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Editorial: Thank you, teachers: Years at the blackboard

There was indeed a “certain glow” in the faces of school employees gathered at the Hurley YMCA Thursday night, as school board chairman Jim Emerson said. That’s because 90 of them were just weeks away from retirement.
The retirees have big plans, according to a memory book put together for the occasion: cook, garden, sail to Alaska, “read something other than kindergarten books,” “sleep past 5:30 a.m.” and “do absolutely nothing with payroll or purchasing.” You can read a lot between the lines of those goals.
But even as the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and administrators honored their retirees, they had to be worrying how to replace them. A generational shift is draining the nation’s teaching corps of valuable experience. The teachers and employees leaving Rowan-Salisbury schools this year take more than 2,000 years of experience with them.
The exodus is a two-edged sword. While new teachers are less resistant to change, they lack the ability to reach students that comes only after years in the classroom. Last fall the school system brought on more than 60 new teachers ó 46 who were newly licensed and 17 who came as lateral entries from other professions. That’s a considerable influx of inexperience.
Erskine Bowles highlighted the state’s teacher shortage in 2006, soon after he became president of the University of North Carolina. Saying the entire system had produced only three physics teachers in recent years, he immediately put pressure on the system to step up. North Carolina is producing only 3,000 teachers a year when it needs 10,000, so school systems have to recruit out-of-state to build the faculties they need, especially in math and science.
The state is chipping away at the problem. The N.C. Teaching Fellows program is gradually training a new generation of educators. Rowan-Salisbury’s Teacher Cadet program helps high school students who think they might enjoy teaching get a taste of what it’s like. The school system in Wake County ó with the help of a federal grant ó capitalizes on other experience by giving teacher assistants, school secretaries and other employees with undergraduate degrees the chance to go back to school and get their teaching certificates.
The 90 teachers, principals, assistants, bus drivers and other staff members retiring this year from the Rowan-Salisbury System are due tremendous thanks. Educators’ salaries pale beside those in less important professions, and North Carolina has historically lagged behind the crowd. After years of pushing, the state is 6.9 percent behind the national average in teacher pay. But the educators who retire this year with 20, 30 and even 43 years of experience entered the field when teachers’ pay was truly mediocre ó before teacher pay was even up for debate. It just was what it was.
Thankfully, a love of learning drew them to the classroom and kept them there, passing that passion on to countless students. Many thanks to these retiring teachers for sticking with the profession so many years ó through hot days without air conditioning and lean days without enough books. They weathered youthful mischief, adult pressure and reform after reform. They leave a priceless legacy.

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