May, 2015

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Teachers Are Not the Root of the Problem

Last August, Business Insider published a report from the Brookings Institute highlighting the 15 cities where poverty is growing fastest in the nation. Greensboro-High Point tied for 10th, Winston-Salem tied for 8th, and Raleigh tied for 3rd…with Charlotte.Earlier this year the Washington Post published a study by the Southern Education Foundation that found an incredibly high number of students in public schools live in poverty. And in April, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study that linked poverty to brain structure. All three publications confirm what educators have known for years: poverty is the biggest obstacle in public education.

Yet many “reformers” and NC legislators want you to believe that bad teachers are at the root of what hurts our public schools. Just this past November, Haley Edwards in Time Magazine published an article entitled “Rotten Apples” which suggests that corporate America and its business approaches (Bill Gates, etc.) can remedy our failing public schools by targeting and removing the “rotten apples” (bad teachers) and implementing  impersonal corporate practices.

I understand the analogy: bad teachers, rotten apples. However, it is flawed. Removing rotten apples does not restore the orchard. Rather, improving the orchard makes for better apples. Teachers are more like farmers, not apples. Students are what are nurtured. What we need to do is improve the conditions in which schools operate and the environments in which our students are raised; we must address elements that contribute to poverty.

North Carolinians know agriculture. We understand that any crop requires an optimum environment to produce the best harvest. Farmers must consider weather, resources, and time to work with the land. Since many factors which affect the harvest are beyond their control, farmers make the best of what they have; they must marry discipline with a craft. Teachers do the same.

But if the environment suffers and resources are limited, then agriculture suffers. Is that the fault of farmers? If variables surrounding the environment of public education are constantly being changed by governing bodies, then are teachers at fault?

Another fallacy with the rotten apple analogy is that the end product (singular test scores) is a total reflection of the teacher. Just like with farming, much is out of the hands of the education system. One in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty and many more have other pressing needs that affect the ability to learn. Some students come to school just to be safe and have a meal. But imagine if students came to school physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared to learn.

In some instances, resources vital to public education are siphoned off to other “factory farms” and for-profit entities. Just this past December the Winston-Salem Journal reported that Rockingham County schools did not have enough money and were having to rob “Peter to pay Paul” just to keep public schools open and equipped with the basic supplies, even toilet paper. But at the same time, Sen. Phil Berger’s own son was slated to open up Providence Charter High School with taxpayer money in Rockingham County. Luckily, that endeavor never materialized, but the state’s Charter School Advisory Board just recommended that 16-18 new charter schools be financed by taxpayers.

The soil in which the public school system is rooted has been altered so much in the past decade that the orchard where teachers “grow” their crops has been stripped of much of its vitality. Look at the number of standardized tests, curriculum models, and teacher evaluation protocols thrown at public schools. And those will change again with Race to the Top money running out.

We are treating the symptoms, not the malady. We are trying to put a shine on the apples by “raising” graduation rates with new grading scales. It is analogous to constructing a new white picket fence around an orchard and thinking that the crop will automatically improve.

But our elected officials can help or at least remove the obstacles for those who can.

The General Assembly can invest more in pre-K programs. They can stop funding for-profit charter and corporate-run virtual schools. They can expand Medicaid so more kids come to school healthy. They can reinstitute the Teaching Fellows program to keep our bright future teachers here in North Carolina. Then they can give decent raises to veteran teachers so they finish their careers here.

Our public school teachers and administrators are not looking for a profit to gain; they already see the value in each and every student.

Imagine those apples.

Stuart Egan

English Teacher

West Forsyth High School

Walking in the Footsteps of a Teacher

I shadowed a 2nd grade teacher last month and it was an eye-opening experience.   I witnessed the degree to which teachers struggle to meet the ever-growing needs of their students, are not treated as professionals, and are being exploited.

