The Real Life of a Teacher

Allison Webb of Woodstock is a 15 year veteran teacher at Sequoyah High School in Canton.

 

If those of you in power really cared about teacher retention, quality of instruction, and increasing student achievement, you might want to consider the following points. I have prepared for you a detailed description of why and how my suggestions could have real impact and also let you in on why many beginning teachers don’t last, why many excellent teachers quit, and why nothing else that you do to improve education will make any difference in terms of the quality of teaching. I am going to show why despite the fact that I live my job more hours than my husband and 3 daughters would like, I will never get ahead, and find myself with 15 years invested in the dead end job that I love—teaching.

 

I teach 5 classes a day and prepare three different lesson plans (Spanish 1, Spanish 3 Honors and AP Spanish Language and Culture). My planning period (55 minutes long) is supposed to be sufficient for me to prepare engaging and creative, differentiated lessons for 3 different groups of kids. Let’s see—does that mean I am saying that 19 minutes per class is sufficient? And I need to subdivide those 19 minutes to account for the different needs of students in each of those classes (those who need assignments to accelerate their learning as well as those who need support to remediate their lack of learning or mastery)? And I’ll have time for grading, responding to parent emails and attending meetings, making copies and doing various duties? Actually, I think it’s pretty clear that it is nowhere near sufficient. The grading goes into a big black bag, to be ever present at the side of my recliner, gone through as the kids are asking me questions about their homework, lying across my chest as I fall asleep with it in the recliner. The grading is rolled up and stuck in my purse so that during half-time at my kids’ basketball games, I might be able to grade a few tests, quizzes, or compositions. The grading is quickly stacked up and put away as my husband sighs, “Can’t you ever quit working?” What happens is that my average school day is extended many hours past the 8 to 4 day that non-teachers seem to covet. Perhaps when you are finished reading this essay, you can tell me if you still envy my hours, vacations, and carefree living.

 

I have a lunch period between two bells. Leaving campus for lunch is frowned upon, and I must have express permission from my administrator to do so. So my lunch is “Michelle Obama’s” fare or a frozen meal or leftovers, eaten hurriedly over a student desk with a few other colleagues who wish to feel like normal adults for a few minutes each day. Once we’ve scarfed down our food, we hope to run copies, but often find ourselves running from one end of the school to another, trying to find a copier that is not jamming or out of toner. On the weeks that we have duty, we walk around our designated area, telling kids to please pick up and throw away trays that are never theirs, pick up carrots that nobody threw and catch dress code violators that never had anything said to them before. We watch out for fights that nobody starts and count down the days of that unfortunate week. We receive no compensation for this lunch duty—it is included under the various sundry duties we may be arbitrarily assigned, which are not limited to lunch duty. As a Spanish teacher, I have to serve translation duty, which means that for 1 month each semester, I have to make myself available to call and/or email Spanish-speaking parents, interpret at IEP meetings or translate documents. Others have hall duty, morning duty, or afternoon duty monitoring parts of the building, trying to keep teenagers from meeting up in corners and dark spaces and from skipping class. We all have to share school events, like Prom duty, begging our spouses to dress up and make us feel even a little bit elegant as we monitor the girls coming out of the bathroom for signs of alcohol consumption and hit the dance floor trying to keep the dancing PG. We are asked to volunteer for the county events and to chaperone weekend field trips. Coaches spend the season of their sports living on campus. Our band and choral directors live on the field and in the concert halls.

 

And I’d like to talk grading, which varies in volume by area, but I think it will be hard for anyone truly to get this reality without some illustration. Right now I teach 33 students in AP Spanish Language, 28 students in Pre-AP Spanish 3 and 39 students in Spanish 1—100 in all. I have a light load in terms of class numbers. Most teachers deal with 30-35 students per class, with 150-175 students total. My faculty handbook requires me to put in grades weekly, which usually involves 1-3 small assignments like homework or compositions and 1-2 larger assignments like quizzes, tests or essays per week, per class. So let’s say that I start with 2 homework assignments and 1 quiz for Pre-AP Spanish 3. Each homework takes between 30 seconds and a minute (I’ll estimate 45 seconds to be fair) to grade and then at the end of the week, it takes about 5 minutes per class to put those grades into the online gradebook. So that would mean 45 seconds times 2 assignments times 28 students equals 2520 seconds, or 42 minutes. Not bad! But they also had a quiz, which does take a little longer to grade (about 2 and half minutes each). Now we’re at 1 hour and 10 minutes for the quiz, plus the 5 minutes to put grades in. I’m now at approximately 2 hours for Pre-AP Spanish. I’ll spare you the detailed calculations from here on, but AP Spanish Language is more intense, because I regularly have to grade their essays, recordings and projects, which are definitely more complex. So after a paragraph and an essay I’d calculate about 4 hours to complete all their grading and enter it. But there’s still Spanish 1, which does take a lot of small assignments to make sure they are studying. These freshmen are not convinced that they should take anything seriously unless it’s for a grade, so 3 homework assignments and a quiz should be good. Two and a half hours later, I’m done with them. Grand total for a typical weeks grading—from 8 to 10 additional hours.

