Teachers losing path to higher pay

pseligson@newsobserver.comAugust 16, 2013 

North Carolina teachers who earn a master’s degree will no longer get a pay bump, a move critics say will discourage teachers from expanding their skills.

About a fourth of Johnston County’s 2,700 teachers have a master’s degree, said Robin Little, the school system’s chief business officer.

Historically, teachers with master’s degrees have received a 10-percent salary increase paid for by the state. But this summer, state lawmakers ended the raise, one of many controversial education decisions this session.

Teachers who currently have a master’s degree will not lose their extra pay. But the cutoff begins this school year. Teachers must receive a paycheck including the increase by April 1 to keep it permanently. That means teachers graduating from their master’s program in December will receive the pay raise while teachers graduating in May will not.

“It really is a broken promise to teachers that have already started in master’s degree programs,” Little said. “When they started in their program, there was a law on the books that said, ‘When you finish, as a regard to your continuing education, we’re going to give you a 10-percent increase.’ What are they supposed to do?”

Little said many teachers need the salary increase to pay back student debt.

“It will discourage teachers from taking on the role of being a lifelong learner,” she added. “Why should they go get a master’s degree? The General Assembly has told them that it’s worthless.”

Carla Withrow, principal of South Smithfield Elementary School, said teachers with master’s degrees provide an important service to their schools.

Education strategies are constantly changing, Withrow said. Teachers learn new strategies through their master’s programs and then bring that knowledge back to their schools.

“If one teacher has their master’s degree in math, they can come back and provide professional development,” Withrow said. “And then our whole school gets the latest strategies to use to help students learn.”

Withrow has 17 teachers on her staff with master’s degrees, and two more are in the middle of earning theirs. Those two adding are adding classes in the fall so they can graduate in December and lock in the pay increase, Withrow said.

Josh Beck, who teaches science at Clayton High School, is Johnston County’s Teacher of the Year. Now that the pay increase is gone, he said, getting a master’s degree is not something he plans to do.

Beck began teaching the year after North Carolina teachers last received a pay raise. Even though this is his sixth year in the classroom, this will be the first year his pay has increased. Beck said he could see himself getting a master’s degree only if he was moving to a state that requires one or if he was changing careers.

“I’ve looked into multiple programs for master’s in education,” Beck said. “All of them have been put on hold because I’ve been waiting for my salary to start increasing so that I can afford to start paying for some classes.”

Bryan Holley, who teaches at South Smithfield Elementary, earned a master’s degree in reading from East Carolina University in 2007. And even though he is still paying off student loans, he begins his doctorate this fall.

“If you’re doing it just for the money, 10 percent really isn’t a huge difference,” Holley said. “I guess for me it was more the fact of building my knowledge base than it was the 10 percent. Yes the 10 percent is wonderful, and I am so thankful for it, but it’s not a substantial amount.”

Holley said earning a master’s degree improved his teaching. “The master’s program really helps teachers to analyze and self-reflect a little more,” he said. “It just goes deeper into your field.”

The degree also made him a lifelong learner, Holley said. “With your master’s degree, you’re challenged to read a bunch of material, see a bunch of things that you typically wouldn’t have thought of,” he said. “It just kind of sparks that interest, that now if I want to learn more about a particular thing in reading or math, I just do it naturally.”

Holley said the greater knowledge base means he has more teaching methods to try in the classroom. “You have more goodies in your bag to pull out to see if this will work,” he said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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