Editorial: Elevate NC teachers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Wanted: Hundreds of certified teachers for jobs that started two days ago.

North Carolina school systems almost universally report unfilled teaching slots, though classes start next week, at the latest. Rowan-Salisbury needs 70 teachers; Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg each need about 100. Durham lacks 42, Cumberland needs 56 and Onslow is looking for 61. The list goes on.

Substitutes and recent retirees often help schools get through times like this; most slots should be filled within a few weeks. But North Carolina faces a long-term problem if the state doesn’t try to improve the treatment and status of its educators. Interest in the profession is falling; enrollment in the UNC system’s schools of education has dropped by 30 percent since 2010. If the state doesn’t have enough teachers now and fewer are in the pipeline, the future of North Carolina education is at risk.

It’s easy to see how this trend developed. Teachers take an emotional beating when politicians (and parents) start speculating about why students don’t perform well on competency tests. A high number of struggling students can lead your school to get the equivalent of a scarlet letter — a D or an F in the state’s poorly concocted school grading system. More “reforms” are enacted each year and resources taken away. Instead of holding them up, we’ve been beating our teachers down.

North Carolina has made progress on the salary front. The General Assembly has raised beginning teacher pay to $35,000 a year, and the average salary for all N.C. teachers is now close to $50,000. Experienced teachers have received very little in the way of raises, though, and North Carolina still ranks near the bottom in teacher pay compared to other states.

Yet good educators persevere. Just this Tuesday, Rowan-Salisbury recognized two outstanding educators, Teacher of the Year Anthony Johnson and Principal of the Year Jamie Durant. What can the system do to recruit more people like them?

June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, is among those lamenting the end of the Teaching Fellows program, which offered scholarships to future teachers. “That program got the brightest and most enthusiastic people to become prepared to teach,” Atkinson has said. (Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch addresses the issue in his column on this page today.)

The General Assembly needs to revive Teaching Fellows and take other steps to recruit, develop and retain top-notch educators. Our schools should need smart, energetic and skillful teachers, hired because they are good at what they do — not because the system is desperate to fill a slot.