What You Do Matters

Last November, I was honored to take part in a week-long intensive professional development seminar through the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching on Genocide Education. As part of our studies, we met with lead historians at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The slogan for their capital campaign on global genocide prevention is “What You Do Matters.”

The simple phrasing of this simple tenet has haunted me since. We—or, I suppose more accurately, I—tend to feel so small, so powerless to really create change or move populations. Somehow I know that what I do matters when it comes to reducing my family’s footprint, recycling or composting nearly every last thing, becoming more mindful of the sustainability of our lifestyles and food choices, and on and on. I recognize that all those little choices are good both for my own family and as part of a group of millions joining me.  I have tended to feel like my little ho-hum recycling practice or chickens-compost-gardening cycle might not really make much difference globally, but if it chips in to the other millions participating, then maybe it means something.

But you know.  It’s not like anything I’m going do will actually change much of the status quo. The systems that would require changing seem so BIG and insurmountable. There are layers and layers of crap to dig through; problems are complicated, deeply-rooted, and people are generally resistant to change. And besides, there are so. many. problems.  It seems like a much simpler concept to throw my hands up in the air and feel the powerlessness that I guessed I actually have.

So you might imagine how shocked I have been with the response to my letter to the NC General Assembly, posted here.  At this exact moment in time, it is true that nothing has changed legislatively.  However, I am suddenly viscerally aware that What You Do Matters.  A lot.  But guess what I’m finding out?

It’s mostly that you do anything at all.

I had been thinking about writing that letter for years.  And the rant in my head felt good and made sense, and then I was able to grumble about it and keep moving on with my day.  And sometimes I would share a rant with like-minded colleagues or friends.  But it turns out you have do at least a little more than that. Because it is what you DO that matters.

Here’s how my story went:  I went to NCAE’s Summer Leaders Conference.  Teachers across the spectrum of experience brainstormed what they saw as problems we need to tackle.  I said my piece about pay, public assistance, and being forced out of the profession out loud for the first time.  Other teachers my age nodded, and one woman leaned over on her way of the room and whispered, “You have a powerful story to tell, and people need to hear it.”

I said no way.  There is NO way.

But a few days later, I drafted my letter to the NCGA.  I emailed it to every state congressperson.  On a whim, I also sent it to the Raleigh News and Observer as a letter to the editor.  Raleigh is far away; this seemed like a much safer option than sending it to my hometown Asheville Citizen Times.  The N&O didn’t print my letter, but they did call me and do an interview.  They led their article on the budget with my story the next day.  The NCAE picked it up and sent it out to all members.  Friends all over NC who had received the email started asking to read my letter.  The Citizen Times called wanting to do a feature piece.  I agreed.

However, I quickly realized that the letter itself was not being printed anywhere, so I put it here, a blog on which I had written twice.  I shared it with teacher friends on Facebook, and 48 hours later, the letter had over a 100,000 hits from all over the world.  Did that change anything?  No, not yet.  But for many people, it DID put a face on the teacher pay issue.  It personalized what our low pay means: public assistance for young, highly-qualified, professional teachers with families.

Very suddenly, I was asked to speak at Moral Sunday, an event held in Black Mountain as a means of laying out the issues for anyone interested.  It was my first time ever speaking to a group larger than a class. The next morning, I was asked to speak at Moral Monday 13 in Raleigh, that day.  There were somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 people there, depending upon whom you ask.  It was an absolute honor to represent teachers at these events.  Visibility matters.  Media coverage matters.  Why?  Because it’s how we get people fired up, and not just fired up, but MOVING.

And then I got a called from the US Department of Education wondering if I would be interested in doing a conference call with Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, about how teacher pay is impacting education in North Carolina.

Um.  Yes.  Yes I would.

My husband is a little dumbfounded.  “You just wrote a letter.”  And he’s right.  But enough people found that I was saying something that others weren’t willing to say that it resonated.  I was simply DONE, figured I had very little to lose in that respect, and just wanted someone to know WHY when the teachers started fleeing (as they already have).

I have so much more to say on this.  My thoughts (my so many thoughts!) on Moral Monday and Rev. Dr. William Barber, my thoughts on what it will take to make real change, my thoughts on what our moral and ethical responsibilities are and what we each bring to the table, etc. etc. etc.  But for now, this post is already long, and there is more work to do.  I’ll be back here very soon.

One last bit—many have asked me what they can DO about this issue.  I think looking into the Forward Together/Moral Monday movement is one really good option.  I plan to post more about that very soon.  My one-sentence response is that we need to figure out how to make this inspiration sustainable because this is a long-term struggle.

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Video of my speech at Moral Sunday at White Horse Black Mountain:

Making Headlines: “Low Pay Crushes Teachers”

Here is an article in today’s Asheville Citizen Times regarding both my letter and the situation of young(ish) teachers around the state, but focusing specifically on area teachers.

There are two things that are slightly misleading. First, while I may have said that about and EBT card, to be clear, my family has never received EBT (food stamps). The Medicaid caseworker suggested we apply (signifying to me that we probably qualify), but we did not apply.

