Recently, I attended a regional town hall meeting in support of public education, hosted by a nonpartisan group of concerned parents, teachers and community members called “Western North Carolina for Public Education.” Many people spoke about what’s going on in their children’s schools at the moment, and many of the stories were truly heartbreaking.
One third grade teacher described a student who collapsed in a sobbing heap on the floor after suffering through yet another “Read to Achieve” related test and once again failing to pass. Another student looked her bravely in the eye and begged for just one more chance to take the test and pass. We’re talking about students who likely have already been subjected to more than 30 reading assessment tests so far this school year. “This testing isn’t teaching our children to read,” this teacher explained. “It’s killing their love of reading.”
Another teacher spoke of her own four-year-old daughter who pleaded with her not to keep working every evening and every other Saturday. For this teacher and every other teacher, the job doesn’t end at the afternoon bell, especially as the General Assembly passes laws that heap more and more work on teachers that detracts from actual instruction. “My students are like my own children,” she said. “When they are hungry, or hurt, or frustrated, I carry that home with me.” That emotional burden is in addition to the lesson planning, professional development and classroom supply shopping teachers do on their own time.
It seems that everywhere I go now, I hear more and more stories like these. They make me wonder: What message is our General Assembly sending to our teachers, our parents, and most importantly, our children?
One recent morning, I walked my son to school along with a friend of his, whose mother is a teacher of would-be teachers at Western Carolina University. She explained that she now feels compelled to ask her students to think long and hard about choosing teaching as a career, and to consider the fact that they may never be able to afford to own a home, or even raise a family, on what they’ll make.
It’s not just stories about other people that cause me to question. My child has just lost her second teacher this year because of the stark reality between a teacher’s pay and the cost of supporting a family. For my 13-year-old, that means one-third of the adults in school that she relies on regularly for instruction — and just as importantly for encouragement, guidance, and a belief that her future is worth their investment — have now been forced to abandon her.
On the other hand almost every politician I’ve heard recently – on both sides of the political aisle – has pointed to the fact that he or she has family ties to education. It almost seems as if every member of the General Assembly had a teacher for a mother. That, they say, is evidence of their deep commitment to public education in North Carolina. But actions speak louder than words. And as I translate the General Assembly’s actions, here’s how the message sounds to me:
“Dear North Carolina Public School Students,
We know that you want a high-quality education. We understand that regardless of your skin color or your parents’ income level, you have big dreams and want to live happy, productive lives. We realize that you will need highly qualified teachers who feel valued and supported so that they can provide you with engaging, innovative, ongoing instruction.
We know all of these things, but we simply don’t care enough about your future to make it our priority to do right by all of you. We’ll support only a few of you who are lucky enough to have parents with higher incomes or those who we can foist off on private schools. To the rest of you, best of luck in your educational endeavors. Hopefully you can land a low-wage job after high school.”
Personally, that’s not a message I want my kids to hear from anyone — especially those elected to make our state the place where they’ll want to build their futures. It will take a strong, bipartisan effort to change that message for our kids, and hopefully our General Assembly will have the will and the courage to do so some time very soon.
Betsey Russell is a nonprofit communications consultant who lives in Asheville.