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Katie Mgongolwa Headshot

This Is What it Feels Like to Be a Teacher in North Carolina

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I am the 14 percent.

I am one of many teachers in North Carolina considering leaving the profession. I don't want to. It hurts to voice this. But we are entering a time of darkness in education in the Tar Heel state. We are forced to wonder if an administration plagued with controversy has purposefully attempted to devalue North Carolina public education in order to make the next generation passive and uneducated, if not outright ignorant.

My husband and I moved back to North Carolina in September; our interracial, multicultural family flourishes in Chapel Hill. We are both trained teachers, but now my husband is entering school to study business. I began the process to get my North Carolina state teaching license, finding that they do not accept out-of-state licenses even though my teaching license from Massachusetts is still valid. The process to get a license here if you are already qualified in another state is strangely complicated. As headlines trumpet more and more unfavorable educational news, I am left pondering if I really want to be a public school teacher, even though this was the job I always wanted. But, to be fair, the job I always wanted no longer truly exists as we used to know it.

For example, starting in 2018, only the top 25 percent of teachers will receive tenure. Currently (since 1971) teachers who successfully pass the four-year probationary period are afforded certain protections. Now, however, the state legislature has redesigned their budget and policy in the mistaken and misinformed belief that they should create hierarchy in each school in order to improve education. They seem to ignore the fact that cohesion and unity are essential in running an effective school. And if you constantly tell teachers they are unworthy, or that they should be competitors, rather than coworkers, everyone will suffer. It seems so obvious that it is bewildering why the state legislature has even considered it.

This comes shortly after Governor Pat McCrory proposed that teachers should be paid differently depending on the subject they teach. This plan would place higher value on STEM subjects. Not only does this plan continue to attempt to place a divide and hierarchy in schools, but it also follows outdated beliefs that the sole measure of success of a student is in how teachers perform. It puts energy into correcting teachers and demeaning them while ignoring the myriad problems we are facing: too much testing, too thin of budgets, etc. NC is already the one of the worst states to become a teacher (we generally place 46th or 47th on most lists).

I miss teaching; I miss working with my fellow teachers and connecting with students. Teaching is still the best way to affect real, raw change. Education is still the best way to help women gain equal rights, to create social mobility, to eradicate racism, homophobia, and inequality. But North Carolina has stripped its schools of any incentive to teach. It seems to place no value in a future generation of well-educated people. That is exactly why the North Carolina Association of Educators has sued the state over its new tenure policy. It is why teachers rallied in a walkout last year.

I am 29-years-old. I earned my bachelor's degree at the University of North Carolina; I got my start in the local schools. It was always my intent to make a difference here because this is where I grew up. When I think about the people who made a difference in my life, I think mainly about my teachers. My third grade teacher, who said I could be good at math even though I couldn't believe it. My fifth grade teacher, whose unending kindness and love of travel inspired me to become a teacher and teach abroad. My middle school math teacher, who tutored me and cared about me and never gave up on me. My AP Statistics teacher, who gave me his own calculator without saying a word when my house burned down and I no longer had school supplies. My AP English teacher, who finally seemed to care about books in a way that made me feel at home -- in fact, when she died suddenly a few years later, I felt such a raw grief both for myself and the students she could now never inspire. And all the other teachers who worked unending hours and cared about my fellow students and me: these teachers deserve recognition and encouragement.

These events heavily affect people of my generation who have lived in North Carolina. I have many friends who'd like to move back but do not feel comfortable doing so. It is fairly well known that North Carolina is facing the possibility of a mass exodus of teachers either leaving the profession or moving to a different state to teach; in the 2012-2013 school year, North Carolina reached a five year high of teachers leaving. We do not want to be rich; we only want to be able to do our jobs in an environment that is supportive and functional.

I may be part of the 14.33 percent who might leave the teaching profession in North Carolina, but I dearly do not want to. I simply want to have a profession that is spiritually enriching and also in which I make a difference. Because I am the breadwinner in my family, I must make enough money for a family of three to survive on. I am qualified, a good teacher, and passionate about education, but I am at the tipping point. I am not the only one. In fact, I am just one of many voices aching to be heard, to be noticed, to be cared for by our governing bodies. They say when an airplane is in distress, that you should put your oxygen mask on first before helping others around you. Teachers have a long history of ignoring this, and prioritizing others first. But eventually, we run out of breath and have to put our own mask on to survive. I deeply hope North Carolina hears our voices and rights the plane before we crash.