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The real problem with teaching in North Carolina

The real problem with teaching in North Carolina isn’t the pay, it’s the hours.

My husband and I are both teachers. Recently, I suggested to him that we should only work the hours we are paid to make a point. His response was, “But, you can’t.” You would not get the job done. So I asked him why we couldn’t at least do it for a short time as a demonstration. He said the public would have no sympathy for teachers complaining about having to work too much. They would only have sympathy for something they saw as affecting the well being of students. Okay…

It is not in the best interest of students for good teachers to leave the profession. For talented young teachers, like one who was nominated for Teacher of the Year at Leesville Road High School this year, to leave for the private sector. When she was explaining her decision to not come back next year, the first words out of her mouth were, “I am just so tired, all the time.”

Students are also affected when experienced teachers like me get stretched so thin with non-instructional responsibilities that they become both physically and mentally exhausted. I love teaching and want to invest time in doing what is best for my students and my school, but I am going to get burned out if something doesn’t change. We are losing more and more teachers every year who are switching to other professions, retiring early, going to other states or countries to teach, or choosing not to return once they start a family.

I am now going to tell you two stories that illustrate the nature of teacher hours in North Carolina.

Teachers have to make up every hour lost to inclement weather. Unless you drove to school and worked in the building, you have to account for “lost” time. We have a total of 72.5 hours to account for this semester in Wake County. To see if we need to use any leave days, we make a chart of all the extra hours we have worked to see if we are in the negative. To date, I have worked 125 hours that would qualify because they occurred at school and I do not get salary or stipend for those activities. When I include everything I have scheduled through the end of the year, it totals 16.5 full days of extra time I have spent at school.

But the most basic parts of my job – grading papers for almost 90 students, creating instructional materials for two curriculums, writing quizzes and tests, emailing parents and counselors, and planning field trips – most often are done on my own time at home. My non-instructional school hours are taken up with covering duties, offering tutoring and re-tests, attending meetings, getting copies made, checking messages, entering grades, and setting up my classroom. I have to work through lunch, stay late, and take work home on a regular basis. When I look at the actual time I have spent working per week over the course of this year – it is approximately 56 hours or 2 days of unpaid overtime every week.

The fact that the school system is worried about some teachers “cheating” them out of money for those snow days is not only ridiculous but also insulting.

When I was preparing to go on maternity leave for my youngest, I worked for free for almost a month during the summer to convert my classes to the new curriculum and write out plans for my substitute. Legally, you are not required to do this. But in the schools, you are reminded that if you don’t do your job it will fall to other overworked teachers to do it for you, so…I continued to work nights and weekends and I still needed help from other teachers when the baby arrived. They did not get any extra pay or comp time, and I actually lost pay because I ran out of leave days. Even so, I still continued to consult with my substitute on a regular basis and occasionally came to school to get papers to grade, for free.

How did I run out of leave? I had used my allotted sick days during my first few years of teaching, during which I spent much of the time on the couch doing schoolwork. Some teachers, not naming names, even occasionally stay home just to be able to grade and plan all day. Other teachers come to school even when they are sick because they can’t fall behind. Many dedicated teachers sacrifice both their time and their health for their students.

I now have a two-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. This extra time that I devote to teaching is coming at a real cost to my family. About once every few weeks, I crash right after dinner – and once I actually nodded off sitting upright at the table. Quite literally a “wake-up” call for me. Why, when I regularly work overtime without any form of compensation, do I buy into this message that I am still not doing enough?

I don’t just feel tired anymore, I feel exploited.

The North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards manual begins, “For every student in North Carolina, a knowledgeable, skilled compassionate teacher…a star in every classroom.”

A star in every classroom.

What do stars need to shine? Science is my weakest subject, so I looked it up. The simple answer is energy. When all the elements that provide energy to the star are exhausted, it collapses.

