Commentary

Why I stay: Broughton teacher prefers to keep her talent here at home

May 28, 2014 

TEACHER03-NE-051414-RTW

Kristi Kallio, a high school media coordinator from Mooresville, gathers with more than 100 educators and support staff from across North Carolina for a rally at NCAE headquarters in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, May 14. The educators then marched to the Capital along Fayetteville Street calling for funding for teacher pay on the opening day of the short session of the legislature.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

As a first-year teacher, I’ve encountered the same question over and over during the last year: Why would you teach in North Carolina?

Family, friends, coworkers, and interviewers for summer jobs pose the question sometimes with genuine interest, but often with absolute disbelief. Answering that question is complicated.

I was born and raised in North Carolina, a product of our education system from kindergarten in Morganton to my masters program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to enter teaching, though my reasons have evolved.

Developing commitment

As a high school student contemplating a career in teaching, I imagined the joys of a life spent reading, writing, and discussing literature with inquiring young minds.

In college, as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, I traveled to Swaziland and South Africa to work in education. I was exposed to inspiring professors and other young minds with strong opinions about service and the role of schools.

I recognized the importance of contributing to a community and the necessity of helping young people become thoughtful consumers of information, the backbone of a functional democracy.

As a masters student, I realized that nothing has ever challenged me more academically or emotionally than student teaching in Durham, and at the same time, nothing has provided me with a clearer sense of purpose and greater professional satisfaction.

As a Fulbright Fellow last year in Norway, I was excited to participate in a culture with a totally different understanding of school. I came back excited to help American students build the creativity, communication, and critical thinking skills they need to become global citizens.

Difficult question

Now, as a first-year teacher, all those reasons still ring true. However, they don’t always help me answer the question why when faced with the realities of my job.

My friends questions about my commitment to this job are usually because of the sheer amount of time I spend in my classroom.

On average, I work 65-hour weeks, teaching, lesson planning, grading, creating a class website, communicating with parents, and providing extra support to students outside of class. I love the work! There’s just a lot of it.

I have been lucky in that this year I work with 118 students in my English classes. However, I look at some of my colleagues, who carry students loads of up to 210 students, and I worry that my hours will only increase in coming years with larger class sizes as it takes time to provide individual feedback on assignments and to touch base with families.

Financial hardship

My family questions my commitment to teaching because they believe my accomplishments and abilities merit high pay.

While I’d like to be compensated more for my work, because I teach in Wake County, which has the highest supplement in the state, and I have a masters degree, I make a reasonable $38,887.

This is approximately an $8,000 bump from the current baseline first-year teacher pay. However, after talking with co-workers who have been in this job for eight years who are still making this same approximate wage as they did at the beginning of their teaching career, I worry about my ability to build savings, to pay off my student loans, to make a down payment on a house, or to support children in the future.

My co-workers see the larger picture. They understand why I want this job. But even they question why I would pick this state to teach in given the recent political changes.

The attempt at removing teacher tenure, the retraction of masters pay for incoming educators, the lack of raises, the discontinuation of programs like the North Carolina Teaching Fellows, the constant implications that there are countless bad or lazy teacher have all been cited as reasons why I shouldn’t pick this state.

While I understand there are new proposals to increase teacher compensation and potentially reverse some of the negative trends in education in our state, the cumulative effect of these changes has created a culture that implies career teachers have been doing something wrong and that our jobs are not valuable or worthy of respect.

As educators, we know that the young people we are in charge of need praise, support, and encouragement to thrive, and yet, our leaders have provided teachers, especially new ones, with the opposite.

Intangible rewards

Even faced with these questions about my motivations to teach and the long days of a beginning teacher, I don’t want to leave this profession. Sure, in my most exhausted moments, the siren song of an 8-hour workday with significantly better pay feels tempting beyond measure, but when I think of what I can accomplish in any other profession, it just doesn’t stack up to the personal impact I get to make every day as a teacher.

Earlier this semester, I had a student seek me out to show me a college acceptance email on her phone. After working with another student for hours, I received an essay that was well-structured and well-argued. Once, after explaining a project step-by-step to a struggling student, that child looked at me and said, “I’m going to finish this project, Ms. D. I’m really going to turn it in.” And a couple of weeks later, he did. Those victories are what make all this work feel worthwhile. I get to help children become better seekers of knowledge and better critical thinkers every day. That is a powerful thing.

Beyond that, these young people keep me engaged. They inspire me. They make me laugh. Their energy and potential remind me of all those ambitious reasons I became a teacher and make me want to strive to be better, make more connections, and be present and on every moment of every day. They deserve that from me, and I doubt my feelings about that will ever change.

I feel genuinely lucky that I get to do this for my job, and I want this to be my career. My only fear is that the, the practical, financial, and political realities of teaching in this state will prevent me from being able to stay.

Rachael Debnam teaches English at Broughton High School. Contact her via email at debnam@gmail.com.

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