To protect myself and the people involved (including students and parents), I will use pseudonyms for everyone involved.  I am a parent and have security clearance; I simply wanted to know more about what teaching is like in North Carolina today.

The school is a magnet school within an affluent part of a major metropolitan area in North Carolina.  Many faculty members said they felt lucky to be at a school with a great principal within a supportive community.  Several confided they were afraid to think what teaching must be like in less affluent rural areas.

7:15 a.m. – Ms. Ray was in her classroom, after making some copies in a workroom that morning.  She was eating oatmeal while she readied her classroom.

7:45 a.m. – Ms. Ray and nine other female educators met in a professional learning team.  Four were 2nd grade teachers, one was a special educator, one a literacy specialist, one an assistant principal, and the rest were student teachers.  They went over a few announcements, including that:

–          Report cards were to go out tomorrow and paper just came in.

–          According to their Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system, it was their turn to plan an event to help relieve faculty stress.  All expenses would come from the teachers’ own pockets.

–          Teachers are no longer referring kids to administration for bad behavior, as the new system for doing so (ironically named “EASI”) is hard to navigate.  A tutorial has been posted on the internet.

–          For future “M class” reading assessments, teachers will not be allowed to test their own students.

–          They then began discussing specific kids who are performing below grade level.  They call this part “Kid Talk”.  The stated goal was to share knowledge about the kids to see if they could gain greater insight on how to meet their needs.  They talked about 18 kids total, always referencing recent test scores (mainly Mclass reading scores) as a part of the discussion.  A few kids stood out:

Tabitha:  She rarely talks.  They have referred her for testing but can’t get the necessary forms back from mom.  The family only speaks Spanish.  It was recommended that a staff member do a home visit.

Greg:  He is autistic, and all involved agreed he probably needs a one-on-one aid.  He cannot stay on task and has a very hard time knowing what to do when left alone.  A county representative came and observed and said the teachers need to write out every instruction for every part of the day so he could refer to those directions when lost.  The teachers realize this will take at least an hour of writing a day, as there can be as many as sixteen transitions in a typical day.  They don’t know how they will do this, but if they don’t, Greg will not get the one-on-one aid he needs

Anthony:  He is a new student.  This is his third school this year.  He came to school with scabies, and he has places on his body that are irritated and bleed.  He reports he doesn’t sleep at night.  He tries to sleep all day, and the teacher does not know what else to do but let him.  It’s agreed someone should do a home visit.

I later find out that teachers must provide and document that they provided interventions for all 18 kids for at least ten minutes three times a week.

8:54 a.m. – Back to Ms. Ray’s room where kids are doing morning work, which is to “solve two math problems using any strategy and then write a word problem to match the equation”.  A teacher assistant is there named Ms. Grace.  She starts pulling kids out who are below reading grade level to read to her for 5 minutes.  She does this every day.

8:57-9:07 a.m. – Maddy’s mom is here to talk about Maddy’s seating assignment.  Kids are lining up to have their morning work checked and get a sticker.  Ms. Ray says that this mother comes in, unannounced, to meet with her about something most every morning.  This is the sixth time she has requested a seating change.

9:07 – 9:14 a.m. – Ms. Ray circulates, checking morning work and praising the kids.

9:14 a.m. – The bell rings.  Ms. Ray leads the pledge of allegiance and the singing of this month’s song about America.    She then leads them in reading a “fluency poem”, out loud, three times.

9:20- 9:31 a.m. – Ms. Ray facilitates a Letterland lesson, a new requirement this year. She’s teaching words that have “ea” in them and make the “eh” sound.  Cards are distributed, kids get up and spell a word she calls out, and the other students give a “thumbs up” or down to evaluate correctness.

9:31 – 9:35 a.m. – She helps them glue their spelling words into their notebooks.

9:35 a.m. – Daniel is crying.  Ms. Ray asks Ms. Grace to handle a transition while she meets with him.  She ends their brief discussion with “Let’s talk more about this at recess, ok?”

