a partisan issue, but unfortunately, it has been made so by the powers that be. Our state’s constitution specifically ensures that every student is entitled to a quality public education. It is a public good. We, as educators, and you, as a legislator, are providing a public service. The key word here is “public” and not “private".
Unfortunately, we have been pushed to the brink. My daughter can poke me with that umbrella all she wants, but I will not be quiet. I hope that everyone in the General Assembly realized this yesterday. Educators are a tough breed. We do not give up easily. Not when the future of our children is at stake.
I thank you again, for giving us your time yesterday, and I thank you in advance for learning all you can about the issues facing our public schools, so that you will no longer have to say, “I am not qualified to give that answer.”
The quoted information was taken from the following:
By: Jessie Yates, Wake County Teacher
In 2010, I entered a Master’s of Counseling program. As a fresh, doe-eyed college grad, I hoped to eventually work with international, immigrant, and refugee teens.
By the spring of 2013, I was starting my compulsory, license-dependent internship. My first feat was to call a mom and tell her that her daughter might have run away. Her response: “I don’t care. She’s your problem now.” She then hung up on me.
Since that first experience, I have guided groups of teenagers through the unexpected death of a peer; I have supported several teens facing incurable cancer and lupus diagnoses. I have been challenged by the 14 year old child whose guilt developed into a tearful “am I bad because I’m black?” inquiry. I have watched a 15 year old react to the news that her father had died; I have witnessed a young man prepare for the death and funeral arrangements of his own father. I have read the account of a 16 year old whose dream was to become a doctor and whose fear was of deportation; I have reviewed the vignette of a 17 year old whose sister – a doctor – had already been deported. I have been in the room when an 18 year old girl broke her silence about the family friend who had touched her in the wrong place. I have provided a safe corner to sleep for a boy whose mom had turned his bedroom into a crack-den; I have watched with complete ineptitude as another boy experimented with LSD; I have confronted the meth dealer with the promise of one more chance at rehab. I have cried with too many girls as they confessed that they were suicidal and then cried more when I received the news that way too many had gone through with their thoughts. I have been the recipient of coming out confessions and I have been one of the first adults to call her a him. I have offered my hands to hold during panic attacks, my laughter to combat tears, and one of my rare hugs when I hit a wall and knew of nothing else to do. As a professional, I have learned of first loves and first heartbreaks, dreams and fears, passions and setbacks. As strengthening as much of it has been, my heart has taken a hit every time I have worked with a struggling teen.
It’s what 2010 me, although fresh and doe-eyed, still knew to expect from a career in counseling.
Except that in 2012, I made the decision to change programs and – by the next Spring – I had started my compulsory, license-dependent student teaching internship. In my first week, a girl ran away instead of going to the bathroom. The principal told me to call her mom.
Everything that happened after she hung up on me that afternoon, happened to me as a classroom teacher who has never had any officially designated counselling duties.
Did you know the recommended ratio of counselors to students is 1:250? In Wake County, NC, there is 1 counselor per 393 high school students. And wait a second: they aren’t necessarily psychologists. They aren’t psychiatrists. They aren’t grief counselors or specialized experts. Too often, they are academic advisors with basic psychological training who have been asked to be psychologists, psychiatrists, grief counselors, and specialized experts to 393 students because of budget cuts. In fact, in the state of North Carolina, there are only 740 school psychologists. That’s a ratio of 1:2,162.
Maybe this wording will have more impact: that’s one psychologist to every two thousand one hundred and sixty two North Carolinian students.
My school is lucky enough to actually have a psychologist on staff. We have a student body of 1,891. You should know by now where this is going: we share her with other schools. Which means her assigned student population is more like 5,000 students. That potential caseload is impossible. And yet, most schools could only dream of being assigned a psychologist; under the current budget and legislature, most will never see that dream become a reality.
And yet despite the budget cuts and disheartening ratios, my school has an amazing student services department. They do everything they can to support our students, but their practical abilities and 24 hour schedules are drained. Their caseload is on overload. And yet the students’ need for counselling never ends; even when the door is shut because another student is currently in a session. At one point this semester, I approached my principal with a planned appeal to take the afternoon off after a particularly emotional month at our school. He took one look at me as I entered the office and told me to go home. I can’t imagine what our counselors feel every day. I don’t want to imagine what implications that holds for my - for our- students.
You ask why #Red4Ed is personal. Because they are my people. With every moment that they sit in my class, say hi in the halls, message me on Remind, and fist bump me in the grocery store, my students solidify themselves as my people. Every time a student has trusted me enough to tell me their stories, those stories become my story. Every heartache and painful moment imprints into my own heartache and painful moment. #itspersonal because I will protect and fight for my people.
#itspersonal because they don’t have the support they need. I don’t have the support I need to support them in the classroom. The professionals whose job it is to support them don’t have the support they need to support them in their offices. Are you seeing the issue yet? Because 1 for every 2,162 is laughably demoralizing.
