Citizen Green: ‘No teacher is walking out on your children’

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bridgett wiley
Bridgett Wiley, a teacher at Smith High School, explained why 2,000 Guilford County teachers are going to Raleigh on May 16.

I already had already penciled in next Wednesday for childcare. And today a press release confirmed that Guilford County Schools — joining Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools — will close schools systemwide on May 16 in response to almost 2,000 out of 4,800 teachers planning to take a personal day to lobby the General Assembly in Raleigh.

It’s okay. I have a flexible job that allows me offset lost worktime during business hours by playing catch-up on the evenings and weekends, and if need be I can bring my 4-year-old into the office. It wasn’t always that way. When we started Triad City Beat four years ago and I was putting in 60-hour weeks to help get the paper off the ground, a snow day would throw me into turmoil. Thankfully, my workload has lightened considerably since then.

At risk of sounding like a public-education partisan, it doesn’t seem like that much of a sacrifice. A candidate for state House in Forsyth County said something six years ago that has stuck with me: If you’re sitting in the drive-in at McDonald’s, you should want the person preparing your Big Mac to be having a good day. If that’s how much you care about your fast-food meal, then you really should be concerned about whether the person teaching your child has what they need to do their job.

Britney Dennis, a third-grade teacher at Irving Park Elementary, acknowledged the inconvenience of the teachers’ action during a press conference in front of Smith High School on Monday.

“No teacher is walking out on your children,” she said. “We are rallying for your children, and demanding accountability from state leaders. As a mother, I get that there are probably moments you disagree with us teachers. Please understand that on the worst of days, we have the best intentions when it comes to the students.

“My experience teaching around this county has revealed disparities that are [preventing] kids from being successful: the crumbling buildings, the lack of emotional and physical support for staff, students and parents is becoming unbearable,” Dennis continued. “Parents: We cannot do this alone. And most of you are aware because you are helping fund our classrooms. You are buying pencil sharpeners, glue sticks, color copy paper, Clorox wipes, and the list could go on as long as this sidewalk. Stand with us and stop allowing state lawmakers to cut funding for nurses, and fund nurses in every building every day. Stop forcing teachers to fund medicine three days a week while nurses serve four schools at a time. Stand with us and stop supporting lawmakers that say mental illness is a school safety concern, but cut funding for counselors.”

Guilford County teachers, joined by NC Association of Educators President Mark Jewell, outlined five objectives to be delivered when thousands of North Carolina teachers address lawmakers on the first day of the session on May 16: additional investment in per-pupil spending; a multi-year compensation plan for educators, support professionals and administrators, with an emphasis on maintaining competitive pay for senior employees and those with advanced degrees; increased funding for nurses, counselors and social workers coupled with Medicaid expansion; a statewide school construction bond; and halting corporate tax cuts.

North Carolina ranks 39th in teacher pay and 41st in per-pupil spending, according to latest analysis by the National Education Association in April.

“As a teacher I work a full-time summer job just to make ends meet,” said Bridgett Wiley, a social studies teacher at Smith High School. “I hold a master’s degree, and most of my friends say, ‘Why do you still teach?’ If not me, then who? I don’t mind coming to work, but I would like to at the end of the month pay my bills, and in the summertime get more professional development to be a first-rate teacher.”

When North Carolina’s poor teacher-pay ranking is raised, conservative lawmakers, pundits and policy analysts typically respond that payroll income goes further here considering the state’s low cost of living, but Wiley told me that five of her fellow teachers have relocated to other states, including two who are now teaching in Houston. Even with a significantly higher cost of living, Wiley said her friends are finding that it’s easier to make ends meet.

To say that teachers have felt disrespected since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 would be an understatement.

“This is a textbook abusive relationship,” Guilford County Association of Educators President Todd Warren said. “In order to get something that we need — public education that is a human right — we’re forced to accept things that are bad for us: crumbling infrastructure, lack of supplies, teachers having to buy supplies out of their own pocket. But despite this, we make it happen every day.”

Thanks to the example of their colleagues in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and Oklahoma, North Carolina teachers are feeling a new sense of power.

“Before we’re done, they’re gonna wish they had never messed with public education,” Warren warned. “You’re going to see people in positions of power scrambling to stand on the side of public education because it’s what’s right.”

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