I was in grade 11 when I first considered becoming a teacher. I received the NC Teaching Fellows scholarship and went to UNCA after graduating, where I was basically a double major in English and Education. When I got my first full-time job with TC Roberson in 2006, I was excited, highly educated and experienced through the Teaching Fellowship program, and good at my job.
But the teaching was difficult and I was not remunerated in a sustainable way. I spent a month in 2010 tracking my actual working hours, inside and outside the school building; I was paid $8.14 an hour during this period, much less than what I earned in my part-time job. In addition, our salaries had been frozen for several years during the recession, and there was no indication that they would ever be recovered. When I decided to go to Chapel Hill to get my Masters in Library Science, I had no intention of going back to public education. But it took me less than two months in a student office instead of a teaching role to remember why I loved working in schools and to enroll in the Introduction to School Libraries course to my second semester. Maybe I’ll find my way back.
Now, more than 10 years after deciding to return and with 15 years of experience, I often consider leaving public education again, and I regularly hear from colleagues who share the same sentiment. There are so many issues that need to be addressed to make working in schools sustainable for all employees, but the crux of the matter is that we have built a society that depends on public education to function at a grassroots level while simultaneously and systematically undervaluing our entire public education system for decades by underpaying workers and underfunding our districts.
To be clear, I didn’t study to get rich.
But my passion, my love for students and learning, and the fun of my community is harnessed. The assumption is that I will continue to give away my work cheaply and nothing else needs to be done to retain my skills and expertise or those of my colleagues because we have the passion, love and fun. It is a complex problem. North Carolina has made working in public education unattractive to anyone for a number of reasons, including the low starting salary, so very few enter the field. Many of us currently employed in schools are leaving or planning to leave in the near future, partly due to a lack of salary increases over time and with experience.
The undervaluation of public education also comes in the form of cuts or inadequate funding of necessary positions and a lack of understanding of the number of services that public schools offer students. Those who come into direct contact with students every day have increasing responsibilities due to a lack of funding for positions in areas such as social work, where social workers have thousands of records, libraries, where librarians have to skip their literacy work to fix computers instead, or cafeterias, where three people feed hundreds.
We are in crisis. We are not close to being in crisis. We already live there.
It’s hard to fully quantify what a pay raise across the board would do, especially coming from someone who’s been conditioned to believe I’m not in it for the money. But the truth is that I am. We are all because we have to be. My 8-year-old vehicle needs repairs to run the air conditioning over the summer, but that’s a cost my family can’t prioritize right now. BCS employees at all levels are making sacrifices like this at current pay rates. Although the school board and good educators may agree that students are our first priority, there is a direct line between the general well-being of teachers and student learning. If student learning is Buncombe County schools’ top priority, it’s time to spend the money on the people who work directly with students.
Major change needs to be made at the state level to meet the learning needs of our students and disrupt this crisis before it is irreversible, but Buncombe County has an opportunity to get ahead while the rest of the state will scramble to catch up. .
The working conditions in our buildings are the learning conditions for our students.
Laina Stapleton is a librarian at Erwin High School and has lived in Asheville for over 20 years.