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Teacher Appreciation Week may be too little and too late to salve the wounds educators feel after unprecedented attacks this year. For a job that borders on Sisyphian, as much as a muffin and a Hallmark card are welcomed, they will unlikely stop the hemorrhaging of talent, as teachers leave the profession in record numbers, if for nothing else than to preserve their sanity.

Some are leaving permanently, long before retirement eligibility. Some choose short-term disability to quiet the stress nightmares. Understandable. Flight attendants advise parents to place the oxygen masks on themselves first before caring for their children. “Self-care is not selfish,” commented writer Eleanor Brownn, “You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools alone, as of now, there are about 350 licensed vacancies listed on the human resources website, a number that has stayed static for most of the year, but which may represent much higher numbers, as each posted vacancy may account for more than one position. For instance, if a high school has five math vacancies, it will only be posted as one. Duplication is unintentionally hidden in the system and masks an even bigger crisis.

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Furthermore, there is no longer a deep bench of replacement pitchers. Schools of Education in N.C. colleges and universities, once towers of future teacher preparation, now report dwindling numbers of education majors. Fewer and fewer young people are choosing to enter this career — a profession that makes all other professions possible.

Youth see the writing on the wall from a GOP legislature that has removed the possibility of masters pay, health care in retirement, job security and due process that comes with continuing contracts (sometimes referred to as tenure). Simultaneously, the same leaders eliminated scholastic incentive programs such as the N.C. Teaching Fellows and eviscerated the N.C. Teacher Cadets to a skeletal existence. It’s no wonder North Carolina will face a serious teacher shortage, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Since last summer in particular, educators have endured additional assaults on their pedagogy, professionalism and integrity in a year when teachers are needed direly. Politicians at every level of government who never seemed to care about achievement gaps before when local school boards begged for dollars now utilize the temporary necessity of remote learning to decry issues of learning loss and mental health damage. Where are the tears for the educator lives tossed on COVID’s bonfire?

As for instructional remediation, we will all recover. Unlike the mythical Sisyphus who only had one large boulder to push to the top of the mountain, educators have to roll hundreds of little boulders of different sizes and shapes up the hill at different speeds. And we do it with aplomb. This is not our first rodeo, so to speak. Instead of appreciation for a nearly impossible job, a tsunami of teacher criticism around the nation launched false accusations of socialist indoctrination, critical race theory, laziness during remote learning and somehow turning all of our students gay, as if that were possible.

The state proposed bills to force all teachers to upload lessons plan to an Orwellian database, threatened license revocation for broaching race or sexuality in class and is on the verge of replacing a salary schedule based on experience with a merit pay scheme relying heavily on a flawed corporate-backed standardized testing system. Teachers like me who speak up are threatened with termination by a radical fringe of QAnon-parroting protesters, including here in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. The newest victims of America’s culture wars.

A silver lining may be found in a recent NPR/Ipsos poll revealing that voters see all of this as background noise, not taking seriously political claims about teachers. While it’s encouraging that the crackpots don’t seem to reflect the mass public, legislators seem to be listening to the wrong songbirds and the impending effect on teacher ranks remains the same, and may be irreversible if not addressed immediately.

Some Southern states reap the whirlwind right now. Mississippi, faced with record teacher shortages, has increased teacher compensation by an average of 17%. According to reports this week, Texas seems poised suit as well. When will North Carolina? Only when the sensible public rises up and demands an accounting.

To those celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week this year, on behalf of all educators, I thank you! However, a reckoning of biblical proportions is coming to those who seek to attack or even dismantle public education for financial or cultural gain, and no amount of tasty muffins will stop it. Let’s hope it happens sooner than later.

William F. “Tripp” Jeffers III is the chair of the Social Studies Department at Parkland Magnet High School and former president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators.

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