The Practitioners’ Perspective

New Hanover County Schools hosted its 6th Annual Legislative Luncheon on Thursday, January 5th. The district’s Principal of the Year – Dr. Steve Sullivan of Hoggard High School and the Teacher of the Year – Mr. Christopher Walters of Parsley Elementary School – were the guest speakers. Dr. Sullivan and Mr. Walters shared their perspective with the audience, which included the Board of Education, state and local officials, community leaders and fellow educators.

6th Annual Legislative Luncheon – Principal of the Year Perspective Dr. Steve Sullivan, NHCS Principal of the Year

Dr. Steve Sullivan, Hoggard Principal, NHCS Principal of the Year

Good afternoon:

It is quite an honor to have this opportunity to speak with you today. I asked Dr. Markley a few weeks ago if there was a particular topic that he wanted me to speak about, and he said, “Steve, keep it positive and keep it brief.” As a former English teacher, this immediately brought to mind a quote from Shakespeare – “Brevity is the soul of wit.” So, I do promise that I will be positive, I will be brief, but unfortunately I cannot promise wit.

As I sat at my computer to begin writing my speech, I thought about a phrase that I have said thousands of times to my students during my career as an English teacher – know your audience. So, I began to mentally list all of the people who would be here today. That list included: teachers, principals, directors, superintendent, city councilmen, county commissioners, law enforcement officers, legislators, and school board members. This is my 4th time attending this event. I have to admit that on the previous three occasions, I thought that this was bit of an eclectic group to bring together for a legislative luncheon. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see not what was different about all of us; but rather, what we all have in common. All of us are public servants; we all work to make our community better and stronger; and we all do our jobs because we want to help others. What all of us in this room do, day in and day out, is truly noble. All of us in this room know it is hard work and unfortunately it often seems to go unappreciated by the very people that we have dedicated our careers to help.

We are very fortunate to work in a community where the media outlets do a pretty good job of highlighting the positives that we do in and for our community. Paraphrasing Don Henley, “People love dirty laundry.” So, even with the positive press that we get, many people tend to focus on the negatives associated with our chosen professions. I have to confess, that over time, this negativity had become a huge weight on my shoulders. I have been a principal for ten years now. Five or six years ago when someone asked me what I did for a living I would proudly say, “I am a high school principal and it is the greatest job in the world!” The past few years; however, when I am asked the same question, I have found myself answering with, “I’m in education.” I would quickly change the subject before any more questions about my job were asked. I had been beaten down by the negativity and I had lost the pride that I have always had in my job. Then something changed, it happened last year at this event. While enjoying a piece of cheesecake and trying to think of something relevant and profound to say to the county commissioner who was sitting next to me, I became moved and motivated by the speech given by our then New Hanover County and current Southeast Region Teacher of the Year Katie Snyder. Dr. Snyder mentioned, and it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Rita Pearson, “Every child deserves a champion.” She drove home her speech by stating that every teacher deserves a champion too. I left last year’s luncheon committed to being a champion for my students, my teachers, my profession, and myself. It has been an uphill journey, because that negativity is still out there. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I was once again truly proud of what I do. This epiphany occurred to me while I was doing something that all of us in this room do every couple of years – upgrading my cell phone. The salesman who was helping me asked what I did for a living, and without hesitation I proudly said, “I am the principal at Hoggard High School!” He shook his head and said, “That’s got to be a tough job.” My reply, “Yes, it is. But it’s the greatest job in the world.” I walked out of that store, not only with the 22% discount they give to NHCS employees, but also with the comfort of knowing that I was truly proud of my chosen career, and more importantly I am not ashamed to share that pride with others.

Before I close (I promised this would be brief), I want to thank each and every one of you for what you do every day. Our community and our children need you. I do want to leave you with this reminder: do the very best at what you do every day; be proud of what you do every day; and be a champion for what you do every day! We are our own greatest asset; our actions make us who we are, and our voices, united, are our strongest messenger.

Dr. Steven Sullivan

6th Annual Legislative Luncheon – Teacher of the Year Perspective Christopher Walters, NHCS Teacher of the Year

Christopher Walters, NHCS Teacher of the YearGreetings members of the board, senior staff, elected officials and invited guests.  As we turn the calendar to a new year it is a time we typically reflect on our past to celebrate the good times, grow from the difficult times and look forward to positive change and better results.

As I look back on my 14 years in the teaching profession, many things have changed.  I once was the young teacher, half the age of many of my colleagues.  Now, I watch in disbelief as little strands of gray start to creep into my life.  Realistically, I find myself to be among the average teachers in Public Education.  I’m in the middle of my career, I have a family outside of school and I am part of the 52% of North Carolina teachers who have a part-time job. As I reflect on that last part I realize that through my 14 years of service, I have held a part-time job for all but a few months of my 14 year career.  Some of those jobs were to occupy time in my younger days; however, more recently, I needed them to help support my family.   Besides teaching, I have been a lifeguard, insurance salesman, a driver’s education instructor, and most recently, a pizza delivery driver and weekend umpire.

This time last year, my day started at 7:30 AM when I began my school day.  Throughout the day, I worked effortlessly teaching my students the importance of a healthy, active life, but also making sure I was developing the whole child by incorporating core content into my instruction.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I hosted a running club after school hours for more than 50 4th and 5th grade students.  Not for extra pay; because it’s important to my students, school and community.  Afterwards, I would go home and sleep for an hour maybe an hour and a half, because my day wasn’t over.  At 6 PM, I would arrive for a night shift delivering pizzas in another section of town, because I didn’t want to deliver to the houses of my students. I worked from 6 PM until at least 2:30 AM in the morning.

