05/16/18 — Local teachers rally for more than salary

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Local teachers rally for more than salary

By Joey Pitchford
Published in News on May 16, 2018 9:39 AM

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Kathy Drew, fourth grade teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School, dons the red shirt and umbrella that she will be wearing at the education protest today in Raleigh. Drew said the teachers are wearing red because "We want them to know how much we're bleeding because of the cuts they're doing to our budget."

As hundreds of Wayne County teachers and support staff head to Raleigh today for the North Carolina Association of Educators "March for Students and Rally for Respect," many of them want to make one thing clear: "This is not about us."

Teacher pay in North Carolina ranked 39th in the nation in 2017, according to the National Education Association. But an increase in salary is a relatively small part of what has motivated Wayne County educators to join thousands from across North Carolina in the streets of the state capital.

Rather, the march is about convincing legislators to commit more funds to the general welfare of public schools across the state. North Carolina ranked 41st nationally in per-student spending in 2017, according to the NEA. And that, teachers say, is what this rally is really about.

Kathy Drew has been teaching since 1994 -- a 24-year career spent entirely in Wayne County Public Schools. She began her work at what was then the K-8 Spring Creek School and has taught at Spring Creek Elementary ever since the school split in two. She said that people have gathered the misconception that the rally is about personal financial gain.

"A lot of people think it's only about salary, but it's about so much more than salary," she said.

"In fact, the way the rally is set up, the first part of the rally is about the students, the things that we need in our classroom like textbooks for everybody, technology, more money spent per student, those kind of things we need."

The teacher's goals go beyond the fiscal as well, Drew said. They include a reduction in standardized assessments in order to give teachers time to actually teach instead of constantly testing.

"Our students are assessed way more than they should be," she said. "I'm not against assessing. I believe in standardized assessing because you want to see how your students are comparing to students across the board. But, how can you expect the children to do well on the assessment if the teacher doesn't have time to teach them what they need to know in order to be successful on the assessment?"

Hallie Hulse Evans, a special education teacher at Tommy's Road Elementary has worked in both Wake County and Wayne County.

At first, she said, she thought the underfunding issue might have been specific to Wayne County but discovered that was not the case when she moved to Wake and then back to Wayne.

As someone who is already politically active -- she described herself as someone who "nags their legislators," -- Evans said it was a simple choice for her to attend the rally.

Getting other people to go with her was a bit harder but many of them came around in the end.

"Wayne County was a little harder to recruit, but we've got I think it was around 660, which I'm very excited about," she said.

Evans has a master's degree, and said that she doesn't view wanting to earn more than $35,000 a year given her degree as selfish.

Given the long hours that teachers often work at home and the thousands of their own dollars they spend on classroom materials, more money in teachers' pockets would certainly be welcome, Evans said.

However, she said, the real issue is overall respect for the teaching profession.

"I don't really get treated as a professional as far as the General Assembly goes," she said. "They say they gave us a raise, but they raised our insurance premiums for how much we pay. There's just this disconnect, they say things that sound good and then people are like 'why are you complaining, you just got a raise.'"

Drew applauded the superintendents across the state who have closed schools today, allowing teachers to attend the rally.

Wayne County is among the districts to close doors to students today, given the high number of teacher absences expected.

For parents without child care, an unexpected day out school could cause problems. Drew said she hopes parents will stand behind their teachers all the same.

"I'm hoping parents will understand the need for this, and that they will continue to support us," she said. "We can't do it without them."

Teachers often find themselves under intense scrutiny, whether from administrators at work or from parents in their everyday lives. This tenuous situation means they can sometimes be hesitant to speak out on hot-button political issues for fear of backlash.

"People came to me at school asking if I knew about the rally, or they'd say 'I see you posting about it, are you taking off? I want to take off but I'm scared,'" she said. "It's our first amendment right, and it's not a partisan thing. It's not a political thing. It's sad that education is controlled by politics, but I don't see it as a political thing."

Despite those fears, both Evans and Drew were pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of teachers and support staff employees who requested leave today, which eventually resulted in the district deciding to close school.

Drew hopes that, when legislators see an ocean of teachers all wearing the red shirts that have become the symbol of the rally, they will get the message loud and clear.

"It is very encouraging to me, because they're beginning to understand that we need to make a change, and in order to make a change we need to stand together," Drew said. "That's one of the things I'm hoping the legislators will see, when they see these thousands of teachers there."