Mary Foster, a Riverside English teacher, is finishing her thirty-second and last year of teaching.
“I love being a teacher,” Foster said. “But you’ll never make what you’re worth.”
Foster is one of the few teachers who has reached the final row in the Durham Public Schools pay scale: “31+ Years of Experience.”
“At year 25 they stop giving any incentive to stay,” said Foster. “They know you’ll stay so you can retire with full benefits. These are the teachers that provide the leadership they need. They use us. That’s the truly disgusting part.”
The state’s base salary remains stagnant after year 25 in the $50,000 range, the only increases are at a local level.
Foster was paid approximately $20,000 her first year of teaching in 1990. This year she will earn $52,000. While on paper it looks like her salary has more than doubled, adjusting for inflation, today her starting salary would be just under $44,000. Meaning, over her three decade long career, she has only received a real raise of a little over $8,000.
“I love my job, but it’s so frustrating,” Foster said. “Both my husband and I knew going in we weren’t going to get rich being teachers. We don’t need to be rich. But, it would be nice getting paid a comparable amount as other people with the same level of education.”
Foster’s grievances are supported by data from the Economic Policy Institute, which indicates that on average teachers are paid 19.2 percent less than comparable college graduates.
North Carolina is ranked thirty-second in teacher pay, according to the National Association of Educators. The estimated average teacher salary of $55,905 is nearly $10,500 below the national average.
“Disrespect is the hardest part of teaching. Lack of money is just one part of that,” Foster said. “Getting disrespect from teenagers is one thing. Getting it from [the legislature] is different.”
Across the state, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, a Macon County teacher put it plainly.
“That’s why [North Carolina] can’t find teachers, because of this kind of a shit right here,” John Deville said. Deville teaches social studies at Franklin High School. “This is a big ‘F you’ to every single educator in the state of North Carolina, a state that once led the southeast in public education. And now we’re trash. We’re Mississippi trash. We’re South Carolina trash. That’s all we are. It’s a shame, and it didn’t have to be this way.”
A slide presented to a house committee earlier this month by a staff agency of the NC General indicates that North Carolina lags behind all of its neighboring states in teacher benefits. Additionally, a table with data compiled from the Education Association shows that North Carolina teachers have the lowest average starting salary compared to other states in the southeast.
“I’m basically eight grand short of what I was promised I would be making in 2008. I’m eight grand short a year,” said Deville.
To make the problem worse, retirement pension is directly tied to salary.
“That means that my retirement check has also been chopped,” said Deville. He went on to say that in addition to bonuses being unreliable and intermittent, they are also not a component of salary, so they too do not increase retirement.
The current system simultaneously harms teachers in the future with their impending retirement, as well as in the present, especially amidst the rising inflation that exacerbates the situation.
“My salary has been basically stagnant for years,” Deville said. “All the General Assembly has given me this past session was a 1.3 percent raise. I basically get 15 extra dollars a month before taxes. And inflation is over 7 percent, so I’ve gone backwards.”
His position in Western North Carolina is especially unenviable, because as second home owners and retirees flock to Macon County and Appalachia, home prices and the cost of living are skyrocketing.
“All throughout Western North Carolina the number one political issue is affordable housing. Where you might have been able to stretch that dollar 10 to 15 years ago, that’s all done,” explains Deville. “Now that everyone has decided to move to Western North Carolina, home prices have gone up 30 to 40 percent in the past couple of years. The notion that an educator’s salary goes further in rural areas just ain’t true in Western Carolina.”
The places where teacher salaries have done a better job at keeping pace with rising inflation are counties with consistently high local supplements, an additional pay delegated and funded by the county.
“Supplements in this district are very high,” said Neal Morgan, an East Chapel Hill High School English teacher. “It’s the highest paying district in the state for teachers. You won’t find a better paying teaching position in North Carolina.”
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) teachers with zero to nineteen years of teaching experience get a 17 percent local supplement on top of their base salary, 21 percent with 10 to 24 years of experience, and 26 percent for over 25 years experience, which averages out to a supplement of $8,558 according to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
At Durham Public Schools, local supplements start at 15.5 percent of the base salary, and increase by $155 with each subsequent year of service. The supplements max out at 19 percent with 31+ years of experience. The average local supplement of $7,543 is over $1,000 less than the CHCCS supplement.
