At the beginning of my year as the 2015-2016 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, I was quoted as saying that one of the single biggest mistakes made in North Carolina was dismantling the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. Nearing the end of my year, I couldn't agree with myself more. However, there are some things I would add. You see, recruiting is only half the battle. We must learn how to retain while developing a growth mindset in our educators. It is an uphill battle to keep high quality teachers in a state that fosters stagnation and encourages mediocrity through low pay and zero dollars allocated specifically for professional development.
This past fall, I had the privilege of visiting Pactolus Elementary School in Pitt County. I walked the halls of this once low-performing school which has overcome the label and the hardships of an impoverished community to exceed growth. As Steve Lassiter, 2015 North Carolina Principal of the Year, escorted my Teacher of the Year team on a tour of his K-8 school, he continuously showcased the great work of his staff. I watched teachers diligently working on a Friday afternoon until the final bell to ensure student success, and I witnessed reading and math instruction that make me proud to be in the same profession as miracle workers. My entire team was in awe of the authentic culture of community at Pactolus and the great leadership. Once our tour ended, we asked the monumental question of Mr. Lassiter, “How did you do it? How did your school go from low-performing to exceeding growth in three short years?” His response began with a simple truth: He retained and recruited the best possible teachers for his students.
No matter how many schools I visit or audiences I speak with, I am constantly driven back to the same truth: A great teacher makes all the difference. Yet, when I speak this truth in many educational arenas, it becomes overshadowed with student test scores, growth predictors, or even budget issues. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are essential discussions, but with each experience on my journey, I grow more and more passionate about the monumental role of the classroom teacher. Without a high quality classroom teacher, what chance do our students have? What use are growth or proficiency scores if students don’t feel loved, valued, and worthy of the education in which they are participating? Great teachers understand this. They empower their students by creating meaningful relationships in order to create a culture of community which fosters high quality teaching and learning. All of the conversations that must be had to improve education in North Carolina are nothing if not grounded in the truth that great teachers are the difference. They are the deciding factor in the fight against ignorance, and they are the greatest motivators of change. Therefore, we, as a state, must empower, motivate, and ignite creativity in these life-changers.
We must begin by:
1- Raising NC Teacher Pay to higher than the National Average (if we want the best, we have to be the best).
2- Re-establishing a Teacher Recruitment Scholarship modeled after the Teaching Fellows program. Heck, why not just swallow our pride and re-establish the Teaching Fellows Program? After all, why reinvent the wheel?
3- Providing top-quality, well-mentored principals for our teacher workforce. Great principals develop phenomenal teachers. If we want to sustain growth and protect against stagnation, great leadership is key.
4- Creating Teacher Leadership pathways to keep high quality educators in the classroom while providing opportunities for professional growth and flexibility through hybrid roles.
Many days I believe teaching is a form of rocket science, but I certainly don't think it takes a rocket scientist to understand what is required to fix our teacher recruitment and retention problem. Simply put, we must UNITE as one voice. In a time when we so often find reasons for dissension and argument, this a cause with which everyone on both sides of the fence can agree. Our children are our future, and they deserve the best we have to offer. So, why are we dragging our feet? Let's unite for our children and take action. The power of a great teacher is the mightiest tool in public education's belt, and without it, our fight is frivolous.