The other item of concern is something that the author of the article may not have realized.  She mentioned that teachers are eligible for a pay bump after 5 years. This is not true at all.  The pay scale as shown is descriptive, not prescriptive. What appears to be a pay bump after step 5 (actually 6 years, not 5) is actually where the pay froze. For 2013-2014, it will appear that there is a pay bump after step 6. And if nothing changes, it will appear that way after step 7 in 2014-2015. That generation of teachers simply does not move up the scale as of now.

As a side note, to those wondering, I am not as scary in real life as I appear in this picture!

http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20130728/NEWS/307280069/Low-pay-crushes-teachers

Asheville Citizen Times: “Low Pay Crushes Teachers”

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Lindsay Kosmala Furst is an English teacher.

It’s what she loves, and it’s what she was meant to do. She gets giddy at the thought of grammatical accuracy, and she talks about literary characters as if they are her friends.

She’s the kind of teacher that makes some kids want to be her when they grow up. But when they’ve told her recently that they want to teach, all she can think is, “Don’t do it. You don’t want this.”

She also has become the face of a growing number of teachers speaking out about pay for educators in North Carolina.

Furst sent a letter last week to legislators explaining that, after seven years of teaching in Buncombe County Schools, her income of $31,000 a year is low enough that her two young daughters qualify for Medicaid.

“Teaching is my calling, a true vocation, a labor of love,” she wrote, “but I can no longer afford to teach.

“I am desperately seeking a way out of the classroom, and nothing about education in North Carolina breaks my heart more.”

Since posting the letter to her blog Thursday night her words have gone viral, drawing more than 100,000 views and opening the floodgates of fellow educators who say they have no hope of better pay anytime soon.

“I think she just said what no one else had yet,” said Sarah Peterson, a school counselor in Haywood County. “But we’re drowning here, and I’m glad someone said it.” …..

Continue reading at the Asheville Citizen Times: http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20130728/NEWS/307280069/Low-pay-crushes-teachers

Letter to the NC General Assembly: I Can No Longer Afford to Teach

Dear members of the North Carolina General Assembly,

The language in this letter is blunt because the facts are not pretty. Teaching is my calling, a true vocation, a labor of love, but I can no longer afford to teach.

I moved to North Carolina to teach and to settle in to a place I love. My children were born here; we have no plans to leave. I reassured my family in Michigan, shocked at my paltry pay and health benefits, that North Carolina had an established 200 year history of placing a high value on public education and that things would turn around soon.

When I moved here and began teaching in 2007, $30,000 was a major drop from the $40,000 starting salaries being offered by districts all around me in metro Detroit, but it was fine for a young single woman sharing a house with roommates and paying off student loans. However, over six years later, $31,000 is wholly insufficient to support my family. So insufficient, in fact, that my children qualify for and use Medicaid as their medical insurance, and since there is simply no way to deduct $600 per month from my meager take-home pay in order to include my husband on my health plan, he has gone uninsured. We work opposite shifts to eliminate childcare costs.

The public discourse on public assistance is that it is a stop-gap, a safety net to keep people from falling until they can get back on their feet. But as I see no end in sight to the assault on teacher pay, I will do what I have to do to support my family financially. We never wanted or expected to live in luxury. We did, however, hope to be able to take our little girls out for an ice cream or not wonder where we will find the gas money to visit their grandparents. And so, even though I am a great teacher from a family of educators and public servants and never imagined myself doing anything else, I am desperately seeking a way out of the classroom, and nothing about education in North Carolina breaks my heart more.

I will make no apologies for saying that I am a great teacher. I run an innovative classroom where the subject matter is relevant and the standards are high. My teaching practice has resulted in consistently high evaluations from administrators, positive feedback from parents, and documented growth in students.

I realize that no one in Raleigh will care or feel the impact when this one teacher out of 80,000 leaves the classroom. I understand. However, my 160 students will feel the impact. And 160 the next year. And the next. My Professional Learning Community, teachers around the county with whom I collaborate, will be impacted, and their students as well. Young teachers become great when they are mentored by experienced, effective educators, and all their students are impacted as well. When quality teachers leave the classroom, the loss of mentors is yet another effect. This is how the quiet and exponential decline in education happens.

Higher teacher pay may be unpopular, and I am aware it is difficult to see the connection between teacher pay and a quality education for students, so I will try to make it clear. Paying me a salary on which I can live means I can stay in the classroom, and keeping me in the classroom means thousands of students over the next decade would get a quality education from me. It’s that simple.

While I appreciate that Governor McCrory is advocating for a 1% raise for teachers in the coming school year, it is simply not enough. For me, that is $380, which after years of pay freezes, does not cover the negative change in my health coverage and copays. It does not cover the change in the cost of a gallon of milk, a gallon of heating oil, or a unit of electricity. It is not enough. A sobering fact: even a 20% raise would fall short of bringing me up to the 2007 pay scale for my current step, and that is in 2007 dollars.