9:37 a.m. – Carpet time.  They learn about the three purposes authors have when they write:  to inform, entertain and persuade.  They discuss examples.  Ms. Ray gives instructions for the next activity.

9:45 a.m. – Ms. Ray has prepared four stations for kids to work in to improve their reading and writing skills.  Lots of materials have been prepared ahead of time:  directions placed in a tray, labels printed, an evidence worksheet copied, clipboards, a computer station is prepped, and she has pulled and prepared to meet with a reading group.

9:45 – 10:05 a.m.  – Ms. Ray simultaneously runs a reading group and supervises the other stations.   She praises and redirects kids throughout the room.  Ms. Grace assists.

10:06 – 10:30 a.m. – They rotate roles and repeat the stations.  Ms. Grace has to leave to go to another room.  Things get a little dicey; Greg, the autistic student, needs redirection.  A student tells on another student for sneezing on a desk and not covering their mouth.  Ms. Ray wipes down the desk.  Many students suddenly need Ms. Ray attention – lost library books, they want a sip of water, they are unsure where to put their finished work.

10:30 a.m. – Snack time!  Ms. Ray provides goldfish crackers to kids who don’t have snack.  The extras are provided by parents.  Kids take turn sharing stories in front of the class.  Others raise their hands and ask questions.

I take a peek at the calendar on Ms. Ray’s desk.  On Tuesday she had an after school meeting.  Today she had a meeting before school and has a meeting during planning. Thursday she has two parent conferences, one during planning and one after school.  Friday she has an after school meeting.

10:35-10:40 a.m. – Ms. Ray does hall duty while students go to electives.

10:40-11:20 a.m. – Ms. Ray teaches a reading elective in her classroom.  She has read and selected award winning books that she will read aloud.

11:25 a.m. – Kids change classes again.  Ms. Ray gets a love note from a student .  “You are my favorite teacher and only teacher and I appreciate how you teach me everything.  Thank you.”

11:30 – 12: 00 – Ms. Ray teaches a social studies elective in another room.  She has prepared a lesson on relative and absolute location and reading a map grid.

12:00 p.m. – Recess!  Ms. Ray circulates on the playground, supervising and chatting with colleagues.  My interactions with staff are interesting.  One teacher tells me this is her 17th year teaching, her 11th in NC, and she still doesn’t make the pay she received her first year teaching in New York and California.  Another tells me she has 27 students, and anything over 20 means she “is not able to meet anyone’s needs”.  Another teacher tells me there are three kids suspected of having diabetes in her class, and they must draw blood 5 times a day, but there isn’t a nurse so she has to do it.

Greg skins his knee and Ms. Ray applies a band-aid.  Another student reports his arm is hurt and he “heard something pop”, but he claims to be sick or hurt in some way most days.  Teachers gather to assess the situation.  They decide they better call home.  He comes back the next day with his arm in a cast.

12:30 p.m.  – Recess is over.  Ms. Ray takes the class to bathroom.  A parent volunteer speaks to her while they go.  The parent reports that two students need to be disciplined for misbehavior during a pull-out reading program.  While Ms. Ray handles it, the kids go to lunch.

12:40 p.m. – Ms. Ray appears at the faculty table in the cafeteria with her lunch.  She has 14 minutes to eat.  I ask Ms. Ray if she works on the weekends.  She says Sunday is a “workday” when she does about 3-4 hours of work.

I ask if there is a teacher’s lounge.  They report it was converted into a teaching space, so now they eat with the kids.  Teacher assistants supervise the kids while they eat.  They tell me there is not a vending machine for their use in the school.

12:54 p.m.  – Ms. Ray went to the bathroom for the first time.  All the bathrooms in her building are dedicated to special needs students or general student use. There is only one staff bathroom at the front of the building.

12:55-1:00 p.m. – Ms. Ray takes the students to the bathroom as they return to class.

