North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory recently unveiled a plan to increase new teachers’ wages by a fairly substantial amount in the coming years. What was not mentioned, however, was whether or not comparable increases would likewise be granted to veteran teachers. As it turns out, the proverbial silence on the matter was deafening. Bellowing forth from its casual non-mention behind the self-aggrandizing grins of the so-pleased-with-themselves law-makers was the reality that veteran teachers would not be receiving pay increases. So now, not only do veteran teachers have to crush what little hope they had of receiving any sort of meaningful pay increase in the foreseeable future, but they have to be further insulted by the fact that younger, inexperienced teachers will soon be receiving wages approaching and potentially surpassing their own.
While it may seem as though I shouldn’t have a dog in this fight since my wife left teaching over four months ago, the dog with which we have to deal in this matter is a more universal dog than it appears to be on the surface. Yes, the snarling matter is teacher pay, but the way that has been handled by our esteemed government is revelatory. The remedy that has been proposed Mr. McCrory and his cohorts is a band-aid on the chest when it is open-heart surgery that is needed to save it. It’s a political gesture, whose goal is to pretty-up the mortal wound that has made North Carolina the 47th worst state in the nation as far as teacher compensation goes, with the hopes of getting enough fresh blood into the education system before it bleeds out from disgust. And it just might work. That is, it might work for about a decade—just long enough to bleed out the frustrated, veteran teachers until the better-compensated, naïve ones find themselves and their salaries in a freeze of their own.
Veteran teachers are outraged, and they have a right to be. And we ought to be outraged too, not merely because we’re concerned that Mrs. Jones won’t be able to afford to pay her electric bill the next time a polar vortex comes through, but because it’s immoral, and that immorality transcends teacher pay and spills over to the uttermost fringes of society. Yet it shouldn’t come as surprise that we are all stained by this immorality, not because we have been taught to be immoral, but because we haven’t been taught to be moral. We’ve been taught for decades to be pragmatists, and the politician is only the one who learned it better than the rest of us. We myopically see immorality and injustice when it pertains to us (for morality is only pragmatic when it crosses our lives), but when it crosses others on the other side of town, we are far less inclined to offer anything but a pragmatic solution. If our vision were better, we would not see pockets of injustice here and there, but that the whole landscape is neck-deep in it.
The whole unjust business of teacher pay is therefore a symptom of the disease of pragmatism, or convenience, it you will. It’s a euthanization of the older, experienced work-force to make way for the newer, more-easily-manipulated one. Yet it’s only euthanization to the extent that it’s convenient for those who remain, but for those who are the euthanized it is very much painful and they still have to eat. And Heaven help us when we follow the Belgians and start euthanizing our young.
And turning to the government is not a solution. We know full well that Mr. McCrory would rather be playing catch in his backyard on Blount Street than dealing with the injustices regarding teacher pay. I can’t say that I blame him. But I can blame him for dealing with the matter as pragmatist rather than a moralist—as one who’s simply wanting the hold back the angry mob until reelection rather than one who’s wanting to address the matter in a fair and reasonable fashion. But the problem with blaming him for being a pragmatist on teacher pay is that it must (or should) force me to consider where I myself am a pragmatist when I should be a moralist. For there are far-and-away grosser injustices out there than that of the teacher pay issue, and we as a society are far more inclined to make a stink about pettier issues than those that are exceedingly weighty, simply because those weightier ones are done out of our sight.
The solution (i.e. the surgery not the band-aid) to the teacher pay problem requires far more than getting the right people into political office. As it stands now, there are not enough right people in this country to properly govern a village much less a state. We have to begin with education, and not formal, public education, but with foundational, moral education. For proper education is not merely the acquisition of facts, but it’s on how to function as a just person in society. And unless a society is governed by just people elected by a just constituency, injustice will be rampant, as it is today. So fight your cause of fair teacher pay (for it is a just cause), but teach others along the way on why it is just and what other matters of injustice need to be addressed. Teacher pay is just the tip of the iceberg, and I pray that we will collectively see that one day.