My students deserve a great, experienced teacher. As a professional with two degrees and four certifications, I deserve to make an honest living serving my community and this state.

Respectfully,

Lindsay Kosmala Furst

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I was very afraid to write this letter. People have strong feelings about several of the topics herein, these things tend to take on a life of their own in the internet age, and “going public” means, of course, that when I go back to school next month, I may have to face students who know these quite personal details of my life. While I would not be leaving teaching as a statement or protest of any kind (what I really want to do is teach), I realized that the silent turnover that would happen serves no purpose at all, and that I need to at least let someone know. I’m not sure what kind of reckless abandon overcame me when I went ahead and sent the letters to both the General Assembly and the Raleigh News & Observer, but I knew that once it was out, there was no getting it back.

I feel like I have come out of secrecy. My cards are on the table. This is the reality of being a young teacher in NC right now. We expect recent college grads to suck it up and deal with low pay for a year or two. We expect that at 30, however, young teachers may be starting families or wanting to buy houses. The fact is that those of us who began here in 2007 are only making a few hundred dollars per year more today than when we started, and our benefits have been slashed, negating even that small increase.

With a heavy heart, I have realized that if I want to remain in the classroom, I will have to leave the state. If I want to remain in this state, the place that I chose to be my home, I will have to leave the classroom. At the same time, this advocate of public education is left wondering what will be left for my children when they start school. I can’t express how deeply saddening it is to think that about my own field.

Since this was reported earlier this week, I have received many messages of encouragement. At least a dozen are from other mothers in my position, teaching full time with children on Medicaid and/or WIC, the nutrition assistance program for women, infants, and young children. They thanked me for telling their story as well. So many are afraid to stand up and speak. The public negativity directed at teachers right now is overwhelming, and it is no surprise that many do not want to enter the fray. I cannot blame them. But since I already have, I will do my best to represent them as well.

Thank you for your support.

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Update 1: WOW! I am overwhelmed by the response I have received. Thank you, thank you. Your support is incredible. Thank you for sharing your own stories here, as well. I am reading every single one of them.

Let me say this: While I appreciate difference of opinion, I will not be approving abusive comments. If you see one that has slipped by, please let me know. Thank you.

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Update 2: You guys. Honestly, you bring tears to my eyes. I’m heartbroken to see so many of you feeling the same way. If you want to leave a comment, please scroll to the very bottom where it says “Leave a Reply.”

One Year Ago

To Our Firstborn On the Imminent Arrival of Your Sibling

Tonight you lay there, looking up at me,
perfection in a hooded towel after your bath.
Instead of squirming away from your oncoming diaper
and my touch, you were still and let me gaze
at you for a moment. These are the last moments
when we will be this alone, you and I. My gratitude
for you falls onto your bare chest in a few quick drops.

I let you know, then, that your life
is about to change forever. It may be
that what they say is true, that you will never remember
these 18 months when it was just you
in this house, with your mom and dad to love
nothing else with the surprising amazement
that we have for you. It may be that you will not.
But I hope we do. This has been the most
joyous time of my life,
which means, I suppose,
that they were also right about forgetting the distress
and the exhaustion and the crying. Maybe
we forget what we need to.

We will adore your sister or brother
with the same energy, but worry not:
it is not the portion that belongs to you. Maybe
we will be less surprised at how over-full our love is.
You taught us that already. The other person who will join us
will teach us and help fill our lives, even yours,
but is not here to take your place.

You have ushered me by fire into motherhood,
have provided me with this new life, identity
and emotion I didn’t know I had. You transformed
a young adult into something else. I was sure I knew
what love was about before you came. I thought I knew
what fear was. I thought I was unconcerned
with mortality and thought I had experienced delight.
But here you were, this tiny person, to let me know
I was mistaken.

You have given your sibling a great gift:
Parents who know how to hold a baby
and our breath, who know how to soothe crying
and each other, who are learning to worry
less and be present more, who are more complete
than before you arrived.

I see you run, put on shoes, read books,
express will, explore and wonder, and I wonder
how you became such a big girl. But then
you give me the privilege to hold you
on my shoulder as you sleep, and I realize
they were right again: you will always
be my baby, even when another
is here, spending most of the time in these arms
that used to be only yours
.

How could I have known then? How can you ever?

One year ago at midnight, I was the parent of one child…and arriving at Labor and Delivery. Emily came shortly after. Some weeks earlier, I had significant early labor, and I was not ready. I quietly panicked about how I would continue to give the world to my then-baby, Cora. This poem is the result of that turmoil, written in the days before Emily joined us.

While I realize it is written to Cora, it now makes me think of Emily and those last days of anticipation. It makes me think of how life is never the same. It reminds me that my sense of time has become somewhat foggy, some days feeling as though Emily has just always been here, and other days recalling a conversation or event as “a few years ago” only to realize it was well before we were married, that “a few years ago,” we were already parents.

This post became not much of a celebration of Emily’s birthday, I know. I suppose it is instead a reflection for me of the transition in our lives that her birth created.