Believe the Teachers

by Adam Jordan and Todd S. Hawley


If you had your eyes open in the checkout aisle in late September, you might have seen the cover of Time magazine’s issue on teacher pay. Time highlighted the stories of 13 public school teachers — along with their salaries and working conditions. 

While this issue caught our eyes for obvious reasons, there was a personal connection, too. One of the three covers (at right above) featured a wonderful lady by the name of NaShonda Cooke of Raleigh, North Carolina. As Adam was walking through the grocery store in South Carolina, he did a double-take when he saw NaShonda’s picture on the cover. Adam and NaShonda were classmates at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in a master’s program in special education for experienced teachers. For a few minutes, it was nice to feel a sense of pride in seeing a friend who has sacrificed so much for the profession highlighted for her hard work.

For those of you who haven’t read the Time piece, NaShonda is special educator of nearly 20 years who earns an approximate annual salary of $69,000. She also disclosed being a single mother of two wonderful girls, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and in need of additional support. In the piece, NaShonda revealed her inability, as a single mother, to keep pace with the demands of housing costs, living expenses, and childcare commitments with only her teaching salary to support her. Nevertheless, NaShonda expressed tireless love and support for the profession. This is where supporters on social media rolled in, thanking her for her commitment to children and for her honesty and openness in the Time article. 

And then came a stubborn old word: but. “We believe you’re having a hard time, but…” 

NaShonda received a great deal of criticism both in social media spaces and on conservative media outlets. The usual counternarratives involved either one or some combination of: 

  • Teachers don’t budget well. 

  • Teachers have summers off. 

  • Teachers have good insurance. 

  • Teachers aren’t the brokest folks in our economy. 

  • And (our personal favorite): If teachers want to make more money, they should not be teachers. 

Those criticisms prompted this column. Perhaps it is our dedication to a longstanding Southern code of defending the folks you love. Maybe it is our dedication to teachers and their profession. But we cannot sit silently on this one. 

Here are some facts, for those who still appreciate them:

On average, teachers are paid about 19 percent less than similarly educated professionals.

Teachers don’t have summers off; students do. Teachers spend these months updating licenses, taking professional development courses, and planning for the next school year. Folks seem to think lessons just plan themselves. 

Teachers are skilled, rigorously trained professionals. If you disagree, we look forward to seeing you in a highly ranked teacher- preparation program sometime soon. Should be a breeze, right? Unless you don’t think you could live on a teacher’s salary. 

If you’re wondering how the South stacks up in terms financial support of teachers, the answer is pretty dang awful. In September, the financial site WalletHub released its list of the best and worst states in which to teach. The highest ranking Southern state is Virginia, at 12. Kentucky is 18th and Texas 19th. After that, the South is nowhere in sight until we get to Georgia at No. 30. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, in that order, hold down spots 45 through 49. 

Why are our teachers struggling to pay living expenses, and why is the South such a tough place to be a teacher? 

First, we have to acknowledge the South is growing, and the cost of living is increasing. State governments are not providing teachers with the raises needed to keep pace with increasing cost of living. Take NaShonda’s situation in Raleigh, where the average home sells for more than $230,000. Teachers are often priced out of the communities they serve. When we factor in family budget issues, like healthcare and childcare, the picture gets even darker. Childcare alone, for just one child, may take as much as 10 percent of a family’s budget. In other words, we continually ask teachers, and everyone else in their tax bracket, to do more with less. That’s a mathematic reality in 2018.

Second, though, it is time we analyze some of our more empty rhetoric about public education not just in the South, but also across the country. As a culture, Americans support teachers with our words but not our wallets. We want our teachers to be “highly qualified,” but we also feel we may challenge the decisions teachers make, based on our non-expert opinions. Few other fields tolerate the loud advice of non-qualified professionals as educators do. We do not stand over the shoulder of the electrician and tell him he’s got his wires crossed. We don’t stop our doctors and tell them they don’t know how to read our blood-test results. We don’t tell engineers they’re building the bridge wrong. Somehow, though, we allow a culture where it is okay to tell teachers their teaching decisions are terrible, their teacher-designed evaluation measures are bogus, and that “newfangled math” is hocus-pocus. 

We have to stop this. We have to start believing teachers, we have to start trusting teachers, and we have to start paying teachers. No “buts” about it.

A few months ago, EdWeek released a poll where folks responded to the question, “Would you want your child to become a public school teacher?” The publication's data go as far back as 1969, when the number was an overwhelming 75 percent yes. This year, for the first time ever, we’ve crossed the line: 54 percent of parents in 2018 do not want their children to grow up to be public school teachers. We see this in university orientation sessions all the time. The most frequent question we get from parents and students inquiring about a education major is, “How much money do graduates make?” In teaching, we simply show the numbers, which are symbolic of the value we place on teachers and teaching, and we often watch brilliant folks with a spark for teaching choose the business school or the health sciences instead. 

If we want a society where the NaShonda Cookes of the world — brilliant and dedicated teaching specialists — can thrive, we have to stop blaming teachers and support them instead. Teachers should be paid on par with other professionals of equal training and societal responsibility. Period. 

With that, we ask fellow Bitter Southerners to help us shift this narrative, particularly in the South, where teachers do not have access to collective bargaining through teachers' unions and often face underfunded and underappreciated conditions. Let’s have big goals, but let’s start small. NaShonda Cooke was attacked on social media, and we believe social media is a powerful conduit for awareness. 

When we were young, our Southern parents had a frequent response to any ridiculous tale we were spinning up to stay up late, stay over at a friend's house, or just generally convince them to let us do something we couldn’t normally do. We can still hear it now: “Do what now?” Any Southern child knows, this means you better start revising that story because your folks are on to your baloney and you better shape up.

With this, we would like to propose two hashtags be used in the fight for teachers: #DoWhatNow and #BelieveTeachers.

We have to take this conversation by storm. We have to respond to ridiculous attacks on the profession, and we have to do this together. 

When teachers say they are struggling, believe them. When teachers say they are underpaid, believe them. When the parents of this country say they don’t want their children growing up to be teachers, believe them. 

And then let’s do something about it together. When you Tweet, use those hashtags, and be sure to tag @BitterSouth and Adam at @aj_wade.