1:05-1:20 p.m. – Ms. Ray reads from a novel as the kids listen attentively on the carpet.  Ms. Ray is very expressive and draws them in with predictions and questions.

1:20 p.m. – Time for a Common Core math lesson.  Ms. Ray reveals that her laptop has been broken for two weeks, and she has no idea when she will get it back.  She has a loaner laptop that has no battery power.  Until she gets her laptop back, she cannot use her SMART board or document camera.

Kids are given two-digit addition and subtraction word problems and told to solve them using at least two strategies. Ms. Ray circulates; Greg is lost.  Students begin presenting their solutions on the board.  They demonstrate number lines that relate math to space, “math mountains” and math ladders.

A  special educator comes in to assist Greg in math.  Ms. Grace comes and takes two students out for math remediation.

The kids are getting squirmy.  They keep analyzing the problems with lots of firm redirection from Ms. Ray.

1:45 p.m. – Ms. Ray assigns two new problems.  She circulates.  She has prepared a math challenge activity for students that finish early.

1:56 p.m. – Ms. Ray gathers the students on the carpet to process the math they just learned.

2:03 p.m. – Ms. Ray takes them for another bathroom break.

2:10 p.m. – Ms. Ray projects a “brain break” video where they watch a video and do rhythmic movement.

2:15 p.m. – Ms. Ray calls them to the carpet, reads two sample book reviews to them, and they analyze the elements of each.

2:25 p.m. – Ms. Ray circulates while students begin working on writing their own reviews.  She works one-on-one with students.  Derek claims he can’t think of a single book, and says he has no books in his home.  Ms. Ray reminds him of ten titles they have read together.  Pulling teeth comes to mind.

2:40 p.m. – Students leave for electives.  It’s Ms. Ray’s planning.   She and Ms. Grace brainstorm why forms and homework are no longer coming back in folders sent home.  Ms. Ray decides to send home an internet-based reminder.

2:45 p.m. – Meeting.  Ms. Ray is the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports chair and she needs advice on how to get ready for a county inspector / auditor.  Two other staff members are in the meeting.  One of the women, a counselor, announces she is leaving her position to begin a private practice.  No explanation seems necessary; everyone seems to understand the wisdom of her choice.

3:15 p.m. – Meeting is over.  Ms. Ray returns to her room and begins cleaning out the desk of a student.  I have observed that that student has an acute motion disorder, and he just can’t keep things orderly, but the mess drives her crazy.  So she takes on the task.

3:20 p.m. – The kids return and it’s time to “Read to Self”.  Ms. Grace comes to watch the children while Ms. Ray takes Greg to another room to do a “running record” assessment to gauge his progress in reading.

3:22 – 3:42 p.m. – Ms. Ray attentively works with Greg.  He does really well, and she is exuberant.  She worries that when another teacher tests him, though, he won’t do as well.  He might become shy and nervous.

3:45 p.m. – Dismissal!  Greg comes to get Ms. Ray for the “hugging ritual” they do at the end of the day.  At his insistence, she tells him three things each day: “You followed all the directions, you acted like a second grader, you are going to third grade.”  Then they hug.

3:45-4:16 p.m. – Ms. Ray straightens desks and puts away materials.  Ms. Grace is cutting and pasting to create journals for the students.

4:17 p.m. – Ms. Ray fills out a daily behavioral report for Maddy.   She then moves several desks around to move her to a new group, as her mother requested.

4:35 p.m. – Ms. Ray begins entering elective grades and comments into report cards.  If another teacher is accessing the file, she has to wait and do it later.  She makes notes as she goes.

4:43 p.m. – She open her email for the first time today.  There are 18 that need a response.  She decides to do that at home.  Ms. Grace says goodbye for the day.

4:50 p.m. – She begins preparing for the parent conferences the next day.

5:20 p.m. – Ms. Ray puts the morning work question on the board.

5:30 p.m. – Ms. Ray leaves, with plans to grade papers, answer emails, and send parent reminders after dinner. 

