Teacher of the Year tells Perdue about 'gut-wrenching' layoff
Posted November 19, 2009
Oxford, N.C. — Granville County teacher Bill Massey said he achieved the most meaningful accomplishment of his career this past June when Northern Granville Middle School named him "Teacher of the Year."
But his jubilation was soon followed by "gut-wrenching" disappointment. On Aug. 3, Principal Daniel Callaghan came to Massey with the bad news – the newly crowned "Teacher of the Year" was getting laid off.
Statewide budget cuts to education forced Callaghan to let go of four teachers. Massey's content area – art education – was considered non-essential, so he was among those laid off, according to Callaghan. Granville County lost a total of 12 teachers.
"I'll be very honest with you. I get physically sick over this," Callaghan said. "This was a very difficult year."
Massey said he was disheartened and decided to do what he does best – write letters. On Sept. 17, he reached out to Gov. Bev Perdue in an emotional one-page letter.
"I watched the evening news tonight as you and Erskine Bowles [University of North Carolina System president] and a bevy of other education gurus bemoaned the state of education in North Carolina. I watched with pain in my heart," he wrote.
"Mr. Bowles' contention that 'North Carolina has to hire more and better teachers' was a slap in my face. I was a teacher. I was a good teacher. And I lost my job anyway," the letter continued. "I voted for you as 'the education governor,' and lost my job as an educator that same year."
Massey continued sending letters to education leaders in the hopes that he could save his beloved job. Eventually, he received a response from his principal and from the governor, but neither reaction was what he expected.
'Always compensated, never gratified'
Before Massey's job loss, he was hailed as an exceptional teacher who went to great lengths to energize and inspire his art students. It was his peers who voted him "Teacher of the Year," which he said came as a complete shock.
"(My co-workers) really do know that I'm not the best teacher in the building yet, but I want to be," he said.
At age 66, Massey had only been teaching five years when he was laid off. Before becoming a teacher, he spent 30 years in the advertising business and worked in New York, Washington, Boston, Denver and Raleigh, but he didn't feel fulfilled.
"I was always compensated but never really gratified," he said.
That feeling is what inspired him to enter the world of teaching. Massey said he happily took the job at Northern Granville Middle even though he lives in Raleigh and had to make a nearly one-hour commute each way.
He said he passed the time by thinking of new ways to engage his students. One of his ideas involved writing letters to colleges and universities.
He would ask each to send him a school T-shirt so he could wear it to class and inspire his students to attend college someday. Many of the schools obliged, and Massey began every class with a quick lesson about the school shirt he was wearing that day.
Northern Granville's front office is another example of Massey's impact. The room is decorated with autographed photos and letters from First Lady Michelle Obama and comedian Bill Cosby – all thanks to Massey's art class, which wrote letters.
In his last teacher evaluation on May 19, which Massey provided to WRAL, he received "above standard" marks – the highest possible score – in every category.
"Keep up the good work!" the principal wrote in the report.
The governor responds; Massey finds a new role
On Oct. 29, more than a month after he wrote to her, the governor responded to Massey's letter. She thanked him for his service and congratulated him on his "Teacher of the Year" award. However, one part rubbed Massey the wrong way, he said.
In her letter, Perdue explained that the state is facing an economic crisis. She then talked about the budget cuts, which cost Massey his job.
"Throughout the budget negotiations, I fought for two basic principles: protecting our classrooms and core services, and ensuring that working families were not saddled with an across-the-board income tax increase," she wrote. "The final budget was improved as a result of those efforts but still short in several areas, including cuts to local school districts and to mental health services. That is why when I signed the budget, I did so with reservation."
Massey said he was disappointed to read that Perdue signed the budget even though she had reservations.
"Don't sign it!" Massey said. "There's gotta be a better way."
Massey eventually found his own way around the budget cuts and asked his former principal at Northern Granville to take him back – this time as an assistant teacher at a much lower salary. If that didn't work, Massey said he was prepared to work for free.
Callaghan ultimately decided to rehire him as an assistant teacher, which pays him 40 percent of the salary he was making last year. Massey said he is not bitter; he is just grateful to be back at the school with the students he loves.
"As this stage in my life, it's not the paycheck I get. It's the feeling I get," he said.