Unfortunately, North Carolina is not providing the elements teachers need to fulfill the “New Vision of Teaching” laid out in our curriculum and standards. Because schools haven’t been given enough resources to meet changing demands, teachers are increasingly pressured to coordinate and train each other. To achieve the highest evaluation ratings, teachers must agree to be exploited and work countless hours outside the classroom. It is exhausting to make so many changes in so little time and demoralizing to be held to such high standards without proper support and compensation.

To be very clear: I applaud the new vision of teaching and learning laid out by the state of North Carolina. I believe in the greater focus on diversity, critical thinking, collaboration, literacy, and other 21st century skills. If you want a teacher to advocate for this with great enthusiasm, just ask me to explain how much better this is for my students.

Here’s an example of how my classroom has been revolutionized using my Civil Rights unit in American History II.

In the past, my students would read the textbook to chart different groups, events, and accomplishments. They would watch a documentary on the 1960s that included civil rights information, and then they would compare a few major leaders.

Now my students are given direct instruction through a Powerpoint with corresponding video footage of protests, riots, interviews, speeches, and debates. They are assigned a person from a diverse pool – famous/grassroots, young/old, black/white, male/female, Republican/ Democrat, rural/urban, Christian/Muslim, gay/straight, nonviolent/militant. They partner up and compare perspectives. They analyze primary and secondary sources, participate in a seminar by debating from their person’s point of view about strategies and government powers, create a museum display that includes written and artistic expression, and then go on a scavenger hunt to find others in the exhibit that compare to their person and themselves.

This took a lot of time and energy, but it was worth it.

While changing how I teach, I also increased involvement with colleagues to help implement changes in my department and school. I have led my Professional Learning Team, joined School Improvement Team, revitalized our Model UN team, given technology workshops, and mentored two student teachers. Though important and rewarding, it has also been a drain on my family time and a distraction from things I could be doing for my own students.

So, how is this reflected in my teacher evaluation? Let’s consider just two of the six Standards. Despite the extra contributions I just listed, my Leadership rating has not increased much because the highest scores in that area are reserved for teachers who make a bigger impact on the whole school or district. For Facilitating Learning, my rating has gone up significantly over the past few years, but it has taken a toll and I still fall short in some areas. I have had long conversations with my administrator and believe my ratings are accurate and fair based on how the instrument is written. My issue is with the rubric (click picture below to enlarge the relevant excerpt) and the message it sends.

Evaluation rubric

For example, there are 50 check boxes for the Facilitating Learning standard. For mastering all of the things that take place with students in your classroom – like critical thinking and problem-solving, instructional methods, technology, and collaboration – you would receive mostly Accomplished ratings. Based on the formatting of the instrument, “accomplished” practice lands you right in the middle column of the form. Suddenly, accomplished feels very…average.

This communicates that the “best” teachers do more and more outside of the classroom on donated time. An instrument that is supposed to be aspirational is actually demoralizing and draining. Going above and beyond feels expected, not appreciated.

Making North Carolina’s new vision of education a reality would be well worth the investment, and our students deserve it. But it will take greater investment in schools. Exploited teachers will eventually burn out. Give teachers the “fuel” to shine – more time and resources. And use an evaluation process that makes teachers feel recognized for their efforts. These changes will make their devotion of extra time and energy sustainable, and we will come closer to the goal of having a “star” in every classroom.

Is there a real solution to the problem with teaching in NC?

My parents used to “joke” that if I decided to major in education they wouldn’t pay for my college tuition. I took them seriously because my mother was a teacher and I saw up close the stressful nature of the job. I finally realized teaching was my calling, but only after I graduated and had to go back to school to change careers.

I almost decided not to be a teacher because it didn’t seem like a rational choice. Even though my mother was an inspired educator who loved her students, she sacrificed too much to meet both their needs and ours. After eleven years, my love for teaching students is stronger than ever. At the same time, I’m getting increasingly worried about the toll the job is taking on my family and myself.

