A Year in Two Different Worlds

by Katherine Meeks, Wake County Public School Teacher

Since the 1999 court case that required Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to end busing because the schools had “eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination,” the district has primarily assigned students to schools closest to home. This practice results in extreme socioeconomic disparity between schools, which CMS attempts to counteract by spending more money on the low income schools.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) was nationally recognized for socio-economic school integration, and, before that, racial integration. Although this practice has since ended, many of the effects linger.

In the 2013-2014 NCDPI School Report Cards 40% of CMS schools were rated an “A” or “B” compared to 50% in WCPSS.  29% of CMS schools were rated a “D” or “F”, compared to just 11% in WCPSS. According to a 2015 New York Times report, Mecklenburg County currently ranks second to Baltimore for “big counties worst for income mobility for poor children.”

This is the story of my experiences teaching at two vastly different schools and the systemic problems of socioeconomic inequalities I witnessed:

  1. CMS: 90% free and reduced lunch; extremely low performing; rated “F”
  2. WCPSS: 20% free and reduced lunch; high performing; rated “A”

At the first school, we were flooded with monetary resources, technology, and additional school personnel. To serve 900 students, we had 5 administrators, a school resource officer, 2 security associates, 2 behavior management technicians, 2 in-school suspension teachers, 2 “Communities In Schools” staff, 3 instructional facilitators, a full time beginning teacher coordinator, a CTE coordinator, 2 counselors, and a social worker. We had a technology device for every single student. Class sizes were lower than average. Despite these supports, I worked 12 hours a day to complete the most basic parts of my job and working conditions were far below what I would consider professional. I witnessed an unfathomable amount of violence and on more than one occasion felt personally unsafe. There is a culture of fear for everyone involved: fear of theft, fear of violence, and fear of multiple kinds of abuse. When teachers were absent, students were most often covered by stretching current staff because substitutes did not want to work in the unpredictable and sometimes hostile environment. On these days, teachers gave up their planning period and worked unpaid overtime at home. When I didn’t have to cover other classes, I spent most or all of my planning period writing discipline referrals, calling parents (often unsuccessfully), finding a translator to call parents, and wrestling with the copy machine. Yet as hard as we worked, we perceived, at best, miniscule improvements to students’ lives.

Now, I spend my planning period almost exclusively planning engaging lessons. I feel appreciated and I see the difference I make. I’ve only written one discipline referral and covered one class this year. In a year at the first school I spent over 180 hours performing daily non-instructional duties necessary to maintain order and help keep students safe. This year I expect to spend just 53 hours on such duties. There were similar discrepancies between required attendance at after school events. When I talk with another teacher that left the first school the same time I did, she describes her feelings of guilt that prevented her from leaving earlier as “masochistic.”

Many believe that we need to attract more highly qualified teachers to low-income schools – I disagree. I worked with highly-qualified, brilliant and passionate teachers and administrators who were relentless in their efforts to achieve student growth. The real problem is keeping any teachers at all. Research shows low teacher turnover increases student performance. Turnover at the first school was around 50%. Less than one year later, of the administrative staff, only the principal remains. My quality of life and sense of professional achievement at the first school was so low that I doubt I would have stayed for any monetary incentive.

In Part 1 of This American Life’s “The Problem We All Live With,” Ira Glass talks with Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times investigative reporter, about dozens of strategies school systems like CMS are using to help failing schools. “What she noticed was that it never worked. I mean, like, never. The bad schools never caught up to the good schools. And the bad schools were mostly black and Latino. The good schools were mostly white. And sure, there might be a principal here or a charter school there who might do a good job improving students’ scores, but even there, they were just improving their student scores. The minority kids in their programs were still not performing on par with white kids. They hadn’t closed the achievement gap between black kids and white kids.”

So if all these programs aren’t working, what does work? Nikole continues “I find there’s one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half… [school] integration… But instead, since 1988, we have started to re-segregate. And it is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again.”

Her research aligns with my experience. But integrated schools aren’t just better for students – they’re better for teachers too. Integrated schools are significantly better at retaining teachers long-term as well as educating all students.