It had been a ten hour day.  I was merely an observer, but I was exhausted.  I later calculated that based on Ms. Ray’s take home pay and hours she works, she earns $11.86 an hour.  According to recent reports, the national rate for babysitting nationwide is $13.44.  Ms. Ray teaches 24 children.

A Concerned Parent


The Real Problem With Teaching in NC

by Nancy Snipes Mosley

The real problem with teaching in North Carolina isn’t the pay, it’s the hours.

My husband and I are both teachers. Recently, I suggested to him that we should only work the hours we are paid to make a point. His response was, “But, you can’t.” You would not get the job done. So I asked him why we couldn’t at least do it for a short time as a demonstration. He said the public would have no sympathy for teachers complaining about having to work too much. They would only have sympathy for something they saw as affecting the well being of students.Okay…

It is not in the best interest of students for good teachers to leave the profession. For talented young teachers, like one who was nominated for Teacher of the Year at Leesville Road High School this year, to leave for the private sector. When she was explaining her decision to not come back next year, the first words out of her mouth were, “I am just so tired, all the time.”

Students are also affected when experienced teachers like me get stretched so thin with non-instructional responsibilities that they become both physically and mentally exhausted. I love teaching and want to invest time in doing what is best for my students and my school, but I am going to get burned out if something doesn’t change. We are losing more and more teachers every year who are switching to other professions, retiring early, going to other states or countries to teach, or choosing not to return once they start a family.

I am now going to tell you two stories that illustrate the nature of teacher hours in North Carolina.

Teachers have to make up every hour lost to inclement weather. Unless you drove to school and worked in the building, you have to account for “lost” time. We have a total of 72.5 hours to account for this semester in Wake County. To see if we need to use any leave days, we make a chart of all the extra hours we have worked to see if we are in the negative. To date, I have worked 125 hours that would qualify because they occurred at school and I do not get salary or stipend for those activities. When I include everything I have scheduled through the end of the year, it totals 16.5 full days of extra time I have spent at school.

But the most basic parts of my job – grading papers for almost 90 students, creating instructional materials for two curriculums, writing quizzes and tests, emailing parents and counselors, and planning field trips – most often are done on my own time at home. My non-instructional school hours are taken up with covering duties, offering tutoring and re-tests, attending meetings, getting copies made, checking messages, entering grades, and setting up my classroom. I have to work through lunch, stay late, and take work home on a regular basis. When I look at the actual time I have spent working per week over the course of this year – it is approximately 56 hours or 2 days of unpaid overtime every week.

The fact that the school system is worried about some teachers “cheating” them out of money for those snow days is not only ridiculous but also insulting.

When I was preparing to go on maternity leave for my youngest, I worked for free for almost a month during the summer to convert my classes to the new curriculum and write out plans for my substitute. Legally, you are not required to do this. But in the schools, you are reminded that if you don’t do your job it will fall to other overworked teachers to do it for you, so…I continued to work nights and weekends and I still needed help from other teachers when the baby arrived. They did not get any extra pay or comp time, and I actually lost pay because I ran out of leave days. Even so, I still continued to consult with my substitute on a regular basis and occasionally came to school to get papers to grade, for free.

How did I run out of leave? I had used my allotted sick days during my first few years of teaching, during which I spent much of the time on the couch doing schoolwork. Some teachers, not naming names, even occasionally stay home just to be able to grade and plan all day. Other teachers come to school even when they are sick because they can’t fall behind. Many dedicated teachers sacrifice both their time and their health for their students.

I now have a two-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. This extra time that I devote to teaching is coming at a real cost to my family. About once every few weeks, I crash right after dinner – and once I actually nodded off sitting upright at the table. Quite literally a “wake-up” call for me. Why, when I regularly work overtime without any form of compensation, do I buy into this message that I am still not doing enough?

I don’t just feel tired anymore, I feel exploited.