Elizabeth Cranfill wants to devote her energy to the children with autism she teaches at W.M. Irvin Elementary in Cabarrus County. But she's also taking five graduate courses this semester at UNC Charlotte's College of Education, in a desperate effort to earn her master's degree in time to collect the 10 percent raise the state had promised when she enrolled.
I caught up with Cranfill shortly after I finished a recent story on how legislative actions, including the elimination of the bump for advanced degrees in 2014, are affecting teachers.
Under normal circumstances, it would be nuts to take on 12 credit hours and defend a thesis while working full time. That's a heavy load for a full-time student. But earning her degree at the end of fall semester provides her only guarantee of being grandfathered into the current pay scale.
So Cranfill, 25, got permission from UNCC, her principal and her district to cram in the classwork and research to earn a master's in working with autistic students.
"I love school. I like being a student as much as I like being a teacher," she said last week. But she's taking on a load that means everything else -- including planning her June wedding -- will be pushed to the sidelines.
Cranfill says she followed her big brother into teaching because she loves kids. But that doesn't mean she's not concerned about earning a living.
She and her brother both got N.C. Teaching Fellow scholarships, designed to entice top high school students to become teachers and stay in state. Cranfill also got a grant to cover her grad school tuition because she's working in a field where teachers are desperately needed. Special-ed teachers are among the hardest posts to fill. Cranfill teaches children who have the capability to work at grade level, but it takes special skills to help them cope with their autism.
Cranfill says her brother has fulfilled his required teaching stint in North Carolina. He's working on a graduate degree, too -- a business degree that will let him find another career. She wants to stick with education, but she's not sure.
"It's not a good time to be a public school teacher right now," she said. "I wish I didn't have to say that."
Lawmakers who eliminated the supplement for master's degrees say it makes more sense to reward teachers for classroom results. But so far there's little money for that. The 2013-14 budget sets aside money to give $500-a-year raises to 25 percent of teachers starting in 2014-15, with a state task force studying a more comprehensive performance-pay plan.
Ellen McIntyre, dean of UNCC's education college, is trying to get as many students as possible across the finish line in time to get a raise this year. That means adding extra sections of classes for fall semester and counseling students about how to juggle their obligations.
Long range, she says, schools like hers will doubtless have to adapt what they offer teachers who want graduate education. She worries that eliminating an incentive for higher education will not only discourage teachers who want to add to their skills but erode North Carolina's reputation for valuing education.
"The long-term effect?" McIntyre said. "It could possibly be devastating."