North Carolina Teacher Project
4:14 am
Fri November 22, 2013

Where We Are Going: Teaching In North Carolina

Jim Potter teaching a math lesson at Lockhart Elementary School.
Credit Dave DeWitt

Education is the family business for the Von Eitzens. Ben and Beth have been at it for about a decade; he’s a high school science teacher, she’s a guidance counselor. From all appearances, they had it made: They worked in the same building – Graham High School in Alamance County – and they liked their jobs, they liked their colleagues, and they felt like they were really making a difference with their students.

But one thing was missing.

“It was getting to the point we were devoting more and more of our time and assets to not get much in return to be able to provide for our family,” said Ben Von Eitzen.

North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in average teacher pay, and is falling fast. So the Von Eitzens felt they had no choice, and began looking around last year.

When they both found jobs in upstate New York that paid them 40 percent more than they could make here, they felt like they had to go.

“I think we would have stayed,” Ben Von Eitzen said. “We had made a home. We were happy here with the culture. And we considered this our home. It was where we bought our first house. Our children had friends here. But overall for my family, it is the best decision I could make, based on the situation.”

That situation, many teachers believe, has gotten worse. Recent legislation has ended tenure and the salary increase for teachers who earn a master’s degree.

That has pushed more teachers to look to other states that pay more, including neighboring states like Virginia and South Carolina. On top of that: Baby Boomers are retiring. And some Schools of Education are reporting that their freshman enrollment is down between 20 and 40 percent.

“I think there certainly is going to come a time soon where we are going to be in a shortage situation again,” said Michael Maher, Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation at NC State’s School of Education. “It’s both the influx of people into North Carolina. We’re educating more children every year, it seems. But it’s also the attrition.”

Teaching salaries are set by the state on a very rigid schedule based almost entirely on experience. Many reformers believe this system has to be blown up, and replaced with one that values the profession more, and rewards the best teachers.

“We need to look at the professions that require the same level of preparation and skills as our classroom teachers, and benchmark teacher compensation off those professions, whether that’s engineering or some other area to be certain that someone who is making a career choice doesn’t have to sacrifice their family,” said Tony Habit, the President of North Carolina New Schools. “And it doesn’t have to become missionary that they would choose to serve in our public school classrooms.”

Other ideas to overhaul teacher pay include higher salaries for science, math, and reading teachers and adjusting the schedule to pay younger teachers more.

For some, addressing teacher compensation means replacing the current model with one that rewards the best teachers, or teacher leaders.

In August, Governor Pat McCrory introduced such an idea during a speech to the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce: “This program will invest a $10,000 stipend into at least 1,000 teachers who will be selected by their peers to implement North Carolina’s career and college ready standards.”

That plan quickly stalled, but the law that replaces teacher tenure has a similar competitive element. It rewards those teachers deemed to be the best 25 percent with four-year contracts and a bonus.

“Identifying the top 25 percent, in effect, is going to create a ‘Hunger Games’-type atmosphere here in North Carolina,” said Rodney Ellis, the President of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “Instead of working collaboratively, they are going to make sure they are recognized as one of those top twenty-five percent so they can get the four-year contract and the little bonus that goes with it. A bonus which I don’t believe they have adequately funded. So I think it’s going to be huge for educators.

Many superintendents who would be charged with choosing the top 25 percent have also come out against the plan. They point out that teaching has become a much-more collaborative effort over the years.

These collaborations should take the form of teams with different roles for teachers, and different pay.

“A teacher should be able to see that if I take these steps to improve my practice, to work in teams, and to bring about outcomes for my students, not necessarily in that order, than I will receive these rewards, both in terms of financial and in terms of responsibility,” said Eric Guckian, Governor McCrory’s Senior Education Advisor.

Guckian also says teachers shouldn’t have to become principals if they want to make more money, but should have a path to grow while staying in the classroom.

“We all know who the best teacher in every grade level is,” he said. “And by the best teacher, I don’t necessarily mean the one with the best test scores. I mean the one that we want our child in. So we should be not just rewarding that one teacher as the best, but saying this teacher is a tremendous asset and we want to have this teacher leading other teachers.”

Jim Potter is the teacher you’d want your son or daughter to have. He’s young, energetic, patient, and has a way of making math fun for third-graders, whether he’s in front of the class or working one-on-one with a student.

Potter is doing his student-teaching at Lockhart Elementary School in Knightdale. His long road to becoming a teacher-in-training began when he was in high school and was involved in the Lego League. He was a judge and worked with younger kids on robotics projects. He thought that meant he liked computer science, so he made that his major at Virginia Tech.

“Turns out, I hated computer science,” he said. “I just like working with children.”

So Potter went overseas and taught in Japan, before landing at NC State to get a master’s degree in education and get certified. That landed him in Dr. Stephen Elrod’s 3rd-grade class, where he quickly picked up an important piece of advice he probably wouldn’t have learned in a textbook.

“One thing he said that always stuck with me is: never chase a student,” said Potter. “Because then they know they have the power. You can walk after a student. Never chase a student.”

Potter is the future of teaching in North Carolina. He’s comfortable in front of a class and he has his eyes wide open about what he’s getting into. He says he hopes to get a job after he gets certified next month, and he plans to have a long career as a teacher.

“I feel good because I’m here by choice,” he said. “Again, I have a computer science degree and I live in the Research Triangle. If you want people who are going to be passionate about what they are doing, and are going to be good at what they are doing, you need to pay them accordingly.”

State leaders are, right now, trying to figure out how to pay – and retain – the best teachers, like Jim. And to make sure, a few years down the road, those teachers aren’t seeing greener grass somewhere else.

These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.