Educators of educators face challenges

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The technology that allowed Dr. Van Dempsey to observe Wednesday's Rally for Respect march in Raleigh is only a few years old - likewise for the social media platforms that helped organize and galvanize thousands of teachers from all parts of North Carolina.

But the reasons behind a rally that shut down 42 school districts in the state are hardly new. If anything, the events of Wednesday that Dempsey witness on a variety of digital devices have been decades in the making.

The dean of UNC Wilmington's Watson College of Education, Dempsey points to policy changes enacted in the early 1980s that reduced support and resources. Dominoes began to tumble more swiftly during this decade, a period of years that Dempsey said "have been detrimental" to the teaching profession.

During that same period, there has been a general decline in both the number of students pursuing a career in teaching and the number of teachers in the workforce.

According to Public Schools First NC – a non-partisan, non-profit public education advocacy group – there has been a 25-percent decline in enrollment in teaching programs in the UNC system since 2010, a total that swells to 30 percent at some local education agencies in the state. There are also about 8,000 fewer teacher assistants than during the 2008-09 school year.

Part of that could simply be pay. North Carolina had the 11th-lowest teacher salary in the United States with an average pay of $50,861 annually and sixth among 12 southern states. North Carolina teachers earn a little more than 65 cents on the dollar compared to the compensation of other college graduates in the country – the third-widest pay gap in America.

That, it would seem, would be enough cause to merit a rally such as the one that materialized on Wednesday.

"It's important to point out this isn't just about teacher salary – that's a part of it," Dempsey said. "It's the conditions, it's the policies, it's the structure, it's the resources. It's about scholarships, it's about classroom materials, it's about respect for the profession. It's about making sure people understand the complexity of teaching and why people who are teaching now or choosing to go into the profession deserve our respect and so much more."

That's left educators of educators such as Dempsey to primarily recruit regionally for potential students with an enhanced focus on North Carolina. More than 80 percent of incoming freshmen at UNCW's college of education are in-state students – a strategy based on the rationale that those students with North Caroline ties are more likely to pursue careers at home.

Still, the demonstration of unity is a double-edged sword.

It shines a spotlight on the shortcomings and issues in the educational system with the hopes of fixing problems. But it's also a very public method of airing dirty laundry – one that has happened more and more around the country in recent months. The fact teachers have to rally for improvement leads to the unappealing perception – either real or perceived – that the profession is flawed.

And it creates yet another complex challenge for the likes of Dempsey.

"The negativity," Dempsey said. "That some of the stories about situations that are the most complex or most difficult or the whole profession, and we know that's not that case. You can go in virtually any school or school district in North Carolina and you're going to see excellent examples of practice.

"… That message about the positive nature of the profession, the positive things schools do, why they're important to Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina – it's harder to get that message out. But we work at it and continue to try to reach people both who want to be teachers and people who are already in the profession who want that support."

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