Firestorm erupts over teacher’s angry e-mail to legislators about low pay

North Carolina (census.gov)
North Carolina (census.gov)

An angry e-mail written by a teacher to North Carolina legislators with a subject line that said, “I am embarrassed to confess: I am a teacher,”  might have been seen only by recipients if it were not for state Sen. David Curtis. The Republican legislator fired back an inflammatory e-mail, giving her advice on what to tell her “potential new private sector employer” and complaining about the teachers union, even though there isn’t a teachers union in North Carolina.  A “firestorm” of protest ensued after the e-mail exchange was made public (see below).

The teacher is Sarah Wiles, who is finishing her sixth year as a teacher, the last 18 months at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She has a bachelor’s degree in science education and a master’s degree in education and public policy. Wiles wrote the e-mail to legislators about education funding, referring to the current election season and noting that candidates frequently campaign on a platform to beef up funding for public schools and raise teachers’ salaries but don’t follow through after the elections.

A story on teachers’ salaries by WSOC-TV said:

The state ranks 46th in average teacher salary — which is $45,737. The national average is $56,103.

On average, teachers in North Carolina start at $30,778 a year, and they are required to have a college education.

That starting salary is less than the average Charlotte sanitation worker and that job that doesn’t require a college degree.

Wiles wrote in part:

I am so tired of being lied to about how important I am and how valuable I am. I am also sick and tired of politicians making my profession the center of attention and paying it lip-service by visiting a school, kneeling next to a child, shaking my hand and thanking me, telling the nightly news that I deserve a raise, and then proceeding to speak through the budget that I am not worth it. If you aren’t going to do anything, and you know nothing will change, just leave me alone. I would rather be ignored than disrespected.

Curtis fired back with an e-mail  in which he said teachers are sufficiently paid in North Carolina and:

Since you naturally do not want to remain in a profession of which you are ashamed, here are my suggestions for what you should tell your potential new private sector employer…

Then he offered four. The last one said that she should tell her future employer that “the teachers union has convinced parents that teachers are grossly undercompensated based on a flawed teachers union survey of teacher pay.” There is, however, no teachers union in North Carolina.

Wiles publicized the two e-mails, which infuriated teachers who flooded Curtis’s office with e-mails and letters critical of his statements in what the Mooresville Tribune called a “firestorm.” It also quoted Curtis as saying he was not sorry about his response to Wiles but was surprised at the reaction, some of which he described as being infused with “vulgarity.” He also said that many of his legislative colleagues have expressed their support of his position. The story says:

“One positive is that this has increased my stature with the legislature,” Curtis told the Mooresville Tribune. “At least 40 legislators have told me ‘What you said was right on the money.’ ”

Here’s the e-mail exchange, which first appeared on North Carolina Public Radio.

From: Sarah Wiles

Sent: Tuesday, May 06, 2014 6:47 PM

Every year there is a debate on teacher compensation. This is only exacerbated during election years. However, nothing happens. As a sixth year teacher, I have only seen a pay increase once (and then again after plunging myself into debt by earning my masters in dducation). I have attended rallies, joined NCAE [North Carolina Association of Educators], petitioned, and worn red (or blue and white, or whatever color of the rainbow I was required to wear to “show my support”).  Nothing ever changes, except my wardrobe. So that brings me to this one request: leave me alone.

I am so tired of being lied to about how important I am and how valuable I am. I am also sick and tired of politicians making my profession the center of attention and paying it lip-service by visiting a school, kneeling next to a child, shaking my hand and thanking me, telling the nightly news that I deserve a raise, and then proceeding to speak through the budget that I am not worth it. If you aren’t going to do anything, and you know nothing will change, just leave me alone. I would rather be ignored than disrespected.

And on the topic of disrespect, our salary is disrespectful. I tutor my own students for free four days a week after school until I have to go to my next job. I tutor outside of school for pay about fifteen hours a week, and that includes weekends. I also babysit. And I manage pools and teach pool operator classes. And I currently have an application for summer school being reviewed. I get home at 8 p.m., spend half an hour with my husband, answer parent emails, fall asleep, and am back at work at 7 a.m. the next morning. I have become very accustomed to being disrespected. My students know that no one cares about education because they frequently ask me why I ever made the decision to become a teacher.  Honestly, I am running out of answers. Do not misunderstand or misconstrue what I am saying as apathy for my students (I love them more than most adults), but I can no longer defend that North Carolina cares about education because they are not willing to pay for it. It’s a lie and everyone knows it.

I know that you all will continue talking about how important teachers are and weaving those wonderful words that tax payers love to hear from the people who are “leading” them that make them believe that it isn’t all about the bottom line and that you care about their kids and the public education system. But I am calling your bluff. If you continue to do nothing even though you can do something, you should be ashamed. I am embarrassed for you. I am embarrassed by you. And, save for my students, I am embarrassed by being a teacher in North Carolina, the doormat of society.

Sarah Wiles, M.A.Ed.

 

and the response from Curtis:

 

From: Sen. David Curtis
Date: May 12, 2014 at 9:46:57
Dear Sarah,

I have given your e-mail titled “I am embarrassed to confess: I am a teacher” some thought, and these are my ideas. A teacher has an incredible influence on students–for good or for bad. My teachers, coaches, and Boy Scout leaders had a great influence on my decision to go to college which was not a family tradition. My concern is that your students are picking up on your attitude toward the teaching profession. Since you naturally do not want to remain in a profession of which you are ashamed, here are my suggestions for what you should tell your potential new private sector employer:

1. You expect to make a lot more than you made as a teacher because everyone knows how poorly compensated teachers are.

2. You expect at least eight weeks paid vacation per year because that is what the taxpayers of North Carolina gave you back when you were a poorly compensated teacher

3. You expect a defined contribution retirement plan that will guarantee you about $35,000 per year for life after working 30 years even if you live to be 104 years old. Your employer will need to put about $16,000 per year into your retirement plan each year combined with your $2,000 contribution for the next 30 years to achieve this benefit. If he objects, explain to him that a judge has ruled that the taxpayers of North Carolina must provide this benefit to every public school teacher. Surely your new employer wants to give better benefits than the benefits you received as a poorly compensated teacher.

4. Your potential employer may tell you that he has heard that most North Carolina workers make less than the national average because we are a low cost-of-living- state, private sector workers making 87% of the national average and teachers making 85% of the national average. Tell him that may be true, but to keep that confidential because the teachers union has convinced parents that teachers are grossly undercompensated based on a flawed teachers union survey of teacher pay.

I support the teacher pay raise but am very concerned that the teachers union has successfully presented to the public a deceptive view of total teacher compensation that is simply not consistent with the facts.

Sincerely,

Senator David Curtis

 

I asked Wiles why she wrote the missive and she responded:

I wrote the email in response to the election campaign climate currently gripping North Carolina. It is yet another round of lip service and empty promises. Education is a great thing to support in the campaign but once the ballots are in, the talk doesn’t take a walk. I was simply calling the legislatures’ bluff. And they responded with their true colors. Sen Curtis thinks that we are paid more than fairly. That says to me no great changes are in the works. The nation has been informed: NC public schools are something you will have to “deal with” if you choose to move to our great state. I wish education was our bragging right, not our ugly wart.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 23