 

Teaching feels like a 24 hour a day job. After 15 years and many incredible mentors, including both my mom and dad, I have quite a few tools when it comes to coming up with an effective activity quickly; however, most beginning teachers’ preparation focuses more of their attention on the hows and whys of learning instead of the whats, as in what do I do to get them to learn this concept and not be totally bored, off task or worse, causing classroom disruption? What do I do when the activity I planned in such detail bombs?  I did not build these strategies overnight and I did not acquire these skills by working an 8 to 4 job. In my first years as a teacher, I remember staying up to 1 and 2 am on a routine basis, sitting at our desktop computer coming up with handouts, tests and quizzes. It took me back to the days when I was in elementary school and my mom was working on the Apple IIC, and our noisy printer woke me up at 2 am while choking out a biology test. There were years of my husband asking me why I couldn’t get all this work done during my planning period, convinced that there had to be something I was doing wrong. Those same years, I swore I would divorce him unless he took a day off work to be my shadow and see what it was like, which normally quieted him down until the next time his frustration with my job boiled over. There were years of my asking the family to please hold off on the family Christmas party until after finals because I had to write mine up from scratch. The time spent out of school on this job has a real impact on a teacher’s ability to enjoy life and to spend time with her family. My kids learned to answer when other moms wondered where I was at their school day events “My mom’s a teacher and she can’t leave her class.” My husband was often the caretaker on days when they were sick because he didn’t have to find a sub and put together a lesson plan in order to stay home. This is what teaching is like because there is no way to get it all done, ever.

 

Some of the most competitive school systems in the world understand this truth about time and teaching. These countries have built a system that recognizes that effective teaching requires significant time devoted to planning and preparing feedback for students. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on teaching hours, “at the upper secondary general level, teachers in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Israel, Japan, Korea, Norway, Poland and the Russian Federation teach for three hours or less per day, on average, compared to more than five hours in Argentina, Chile and the United States” (OEDC 2011). When teachers have more hours to prepare, they are able to tailor their lessons, get grading done in order to provide timely feedback to students. They are able to live a life outside the school and they are able to feel like 30 years in this profession is not a life sentence. They are able to deliver quality instruction. Is it any wonder that those systems where teachers have more time to plan are leading the world in quality of education? There are so many research-based strategies that we would like to use better, but we simply do not have enough hours in the day to do so, so the system in essence ties our hands.

 

The school day gives us few opportunities to work together. We have department meetings once a month after school, so the already long day is extended by another hour. In addition, working together before or after school is often limited by additional commitments we have as teachers. For example, my department head and Spanish colleague has morning duty from 7:45 to 8:30 every day and I tutor Spanish 1 students most Mondays after school, teach an APEX recovery class on Tuesday, have Model UN club meetings on Wednesday afternoons (until 5 pm), and try to make myself available for a student who needs help applying for college and another one who wants to brush up on her Spanish for her job at Zaxby’s. On Fridays, I stay for the games, and let the kids know that I am proud of what they do on the field and on the court too. So it’s hard to choose a day and time for collaborative planning outside of the school day.

 

We do have one week of pre-planning and one week of post-planning, of which the pre-planning is probably the most fruitful. I should clarify—it is fruitful when we are allowed to use it for planning and collaboration, not when we are forced to attend workshops for our professional development that every year roll the latest set of acronyms that an education bureaucrat has invented. During the year on several days each semester we huddle in someone’s classroom after school and work until 6-7 pm planning common assessments and unit activities. Those long days contribute to the fatigue and often (not to be too dramatic) hopelessness we feel about our careers. We work so hard and never seem to get ahead. Yet, it is in those late afternoon meetings that we get our frustrations off our chest, have moments of creative energy, get excited about the latest project and rubric we have designed, and find the strength to keep going. We rely on each other so much and sometimes we are the only ones who can talk each other down from the cliff when things go poorly.

 

We are assumed by the system to be incompetent and must constantly prove that we are not. Testing is a prime example. In fact, the current system seems to say that only a test can prove that a teacher is competent. Testing takes time, does not contribute to learning, costs who knows how much money and is often redundant. I sometimes wonder why the state doesn’t just cut the testing budget instead of our insurance, raises, professional learning–if they really care about quality of instruction. Let me give you an example. I have been teaching AP Spanish Language and Culture since 2005. I have attended 3 different week-long trainings and 1 refresher training. Every summer I spend 7 days, 8 am to 5 pm, grading the AP Spanish Language exam with colleagues from colleges and high schools from all over the United States. You can look up the scores that my students have received on the exam from every one of those years. But now, I have to administer an “SLO” exam twice a year as a pretest and posttest. It is a poor substitute for the full AP exam, including only reading questions (50 total) and takes one class period. The College Board assessment evaluates a student’s ability to speak, write and understand written language, spoken language and culture and lasts for 4 hours. My students take their actual AP exam in May and we receive those scores in June. Now it is true that not all students can afford to pay for the exam or choose to take it. But the students’ growth from pre to post test on the SLO is what is used in my evaluation, and not their AP scores. We are over-testing our students because the system places no trust in the teachers’ ability to instruct.

 

I know that I am a great teacher. I am not a perfect one, but I am a highly effective, master teacher who is sought out for advice, has mentored new teachers, has hosted a student teacher, has been recognized as the STAR teacher, multiple Salutatorians’ and Valedictorians’ influential teacher, has watched former students go on to minor in Spanish and even major in it, following a love for language that was first fostered in my classroom. I have been involved in my professional organizations, competed for and won scholarships, written grants, written curriculum, selected textbooks, given presentations and speeches and even received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award as I completed my masters last year (while I was teaching). So is mine the type of teaching you wish to replicate? Do you really think that most teachers are as passionate, crazy, type-A, driven as I am to do all those hours of work outside of the 8 to 4 school day? You guessed it – probably not. But you might have a better chance of making this happen, and thus improve the state of teaching, if you designed the school day to make the following items a priority: time for planning quality instruction, time for collaboration, cutting back on testing and giving teachers a voice and a means to impact their schools and professions.

 

These are my recommendations:

 

  1. Establish more planning days during each semester or grading period and don’t fill it up with workshops; let us work together, share best practices and use our resources to enrich our own curriculum.
  2. Reduce the number of hours teaching and increase the number of hours used for planning and collaboration. Yes this would mean hiring more teachers to cover the classes, but you could pay for it with my #3.
  3. Stop the redundant testing. When you know how to read test data, you realize how wasteful it is to administer an ITBS every year, a COGAT every year, an SLO. You realize that the indicators of great teaching are easily observable in the classroom and in the quality of activities a teacher plans. There is no need to take instructional time for testing. Assessment is part of effective teaching already.
  4. Hire administrators that foment an esprit de corps, who give us opportunities to socialize, to get to know members of other departments and to make us feel a sense of community instead of isolation. Hire administrators who see us as a team to be coached up.
  5. Stop bombarding new teachers with extracurricular commitments. Give them the time they deserve to learn and be mentored by others so that they don’t run away from their teaching career before 3 years have passed.
  6. Listen to us. Ask for our opinion. Engage us in this fight for a better education for all students.
  7. Stop vilifying teachers and balancing your budgets at our expense. Stop begrudging us a yearly step raise, which in my case amounts to about two grand every two years. Stop saying that a teacher with her master’s in her subject area has not earned a raise that will not even cover the cost of her student loan. Stop plotting ways to shortchange us in health insurance and to raid our retirement.
  8. Stop appointing to educational reform commissions those who have never taught but who seek to profit monetarily from the reforms they support.

 

http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/48631419.pdf

 

Who is Failing Whom?

This post is a slightly expanded version of an op-ed article that appeared in the News and Observer on February 21, 2015.  Here’s the link:

I am the product of the time in NC when we invested in our young people through public education.  My grandparents were minimum wage textile workers; none enjoyed the benefit of a high school education.  My parents graduated from secondary school but had to get right to work upon graduation.

By the time I was in high school, the state of NC was investing in the future.  I had the most inspiring, innovative and experienced teachers in public school.  They challenged me and made me hungry to be like them – their command of their subject, love of language, excitement about learning and the creativity they brought into the four walls of our classroom was infectious!

When I graduated high school, I had great grades but no college fund.  Again, NC invested in me.  They offered me a full scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill if I would agree to teach for four years.  There was a shift in my mind’s eye – I began watching my teachers from a new perspective.  As I began to think about being a teacher, it energized me like nothing else.

When I began teaching, the state of NC was still there, ever prodding me to further personal growth and improvement.  There were financial incentives to get a master’s degree, and I did.  There were financial incentives to get nationally board certified, and I did.   Through those experiences, I honed my craft and deepened my subject knowledge; I learned that great teaching was not about what I was doing in the classroom every day.  It was about what MY STUDENTS were doing.

For 22 years I have been ever evolving to better meet the needs of my students and to prepare them to be the most productive and capable generation possible.

But, NC is no longer investing in our students and our state.  It is evident everywhere my students turn.  They hear the dripping from the leaking windows in my trailer when it rains.  They feel it in the lightness of their book bags in the first days of school as they have no textbooks to take home.   In many schools, there are not even teachers in their classrooms.   So many have left, and so few are preparing to enter the profession, that vacancies cannot be filled.  There are no scholarships to encourage promising students to become teachers.   And veteran teachers are retiring at a fast clip.

The new grading system is being used to convince the public that the public schools are “failing”.    The interesting thing about the grades is that they reflect the same inequalities that I see in my classroom.  Is it surprising when the student who comes from wealth and privilege achieves and the chronically poor student struggles?  No.  But do we slap an F on the poor student and publicly embarrass them in the media?  Will that inspire that student to improve?  No.  You offer that child extra help and support, you encourage them, and celebrate every little success along the way to higher achievement.

That is what the state of NC should be doing for our most vulnerable students in our poorest counties.  Instead, they took away 6,000 teaching positions, more than 3,000 teacher assistants, cut per pupil spending, gave us a new curriculum but no textbooks or technology, administered one standardized test and declared many of our poorest schools to be “failing”.  If I graded my own students this way, providing less and less support and administering one test counting 80% of their grade, I would be, and should be, fired.

They are preparing the way for the day when they convince the public to lose faith in our public schools, and start moving their kids to charter and private schools where teachers do not have to be certified, where financial accountability is lacking, and there are profits to be made off of our children.

Public school teachers have been accused of many things in this political climate, but a desire for profit is not one of them.  In fact, our teachers are the ONLY state employees in the state that no longer receive longevity pay.  And based on the recent uneven pay raises for teachers, I seem to be in the one profession I know of where experience is a liability.  Instead of lying about my age, I’ve started lying about my years of teaching experience.

I wonder if you can even get a young teacher to speak publicly.  I at least, for now, have due process rights.  I can be fired, but there has to be a reason.  My colleagues with less than five years of experience now have no such assurances.  They are basically seasonal employees, with no guarantee of having a job in any given year.  I wonder if I started teaching today how that single fact would have affected the whole trajectory of my career.  Would I have invested my blood, sweat and tears in my school the way I have?  Would I have bought the shirt, jackets, shoes, socks and watch in my school’s colors?  Would I have invested in my students personally, knowing I would be there for years to see them develop?  Would I be planning the 20th reunion for the Class of 1995?  I don’t think so.

And in that, I hope you see how drastically and fundamentally this state legislature is shifting the very foundations the future of our state is built on.  It is subtle, and it is complicated to the outside observer, but I want you to hear loud and clear that we are no longer investing in our children the way we should be.  And our state will be the worse for it.  And that is why it has to stop. Our children are not failing, we are failing our children.  Let’s stop the unfair grading and start investing in our kids, and our future, again.

Angela Scioli, Wake County Teacher for 22 years

Founder: Red 4EdNC

Good Teacher / Bad Teacher: Why NC’s Value Added Measurement (VAM) Teacher Effectiveness Data Has This Teacher Confused

The state of North Carolina has contracted with SAS Corporation to devise a way to measure teacher effectiveness.  Teachers now get EVAAS (Education Value Added Assessment System) score reports that are factored into their yearly evaluations.  We are in the second year of implementation, and so far, my results have been, in one way, confusing, and in another sense, exactly right.

I teach American History II to 11th graders.  By the time my students get to me, many of them have been in NC public schools for a period of time and their “data” (past standardized test scores) are used to project their future performance.  The statisticians at SAS have devised predictive models that project how students should score on the state assessment based on past test scores.   I teach the class and another teacher comes and administers the state-made final exam at the conclusion of the course.  My students’ performance on that single multiple choice assessment on that single day is the only data point that is used to generate my effectiveness score (never mind that some of my best performing students have calculated that they need just a 50 to “keep their B” and don’t study).  Each year, I get an email that informs me that I can view my “dashboard” and see how well I am doing.  I see a graphic that tells me I am “in the red” (uh-oh, my students are not meeting expected growth on average), in the expected growth range (whew), or “in the green” (exceeding expected growth – yay!).

We are two years into the system.  My first year of checking my “dashboard” was like a punch in the stomach.  In an interesting turn of events, a documentary filming crew caught my reaction and it can be viewed at this link:  www.indiegogo.com/projects/teacher-of-the-year–5.  You can see there that EVAAS plotted my score in the red zone – below expected growth.  This was disconcerting.  I am a passionate veteran educator.  I was doing everything I knew to do to help my students succeed.  I had “flipped” my classroom – putting my own instructional videos online – to help my students with learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, and high rates of absenteeism.  I was teaching bell to bell, I’m rarely sick, I know my subject, I provide remediation and retesting, I created a 1300+ slide review Powerpoint as a scaffolded review of the whole course that students could access anytime online to help them succeed . . . I was dumbfounded.

I did not alter the way I taught after seeing those scores.  Not the least bit.  Why not?  I honestly could not think of anything more I could do.  It’s not like I have some cool ideas or approaches that I am holding off on in case I need to bring out the big guns.   I was putting it all on the table every day.  So, I just tried to put the scores out of mind.  But they still bugged me.

I recently received my latest “dashboard” notification, and with a good deal of trepidation, I opened the file.  The good news?  I somehow in one year magically transformed into a fantastic teacher!  I’m now in the solid green – way on up there in “Yay!” territory.

I’m suspicious.   If I’m a “bad” teacher, aren’t I “bad” all the time?  And isn’t a “good” teacher good all the time?  That’s how it is in the movies, and that’s how it seems in casual conversation.  Teachers are good or bad.  Or “meh”.  But they aren’t all three at the same time.

Until they are.  Teaching performance, like any performance, is a chemical interaction.  Have you and a friend ever sat in a movie, and upon leaving the theatre had different opinions about it?  My husband and I do this all the time.  We like different kinds of movies.  In the first five minutes, we each know if we are “hooked” or not, and while I might sit politely through an entire feature, I might be mentally making my grocery list half the time.  It doesn’t mean the actors didn’t care, or the screenwriters stunk it up.  My husband, remember, is riveted.  If I take a test on the movie later, I might reflect badly on the director.

In the classroom, it works the same way.  I have what I call the “carriers of the fire”.  These kids love history and we connect immediately.  Then I have my visual spatial learners –  I’m visual spatial, too.  I try to reach out to the other learning styles in the room, but visual spatial is my default setting.  And then I have some female students out there looking for a role model of a strong, positive, confident woman.  I can get them on board through sheer force of personality.  But, there are students that will always be politely sitting through my class, but they aren’t buying. They might need a nurturer who calls them sweetie and keeps snacks in her desk drawer, or a teacher that connects with them on a personal level.  My perky professionalism might seem inauthentic; maybe I remind them of their annoying aunt.  It’s personal, but it’s not.  Unlike business or the movies, we can’t cut our losses and move to a different target market or audience.  For the next 89 days, I will try my best to win over those recalcitrant members of my audience.  It’s kind of exhausting, actually.  But, those first few moments and impressions are extremely powerful and often predictive.

If we reward the teachers who consistently connect with the largest segment of students, we might get what I call “blockbuster” instruction.  It’s tempting, but might have unintended consequences.  Like directors who manufacture the hit summer movie and can reap huge profits, would instruction take on the same “formulaic” tone?  And would this benefit kids who need to learn to interact with a diversity of people in positions of authority?  Just as we treasure independent and documentary films- and would be outraged by an artistic space that made their existence impossible- so should we be skeptical of any attempt to blot out individuality in our classrooms.  That unique teacher in room 205 might not appeal to the majority, but her presence might be a lifeline to a minority of students that don’t respond to the most popular teachers in the school.   Her appeal may not be broad, but she may be doing more to stem the dropout rate than we can ascertain using “data metrics”.

I’ve made my peace with the fact that SAS is right.  I’m a good teacher, and a bad teacher, and a “meh” one.  But here’s the catch:  It’s at the same time, in the same space, with the same “audience”.  Just like the movies.  And just as we will not tolerate a narrowing of the type of performance we allow in the entertainment industry, we should not allow that trend to overtake our classrooms.  Perhaps we should quit paying SAS millions of dollars to show us what is obvious, and we should apply those funds to approaches that will attract highly qualified teachers of all types to our state’s classrooms, and keep them there.

Teacher of the Year

Here is the new trailer for the documentary, Teacher of the Year. 

Looks great, right? However, in order for this movie to become a reality, we need your help. For this movie to reach its full potential, it requires professional post production work and insurance.

We ask you to support this movie and public education by this sharing this link and donating. No amount is too small, and every little bit counts. There is not much time to reach our goal (we have until February 19th, 2015), and we really want this movie to succeed so that we can spread our message about public education. Change can’t occur until we have widespread awareness, and this documentary is a crucial step of the process.

We are so grateful for all of the hard work and time that amazing people have put into this movie, and for the support of everyone in helping this movie cross the finish line. Without you, it would not be possible.

Please click on/share this link to support

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/teacher-of-the-year–5 

 

In Praise of Public School Teachers

People who haven’t been in our public schools lately might envision them as grim or dangerous places, but I want to tell you about the public school I know, one that shines as a bright light for our family and for our community.

Our public school is Leaksville-Spray Elementary, in Eden, N.C. My four children are in kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grade, so we have a combined total of twelve classroom experiences at the school.

Six years ago I was worried about what we would encounter as our oldest son started public school in a school with a 75% poverty level.

Let me tell you what we’ve encountered.

We’ve encountered a principal who is constantly looking for ways to improve her school and who says that her teachers are amazing.

We’ve encountered creative teachers who try to reach all of the kids in their classes no matter where they are, who take a job that isn’t easy and do it very, very well.

We’ve encountered teachers who spend extra hours working both at school and at home, who spend their own money to pay for materials they need, who make a tremendous effort to retain their own passions while also stirring the passions of our children.

I want to tell you about a few of these teachers.

I want to tell you about Mrs. Boyd, who created an after school book club for students to talk about politics and history—in the first grade.

I want to tell you about Mrs. Craft, who started a program where her students become Mathematician Technicians to work with younger kids on math skills.

I want to tell you about Mrs. Law, who bought a book at a yard sale because she knew it was the next book in the series my son was reading, and about Mrs. Yarber, who heard about a great way to teach multiplication using music, and within one day had talked to a teacher in Indianapolis and had gotten copies of the music. And Mrs. Corum, who has 37 kids in her fifth-grade science class this year but who continues to provide them with hands-on experiences like the Gummy Worm vs. Night Crawler lesson they did the fifth day of school.

I can go on…

I told my son one time that he had the best teacher. He said that I always say that. Well, it’s true.

Every year he has the best teacher. Our school is full of the best teachers.

And I know it’s not just our school.

Our public schools are full of the best teachers. We need to honor them. We need to recognize that any greatness this country achieves will be a direct result of the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of public school teachers around the country who continue to work in even the most challenging conditions among families who struggle economically, who search for that one thing to motivate that one student, who sacrifice time with their own families to do what is best for all of ours.

I don’t want our public school teachers to feel as if they are under threat, as if they aren’t doing enough.

The mission of our public school teachers is clear: educate our children. ALL of our children. Not only the children whose parents come to meetings, not only the ones who have books in their homes, not only the ones who share their personal values. Educate ALL of our children.

You know these teachers too. You know them at your children’s schools, your grandchildren’s schools, your neighbors’ schools.

Tell them you are grateful.

Tell them we need them and we don’t want to lose them.

Laurie Wilson is the parent of four children who attend public school in Eden, NC

Why I Love Teaching, But Why I May Be Ready to Leave the Classroom

At dinner with friends last night, I was asked if I still liked teaching. It was an easy answer. “Yes, I still like it, as a matter of fact, I love it.” When it goes right—and that’s not every day in every class—but when the stars align and your students are focused and your lesson is working, there is nothing like it. Hands are up; students are asking questions; you’re all laughing; everyone’s learning…it’s amazing. It’s like hearing a tennis ball hit the sweet spot on the racket, or watching an actor command an audience. Teaching is magic. Who wouldn’t love to spend each day trying to make this magic? I mean you are leading students to learn and think. So, then, why do I want to leave teaching? I am tired. I am tired of the lack of respect from the public, and especially exhausted by the NC General Assembly whose latest pay scale implies that as a veteran teacher I have no worth. The idea that I do not deserve my tenure or longevity pay, frankly, makes me want to sit down and weep.
Prevailing public and legislative opinion implies that a highly paid veteran teacher drains school budgets. Experienced teachers, according critics cited in WUNC’s “Experienced Teacher’s Under Fire” are “one of the problems with public education. They get tenure, [critics] say, and ride out the last years of their careers”. In 1998, I received tenure in North Carolina. Since then, I have been a department chair, mentored at least five student teachers, written curriculum, led staff development, served on school planning and leadership committees, received my National Board Certification, earned my master’s degree, presented at professional conferences, attended week-long educational workshops, taken on new teaching assignments, become a mentor teacher, planned lessons, and learned to use new technologies, while teaching 21st Century skills. Hardly “riding out my career”. I don’t mean to imply that teachers work harder than any other profession; we don’t. However, we, unlike other professions, are not rewarded for refining and perfecting our skills. Actually, as Wall Street Journal reporter, Steven Brill noted in “Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools”, teaching is the only profession “where how talented you are, how energetic you are, how you perform, has nothing at all to do with how you get paid and how you get promoted.” So, we have always depended on our state recognizing that our experience counts, and that we should be paid more because we bring more to the table.
Schools need what veteran teachers offer. Schools “have to have some people who have institutional knowledge,” says Michael Maher, the Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation in the School of Education at NC State. He notes that we have seen curricular changes and that there needs to be someone to “help these young folks weather those storms”, and veterans have a sense of the community”. My school is full of amazingly talented young teachers; their energy, ideas, and presence rejuvenate me. However, regardless of their talent or vigor, they don’t know the school community like I do. They haven’t seen how it has changed over a twenty-year stretch; they don’t know what our community expects from teachers. Veteran teachers build the bridge between the past and the present. We support and encourage young teachers; we make sure that the profession thrives and continues. It’s an important job; it’s a job that should be respected. My worth in this regard doesn’t “max out” at 20 years and neither should my pay.
So, where do I go from here? Do I resign? Does my frustration and fatigue finally win out over dedication and commitment? Do I leave the magic behind? Part of me does consider packing up my extensive bag of knowledge, wisdom, and skill and leaving education. However, last week my AP students wrote wonderful argumentative essays and my English I students raised their unit test scores, and I spent a productive day with colleagues at a county workshop, and my student teacher taught a successful lesson. What I do matters, and so I won’t let small minded politicians, who devalue me; force me from my life’s work. So, tomorrow, when someone asks me if I still like teaching, I’ll say I love it, but I will also say that it’s time for the public and our legislature to start valuing what I do.
Yvonne Anderson
Teacher, Wake County Public Schools