Comparatively, in rural school districts like Macon County, there is a much smaller tax base, so as of 2020 the average local supplement is only $957. Additionally, because a significant portion of the county’s population is retirees and second home owners, they do not have children in public schools, so properly financing schools that they do not have a stake in is not the top of their priority list, nor does it outweigh the benefits of low taxes.
“Macon County has the ability to spend way more money [on schools],” Deville explained. “We have one of the lowest tax rates in the state, which makes it a great place to live if you’re a retiree, but not a great place to be if you’re a kid in public school.”
Teacher shortages: “They went three years without math teachers.”
Higher local supplements tend to attract and retain qualified teachers more successfully than districts with lower supplements.
“If I wanted to leave this district, I would be taking a pay cut,” Morgan said. “So we attract more teachers and there’s more competition for jobs.”
“Approximately 50 percent of teachers at Riverside leave every three years,” said Riverside PLTW Program Coordinator Tim Velegol, who collected his own data over the course of his 16 years at Riverside.
Furthermore, for the duration of this academic year, Riverside has maintained vacancies in teaching positions across all core subjects, whereas higher supplemented schools like East Chapel Hill High School currently have no vacancies for core academic subjects.
Though teacher shortages are a major issue in the urban and suburban Research Triangle, they are even more pronounced in rural areas where there is both a smaller supply of teachers and lower local supplements.
Riverside counselor Kira Hague spent her first year in education working in Duplin County public schools.
“What I learned was that small towns like that have a high turnover rate, because a lot of people do those jobs as an entry level to get their foot in the door somewhere,” Hague said. “They also had a lot of people commuting. Over half the staff were new and were commuting from Wilmington.”
In Duplin county, the average local supplement is $3,207 according to DPI. Comparatively, the average local supplement in New Hanover County (Wilmington’s county) is nearly three times as high, at $8,663.
Riverside guidance counselor Courtney Higgins made similar observations after working at Southeast Collegiate Prep Academy in Halifax County for three years before moving to Durham.
“The school was always short staffed,” Higgins said. “At one point, they went four years without college counselors, and three years without math teachers. The students had to teach themselves math with online classes.”
Even online classes weren’t always an option. “They lacked so many resources that they had to put money into other things,” Higgins said.
As a result, oftentimes teachers would have to cover for vacant teaching positions on top of their other responsibilities.
“Teachers have to take on other roles that they can’t be paid for,” Higgins said. “At Riverside there are multiple teachers for multiple subjects, but there, there was only one teacher per subject.”
On top of a larger supply of teachers, Riverside also has the advantage of being able to compensate them for their time covering other classes. Though long term subs are hard to come by at both institutions, Riverside’s urban environment gives them a larger pool of individuals to pull from.
The constant short staffing and frequent turnover in Halifax County hurt the students.
“The first year I was there was the first time in seven years that all the staff stayed the whole year,” Higgins said.
The staff stability caused a dramatic increase in the graduation rate, from 71 percent to 87 percent. Additionally, suspensions and behavioral issues decreased.
“The students there are so used to staff coming and going. I was gone one day, and when I came back the next day they were surprised to see me. They told me that teachers leave them and never come back,” Higgins said.
Censored Curriculum: “I teach in constant fear of getting called out.”
“I’ve been teaching for 19 years, and I love the job,” said an English teacher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “And I love that it lets me live where I want to live.”
For them, this means 1,600 person Alleghany county in western North Carolina.
Here, salary is not an issue. In Alleghany county, according to the 2020 US Census, the median household income is $19,400 a year. The starting salary for Alleghany County Public School teachers is $40,325, over double the median income.
Yet, this rural county poses a tradeoff.
“The biggest problem is the obsession with testing is not letting me teach my curriculum, but I don’t think that’s unique to rural schools,” they said.
What is unique to their county is the culture, which they characterized as, “very conservative, close-minded, and slow to change. There is a good side to that, but definitely a bad side as well.”
“The local school board is fairly uneducated and not very inspiring,” they explained. “I just hear in other places that school boards are comprised of well-educated people who went to college and really value education. Our school board is close-minded and embittered towards public education.”
This attitude infringes on their ability to teach.
“I teach in constant fear of getting called out by people who really don’t understand my curriculum or the material I am teaching,” they said. “[For example], having a discussion that would be misinterpreted as me promoting a liberal agenda. I end up erring on the safe side and not covering a lot of material that’s relevant or thought-provoking.”
Ultimately, this causes them to teach directly to the state tests. Based on the direction public education is heading in their district, they said, “I would never recommend to a young person to go into teaching.”
As a repercussion of this standardized education, they feel as if the whole teaching profession is heading in the wrong direction. “Overall it’s resulting in a shift to a lot of online education where teachers are just babysitters managing kids on screens rather than actually really teaching,” they said.
Scripted Lessons: “It feels like all the training I had to be an effective teacher was kind of a waste of time.”
Standardized education is also evident miles away in the metropolitan and politically diverse Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS).
“If you were to walk into a particular school in Charlotte-Meck, and you were to walk from fifth grade classroom to fifth grade classroom to fifth grade classroom, and I have literally done this, you will see the exact same lesson taught the exact same way to all those cohorts,” Deville explained.
This phenomenon is known as scripted lessons.
“Scripted lessons are lessons in which every detail of the lesson is planned by someone other than the teacher, including the things that the teacher should say, like reading from a script,” said Justin Parmenter, a seventh grade language arts teacher at South Academy of International Languages.
Examples of scripted lines from one of his lesson plans include, “‘Can you say more about that? I’ll give you some time to think and write or sketch,’” and “‘What does what you read or saw in the book make you think about? Why?’ (Responses will vary.)”
The lesson plan also offers teachers advice, such as, “During all interaction, be aware that partnering with, looking at, talking with, or touching a different gender may be uncomfortable and inappropriate for some students. In addition, some students may believe it is inappropriate to speak with other students of another gender at all during class.”
This type of scripted lesson was implemented after the district audited reading levels in their K-12 classrooms, and found that 76 percent of classes were performing below grade average.
“There was just very little coherence across our district in terms of curriculum and equitable instructional practices. And that was not an indictment of our teachers. We just simply didn’t provide for it,” Brian Kingsley, CMS chief academic officer said in an article published by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Today, glossy The CMS Way pamphlets advertise that they “empower schools to create opportunity-driven learning environments from a foundation of consistent, district-wide expectations.”
“In a way it’s good to have some support and planning done by someone else,” Parmenter said. “But it also makes it feel like all the training I had to be an effective teacher was kind of a waste of time.”
Parmenter echoed the same sentiment as his fellow teachers across the state: that scripted lessons are yet another form of disrespect.
“I believe that teachers should be respected as instructional leaders in their classrooms,” he said. “They have earned a teaching license by demonstrating their competency, so they need to be treated as if they know what they’re doing. It’s fine to provide resources for those that want or need them, but demanding that teachers adhere to a scripted lesson without deviating from it is not good.”
Lack of Communication Between Teachers and Bureaucracy: “There is a disconnect between pedagogy and reality.”
In the urban, liberal Mecca of Durham, bureaucracy and red tape pose challenges to educators, despite local representatives’ commitments to public education.
“The relationship we have with the state and with downtown is very strained because they don’t talk to us,” Foster said. “There are no conversations about what they’re thinking and why they’re making these decisions.”
A prime example of this is the upcoming spring testing schedule. This year, the district is requiring state and teacher made exams to be administered in the same week.
“The problem I see is teachers are going to be spread very thin,” Foster said. “I’m all ears for an explanation, but they don’t have a legitimate reason.”
Foster is concerned that there not will not be enough staff, especially amid a COVID spike. All students will also be forced to attend school that week, rather than the small portion of students who need to take the EOC exams. She suspects this will lead to discipline issues.
“There is a disconnect between pedagogy and reality,” Foster said. “There is no reality check for what might not be possible. I love public education, I just get frustrated about the people who know nothing about it having so much control.”
This disconnect has existed every year she’s been in the classroom.
“I remember vividly at the beginning of my career when I was teaching in middle school I had a student that was very disruptive and tore my classroom apart three hours a day,” Foster said.
I wanted to educate him but had 27 other students. So I went to a conference downtown and went toe to toe with them, and they kept saying I had to educate him.”
She added, “They don’t seem to be listening to what’s actually happening in schools.”
Solutions: “You’re going to see public schools get totally Walmart-ified with people teaching who just don’t have the education.”
There are a number of actions the state could take to mitigate this state-wide crisis.
The first would be to offer teachers more competitive salaries.
The most recent pay increase teachers have received was a 5% salary increase passed in last year’s biennium budget.
In a North Carolina House Committee meeting on May 9, committee chair Republican Rep. John Torbett said that this slight raise is not something to be proud of.
“We shouldn’t thump our chest on a 5 percent pay increase to teachers when you have inflation at eight and a half percent, you have fuel costs over a 100 percent increase,” Torbett said. “You have rental charges going up 20 percent, you have health care going up 14 percent, and the list goes on,” Torbett said. “So the 5 percent pay increase is really a negative by the time everything else comes out.”
