“I felt like I was no longer valued as a professional at all.”
So says Amy Kyle, a North Carolina native who moved to Pennsylvania when she and her husband—also a teacher—realized that with their meager pay, they would not be able to afford to raise a family in the state.
In addition to better salaries, Amy says teachers in Pennsylvania also have more respect. “It’s completely different. You’re definitely viewed as a professional.”
Unfortunately, Amy’s story is not unique. North Carolina has asked much more of its teachers in recent years, yet it has failed to supplement those demands with policies to support and attract excellent educators and create an environment in which they can thrive (read: stagnant salaries, limited leadership opportunities, low prestige, and more).
Decisions made by the legislature this past session are largely viewed as hostile to teachers – and, from my standpoint, many of them are. But even those that can help build a profession focused on excellence – such as performance-based contracts, data-driven evaluations, and compensation reform – have been implemented in the absence of a long-term vision to justify significant changes or short-term sacrifices. As a result, many educators have become disenchanted with their profession and some, like Amy, are looking to practice it elsewhere, or not at all.
What is that guiding vision we’re so lacking as a state? My beloved colleague Jiye Grace Han, a former elementary school teacher and national finalist for the Sue Lehmann award, offers the best starting place I’ve seen:
“…Imagine what it would be like to work in a place that ensures that all teachers have the chance to improve their craft, and be rewarded for getting better; a place that lets all teachers make the best use of their talents by focusing their time and energy on parts of their job that they do best; a place that lets great teachers multiply their impact by giving more students access to their teaching for more pay; and a place that offers excellent teachers leadership roles that are not far removed from students.
“I would love for someone to ask me to imagine being part of a profession that recruits the best and the brightest, and has a reputation for developing and retaining top talent through all of these opportunities, plus salaries that can compete against those of doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
“Essentially, this means asking teachers to imagine a profession that, rather than being laden with things that keep people from becoming a teacher, is full of hard-to-refuse opportunities. Great teachers deserve this profession, and they have every right to imagine it, want it, and watch it become reality.”
This vision – of a profession full of opportunity and reward – is what guides CarolinaCAN’s policy and advocacy. We believe every child deserves access to an excellent teacher – and that only by rethinking the structure of the teaching profession itself can we recruit, keep and leverage enough great teachers to reach every child.
Our work in 2013 was guided by this vision – to transform continuing contract status (i.e. tenure) from a “rubber stamp” for years of service into an affirmative recognition of success in the classroom; to integrate student growth into teachers’ annual evaluations an provide meaningful feedback on their performance; and to revise our outdated salary schedule to enable local leaders to recognize and reward top contributors at their school.
Our work in 2014 and beyond will be to guide smart implementation on all of these policies – as well as to help state leaders revision other key aspects of the teaching profession to focus each on excellence, from training and preparation to compensation and ongoing development:
- Training and preparation. Teacher education programs should raise the bar for admissions standards and create programs that are rigorous, relevant and meaningful for future educators. Highly successful education systems such as those in Finland and Singapore have dramatically improved the overall status of the teaching career – not to mention student learning – by setting an extremely high standard for entry to the profession.
- Compensation. It’s one thing to commit to revisit outdated pay schedules – and to build new structures that reward what matters most to students’ success. But North Carolina has a fundamental adequacy problem when it comes to teachers’ salaries. We need significant increases in base salaries to make the profession competitive with other options for top college graduates. Together with a revised reward structure, higher pay can change who enters and stays, and help give teaching more prestige.
- Opportunities for growth. Teachers need meaningful opportunities for growth and development without leaving the classroom or direct work with students. By rethinking teachers’ job responsibilities, the schedule of the school day, and the role of technology in students’ learning, we can extend the reach of our teaching all-stars, increase leadership opportunities and improve outcomes for the students of all teachers involved.
In most schools across North Carolina this school year, a heartfelt thank you from a student, parent or colleague is about the best “reward” a great teacher can expect. And the best “opportunities” only come in piecemeal programs in isolated classrooms or innovative schools across the state.
Our focus at CarolinaCAN is to make real rewards and opportunities the norm, not the exception. In the coming months we’ll engage with great educators statewide to craft and advocate for statewide policies that will make teaching in North Carolina a world-class and true profession, one that teachers like Amy and her husband will want to be a part of.