How North Carolinians ought to say “thanks” on Teacher Appreciation Day

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day — an event that will spur many of us to send a brief note of appreciation or chip in toward a gift card. And while most teachers will acknowledge that these annual gestures really do provide a helpful reminder that they are in fact appreciated, the hard truth is that day-to-day evidence in North Carolina classrooms (e.g. low pay, budget cuts, privatization and the proliferation of high stakes testing) points in the opposite direction.

Despite being home to a nationally celebrated early childhood education program, NC-PreK, and having more National Board Certified Teachers than any other state in the nation, North Carolina’s teacher salaries fell more than in any other state between 2000 and 2013. More recently, the job security of “specialty” teachers like art, music and P.E. teachers has also been in limbo throughout 2017 due to new and unfunded class size requirements.

The state’s education funding formula is also one of the most complex and least effective in meeting the needs of low-income students. A 2015 study found that, 80% of voters agree that “state policy and funding decisions are putting greater burdens on our local schools and giving them fewer resources to educate our students.” North Carolinians seem to understand that the state is falling short on its promise of providing an equal and high quality education to all our children.

North Carolina also remains one of the ten lowest states for average teacher pay and expenditures per student and spends less on education compared to surrounding states. And for better or worse, these measures are seen as a key indicator for the quality of our education. As a result, our low rankings reduce our appeal for companies and skilled workers looking to relocate.

If we are really serious about providing a genuine and meaningful “thanks” to our teachers there are some obvious steps we must take.

Respect teachers and their expertise 

While more teachers continue to leave our state for higher paying salaries elsewhere, many leave the profession all together and their decision does not hinge on pay alone. Many teachers point to the lack of respect for the profession and trust in their expertise as main factors for leaving. While they would appreciate fair compensation, they also want fair and adequate funding for their schools. They want to be involved in creating polices that affect them and their students.

Unfortunately, rather than recognizing teachers as perhaps the most critical component in any broad reaching solution to improve education outcomes, many people remain convinced that the problem with education is the teachers themselves. Such perceptions do not develop accidentally; they are encouraged by relentlessly positioning teachers as the target of punitive school reform measures that often do little to improve student learning.

For instance, our state’s current A-F letter grade school report card  rewards academic performance over growth in determining a school’s achievement, an indicator that does not reflect its overall quality and one that simply highlights economic inequalities. In a state in which over half of public school students are low-income, this is clearly not the most accurate and equitable way to measure the quality of a school.

Prepare students for success

When kids arrive to kindergarten ready, we know they are better prepared both academically and personally. Studies have demonstrated that early childhood investments help prepare children to do well in school and help close the achievement gap. Despite our polarized political landscape, 90% of voters agree we must work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income families. Forsyth County’s Smart Start is just one of many examples of a successful program dedicated to closing the achievement gap. The community is ready to step up to support the expansion of high quality, early childhood education while the state refuses to take action by providing the funding needed to reduce wait lists and allow more children to enroll.

End hunger to bridge the achievement gap

Teachers have always understood the correlation between eating a healthy breakfast and lunch and improved academic performance. Recent research confirms not only that healthy food is attributed to better outcomes in school, but that kids actually enjoy eating it. Increasing access to healthy breakfast and lunch at school has a particularly positive effect on low-income kids. By not supporting full funding of programs that promote access to healthy food at school, we continue to tolerate North Carolina’s status as one of the ten hungriest states and one in which one-in-four children are food insecure. High quality healthy food programs are also incredibly cost effective and an efficient way to improve student learning. Just ask a teacher how ready to learn a hungry child is.

If it takes a village, engage the villagers

A community’s school usually reflects its overall wellbeing, resiliency, needs and struggles. In communities throughout North Carolina, the generational trauma of poverty, racism, segregation and violence is played out at school.

To uphold the promise of fair and equal education for all our children, “wrap-around” services are an integral component to student success. Schools that partner with local community-based organizations and service providers are better suited to address the needs of their students and develop tailored plans to meet their specific academic, emotional and health needs. It has been shown that high school students participating in strategies developed by the non-profit, Communities in Schools North Carolina, drop out at a rate that is half that of high school students across North Carolina.

By viewing the school as a space belonging to and part of the greater community, services and supports can be utilized that improve opportunities for adults, families and students alike. Extending academic reinforcement and enrichment activities beyond the school day, co-locating family support programs to reduce transportation barriers and providing skills training opportunities are all ways a school can be an integrated community partner. Viewing the public school as a learning center for the public positions it as a key collaborator; working toward strategies for change with and on behalf of the extended community while also serving as its engine for community development.

Trust the professionals

The overwhelming majority of educators and school administrators know what they are doing and should be granted the trust and autonomy to do their jobs. Students and school districts alike benefit when we listen to them, work to address their concerns and provide them with critically needed supports. We have countless best practice examples from across the state that illustrate the good that can happen when schools are afforded the ability to implement programs that work and where teachers have a say in the policies that affect them.

Get involved and stay informed

If we have any hope of restoring our state’s once enviable reputation for high quality public education, we must all become allies in the fight to focus on “Public Schools First.” Tragically, however, the war on education waged by conservative political leaders in recent years is taking us in the opposite direction and will lead to dire societal implications that will hurt us all.

It is essential that all of us push back against this trend by calling, writing and visiting the offices of our elected officials. We must give thanks to those who are working to support public education and help call out those who are not, as several Durham student leaders did in Raleigh last week.

In other words, by all means, please thank a teacher today and whenever you get the chance. But while you’re at it, tell them that you trust them, respect their work and appreciate their efforts. Perhaps even more importantly, tell that teacher that you have their back in policy and political battles to come. A gift card or a note would be nice but meaningful policy changes would be much better.

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