Only a few people outside of my family knew that I held this second job and hardly anyone at school knew.  I never let the second job affect my teaching; it was my first priority.  I carried that burden for nearly two years but that burden was even heavier on my family.  I missed valuable time with my wife and my four young children.  Instead of helping my 5th grader with homework after school, I had to catch a power nap.  Instead of taking them to practices after school, I was taking orders.

There are many teachers today who are going through the same struggles as I went through.  They will sacrifice everything for their family at home but also for their family at school.

Earlier, I stated that in my 14 years many things have changed and that’s true; however, not everything has changed.  My love for public education and my passion for teaching has not changed, it has only been ingrained even more deeply into my daily life.  Despite the side jobs, the pay, and the many other issues I can name, I still look forward to walking into my room and seeing the smiles on my students’ faces.  I love walking down the halls giving high-fives and silent waves.  Nothing will ever change that because that is what I’m called to do.

Today, we are gathered here to discuss issues that are facing public education; results that we will not necessarily see immediately, but possibly years down the road.  The decisions we make today will affect everyone who is sitting in this room, but the greatest group of individuals that it will impact are not.  Those individuals include the teachers, who are working tirelessly day in and day out, making sure they are prepared to give their students the tools needed to reach their highest potential.  It will also affect the students who will one day be sitting in the chairs that are currently occupied by all of us.

Throughout my tenure, as a teacher and as the New Hanover County Schools Teacher of the Year, it has been my mission to not focus on all the negative and friction that can sometimes surround politics and public education.  Rather, I try to focus on and highlight all the positive accomplishments in public education.  These accomplishments are a true testament to the diligence and perseverance of our teachers and to our profession as a whole.  A quote from the great George Lucas states, “Always remember your focus becomes your reality.”  My interpretation of that is – why not focus on the positive?

Over the past several years, teachers have seen funding cuts, class sizes and paperwork grow, and a dramatic decrease in the number of future teachers in the college of education.  Now, there is discussion about cutting areas such as Physical Education and Arts Education in order to have caps on classroom sizes.  Despite all of this static, teachers all over the state continue to wake up each day and take on the world, because they know they are making a difference in the lives of our children. They also believe that public education is the best avenue for equipping our children and future leaders with the skills necessary to reach their highest potential.

Teachers in North Carolina, especially in New Hanover County, are seeing amazing results in the growth of our students.  The state graduation rate has increased every year since 2006.  In 2006, the graduation rate was 68.3%; however, in 2015, we successfully graduated 85.6% of our high school students.  Here in New Hanover County, we have been witness to the hard work of both the teachers and the students through steadily increasing test scores.  From the 2015 school year to the 2016 school year, our EOC scores for grade level proficiency grew by over 2% and our EOG scores gained over 1% of growth.  These consistent results are a testament to the hard work and dedication from all of our teachers and the resilience of our amazing students.

The policies that we put in place in the near future will have the most dramatic impacts on the children who are diligently working at their desk right now.  I have no doubts that everyone in this room wants what is best for each one of those students.  Our policies and beliefs might differ, but the end result is the same, giving the best possible education for all of our kids, so they can reach their full potential.  So the question becomes how can we achieve that end result?

First, we need to make sure that the funding is there for our students.  Our students can only succeed when we set them up for success and provide them with the resources they so desperately need.  When we compare our current budget to the 2010-2011 fiscal year, we see there has been a decrease in funding for students with limited English proficiency, classroom supplies, teacher assistants, and many other areas.  Our state’s population is growing at an alarming rate, yet we are not taking the necessary steps to cover the increase in population while managing our current student body.

Secondly, we have to make teachers feel appreciated and valued.  When someone feels valued and appreciated, productivity and success soars.  We see it every day in our classrooms with our students.  While there has been efforts to increase starting teacher salaries, our veteran teachers haven’t seen that same effort.  A recent ad claimed average teacher pay is $50,000; however, as a teacher with a Master’s Degree in Health Education and 14 years of experience, I make $47,000 and will top out at $51,000 with 30 plus years of experience.

According to NC policy watch, teacher pay in North Carolina currently ranks 49th for teacher wage competitiveness. We have discouraged advancing a teacher’s education by eliminating Master’s pay, no longer covering the cost of obtaining National Board Certification, and tenure is a thing of the past.  The list goes on.  That list, along with slashing classroom funding, is not showing teachers you have their backs. However, I know many teachers that are going to go back to school for an advanced degree, regardless of the cost, because it will make a difference in the lives of their students.  I also know that teachers find a way to make up for the cut in classroom supplies by reaching into their already depleted pockets; again, because the students need it, and more importantly, deserve it.

Finally, we have to look forward to the future of public education. We have to encourage and develop future educators.  We can do this by bringing back the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program that developed and nurtured many of our wonderful teachers in North Carolina.  This program lays down the foundation for our most promising teacher leaders.  It provides them with the building blocks that are needed to reach the next generation of students and the skills needed to help make them successful educators.  It also shows a young college student that public education is vital to the success of North Carolina, and they can be a part of something bigger than themselves without staring at a decade of student loan debts.

In closing, Public Education is the cornerstone of a successful and prosperous North Carolina.  By choosing to support public education, we will provide our future leaders with the skills, resources and confidence they need to reach their maximum potential.  North Carolina needs to be the shining example all other states look to.  I believe our teachers have the dedication and determination, and our students have the ability and intellect to be the beacon in the dark.  We just need the pillars of our community and state to hold us high for all the world to see.

Thank you and have a blessed day.

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