TEACHER TRUTH TOUR: Educators take lawmakers to task over policy, budget

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 06:59 PM

Four Lee County teachers with 122 years of combined experience gathered outside the Lee County Courthouse in Sanford to voice concerns about the direction of public education in North Carolina.

"I think teachers are used to giving and giving and giving and giving," said Kathryn Pezzi, a speech therapist at the Floyd L. Knight Children's Center, "that we get taken advantage of."

The rally was part of the Teacher Truth Tour hosted by Progress North Carolina Action, which promotes higher teacher salaries and a bigger education budget. The tour had planned four stops in three days, with other stops in Asheville, Raleigh and Greensboro,

Speakers focused on the loss of teacher assistants across the state, as well as what they considered insufficient pay increases and a crippling lack of materials and textbooks in the classroom.

"If I could feed my children and put gas in my car without a salary, that'd be awesome," said Callie Hammond, an English teacher at Bragg Street Academy. "But I can't afford to teach for nothing."

Hammond, who has been teaching for 29 years, said that after accounting for longevity pay, she would receive a 1.9 percent salary increase, her first pay raise since 2008.

"If I believed our legislators had done all they could do [to fund public education], I'd be content," Hammond said. "But I can't believe that."

Hammond brought up new tests, new curricula and new standards that North Carolina teachers seemed to be held to every year as costly and inefficient.

Pezzi pointed to unmanageable class sizes and inadequate classroom resources as detrimental to students and teachers alike.

"I see children suffering," Pezzi said. "I don't see textbooks. I don't see teacher materials."

Pezzi said she had seen classrooms of more than 30 students, and that it was impossible to give students the attention they needed in such settings, especially without the help of a teacher assistant.

Pezzi said having an extra set of eyes, ears and hands in the classroom totally changes the way a teacher works with her students.

According to Hammond, "Class size makes a huge difference."

"But I would rather have a class of 40 with a teacher assistant than a class of 20 by myself," she added.

Jan Tart, an instructional technology teacher at Southern Lee High School, said she had seen a lot of good teachers leave North Carolina because of what she considered harmful public education policies.

"The only teachers who stay are the ones who have too many years around here or have their roots in North Carolina," Tart said.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack attended the rally, and said teachers needed to discuss their concerns with local government leaders, which he believes have more impact on public education policy than state leaders.

"School starts and ends at the local level," Womack said. "Everything is born on the shoulders of teachers. ... Local school boards aren't stepping up."

Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress North Carolina Action, said local school boards often have their hands tied by statewide policy.

"When they are forced to make decisions between bad and worse," Brenner said, "and they just don't have the funding, we need to point to Raleigh."

Pezzi said a shift in values at the legislative and executive levels of state government was necessary if North Carolina hopes to attract and keep high-quality teachers.

"It's doable," Pezzi said. "It can be done. It's just a question of priorities."