The high cost of under-paying teachers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 28, 2013

Public education served me well and definitely did those with whom I grew up. My cousin became a physician and the CEO of Cabarrus Family Medicine, while a neighbor became the CEO of Lowes Home Improvement. One of my friends became an aeronautical engineer designing high-tech aircraft, while yet another became a civil engineer with his own company building and installing culverts under highways. Another peer earned a doctorate in physics and became an engineer for Walt Disney World while still another friend became a multi-millionaire being the chief investment officer for a billionaire. And myself? I went on to a successful career in education, earning a doctorate and becoming a systemwide teacher of the year and a school administrator.
Question: Out of the professionals listed above, which one finished his career still making far below a six-figure income and could not afford college educations for his own children? Answer: After being a highly-successful veteran educator for 30 years, I had to retire this past April out of necessity. Not having the money to put my daughters through college, I could no longer afford being a public school educator when I could be free to pursue more lucrative work.
Wow! Physicians, CEOs, engineers, financiers, educators … who says public education is broken? But, oh, the irony! In a state whose mission is supposedly to remain competitive within a 21st century global market, many of our state’s lawmakers have chosen to turn their backs on public education. In only half a decade, what took decades of money and energy to establish has been virtually abolished. Once nationally viewed as a progressive leader in education, North Carolina has rapidly sunk to the bottom ranks among all states in areas such as teachers’ salaries. For the first time, I am hearing the phrase “national embarrassment” when “North Carolina” and “education” are mentioned in the same sentence. Indeed, we are quickly becoming the “Un-Education State,” thanks largely to our lawmakers.

A dramatic teacher shortage is imminent, and several adages can be applied: “You reap what you sow!” “Good things are rarely cheap, and cheap things are rarely good!” You see, our state has chosen to operate within a fly-now-pay-later plan by withdrawing significant education funding and not adequately compensating teaching professionals. Enduring a half-decade of a frozen salary scale, each educator has been deprived of thousands of hard-earned dollars.
Veteran teachers are fleeing North Carolina classrooms on a daily basis and, being at the bottom of the nation salary-wise, can they be blamed for abandoning ship? Teachers with only a few years experience are dropping like flies, realizing they don’t wish to make less-than-blue-collar pay meeting white-collar expectations under highly stressful conditions. High school students now balk at the idea of investing in a college degree in education, destined to be underpaid, disrespected, and treated unprofessionally. My daughter wants to be a math teacher, and a fellow student at her high school told her she would be wasting her time and her intellect.
The average salary of educators in our state is nationally comparable to that of undertakers, garbage collectors and sewage plant operators. Therein lies a sad implication that our state values the services of those educating our children to the same degree or less than it does the services of those tending to our deceased — and even worse — our sewage and our garbage. Our state is transmitting a terrible message to its students: they are unworthy of a significant investment of money.
Investing in the future of a state is really expensive, yet it becomes billions of dollars more costly to clean up the mess that results from totally ripping up the foundations of the present and not investing adequately in our future. It will soon be time to pay the piper, for the rapid exodus of our professional teachers will leave classrooms destined to be staffed by “cheap labor.” Unqualified but well-meaning people are having to become trained while on the job; in other words, your child may soon be taught by someone who is learning to fly the airplane while building it.
History has a nasty way of repeating itself, offering painful but informative lessons that many politicians and citizens seem unable to grasp. Some may think that an upcoming teacher shortage would offer educators the opportunity to say, “We told ya so!” However, there is little satisfaction or humor in the consequences of unheeded warnings, soon to become harsh realities. There will be little laughter heard in the hallways of our schools — instead, the only audible sounds could be the chirping of crickets echoing down the halls of a ghost town.
Our students deserve caring, highly-qualified teachers empowering them as my generation had. They should not end up in classrooms staffed by unknowledgeable “warm bodies.” An old folk song from the sixties asked “Where have all the flowers gone?” To paraphrase those words, I fear that North Carolinians may soon be singing “Where have all the teachers gone?” My suggestion for a bumper sticker: “If you have the knowledge and capability to enact legislation that cuts teachers’ salaries, then by all means … thank a teacher!”
Dr. William D. Robertson is a retired educator who was system-wide Teacher of the Year for Iredell-Statesville Schools in 1996 and a system-wide Teacher of the Year finalist for Rowan-Salisbury Schools in 2009. A version of this article first appeared in the Fayetteville Observer.