This perspective was originally published in The News & Observer on October 31, 2015.
My son wants to teach high school history. He chose his college based on its education program. “Why not be a monk instead?” I asked him. “You’ll make more money.”
When his favorite teacher, a former Army Ranger who teaches U.S. government, learned my son was pursuing education, he smiled but retorted, “Teaching is an honorable profession, but I would advise him to think carefully about his decision.”
He didn’t extrapolate and didn’t need to. I am on a school board. Federal, state and even our local board policies have been tough on teachers lately. Micromanagement and low salaries are turning good people away from the teaching profession.
My favorite duty has been attending the Teacher of the Year banquet. Two years ago I presented an iPad, courtesy of a local bank, to a joyfully teary kindergarten teacher, and the year before that the iPad went to a hardworking marching band director. The band director said he was grateful to have a wife who supported him and his two children even when it involved missing dinner and getting home late at night for months on end. He walked back to his table and presented his wife with the iPad.
Know where those district Teachers of the Year are now? Gone.
The band director moved to South Carolina; the young elementary school star quit teaching. These teachers had the gift. They were humble, awe-inspiring people. The kindergarten teacher was known for taming even the wildest, toughest kids with love and hugs. The band director changed the course of hundreds of lives, among them my own son’s life. These are the teachers we are losing, and it’s happening on a statewide level.
Now when I attend the Teacher of the Year banquet, I find myself wondering, “How many teachers will use this award as a ticket to leave our state and teach elsewhere?”
The damage caused by our best teachers leaving is beyond heartbreaking. Anyone, regardless of wealth or political affiliation, who thinks this teacher exodus – not to mention the thousands of young people avoiding education as a career – is not a problem is fooling himself. Even children in the best private and charter schools will feel the sting because those institutions recruit teachers from public schools.
How bad can the discrepancy really be? Two of our top middle school teachers, a married couple, left for Georgia last year. They wanted to own a home. Considering the lower cost of living and that they could earn $25,000 more a year, who could blame them? Over the course of their careers, they will make a combined $800,000 more. It doesn’t take a math degree to understand that it’s in every teacher’s best financial interest to load up the U-Haul and leave North Carolina kids behind.
I was complaining about our mass departure of teachers to an old friend on a school board in a neighboring rural county close to South Carolina. I told him, “Last year, we had a 15 percent teacher turnover rate. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
He muttered, “At least you can hire teachers. In the last three years, we’ve almost lost half our teachers, and we have third-grade classes that still don’t have teachers. They’re all commuting to South Carolina. Nobody licensed has even applied for the jobs. It’s October, and we’re using subs. Those kids are losing the year.”
I hate admitting this, but I have reservations about my son pursuing an education degree. Teaching runs through the family – grandmothers, fathers, aunts, mother, sisters – but my wife and I sternly lectured our son that if he chose teaching he would struggle to support a family.
My son named several teachers who had families and had been there for him and how they had changed his life. “I want to give back,” he replied earnestly. “If I have to leave the state, that’s OK.”
He is a good kid. No. A great kid. I hope he finds a state that cares more about teachers and education.