So yeah, it’s pretty personal. And – now – I’m demanding support for them. For me. For us.
By: Morgan Fulbright
Wake County Teacher
As most of you are probably aware, many schools across the state are cancelling classes Wednesday, May 16th, for a massive teacher rally and protest in downtown Raleigh. This has, of course, sparked discussion on both sides of the issue. Many people are supportive and understand why teachers feel the need to descend upon the legislature in record numbers. Many others take this as yet another opportunity to criticize public education in general and classroom teachers in particular. As usually happens when something controversial about public education surfaces in the news, there are two specific arguments that circulate that really make my blood pressure spike. The first is: “If you hate it so much, you should just quit and go do something else.” The other is: “You knew what you were getting into when you signed up for this job.” Allow me a moment, in my long-winded English teacher way, to share with you the fatal flaws in these two arguments.
For starters, I don’t hate my job. Not even a little bit. Sure, there are things about my job that I don’t enjoy. For instance, lunch duty is THE WORST. I resent having to give up 25 minutes of my lunch period 3 days a week to supervise the stairwell. It is mind-numbingly boring, and it is certainly not at the top of my list of things I would like to do with that 25 minutes of my day. However, things like that are small when compared to the love I have for the work that I do. I love my job so much that when I fantasize about switching careers in order to make more money, I can’t realistically picture myself doing anything else.
In what other job would I get to interact with the girl who writes beautiful poetry about her personal experiences, the student who is passionate about her Christian faith and proudly calls herself a Jesus nerd, the boy who is so good at math that he could teach the classes he is taking, the girl who loves K-Pop so much that she did an extra project just to be able to do one about her favorite bands, the student who is graduating a whole year early and has been accepted into the Scholars program at NC State, the girl who rarely speaks up in class but who produces the most beautiful artwork, the boy who is unapologetically outspoken about the absurdity of gender stereotypes and prejudices about sexuality, the student who is so passionate about her work with the special needs class that she spends every spare moment in their classroom? In what other job would I get to interact with all of these people and so many more at the same time on a daily basis? Why would we not, as a community, want to do everything in our power to make sure that these students have the resources and opportunities that they need in order to be the best version of themselves today and in the future?
As for the second argument, that I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this job, it’s just simply not true. Most teachers can attest to the fact that while our undergrad education programs effectively prepared us to teach the content of our subject areas, there was absolutely nothing in college that prepared us for the reality of teaching classes of 30-40 students, all with different ability levels, academic needs, personal needs, and parent support.
I can tell you the things that I did not realize I was signing up for when I became a teacher. I did not realize that I would need to keep snacks in my room for students who had not eaten since they left school the previous afternoon. I did not realize that I would need to purchase basic supplies for my students because either the school or their parents could not afford to buy them, things like notebook paper, pencils, pens, notebooks, and folders. I did not realize that 90 minutes a day is not a sufficient amount of time to make all my lesson plans, grade all of my papers, contact parents, and complete any other responsibilities I have as a teacher, that I would need to spend at least 10-20 unpaid hours working each week in order to keep up. I did not realize that the same textbook I used in my very first year of teaching 12 years ago would be the same textbook that I am using in my classes today. I did not realize that I would need to buy copies of books from Amazon to make sure that my students had current selections to read. I did not realize that I would have to sometimes give up spending afternoons, evenings, and weekend time with my son and husband because I was working a part-time job scoring essays online to make enough money for my family to survive through the summer months. I didn’t realize that even though I was only “working” for 10 months out of the year, what I would really need to do would be to fit 12 months of work into those 10 months, getting to school at 6:45 in the morning and often not leaving until 5:00 in the afternoon. I didn't realize that my pay would be frozen 2 years after signing up for a job that promised a pay step increase each year, and that even after the economy recovered from the recession that the pay scale would not be restored to what it once was. I didn’t realize that as a classroom teacher, I would be used as a scapegoat for societal problems that run much deeper than what can be solved in a 90-minute a day window of time that I get with students.
I also didn’t realize that I would end up loving every single one of my students almost as much as my family members, even when they frustrate the hell out of me. I didn’t realize that 14-18 year olds can be some of the most loving, kind, funny, enjoyable people I have ever met. I didn’t realize that I would have at least one moment in every day when my faith in the future of humanity is restored. While I originally thought that it would be my job to influence and change the lives of my students, I didn’t realize that ultimately it would be my students who would influence and change my life.
So, I don’t hate my job, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I first signed up for this job, because I have gotten so much more out of this career than I could have ever imagined. Why SHOULDN’T teachers stand up and speak out to ensure that our students are getting so much more out of their education than they could ever imagine? Our lawmakers certainly aren't doing it.
May 16th is personal because our students, who are the future of our communities and the future of our world, deserve the best that we can give them. Their success or failure affects everyone in the community, and teachers will no longer sit silently by while the legislature continues to limit the possibilities for these children.