‘Not just a meeting, it’s a movement’: Teachers rally for higher pay, smaller classes and more resources

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Click the play button to watch a video from the March for Students and Rally for Respect.
Drew C. Wilson | Times

RALEIGH — As more than 15,000 teachers marched to the state legislature Wednesday, Diedra Kenely, a Vick Elementary School teacher from Wilson, felt a sense of unity with other educators.

“It’s like we all work at the same place,” said Kenely, who teaches fourth and fifth grade. “Everyone seems like we all came together just like one big school family, even though we don’t know them, like Charlotte and Wake County and Pitt County, all these other counties coming together, we’re talking like we are all at the same school. You would think that we work together. We have never see each other, but we all have the same voice. We want the same thing for the kids.”

Kenely joined a sea of red-shirted teachers at the headquarters of the North Carolina Association of Educators, organizer of Wednesday’s March for Students and Rally for Respect, as chants of “This is what democracy looks like,” “Fired up” and “Ready to go” were belted out in a chorus amplified over a loudspeaker.

The throng migrated nine blocks to the North Carolina General Assembly as a helicopter and a photo drone hovered overhead.

Most carried signs expressing their hopes and desires.

CLICK HERE to browse a gallery of Times images from the teacher rally.

For Christine Gilmore, a fourth-grade teacher from Jones Elementary School in Wilson, it was a wish list for teacher assistants for kindergarten through third grade, school nurses five days a week, updated textbooks and less testing.

Other signs had observations of the scene.

“This is almost as big as my class size,” one sign read.

“We have a situation,” said another.

Many bore the same message, like “Kids are worth more than 39th.”

Some were comical, saying “It’s so bad, even introverts are here” and “My BRA provides more SUPPORT than you!”

James Holloway, Junior ROTC senior Army instructor at Beddingfield High School, had no sign, but said he came out to support teachers in their efforts to get more pay and better classroom support from the state.

“It is very important that we as teachers stand together and as you can see right now, this is not just a meeting, it’s a movement,” Holloway said. “It’s part of a continual movement that the state will see until we get better working conditions where teachers don’t have to buy their own supplies to take care of children. They are our future, but we are not investing in our future.”

“When we don’t invest the dollars, we don’t get the best teachers because we are not paying the best salaries,” Holloway said. “You are not getting the best teachers because you are not paying the best salaries. And the teachers that you have, they eventually leave. They are not paying them enough to be able to maintain a decent way of life.”

So many teachers from across the state attended the rally that 41 school districts closed, which included schools for about 75 percent of students in the state. Wilson County Schools decided to close for students and hold a teacher work day after more than 120 teachers were expected to be absent, many to attend the rally.

According to Amber Lynch, public information director for Wilson County Schools, some 273 teacher absences were noted Wednesday, but it isn’t clear how many of those teachers attended the rally.

Pamela Letchworth, a Fike High School certified math teacher from Wilson, said her students’ needs brought her to the event.

“They need our support and teachers need our support,” Letchworth said. “We need more resources and we need more money. That’s all there is to it. That’s what brings us here. It’s not just about salary. It’s about getting resources for students and the things they need.”

Letchworth said that being a math teacher, she knows that there is power in numbers.

“I just believe that this is a show of solidarity,” Letchworth said. “It’s really putting the faces to the issues. That’s what is important.”

Malinda Pennington, who currently works at Rocky Mount High School and used to work in Wilson County Schools as an exceptional children program specialist, was in the mass of teachers.

Pennington has worked at Toisnot Middle School and Jones Elementary School and is the 2011 WCS Teacher of the Year and the 2012 North Central Region Teacher of the Year.

“I have been teaching 27 years,” Pennington said. “The recession hit our state hard. And so there were cuts, which was to be expected, and our public schools have not rebounded from that. So what I see is a lot of experienced teachers leaving the profession because they have a lack of resources, a lack of support and, honestly, a lack of pay.”

Pennington said some teachers can get better pay somewhere other than in the schools.

“We are seeing a reduction in the number of new teachers entering the field and especially entering the small districts,” Pennington said. “I am concerned about the small districts like Wilson because we can’t compete with the larger districts in terms of a supplement, so it is really hard for us to recruit talented young or experienced teachers to our county because we are smaller and can’t offer them as much.”

Pennington said it is energizing and empowering to see so many teachers coming together for a common concern.

“Although there is discussion of wages and salary, the real concern is for our children,” Pennington said. “We haven’t purchased new textbooks in over a decade since the recession. There are schools where furniture is broken, you can’t make copies, water fountains are broken, things that need to be taken care of for our children to have a safe, productive learning environment, because they are the real reason we are here.”

Pennington’s hope is that legislators will look at providing a living wage for teachers.

“They really need to look carefully at the base pay because not a lot of counties can afford to pay supplements,” Pennington said. “So when we say an average salary is $51,000, that doesn’t reflect the base pay. The most common years of experience for teachers in North Carolina is one and 40 percent of teachers leave after the first year. Their base pay coming out of college is so low that after taxes and benefits, they can’t even afford to even pay rent or their student loans, so they leave.”

Pennington also hopes lawmakers consider making the base pay a living wage for the professional who has a four-year degree and that they re-institute pay increases for advanced degrees.

“I am also hoping that they are going to consider increasing support of the public schools,” Pennington said. “It seems like more support is going toward other options when our public schools serve all children, whether they are low-income or have special needs or if they are incredibly talented and gifted, we support them all and we need to support our public schools.”

Kenely said it was her first time coming to the legislature.

“It’s awesome. It’s amazing,” Kenely said. “We met Sen. Toby Fitch and he’s a great supporter. He stopped us and talked to us.”

Tineeta Barnes, a fourth-grade EC language facilitator, said it shocked her that so many teachers from across the state feel the same way as she does about the schools’ plight.

“Each county feels the same way,” Barnes said. “So many teachers put in to be off on this day so we could be heard. We need our voices to be heard.”

Barnes said teacher pay is below the cost of living in North Carolina.

“We put out of our pockets to help the kids in the classrooms. That’s taking away from our households for our families,” Barnes said. “You would be surprised that some kids come to school without a pencil, without a sheet of paper, without a notebook, and we go out with our own monies and buy these things for kids.”

Tamika Jones, of Guilford County, a fifth-grade teacher from Colfax Elementary School, felt encouraged to see such a large group come together to support students, teachers and public schools.

“It’s historic to me,” Jones said. “It’s great to be part of a movement like this. It’s very moving. It’s inspiring. It’s encouraging because educators are standing up for their kids and trying to make sure that they get the things that they need to be successful.”