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Perspective | Lift up teachers and treat them as professionals

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The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the May 25, 2021 broadcast of Education Matters: “Educators discuss what impacts teachers and needs of the classroom.”

We frequently talk about how to best support our teachers throughout their careers. Most of us can quickly picture the teachers who made a difference in our lives, the one that pushed us or saw something unique in us that we may not have yet discovered. And research confirms that teachers are the number one school-related factor in impacting student learning outcomes.

For that reason, we must ensure that we have a qualified and well-prepared teacher in every classroom, which requires us to provide teachers with the profession, working conditions, and resources they need.

While many voice support for teachers, there are many policies and realities of being a teacher that do not demonstrate our respect for the expertise, commitment, and creativity that it takes to meet the needs of all students every day. Lifting up our teachers and treating them as professionals are critical to continuing to recruit and retain excellent teachers in our schools.

On our show, we were blessed to hear from two incredible North Carolina Teachers of the Year as well as Dr. Jim Causby, a longtime school superintendent and advocate for the recent creation of North Carolina’s Beginning Teacher of the Year program.

North Carolina’s 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Teacher of the Year, Eugenia Floyd, shared with us that one of the most impactful things school leaders and policymakers can do to support teachers is to hear them. When teachers share what their needs are and what their students’ needs are, those who are in the position to make positive change in the field of education should first and foremost rely on the feedback they receive from educators, Floyd said.

When teachers feel heard, they feel valued and best positioned to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. Teachers must always be at the table when making policy decisions about the classroom.

And how do we attract people to join the teaching profession? North Carolina’s 2021 Prudential NCCAT Beginning Teacher of the Year, Emilee Higdon, said that, at first, she didn’t want to be a teacher, but a marine biologist. It was the conversations she had with one of her English professors that helped her to understand how teaching can enable her to have a career in which every day was different, and she could have a significant impact on the lives of so many.

It was also a field in which she could express her creativity and learn new things every day. Those attributes inspired her to become an educator.

Dr. Jim Causby, who in 2018 began advocating for a Beginning Teacher of the Year program, said that we need to start having positive conversations with young people again about the value and importance of a career in education in order to attract the best and brightest to the profession. And both Emilee and Dr. Causby pointed to the value of the Beginning Teacher of the Year program’s intensive professional learning program for its 27 finalists.

For beginning teachers who are just starting from scratch, the first year of employment is exhausting and challenging to navigate. Intensive professional learning should be available to all beginning teachers so they can develop strong classroom management and pedagogical skills that they can bring to their teaching styles for years to come.

So, how do we recruit and retain educators like Emilee and Eugenia? We must treat them well and invest in our educators as professionals. This requires competitive salaries, benefits and professional learning. While North Carolina has made some improvements in these areas over the past decade, we still have significant room to grow, as North Carolina’s average teacher pay is significantly below the national average.

We must prioritize these investments in educators to address teacher shortages — in particular in our lower wealth school districts — and ensure every child in North Carolina has access to a sound basic education. We are grateful for our educators and all that support them.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.