This morning at breakfast I was involved in a civil, respectful conversation between two people (me and a state senator) who likely disagree on a number of issues. With all the hostility in North Carolina politics, all the name-calling, all the protesting, I am proud to say that I was part of a productive conversation. I am pleased to know that the kind of
dialogue that happened this morning at a local Raleigh restaurant can happen between a member of the General Assembly and a North Carolina citizen.
I will need some more time to fully process the meeting today. And until that happens, I may not have much to say that is clear or eloquent. But I would like to share a little bit about my meeting.
The discussion was casual, personal, and pleasant. Right away, we found commonalities between us (the most interesting is that we both grew up Lutheran), and we heard about each other’s backgrounds. He asked how long I’ve been teaching, why I decided to be a teacher, and if I enjoy the profession. I answered his questions being sure to mention the diversity of schools in which I’ve taught, the significance of my Master’s degree, and my experiences with merit pay. He also asked why I decided to “reach out” to him. He assumed it was because of our low salary (I guess he didn’t remember the content of my letter), but I told him I was more concerned about how some of the proposed bills will negatively impact the students in our classrooms.
So we continued, and we discussed some of the policies that have been proposed in the Senate including: Master’s pay elimination, not having a cap on class size, implementing merit pay, and eliminating teaching assistants. What I liked about the conversation is that he didn’t act like he knew it all or that he had all the answers. It didn’t appear that he was trying to change my mind; he sincerely asked my opinion on some issues, and in some cases, he shared his opinion as well. In a situation like that it is impossible to say everything perfectly. Looking back, there are some things I wish I said, but I think I made some valid points. Here are some of my points that I hope he’ll remember:
1.Small class sizes are critical for student success. If class sizes become too large, teachers will have to change their teaching style to accommodate the number of students in their class. Furthermore, with more students in a class, the teacher cannot
focus as much attention on each student. He then mentioned, as I knew he would,
that the idea of this part of the bill is for each district to decide how and if they limit class size. I, of course, was ready with a rebuttal and mentioned that districts with less money may not use the little money they have to support smaller class sizes. Therefore, students in those districts will suffer. He agreed.
2. Merit pay is not the solution. I explained that my experience in a school that used merit pay was that it was not good for teacher morale. (However, it was good for
competition among teachers and lots of bad attitudes.) His only explanation was, “That’s corporations for you.” So I changed my approach a bit and began explaining the injustice of making a teacher’s pay based on the make-up of the students in his or her class. He seemed to understand.
3. Master’s pay cannot go away. This was the only time during the conversation that I felt like I might lose it. Of all the issues we discussed, this is the one I feel most strongly about. I explained how important my master’s degree has been and how my students have benefited from it. Of all the ways I have grown professionally, this is the most important, and I would not trade that experience for anything. He said that cutting Master’s pay is a “budget issue” as well as a “research issue;”research doesn’t show that Master’s degrees make that much of a difference. I asked him to consider the idea that some graduate programs are more effective than others; some are rigorous, and some (like mine) leave you with great knowledge that can be applied to your teaching. He then told me methods that businesses use to pay their employees and suggested that we could apply some of those ideas to the school system. All I wanted to do was shout out in protest,“SCHOOLS ARE NOT BUSINESSES!” But I resisted. That will have to be a conversation for another time.
Even though I didn't say everything I wanted to say, I hope I said some things that he remembers. In the sixty minutes we talked today, I was not going to be able to make all my arguments, cite all the research, or change his mind on every issue. All I can hope for is another opportunity to do that.
I am cautiously optimistic that our conversation can be the beginning of a series of conversations between teachers and legislators. At the end of our meeting, he said I “got him thinking” and that he wants to talk with more teachers and principals to see how they are feeling about the legislation. I, for one, think that is a wonderful step in the right direction. I will be following up with him on that a little later and offering to meet with him again soon. Next time, maybe he will bring some of his friends!