I couldn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to be educated in an integrated system until I worked for a segregated one. Unfortunately, in the six years since the end of socioeconomic integration, WCPSS is trending towards segregated schools. The 2014-2015 NCDPI School Report Cards look more like those of CMS.

In Part 2 of “The Problem We All Live With,” Chana Joffe-Walt describes the community engagement necessary to achieve school integration. “There are only a few places in the country that have seriously committed to school integration over a long period of time. Louisville, Kentucky is one; Wake County in North Carolina; those are the biggest. And in each case, something like this right here has occurred: a public reckoning seems to be a required step; some sort of long process by which the gap between two unequal systems is made very clear to the people who are not paying attention.”

I share my experiences not to disparage the valiant efforts of low-income schools but rather to bring awareness to the larger systemic problem. I share because the personal time it took me to write this article did not exist a year ago. I share because my heart breaks to watch WCPSS travel down the path towards segregated schools and because I’ve seen where that path leads. It’s time for a public reckoning. We know from anecdotal evidence and quantitative data that separate is not equal and does not work. Our teachers deserve safe and professional working conditions. Our students – all of them – deserve a safe learning environment and a high quality education.
Add my voice – an informed witness from the front lines – to the growing chorus. Wake up, Wake. Pay close attention. You are headed the wrong way.

Is North Carolina’s Teacher Pipeline Beyond Maintenance?

by Jeff Schweickert & Erin Meyer, NC Public School Teachers

In the midst of high teacher turnover rates, glaring teacher shortages due to an unprecedented decline in students majoring in education, and the overwhelming frustration felt by our state’s public educators, there is fairly condemning evidence that the majority of our state’s legislature has looked the other way.

In the fallout of this year’s budget and year’s past—when the state government pushed an agenda of jobs and tax credits at the expense of the middle class— it was ironic, yet sadly not surprising, that public education experienced quite the opposite. We regressed; we lost teaching jobs despite unprecedented population growth throughout the state; we were deprived of state funding in lieu of private school vouchers, charter schools and online schooling; and we witnessed our state’s decline in the national average for teacher pay, going from 23rd in 2008 to 46th in 2014-2015.

Proponents of this change might have had valid reasons for such regression. When our legislature is charged with the responsibility of a fiscal budget, cuts are required and feelings tend to get stepped on—that’s life; however, two legislative moves were so antithetical to the tenets of education that they have resulted in damning ramifications that have ultimately put a kink in the proverbial teacher pipeline.

The first attack on the pipeline that was so utterly contrary to the essential purpose of education started in 2013 when the legislature decided that teachers with advanced degrees wouldn’t be compensated. In the wake of this, I comically found myself asking, “how is THIS a thing!?” What precedent are we setting for future teachers? That furthering your education is frivolity? Our society is inherently reward-based, yet we set teachers aside as an exceptional class, immune from such influences? And we expect to recruit and obtain the best and the brightest using this model? Humor me for a second – would Advanced Placement enrollment drop if no extra point was given for students’ grade point averages? This scenario is representative of the situation teachers are currently in— do more without expectation – and I can’t help but dwell on the message that this is sending.

The second offense to the pipeline that myself and my colleagues take umbrage with was defunding the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program despite its impactful effect on the teaching profession. Though the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program has had obvious success, the program was cut from the budget in favor of Teach for America in 2011, saving the state $13.5 million annually. The graduating class of 2015 is currently the last cohort of North Carolina Teaching Fellows. While monetarily this decision makes sense for the politicians who want to spend less money, the track records of both Teach for America and the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program show this decision to be troubling. Currently, there are more than 4,000 Teaching Fellows who are teachers, and more than 75 percent of Fellows remain in the profession past five years—a far cry from the 10 percent of Teach for America teachers (DeWitt, 2013). Though costing more, the Teaching Fellows Program produced teachers whose goals were to teach as a career, not use their experience as a resume builder or stepping stone into politics or business; Teach for America teachers make up 0.5 percent of teachers in North Carolina.  Instead of ensuring that the state had well-trained career teachers, our state legislature preferred the cheaper alternative as a cost saving measure, suggesting, yet again, that the majority of our legislature devalues education when it is in conflict with their bottom-line.

How can one look at our current situation over the last 8 years and not surmise that the majority of our legislature devalues public education? Can you say with any confidence that the pipeline will always bend and never break? How can one not see that the state and its citizens will have quite the problem on its hands the day that there isn’t a credible, effective teacher to place in the classroom for their son or daughter?

Who Will Protect Our Protectors?

By David Robinson, NC Career and Technical Education Teacher

I was watching TV the other night and came across a program on The History Channel about the great warriors of the past. Every culture seemed to have its own ideal warrior: the Maasai, Azande, and Zulu of Africa; the Huns; the Shaolin Monks of China; the Roman Gladiators, the Spartans, the Medieval Knights of Europe; the Eagle and Jaguar warriors of Aztec South America; the Samurai and Ninja of Japan; the Rajputs of India; the Scottish Highlanders; and the Byzantine Cataphract were all the great fighters of their civilizations. Most had to complete some sort of rigorous training process and graduate in a ceremony that inducted them into their status. This confirmed them as experts with one or more weapons (e.g. the shield and throwing stick of the Zulu, the archery of the Huns, or the axe and dagger of the Highlanders). They served their communities through various tasks, such as finding lost cattle or moving the herds to the grassy areas for grazing, which possibly required them to be away from their families for several weeks at a time. Their leaders, also great warriors, had exhibited countless acts of bravery. If any one of them did something to bring shame to their clans or villages, they all would be punished or fined. The warrior was held in high esteem and had great responsibility to the community.

One group known for their fierce warriors were the Lakota people, Native Americans led by Sitting Bull. When asked what made his warriors great, he said:

“Warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all the children, the future of humanity.”

You may be asking yourself, “What does all this have to do with today’s issues?”

This research prompted me to search for the true warriors of today. Who fights to the death for the defenseless? Who sacrifices himself or herself for the good of others? Who cares for those who cannot care for themselves, and, above all, who cares for the children? I ask you: Who are the warriors of today?

After some reflecting on our current society, I could only find a few groups that could compare with famed warriors. The first group is our men and women in the military and law enforcement. Without question these people are indeed warriors, putting their lives on the line by working each day to defend the defenseless. The other group of warriors, like Sitting Bull so famously said, “may not be what you think of as warriors.”

They are the teachers.

When we think of those who sacrifice themselves to defend and protect the future of humanity today, it is the teacher. As we remember the anniversary of the events at Sandy Hook Elementary school, we are reminded of the lengths that teachers will go for their students. Eight school employees were killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy. One was Victoria Leigh Soto, who sacrificed herself to save her students – throwing her body in front of the young children. In less extreme cases, I see teachers every day throwing it all on the line for students. They sacrifice time with their own children and families, sacrifice high-paying careers with lucrative benefits, sacrifice money out of their pockets for school supplies and materials for their students, and some even make the ultimate sacrifice like Soto and the other fallen warriors of Sandy Hook. These people are our modern-day warriors. These are the people we should hold in high esteem, the people we should revere.

So why, then, are attacked teachers met with silence from society? We as a collective must stand up and loudly proclaim that these are our warriors. Whether these attacks come from a gun-toting fanatic or a senseless budget-cutting legislature or school board, the cry should be loud.  While events like Sandy Hook take place in an instant, cuts in education are a slow and silent acts of destruction. One is a pressure washer of tremendous force, and the other is the slow, dripping faucet that escapes national attention. The precious potential of our children is wasted all the same.

I’m sure that somewhere along the way you have encountered a teacher who used his or her shield to protect you, or to fight off the forces of ignorance for you. This teacher and teachers like him or her make a way out of no way. For this reason, we must rally around and celebrate our teacher warriors with great ceremony. How can you help defend our “warrior teachers”?

 

Is There a Real Solution to the Problem with Teaching in NC?

by Nancy Snipes Mosley

My parents used to “joke” that if I decided to major in education they wouldn’t pay for my college tuition. I took them seriously because my mother was a teacher and I saw up close the stressful nature of the job. I finally realized teaching was my calling, but only after I graduated and had to go back to school to change careers.

I almost decided not to be a teacher because it didn’t seem like a rational choice. Even though my mother was an inspired educator who loved her students, she sacrificed too much to meet both their needs and ours. After eleven years, my love for teaching students is stronger than ever. At the same time, I’m getting increasingly worried about the toll the job is taking on my family and myself.

My husband is also a teacher, so the chances that one of my children will feel called to the classroom is pretty high. Given how much I value and enjoy public education, this is something I should hope for…not fear. Will North Carolina start addressing teaching conditions more seriously, or will we perpetuate the family “joke” about not majoring in education?

Part I of this series focused on how North Carolina teachers are exploited by having to work too many extra hours without pay. Part II focused on how our evaluation process demoralizes teachers by sending the message that they are never doing enough. This last installment will identify top priorities for change and propose ways to increase teacher time, morale, compensation, and resources.

Time

  • Hire more teachers, specialists, and assistants to decrease class sizes and provide more planning time for new teachers and teacher leaders. Students would benefit from more personal attention and increased time in special electives and enrichment/remediation programs.
  • Add more optional workdays, especially at times when administrative tasks can eclipse lesson planning. When rolling out comprehensive changes to standards and curriculum, build in extra workdays for a few years to help with the transition.
  • Start earlier so first semester ends before winter break. This would ease exam administration and transition to new classes on the block schedule. It would also help when there is inclement weather, helping protect workdays and professional development in the latter part of the year.

Morale

  • Differentiate the evaluation instrument by grade level, discipline, and years of experience. The software could be set up to pull items for me that match: High School, Social Studies, 10-15 years experience. 2 Offer the chance to apply for a “teacher leader” status to provide a bonus and/or more planning time for taking on extra leadership roles.
  • Stop moving assessment targets so that teachers never feel they’ve met the mark. Data should be used to identify goals, not to pressure teachers to conform to a magical formula for good test scores. Clarify the role of test data in evaluations so teachers feel free to take creative risks and capitalize on their strengths.
  • Engage in more dialogue with administrators about ways teachers can hold students accountable for regulating their own behavior and success. Traditional consequences and incentives that no longer work need to be replaced with ones that do.

Compensation

  • Restore or protect salary incentives for earning an advanced degree, National Board Certification, and longevity status. Traditional merit pay doesn’t work in an environment where collaboration is more valuable than competition and value is too difficult to quantify and compare. Teachers who put in an extra and long-term investment in our schools should be rewarded.
  • Improve stipends for coaching, mentoring, and advising roles. For extra activities without stipends, allow teachers to accrue hours that could be converted into leave for optional workdays, medical/family emergencies, and retirement.
  • Allow teachers to apply for summer or after-school employment for developing new instruction and initiatives for their school. This would address some of the unpaid overtime issue, incentivize more teachers to take on leadership roles, and help schools make faster progress on improvement plans.

Resources

  • Expand and integrate social, health, and academic services. Students cannot succeed academically if their needs are not being met, or if they are not in school. Teachers can expend a lot of energy with issues they are not best equipped to handle. For the early grades, bringing back teacher assistants is key.
  • Invest in more administrators to help manage and lead the schools. They are even more overworked than teachers during the school year. This will benefit everyone who relies on their support.
  • Make a meaningful commitment to technology in infrastructure, devices, and applications. This will mean less paperwork, more efficient communication between student and teacher, and more helpful data. Trying to teach for the 21st century with scarce or unreliable technology is a burden.

We deserve better pay, but we desperately need more time and resources to serve our students to the best of our ability without burning ourselves out. Our state needs to attract more inspired young educators who are willing and able to go the distance.

Public educators have little time for politics. But the nature of public education means that we have to convince the public that change is both necessary and possible.

There ARE real solutions to the problem with teaching in North Carolina. Progress will require the active involvement of invested educators and concerned citizens throughout the state. If you have made it all the way to the end of this article, I’m calling on you. Share your experiences with others, ask questions about proposed reforms, brainstorm ideas with teachers at your school, and help get out the vote in state/local elections.

Episode 6 – “Just” An Informality?

In this episode – the last of the season – podcast regulars Alicia Whitley and Emmanuel Lipscomb invite JQ Abbey and Allie Mullin to talk about the ins and outs and importance of informal education in encouraging the young and the young at heart alike to have fun and keep learning.

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Episode 5 – Pop Culture 101

In this episode Alicia, Rob Phillips (documentarian, English and Cultural and Media Literacies teacher), Nancy Mosley (Red 4 Ed Contributor, teacher of Sociology and American History) and Morgan Fullbright (writer, teacher of English literature, and mother to be) talk about teachers in Pop Culture and the way these popular depictions of teachers and schooling reflect and often persist in our collective imaginations.  During the course of which, we mount a rousing defense of Professor Snape, talk about what really grinds our gears (That class only has like, 12 students!  12!) in on-screen classrooms, and discuss everyone from Joe Clark to Rupert Giles.

“What is it about Snape that I love so much?.. He let the kids think he was a bad guy when that was in their best interest…  I just think that that is one of the most difficult things to do as a teacher or a parent.” – Nancy Mosley

We also discuss the ways in which these depictions may inform our understanding of what teaching is supposed to be as well as the best ways to use pop culture within the classroom as a powerful tool to catch student interest, pull them in, and remind them that what we do in the classroom is mildly relevant to the “real world”.

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Episode 4 – Advocacy 101

Part of being a good teacher is being an advocate for yourself, your students, and your school.  But sometimes, it’s hard to know just where to start.

Angela Scioli (Red4Ed Founder, NCTVN Fellow), Jessica Benton (NCAE, Organize 2020), and Trey Ferguson (WCPSS Beginning Teacher Network Co-Founder, NCTVN Fellow) talk about their organizations and some of the best ways teachers can advocate for themselves, their students, their schools, and their communities.

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NC Teachers are Scared to Speak Out: How to get past your fear and be an effective advocate

By Angela Scioli, John deVille, and Teacher X

If you’ve read Nashonda Cooke’s “Back to School / Back to the Fight” article, you might be fired up and ready to fight to defend North Carolina’s public schools – I know I was!  I was also inspired by Governor Hunt’s recent comment at a Public Schools First NC Event, “Teachers need to understand if this [situation] is going to change, teachers are going to have speak up, stand up, take some risks! “

But, if you are a North Carolina teacher, you might also be scared to speak up.  I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers around the state who are intimidated by the thought of public advocacy.  Let’s review the facts, get past the spin, and bury that bogeyman so we can better advocate for our profession and our students.

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Episode 1 – Part 2

This is Episode 1.2 – “Audi 3000”

In the second part of this two part episode, public school teachers Alicia and Emmanuel continue talking with former educators Meredith and Paul about their decision to leave the classroom.  Besides feeling micro-managed and overworked, they hit on perhaps one of the biggest issues facing teachers today – the issue of teacher pay.

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Episode 1 – Part 1

This is Episode 1.1 – “Audi 3000”

Education Week, March 2015

On the first episode, a hot three teachers talked about what got them into education.  Bringing teachers in is good.  Getting them to stick around is better.  The more experience a teacher has, the more likely it is that they will be effective in the classroom.   What’s more, it’s estimated that teacher turnover costs the state billions.

But why do teachers leave?

Autonomy. This week on the Hot Four Teachers Podcast, public school teachers Alicia and Emmanuel talk with former educators (and apparent cat lovers) Meredith and Paul about their reasons for getting out of the teaching biz.  And the importance of keeping cats trimmed.  And looking good for race cameras.

About the Podcast

Hot Four Teachers was recorded in conjunction with Red 4 Ed NC – an education demonstration in progress – and is dedicated to the goal of amplifying teacher voice.  Red 4 Ed is a special project of Public Schools First NC, supporting North Carolina’s public schools through information, education, and engagement.  Our in and out music, “Believe in Me”, was provided by Ryan Little. Believe in Me (Ryan Little) / CC BY 4.0

You can find Red 4 Ed NC on Facebook or Twitter (@Red4EdNC).  Red 4 Ed is a special project of Public Schools First, NC.  You can visit them online at publicschoolsfirstnc.com or follow them on Twitter @PS1NC.