My husband is also a teacher, so the chances that one of my children will feel called to the classroom is pretty high. Given how much I value and enjoy public education, this is something I should hope for…not fear. Will North Carolina start addressing teaching conditions more seriously, or will we perpetuate the family “joke” about not majoring in education?

Here are what I see as the top priorities for change and the ways to increase teacher time, morale, compensation, and resources.

Time

  • Hire more teachers, specialists, and assistants to decrease class sizes and provide more planning time for new teachers and teacher leaders. Students would benefit from more personal attention and increased time in special electives and enrichment/remediation programs.
  • Add more optional workdays, especially at times when administrative tasks can eclipse lesson planning. When rolling out comprehensive changes to standards and curriculum, build in extra workdays for a few years to help with the transition.
  • Start earlier so first semester ends before winter break. This would ease exam administration and transition to new classes on the block schedule. It would also help when there is inclement weather, helping protect workdays and professional development in the latter part of the year.

Morale 

  • Differentiate the evaluation instrument by grade level, discipline, and years of experience. The software could be set up to pull items for me that match: High School, Social Studies, 10-15 years experience. Offer the chance to apply for a “teacher leader” status to provide a bonus and/or more planning time for taking on extra leadership roles.
  • Stop moving assessment targets so that teachers never feel they’ve met the mark. Data should be used to identify goals, not to pressure teachers to conform to a magical formula for good test scores. Clarify the role of test data in evaluations so teachers feel free to take creative risks and capitalize on their strengths.
  • Engage in more dialogue with administrators about ways teachers can hold students accountable for regulating their own behavior and success. Traditional consequences and incentives that no longer work need to be replaced with ones that do.

Compensation 

  • Restore or protect salary incentives for earning an advanced degree, National Board Certification, and longevity status. Traditional merit pay doesn’t work in an environment where collaboration is more valuable than competition and value is too difficult to quantify and compare. Teachers who put in an extra and long-term investment in our schools should be rewarded.
  • Improve stipends for coaching, mentoring, and advising roles. For extra activities without stipends, allow teachers to accrue hours that could be converted into leave for optional workdays, medical/family emergencies, and retirement.
  • Allow teachers to apply for summer or after-school employment for developing new instruction and initiatives for their school. This would address some of the unpaid overtime issue, incentivize more teachers to take on leadership roles, and help schools make faster progress on improvement plans.

Resources 

  • Expand and integrate social, health, and academic services. Students cannot succeed academically if their needs are not being met, or if they are not in school. Teachers can expend a lot of energy with issues they are not best equipped to handle. For the early grades, bringing back teacher assistants is key.
  • Invest in more administrators to help manage and lead the schools. They are even more overworked than teachers during the school year. This will benefit everyone who relies on their support.
  • Make a meaningful commitment to technology in infrastructure, devices, and applications. This will mean less paperwork, more efficient communication between student and teacher, and more helpful data. Trying to teach for the 21st century with scarce or unreliable technology is a burden.

We deserve better pay, but we desperately need more time and resources to serve our students to the best of our ability without burning ourselves out. Our state needs to attract more inspired young educators who are willing and able to go the distance.

Public educators have little time for politics. But the nature of public education means that we have to convince the public that change is both necessary and possible.

There ARE real solutions to the problem with teaching in North Carolina. Progress will require the active involvement of invested educators and concerned citizens throughout the state. If you have made it all the way to the end of this article, I’m calling on you. Share your experiences with others, ask questions about proposed reforms, brainstorm ideas with teachers at your school, and help get out the vote in state/local elections.


This perspective was originally published as a series on the Red4EdNC website on May 4, 2015; July 11, 2015, and December 12, 2015. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Nancy Snipes Mosley

Nancy Snipes Mosley is a board member for Red4EdNC, a teacher advocacy group founded by and for teachers, a special project of Public Schools First NC. She is a National Board Certified teacher who has taught Social Studies at Leesville Road High School in Wake County since 2004. She earned her master’s in education through the Master Teaching Fellows program at Wake Forest University after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.