Elon senior pens op-ed: Current education policies making it hard to teach in N.C.

Maeve Kenney is a senior elementary education and policy studies major at Elon University. She plans to become a teacher and continue to be an advocate for children and schools. Her point-of-view on the future of education was recently published in The News & Observer.  

By Maeve Kenney ’17, an elementary education and policy studies major at Elon University 

As I enter my senior year preparing to gain a degree in elementary education at Elon University in North Carolina, I have begun to think about where I would like to teach. I have called this state home while working toward my dream of becoming a teacher, yet based on recent policies toward public education in North Carolina, and my own experiences in classrooms, I’m having doubts about doing so here. I want to teach to share my love of learning, but recent policy directions seem to be making this increasingly difficult.

I’ve watched Read to Achieve, an initiative that ensures all third-graders are reading, “at grade-level” by third grade, result in many children being over-tested throughout the year. I witnessed many students rush through these high-stakes tests so they can make it to recess on time. Other students became fearful of tests and as a result, school. I certainly do not want my future students to feel this immense pressure at only 8 or 9 years old.

This pressure also extends to teachers who are being evaluated and given bonuses based on students’ exams. I want to be evaluated in a fair manner, but research has consistently shown that standardized tests favor higher-income students. If I teach in one of the state’s many high-poverty schools, my students’ test scores, and thus my salary, are contingent on North Carolina’s failure to address issues of poverty.

While teachers are working even harder to deliver these test results, they are still receiving a less-than-competitive income in North Carolina. No one goes into teaching for the money, but I do expect a wage that is reflective of the work teachers do. The new budget seemingly does increase teacher salaries, but it is still not as competitive as the starting salaries in my home state, Pennsylvania. This increase also only really amounts to a $270 increase if I were to teach for 31 years. I have to think twice about teaching in North Carolina when I know I could move elsewhere for a better salary and more support from the state.

As a soon-to-be first-year teacher, I will need proper support from staff members, including a teacher assistant, but I am unlikely to have one full-time. In 2015, funding for teacher assistants was cut, resulting in a loss of assistants across the state. I was privy to the sad effects of this in my last practicum, where there was only one overwhelmed teacher assistant per grade level, while teachers were stretched thin trying to ensure all students’ needs were met.

The support I will need as a novice teacher further extends to the need for sufficient resources and professional development opportunities. State and federal public school funding has decreased since 2011, and has yet to be restored. As a result, thousands of teachers were eliminated while there was a huge loss in funding for textbook and instructional supplies. The North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, a teacher pipeline program that recruited high school students and 

a national model for teacher preparedness, was also cut in 2011. Instead, the state allocated funding to Teach for America, which recruits college graduates not trained in education. It isn’t surprising that many of my peers would prefer this short-cut entry into the field.

I also want support from my state in my chosen profession, but state legislators seemed to have gone out of their way to degrade teachers. In 2013, the North Carolina Association of Educators helped strike down an anti-tenure law, but it came with a cost: Lawmakers introduced a bill preventing unions from collecting membership dues via payroll deductions. Research has shown that unionized districts improve student achievement, since the conditions unions fight to improve enhance learning environments.

State policy makers’ choices have failed students, teachers and public schools and discouraged me—and many others—from teaching here. I have watched teachers suffer poking and prodding by state legislators, while growing exhausted form trying to fight back, and I am hesitant to join them. Every child deserves an effective teacher, but it is extremely hard to be effective under these circumstances.

I will spend this fall preparing for my future, and hoping that this election year and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act will result in positive change for North Carolina’s teachers and public schools. They definitely deserve it.