Difference Makers
October 31, 2013

It is no secret that North Carolina teachers are worried about the recently-passed legislation to end master's pay and career status and the lack of raises for the past five years. Much has been written about how poorly teachers are treated in our state today. In fact, an Elon University Poll found that 81% of the 700 registered voters surveyed believed that NC teachers are underpaid. I am worried about the damage these policies have done to teacher morale and concerned about what this will mean for our students, schools and state.

Yet in the face of all of these challenges, there are still passionate and talented educators in North Carolina classrooms who remain committed to their students, their school and to public education in our state. These are the teachers who give me hope for our future. I had the pleasure of meeting one of these teachers during a recent visit to Rock Rest Elementary School in Monroe. Maria Rorabacher is a literacy teacher at Rock Rest and her enthusiasm for and loyalty to her work and her students is electric.

Rock Rest recently received reaccreditation from AdvanceEd and Maria was interviewed during this process. The AdvanceEd interviewer asked Maria why she chose to work at Rock Rest and why she had decided to stay at the school. I'd like to share a portion of Maria's response with you.

"I do not consider teaching simply a career choice, but instead a calling. I am not interested in working in a school where the students will be fine with or without great teachers. This is not the case for our students, where we teachers bridge the "opportunity gap." For many of them, we are their only bridge between where they are now and future success. If we fail, they fail. The work we do here is significant. We are unquestionably difference makers. This is immensely rewarding."

It is important to note that Rock Rest was one of the state's low-performing schools where more than 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Yet because of teachers like Maria, the school has made outstanding progress. On end-of-grade reading and math tests, the percentage of students scoring at grade level or above went up a total of more than 43 percentage points over the past three years. This progress is a reflection of what a school and its students can accomplish when it is filled with educators who are committed to making a difference.

Maria closed her response with some powerful words that reflect what is at the heart of public education in North Carolina.

"I wake up every day, so amazed that my calling has brought me here, to this place, at this time, with all of you. You all need to know this: extraordinary just does not show up here now and then. It doesn't show up in isolated moments of brilliance, with some kind of fanfare. In other schools, they stop and celebrate when something extraordinary happens. They gather around, applaud and maybe bring in the press to remark upon it.

At Rock Rest, it's not like that. The extraordinary is part of our daily routine. It is part of our culture. Extraordinary happens every day here. The extraordinary doesn't just show up every now and then when we invite it. IT LIVES HERE."

I would encourage educators, school leaders, parents and lawmakers to read and share Maria's story and remember her words. In these challenging times, I am grateful that teachers like Maria still choose to work in our public schools. Maria Rorabacher and her colleagues are what make Rock Rest Elementary School extraordinary. They are the difference makers.

June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent