by Charlie Shelton and Andrew Tie
North Carolina’s population is growing, and fast. Census data show the state grew thirty percent faster than the rest of the country last year. With more people come more students. But UNC’s school of education saw a 28 percent decrease in enrollment last year, prompting administrators to wonder whether the state’s low teacher salaries are making it harder to recruit teachers to educate North Carolina’s growing student population. The General Assembly gave teachers a raise this year, but will it be enough to keep North Carolina teachers from heading elsewhere?
A group of sixth graders diligently works on their assignments as UNC junior Whitney Sessoms paces across the room, making sure each student finishes his or her work.
Sessoms is tutoring at a Durham middle school program called Student U. She hopes to become a teacher after college. But as her love for education grows since she began teaching this summer, the appeal of one day getting a job in North Carolina shrinks.
“I hear about it in my education classes,” Sessoms said. “There are people who are like, ‘You know, South Carolina has money. Virginia has money.’”
Money for teachers is something North Carolina doesn’t have. The state ranks forty-sixth in the nation for teacher pay. In 2011, the state also cut the Teaching Fellows program, which guaranteed students a college education and a job as a teacher after graduation.
While these setbacks are tough, Sessoms says the profession goes past a paycheck.
“Teachers should definitely get paid more,” Sessoms said. “What teachers do isn’t just teach. They look at the whole child and there is so much care and thought put into that so I think across the board there has to be drastic changes.”
UNC School of Education Assistant Dean Anne Bryan says the number of undergraduate education majors has dropped twenty-eight percent this year. She says with fewer students committing to teaching and more teachers looking out of state, North Carolina is having a more difficult time supplying its need for educators.
“We have seen some decreases in enrollment,” Bryan said. “Both we think due to cutting of the teaching fellow program and the conversations from our legislators in Raleigh. Just here we would have 30 or 40 new teachings fellows every year. This is the last year for teaching fellows so that is an elimination of about 30 or 40 right off the top for coming here.”
To keep more trained teachers in North Carolina, UNC senior Malaika Hankins says students — the future teachers – should come together to advocate better teacher salaries.
She works with a campus group called Students for Education Reform and rallies college campuses in improving the quality of education in North Carolina. For Hankins, an aspiring high school biology teacher, that starts with paying teachers more.
“So, many students aren’t even thinking about teaching, so this is a major issue for the future of North Carolina and as future teachers,” Hankins said. “We feel like we should have a voice in any conversations about teacher pay. We are in this perfect climate to help create the career we want to work in.”
The climate for teachers in North Carolina is changing. Last month, the General Assembly increased teacher pay. Legislative leaders are calling it a seven percent pay raise. But, teacher groups say it’s closer to five percent. UNC public policy professor Doug Lauen says it won’t keep teachers in North Carolina.
“We don’t really want people getting into education for the money,” Lauen said. “We want them to get in because they can inspire creativity and learning in kids.
“On the other hand, we certainly aren’t going to keep teachers if we don’t pay them well. You can’t really have a profession with decent compensation and a ladder for teachers to grow.”
Back at Student U, Sessoms says the pay increase is a move in the right direction trying to fix North Carolina’s near bottom ranking of teacher pay. But, she feels a deeper responsibility to give back to a state that has given her an education she is proud of.
“I think 46th is completely dismal, but hopefully that can put more of the spotlight on it, “ said Sessoms. “There is something about sticking through a time when North Carolina needs me, and I have lived here my whole life and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be.”
While Sessoms is aware of what’s ahead as a future teacher in North Carolina, until she has to face the first paycheck, all that matters right now is making sure each child gets an education, a warm smile and some time at recess.