The alternative solution would be to increase the pool of potential teachers.
“What I firmly believe is going to happen is that this fall, you will see people with two year degrees inside the classroom as lead teachers,” Deville said. “[Schools] don’t have any other place to go. There’s no other place to go.”
The Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) unveiled a plan early this year to do just that.
The new licensure program allows for apprentice teachers to enter the profession with an Associates Degree. These teachers would work under an expert teacher, and will be paid a co-teacher salary of $30,000 a year.
The plan also aims to provide larger salaries and career advancement opportunities to a select few advanced teachers with professional level certificates and advanced credentials. On top of their current classroom duties, these teachers would also train the apprentice teachers. The goal is to provide career advancement opportunities within the classroom to reduce the number of talented teachers shifting to administrative positions as the only prospect for a bump in salary.
Foster says that a school system is able to handle a small number of these novice educators, but she fears for a future dominated by this type of teacher, especially considering the harsh realities of the profession.
She went on to explain that many experienced teachers have already been handling these duties for years.
“Helping mentor teachers is something most experienced teachers do in formal and informal ways,” she said. “My room has been the place where new teachers come to ask questions, cry on shoulders, and get chocolate. I have never minded that but that is an added burden.”
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt believes that the new plan will properly compensate teachers for this additional burden. “We’re trying to address the ongoing, pervasive challenge that many teachers feel, which is they do all of this work, which is tantamount to volunteer work but they are not compensated for,” she said.
Parmenter expressed different concerns. “Competition over a limited number of larger salaries would lead to teachers working in silos rather than collaborating and sharing best practices as cohesive teams,” he wrote on his website Notes From the Chalkboard.
In addition to paying some high-level teachers to perform these duties, under this system, teachers would be able to obtain higher salaries at a much faster rate. A slide featured in a General Assembly presentation about teacher pay indicates that it takes teachers much longer to top off their salary compared to other state jobs.
If the plan is implemented, teachers would have the potential to earn larger wages, as well as earn them at a much faster rate, ultimately resulting in the ability to earn $200,000 more in a thirty year career.
Fully accredited teachers would be able to jump to a salary of $56,000 after demonstrating effectiveness for three out of five years. Currently, it would take a teacher over three decades to reach their maximum state salary. Additionally, teachers have the potential to earn up to $72,000 annually if they reach Advanced Teacher: Adult Leadership status.
Teachers who obtain degrees from one of the 55 state-approved Educator Preparation Programs would be deemed License III teachers, and receive a starting salary of $45,000, $10,000 more than the current starting salary.
“This is where they would start, which means their starting salary, if we have our way, will be higher than it is right now,” Truitt said.
Another major aspect of the plan is to remove ineffective teachers and promote effective teachers. To be deemed an Expert or Advanced Teacher, educators must demonstrate “effective teaching” or “highly effective teaching” respectively. The metrics on which this is determined is based on a multitude of options, such as tests, micro-credentials, and Practical Educator Evidence Review (PEER).
“This is a clear departure from the limited current system, which is only involving testing,” said Andrew Sioberg, director of educator preparation at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
“The proposed change would make North Carolina the first state in the country to stop paying teachers on an experience-based scale that, at least in theory, rewards long-term commitment to a career in education and recognizes the importance of veteran educators (if adequately funded by the state),” Parmenter wrote.
Additionally, Parmenter fears that these metrics are too limited to properly evaluate teachers, and will ultimately end up negatively impacting students’ education.
“[The proposal] would increase ‘teaching to the test’ by offering a handful of larger salaries to those educators whose students do well on tests,” writes Parmenter. “Teachers of subjects with no standardized tests are raising concerns that observations and student surveys are highly subjective, and basing salaries on them would be unfair.”
Truitt says that if the plan receives approval from the state board and General Assembly, it will be implemented within the next two to three years.
“You’re going to see public schools get totally Walmart-ified with people teaching who just don’t have the education,” Deville said. “And we proved during the pandemic, what people basically care about is having a babysitter. If they’ve got a babysitter, they don’t really care about what’s going on in the classroom.”
As for Foster, she believes that paying teachers what they’re worth is only the start.
“The lack of money would be a whole lot easier to swallow if we had respect, were treated like professionals, and were trusted to do what’s right for kids,” she said. “That would mean a lot more than a raise.”