Commentary

Commentary: Teaching isn’t a profession of last resort

April 27, 2014 

“Those that can't do, teach.” I still remember hearing those words for the first time, in this case from Jack Black’s substitute teacher character in a screening of School of

Rock. As an idealistic freshman with a career in education on my mind, I simply laughed off the old joke. “No one actually feels that way,” I thought.

Now, as my sixth year of teaching winds down, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed or implied by students, parents, friends, and family.

The one that’s stuck with me the most is that I’m “too smart” to teach, a sort of backhanded compliment that I’ve heard several times and many of my Broughton

colleagues tell me they’ve received as well.

Are people really suggesting that public school teachers, who educate roughly 85 percent of Wake County’s school-age youth, should not include those that can best prepare students to become responsible and productive future citizens that are creative and critical thinkers?

Unfortunately, I’ve found it’s all too common for society to deride teaching as a profession for those unqualified for landing "better" jobs, while simultaneously discouraging highly qualified individuals from starting or continuing a career in education.

This mindset is being reinforced by the actions of our legislature, negatively affecting teacher recruitment and retention. The responsibilities placed on teachers have increased while compensation has not, which is why I wasn’t surprised to find that nearly 7 percent of WCPSS teachers have left the classroom since last June.

Before I stepped foot in a classroom, I thought I knew how much I would make each year, but little did I know that my rookie year would coincide with the beginning of North Carolina’s ongoing teacher pay freeze.

The difference between my current salary and what I expected to make at this point based on the pay scale that existed when I entered the profession is significant — about $6,000, or a sixth of my gross pay.

The lack of those promised incremental pay steps combined with larger class sizes, fewer instructional resources, and greater demands on time outside the classroom have created a less appealing work environment for teachers.

At Broughton, our staff’s lifelong appreciation of education is evident, as forty percent of teachers have a master’s or doctoral degree with a handful more currently working on an advanced degree.

While this higher education helps bring more content knowledge and improved pedagogy into the classroom, there’s also an increasing emphasis on teaching students to become proficient problem solvers who can adapt to a fast-changing work environment.

Particularly at the high school level, students benefit from the many who become teachers as a second career after leaving the private sector, typically in an industry related to the subject they teach.

At Broughton, that includes former engineers, military officers, lawyers, and businesspeople. Their vast experience is invaluable in making instruction relevant to students, though those teachers often make great personal sacrifices for the benefit of the next generation.

Pay and the performance gap

As a product of Harnett County Schools, it also troubles me to think about who will replace teachers leaving Wake County public schools. I had plenty of teachers in Harnett County that were every bit as good as those I work with in Wake; I can thank them for few of the $5 words in this article (or the ability to find one via Microsoft Word’s thesaurus feature).

But Wake County, as a relatively affluent district, pays teachers a much higher supplement on top of the state salary than poorer counties. Not surprisingly, teacher turnover tends to be higher in districts with lower pay, a factor that studies show leads to weaker student performance.

As college students become disincentivized to enter education careers, will teachers from more rural counties fill the void left in wealthier counties, widening that performance gap? Will legislators and education leaders continue to expect more from our public school system as a whole while simultaneously providing fewer reasons for qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable teachers to stick around?

If improving teacher working conditions continues to be treated as a lesser priority by legislators, I worry that the result of this emotional and financial tipping point felt by educators across North Carolina will be irreparable damage to our schools and thus the future of this great state.

Without quality teachers staying in the classroom, I worry for the education received by students throughout North Carolina; the bar set by testing will continue to be raised and those outside of schools will continue to question the system when we fall short.

I also worry that those children won’t be inspired, like I was, by teachers that challenge them to become better students and people; if they’re not impacted by their education, who among them will care to return to the classroom and instruct the next generation except those that truly cannot find other employment?

Starting with the Wake County commissioners’ decision on whether to grant teachers a 3.5 percent raise next year, I hope that lawmakers — locally and statewide — begin immediately working towards both increasing teacher compensation and promoting better working conditions before further harm is done.

Spencer Griffith teaches honors entrepreneurship, principles of business and finance at Broughton High School in Raleigh. Contact him via email at spencergriffith@gmail.com.

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