Until recently, Chapel Hill mother Deborah Gerhardt wasn’t the type of parent to cause a fuss. Focused on her career as a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, she trusted that her adopted state of North Carolina would provide the resources her three sons’ schools needed to help students succeed and excel.
Although she knew educators faced challenges in the classroom, she took for granted the Tar Heel state’s ability to recruit, retain, and pay the highest quality teachers. Then one day her faith in the system got shattered when budget cuts resulted in the loss of a teacher who had changed her family’s life.
“Every year there had been a budget crisis and somehow it always got resolved,” Gerhardt said, explaining her path to activism. “It happened so many times that I didn’t think that much about it. It always seemed to work itself out. Then, in middle school, one of my sons was inspired by an outstanding Latin teacher. He took the Latin class trip to Italy, and while there had a life-altering experience. He was suddenly reading everything, just loving learning. Just a few days after getting back from Italy, that teacher got a pink slip.”
Gerhardt was aghast to see the demolition of the World Languages program along with the loss of this teacher. Although she had previously never even attended a PTA meeting, Gerhardt suddenly realized her involvement was essential to preserving her children’s schools and education.
“I looked at my son and thought, what kind of lesson am I sending to him if I do nothing about this injustice in this world? How could the adults in the room see that she was such an awesome teacher and not do everything we could to fund her position?”
Despite gathering more than 100 supporters who overwhelmed a school board meeting with speakers in favor of language education and that teacher, Gerhardt lost the fight to keep the Latin teacher at her sons’ school. But she has now parlayed the lessons she learned—both about organizing, and the depth of educational need in our state—into a new movement, Pay our Teachers First, which advocates for making teacher pay the state’s number one budget priority. She also joined the advisory board of Public Schools First NC.
“Once I got involved and saw the salary schedule– I didn’t know how little our teachers make. I was heartbroken,” Gerhardt said. “They are working so hard and we pay them this pittance? I realized that other people didn’t know and I started talking to my friends.”
North Carolina teachers currently are among the lowest paid in the country. Starting salaries for teachers in other southern states are as much as $10,000 more annually than they are here. By some estimates, due to inflation and the lack of pay raises in the last 6 years, North Carolina teachers have actually experienced a sizeable decrease in take-home pay. Recent policy changes have challenged tenure, ended pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees, and have cut classroom funding, placing North Carolina nearly last in the country for the amount allocated to teachers to buy supplies.
Gerhardt believes funding education is a universal, non-partisan issue. “Excellent public school infrastructure is so important to the economic health of our state,” she said. “There is widespread deep, true support for this being a state with good public education.”
Overwhelmingly, parents tend to agree. Gerhardt’s organization now has 500 supporters, and she has hosted a successful town hall meeting during which students, teachers, and parents spoke about the need for competitive teacher pay while elected officials from both political parties listened. She gathered stories from the event and has posted them on her website and has shared them with members of the General Assembly during visits to Jones Street.
The amount of need can be overwhelming, Gerhardt acknowledges, and she wants to ensure all parents know they can make a difference in political policy and teacher’s lives. She knows not everyone has the time or resources to spend half a day advocating policy change in Raleigh. Even with just five minutes’ investment, Gerhardt says, parents can affect real change.
Here are some suggestions for quick ways to get involved:
- Stop by your school and tell your teacher you care. During drop off or pick up, mention that you’ve been following the news, and you believe teachers should get paid competitively.
- Write your legislator. Almost everyone has a story about how a teacher changed their lives. Email your representatives about what education means to you. Tell them that you believe in making North Carolina a national leader in education.
- Talk to your friends. In the carpool line, during lunch, or over drinks, mention to your friends what you know about the state of education in North Carolina. Tell them that we are 46th in teacher pay; teachers here make $10,000 less than the national average, and talented educators are (justifiably) fleeing our state for more sustainable jobs.
- Learn more and spread the word. Start an AdvaNCe Team.
- Call your local school principal and ask what materials you can donate. Sometimes a few rolls of paper towels and hand sanitizer can go a long way. If you have time, ask if you can help in the classroom, or with administrative duties to help lighten the load for faculty and staff.
- Join your PTA. You don’t have to attend every meeting, or even any of them. Membership funds support teachers, and being a member means you’ll receive email and other outreach that will help you identify more ways to help your schools.
- Read about the latest developments at NC Policy Watch or Public Schools First NC. Follow Pay our Teachers First on Facebook, the North Carolina Association of Educators on Twitter, and (of course) Women AdvaNCe. Repost news so your networks can stay in the know. Research shows that more than ¾ of North Carolinians believe in raising teacher wages, so chances are you’ll be sharing with a receptive audience.
- Attend a parent advocacy training session through Action NC.
How do you support your schools? Tweet us or comment on Facebook to share your ideas for how to ensure our teachers stay where we need them.