A teacher explains why he’ll be wearing red

Aug. 20, 2013 @ 02:10 PM

Dear parents,

I will be wearing red on the first day of school, as I meet your children and begin a new year.

Red, because I believe North Carolina owes teachers a debt that it has no intention to repay.

Red, because I believe our state is approaching educational bankruptcy, replacing long-term investment with smoke, mirrors and empty slogans.

Red, because I am beyond angry at the lack of respect and basic fairness shown to teachers in our state.

I have been teaching for 27 years. I love my job. I love teaching your children. I love meeting former students in the grocery store or at the mall and seeing how they have grown up.

When I began teaching two decades ago, the pay was so low that my children would have qualified for free and reduced lunch if they had been school-age. Still, I learned that I loved the work, and I believed in the promise of a better future.

Over time, North Carolina moved to pay teachers a reasonable wage -- not fabulous, but enough that I could pay the bills and plan for our future. I stayed in the job, and I saw our schools get better. Even though many of my early colleagues left education for better pay in other professions, I still loved standing in a classroom, awed by the energy of young people.

I will be wearing red because I am embarrassed. We are back to reduced-lunch eligibility for young teachers with families. My colleague next door is entering her sixth year of teaching, and her monthly take-home pay is below $3,200 (over only 10 months) -- essentially unchanged since she began.

We are hired on a pay scale that rises with time. This makes sense -- I am a better teacher now than I was when I started. It seems especially important to give new teachers an incentive to stay in education so that we can all benefit from their experience.

Still, when the economy went south, I understood why our salaries were frozen. Times were tough. They remain tough for many of you and for many of the children we teach.

What I do not understand, however, is how our state can find the cash for a voucher program - money that will go to private schools - while leaving my pay untouched. That is just plain wrong.

There is not even a token promise to address our pay. There is no plan at all.  

The governor and legislature have the right to experiment with new programs. But let the experiments come after restoring the base pay level for all teachers.

So, I will be wearing red until we are paid a fair salary once again.

But I will also be wearing red until North Carolina returns to investing in our children: when we stop cutting textbooks and supplies, when we increase the number of teachers to keep up with enrollment, when we look for ways to give more children pre-K education, when we reduce class size in the early years.

I will be wearing red on the first day of school. I will be wearing red when you visit for Open House. I will be wearing red every Wednesday.

I will be inviting my colleagues to join me. I invite you and your children to join me as well.

Wear red for public schools.

Steven Unruhe teaches at Riverside High School in Durham and is a North Carolina Presidential Award Winner for Secondary Math Education, 2000.