The MUST HAVE Teacher Gift This Year

What do NC teachers want MOST this year?  For you to advocate on their behalf.  It will cost you less than a dollar, but it will be priceless to the teacher you honor.  Use the template below to craft your letter in less than ten minutes.  Mail a copy and wrap a copy up and present it to your child’s teacher.  You will be the talk of the teacher’s lounge, guaranteed!  Pass on this idea.  It’s the one gift that means more if you multiply it!

 

Your name and address here

Your state representative or state senator’s name and address here:

*Send TWO letters – one to your state senator and one to your state house representative.  Find your representative in the NC House of Representatives and NC Senate by typing your address in the proper map at this website and then entering the district numbers below the maps.  Double check that they won re-election by using this website (the state districts are so gerrymandered that very few seats changed hands).

Month Day, Year

Dear  (insert above name here),

I am writing this letter in honor of my child’s teachers, (insert names of teachers) at (insert name of the school).    They are public school teachers in North Carolina.  You are my elected representative in state government and I want you to make the public schools more of a priority in the coming legislative term.

I send my children to public schools because (choose from the reasons below)

  • The teachers are certified and licensed and teach a rigorous curriculum that meets or exceeds national standards.
  • Public schools represent the diversity of our society and best prepare my child to live and work in a diverse and pluralistic society.
  • Public schools ensure that all our citizens have opportunity in society, moving us closer to the goal that America is a meritocracy where hard work pays off and there is not an entrenched social class system.
  • Public schools are not for profit and do not seek to monetize our children.
  • I pay property taxes to fund the public schools, and I want them to be great quality.

To have great public schools, we need great teachers.  The policies of the past few years have made teachers feel disrespected and have made teaching a less attractive career in NC.  This is evident in that (choose from the reasons below)

  • If you enter many of the public schools on a Wednesday, a majority of teachers are wearing red in silent protest against the recent legislation that has been passed in the state legislature.  Their anger and disappointment are visible, and you need to pay attention.
  • Enrollments in Schools of Education in our state universities and colleges are dropping.  Fewer college students are preparing to be teachers.  As a result, Schools of Education will have to downsize their programs or lower their qualifications.
  • Schools are having a harder and harder time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, and we have more mid-year openings as teachers are leaving the profession altogether.
  • You can see the transformation in the life of a real NC teacher, from being a passionate classroom teacher to a brokenhearted teacher activist. View this documentary trailer from an upcoming film titled “Teacher of the Year”.  Here’s the link:  http://teacheroftheyearfilm.com/

These trends are evidence that we are on the wrong course.  We cannot have great public schools if the best and brightest students are not entering the profession and the state is unable to retain talented and experienced teachers.  It’s that simple.

I’m watching the teachers.   They are the measure of how the schools are doing.  And right now, I am seeing red.  You can change that in the coming legislative term, and concerned parents like me are taking note.

 

Sincerely,

 

Your Signature

Your name

Why We Must Vote

October, 2014

For decades, North Carolina has been a leader in public education in the south. Legislators worked together across the aisle to recruit and retain quality educators not just from North Carolina, but from across the country. Bipartisanship helped to pull North Carolina from near the bottom of national measures of education to the national average. Public education became the cornerstone for progress, attracting businesses and families from across the country to establish new roots and new beginnings, adding to the promise of North Carolina’s future.

Republicans have typically been known as the “fiscally responsible” party – at least in relation to the Democrats. But education has also traditionally been a value for Republicans in North Carolina. An educated workforce is the cornerstone of a strong economy. When companies and businesses have a skilled pool of workers to choose from, innovation is the result. For decades, North Carolina has led the south in public education. Strong leadership in the governor’s office and in the General Assembly has adopted this philosophy to attract companies and entire industries to our state.

But in 2014, North Carolina is falling behind our neighbors in public education and is losing businesses and industries to competing states that can offer a sound public education system with the promise for innovation and economic growth. Many things have been said recently regarding public education in North Carolina, but only the numbers cut through the rhetoric and get to reality. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Since 2008, the number of students enrolled in North Carolina Public Schools has increased by 2.3% but the number of teachers has decreased by 2.6% (a total of 2,510). This can only mean more students per teacher: 5% more (that is 1-2 students more per teacher). For decades, study after study demonstrate that smaller class sizes increase student learning because teachers can dedicate more time to each student. How do you make sure to recruit and retain teachers? Just like in any field, give them an incentive to enter the teaching profession or give them an incentive to stay once they have chosen to teach. Instead, North Carolina has chosen to do the opposite. Over the same time period (2008 to present) state funding for public education has decreased by roughly $100 million. Are you asking yourself, “By how much is that number inflated? What has been the rate of inflation over that time?” An important question! Adjusted for inflation, the $100 million is actually $965 million in real dollars, a decrease of 13.6%! Per school, that amounts to a decrease of $156,000 or, adjusted for inflation,$838,000. Per student, $1,300 inflation-adjusted dollars.

Why do our schools lag behind? Why is North Carolina racing to the bottom when it comes to public education? The state’s choice to not adequately fund public schools is the opportunity cost for changes in the tax code geared to benefit private sector businesses and the wealthy. The General Assembly has eliminated the graduated personal income tax system in favor of a lower flat tax of 5.8% in 2014 and will be 5.75% in 2015; the wealthy, more able to contribute to the society as a whole, will shoulder less of the burden. Corporate income taxes have been cut from 6.9% to 5% by 2015 making NC more attractive to relocating businesses but when they seek educated and skilled labor they will be hard pressed to find it. North Carolina spends $495 less per student than it did in six years ago and ranks seventh among 14 states in which 2014-15 per-pupil funding is more than 10 percent lower than in 2008 when the recession hit. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). According to a NC Justice Center report, the money spent this school year on public education falls $277 million short of what is needed to maintain the same service levels in place two years ago. And Public Schools First NC’s fact sheet, Impact of the 2013-15 State Budget, notes that budget cuts have dramatically impacted the number of teacher assistant positions, classroom materials, and instructional supplies; textbooks are funded at an unrealistic $20 per student.

While our government has decided that faceless businesses, some responsible for the financial collapse, are too big to fail, they have decided that our children are not. Billions of dollars can be spent to rescue businesses, but cuts continue when it comes to our children and their future. We must take a stand and let our representatives know that our children, their potential, and the potential for North Carolina are “too big to fail.” North Carolina’s future needs a bailout. It needs to be rescued from the grip of politics and special interests on Jones Street. That bailout will take the form of the votes from the people who are tired of the corruption in Raleigh. It will come from the votes of those who will go to the polls to take back their government and their political parties from the extreme factions buying our legislators and give North Carolina a chance to rise again as a leader in the region.

 

Matt Caggia

Social Studies Teacher

Leesville Road High School

Wake County

 

Four Bad Arguments Against Common Core

September, 2014
As a high school English teacher, I am not a blind supporter of the Common Core State 
Standards (CCSS). I do recognize that there are flaws inherent within any system of
standardization. But some of the arguments I’ve heard are less than stellar.
Here are my favorites:
1.“The Common Core Curriculum is…” Stop right there. The Common Core isn’t a
curriculum but a set of standards. Wake County has its own curricula, and my course
syllabus and pacing guides are my own. Furthermore, how I teach what I teach is up to
me. I’m not required to teach specific texts — the standards suggest teaching
“Shakespeare as well as other authors.” And whether teaching Macbeth or Hamlet,
Common Core is only concerned that I help my students meet the standard.
“Whatever. The Common Core Standards, then, force all teachers to teach a certain
way.”
Again, I must disagree. In my experience, we have been encouraged to include more
informational texts, which is cool, and we have worked with the county to develop
performance based tasks as evaluation tools rather than multiple choice tests. Also
cool. My students find these things difficult. They also find them rewarding.
“Why will I need to know Hamlet in ten years?”
they ask.
“Um…because Hamlet is awesome and will help
you appreciate literature and gain cultural
literacy…” is usually my answer. “Why will I need to know how to write a resume?” or
“When will I ever use these strategies for understanding a political speech or
argument?” are not questions I get often.
2. and 3. “The standards are dumbing down the kids”/ “The standards are too hard for
the kids”
According to Glenn Beck’s website, “Many teachers, educators, and parents believe
Common Core is dumbing down America’s children.” At the same time, some find the
standards too hard. In a piece for WUNC, Reema Khrais featured parent Andrea Dillon
who “says Common Core is not developmentally appropriate for her son. ‘Just for an
example, they’re doing persuasive writing pieces in first-grade where he has to have an
opening sentence, three supporting sentences and a closing argument for a text he’s read,
and he has to do that on his own – he’s seven,’ she said.”
So which is it? Too simple or too difficult?
In the case of the first grade, the writing standards stipulate that students have “guidance
and support from adults” while learning to write, not on their own. But specific standard
arguments aside, this is not a Common Core problem. The fact that we have any standards at all necessarily means that some kids will find the standards “too easy” and
some will find them “too hard.” That’s what happens when one creates a standard. It’s
my job as a teacher to push the students who have surpassed the standards forward, and
to work hard to bring the kids below standard up to par.
The point is that no “standard” is going to be just right for all of the kids all of the
time. This is why we differentiate; we tailor assignments to meet students at their
level. Getting rid of the Common Core State Standards would do nothing to solve this
problem, mainly because North Carolina adopted the CCSS to replace our own – which
were deemed too simple, “dumbed down”, and not adequate enough to prepare our
students to compete nationally or globally. Speaking in support of the standards, the NC
Chamber, a nonpartisan voice for advocating businesses, calls them “high, globally
competitive standards that North Carolina students will need to compete for the jobs of
tomorrow.” Choruses of NC leaders have also voiced their support, something that didn’t
happen with the old standards.
4. “Getting rid of Common Core will help with the whole standardized testing situation.”
A great article by Rethinking Schools condemns the Pearson Inc.-developed Common
Core tests. It goes on to present a horror story of a testing situation, reporting that
“Students reported feeling overstressed and underprepared—meeting the tests with shock,
anger, tears, and anxiety. Administrators requested guidelines for handling tests students
had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the
testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out.” And teachers,
parents, and school boards are making the news for protesting these ridiculous tests.
Pretty cool. I also hate the amount of high stakes testing that we are doing.
But…
NC had high stakes testing well before the CCSS showed up, and I venture to guess that
repealing those standards won’t get rid of testing hereafter. It seems to me that the fight
isn’t about the standards but about the testing. Perhaps there should not be so many
standardized tests. Perhaps teachers shouldn’t spend so much time training students for
these tests. Certainly these tests should not represent such high stakes in a student’s
academic career. Definitely these tests should not be used as a sole indicator of a
teacher’s effectiveness. Either way, the argument that equates the standards with the
testing is overlooking North Carolina’s educational history since 1993 – well before Gates
got into the education game.
In the end, I respect a healthy dialogue about standards and I’m proud to be part of a
dynamic community that believes passionately in doing what is best for our students. I
do not doubt many on all sides of the controversy are thinking of the children, but I
cannot see what a complete repeal of the Common Core State Standards – which have
taken tons of money and time to implement – is going to do to solve many of the issues
raised by opponents. As the Academic Standards Review Commission meets to begin
reviewing the standards, I urge them to leave behind fallacious arguments and to address
the real issues behind these complaints that are facing our students and our state.
Alicia Burnette Whitley

Why Taking The High Road Can Make All the Difference in Parent-Teacher Communication

September, 2014

Most of us have been there. We’ve had the teacher who didn’t give our child (or us!) the grade we thought was deserved. Some of us have listened to the counselor say that our child should be in a standard-level class rather than the honors hoped for. And most of us have voiced our opinions or heard opinions expressed about these disappointments. Sometimes, however, these comments can sting or even do lasting damage.

This is a vulnerable time for public education and especially for public school teachers. We are, in fact, at a crucial crossroads as to where public schools are headed in our near future. What parents say and how they say it can greatly impact teacher morale. As critical allies of public schools, parents can do a lot of good by choosing the high road when faced with the choice between a positive, supportive comment and a disparaging one. Consider a few scenarios where you might encounter this dilemma:

At the bus stop with several parents, you hear the kids discussing something that happened during the school day. Some of you disagree with what a teacher has done or said at school and the conversation immediately turns negative. Instead of joining in, here’s an alternative: say to the other parents involved, “Let’s step away from the kids and discuss this further.” When you disparage teachers in front of children, your negative judgment gives them license to disrespect educators in the school setting.

In following up that bus stop conversation, another parent decides to let that teacher know exactly what he thinks. Please suggest that he give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. What a child comes home and purports happened may not be the entire story. Please encourage others to ask what happened rather than accuse. At a parent-teacher conference, you disagree with a teacher’s assessment that your child would perform better in a certain level class over another. Your child is upset with this evaluation and, understandably, you want to support him. Ask the teacher what led her to this conclusion. If a teacher believes your child might have the ability but has not yet shown the work ethic, ask what she has observed in class. Instead of denouncing a teacher’s assessment, communicate with her as a professional and ask how you can work with her to develop a plan that will help your child be successful in her class.

As you read comments shared in an email or posted on Facebook on teacher and/or class selection at your child’s school, you notice various pessimistic comments. Bashing public school teachers has become en vogue, whether in a social media comment (“Why does my child always get THE WORST teacher in the school??”) or a post-article discussion forum (“If they wanted to make more money, they should get a different job and stop complaining.”). As a supporter of public education, do not allow yourself to get stuck in the quagmire of this insult.

Even if you have concerns, voicing them over social media or in front of your child will not make a positive change, if any change at all. Instead wait until you meet the teacher and see how your child does in the class. If you notice problems, schedule a conference right away.

On your lunch break you and a friend compare your children’s homework load and grades. She says she has no idea how her child is doing because the teacher is non-communicative. Please suggest to her that she go online and check her child’s class website, Dojo, or Edmodo page. Ask her if she attended Open House or Meet the Teacher where teachers often disseminate much of that information. If her child has grades posted on PowerSchools, by all means, she should log on and get a password. Above all parents should find out how grades are assigned and posted and communicate directly with the teacher and/or principal with concerns about process.

Your child comes home and immediately settles in to his science homework. He says he wants to get it done because for the first time, he “gets it.” He even goes on to say that his teacher explained it so well that he feels confident he is going to do great on the test the following week. Now is the time to say something! Instead of walking away and saying nothing, tell a teacher when he does something effective or uses a strategy that really works with your child. Let a teacher know when something positive happens if you feel he has been part of that process. Those emotional pay raises make teachers believe they can continue another year, another semester, sometimes just another week.

So as you come upon that ubiquitous intersection of negative vs. affirmative teacher talk, let your GPS (maybe that stands for “Great Public Schools”!) take you the right way. Find the positive in your child’s school and teachers so that you and they can collaboratively build a supportive environment, relationship, and expectations for your child to thrive.

 

Heather Dinkenor

North Carolina English Teacher

NBCT