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By Stu Egan, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public School Teacher
July 11, 2016
Public school teachers,
You can’t really be measured.
In fact, those who are measuring you do not have instruments complex enough to really gauge your effectiveness.
If you are a public school teacher in North Carolina, you are always under a bit of a microscope when it comes to accountability. Everybody in the community has a stake in the public education system: students attend schools, parents support efforts, employees hire graduates, and taxpayers help fund buildings and resources.
But there are those who really question the path that public education has taken in North Carolina and lack confidence in our teachers and their ability to mold young people. The countless attacks waged by our General Assembly on public schools is not a secret and part of that is framing teachers as the main culprit in our weakening schools.
Why? Because it is easy to manage data in such a way that what many see is not actually reflective of what happens in schools. For example:
• We have a Jeb Bush school grading system that “failed” schools where wonderful learning is occurring.
• We have lawmakers allowing charter schools to be created with tax payer money without much regulation.
• We have a voucher system that is allowing people to send children to schools that do not even have to teach the same standards as public schools.
• We have virtual charter schools that have loose regulations.
• We have an Achievement School District established even though no real evidence exists in its effectiveness.
Since you are a government employee, your salary is established by a governing body that probably does not have a background in an educational career. The standards of the very curriculum that you must teach may not even be written by educators. And the tests that measure how well your students have achieved are usually constructed by for-profit companies under contract from the state government. Those same tests are probably graded by those very same companies – for a nominal fee of course. And now that we have less money spent per-pupil in this state than we had before the start of the Great Recession, we are demanded to teach more kids in bigger classes with less resources.
There simply is a lot working against us.
However, if anything could be said of the current situation concerning public education in North Carolina it is that teachers have not failed our students. That’s because you cannot simply measure students and teachers by numbers and random variables. You measure them by their personal success and growth, and much of that cannot be ascertained by impersonal assessments.
Nor can a teacher’s effectiveness truly be measured by “student achievement”. There is more, so much more, working within the student/teacher dynamic. Take a look at the definitions of three words often used in our lexicon: “art”, “science”, and “craft”. These definitions come from Merriam-Webster.
1. Art: skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
2. Science: the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
3. Craft: skill in planning, making, or executing
Every teacher must display a firm foundation in his or her subject area. However, teaching at its source is an art and a craft. A teacher must marry that knowledge with skill in presenting opportunities for students to not only gain that knowledge but understand how they themselves can apply that knowledge to their own skill set.
There are not many people who are masterfully skillful without having to develop their craft. They do exist, but the term “Master Teacher” is usually given to someone who has a “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” That “Master Teacher” has perfected an art form and married it to a science. And most of all, that “Master Teacher” understands the human element.
A good medical doctor just does not deliver medicines and write prescriptions. There must be willingness to listen in order to make a diagnosis and then there is the “bedside manner”. A good lawyer does not just understand and know the law. A good lawyer knows how to apply it for his or her client in unique situations. A master chef doesn’t just follow recipes. A master chef takes what ingredients are available and makes something delectable and nourishing. A great teacher does not just deliver curriculum and apply lesson plans; a great teacher understands different learning styles exist in the same classroom and facilitates learning for each student despite the emotional, psychological, social, mental, and/or physical obstacles that may stand in each student’s path.
How schools and students are measured rarely takes into account that so much more defines the academic and social terrain of a school culture than a standardized test can measure. Why? Because there really is not anything like a standardized student. Experienced teachers understand that because they look at students as individuals who are the sum of their experiences, backgrounds, work ethic, and self-worth. Yet, our General Assembly measures them with the very same criteria across the board with an impersonal test.
Ironically, when a teacher gets a graduate degree in education, it is often defined by the college or university as a Master of Arts like a MAEd or an MAT, not a Master of Science. That’s because teaching deals with people, not numbers. When colleges look at an application of a student, they are more concerned with GPA rather than performance on an EOG or EOCT or NC Final.
And when good teachers look at their own effectiveness in their art and craft, they usually do not let the state dictate their perceptions. They take an honest look at the each student’s growth throughout the year – growth that may never be seen in a school report card or published report.
Like many veteran teachers, I have taught the gambit of academic levels and grades from “low-performing” freshmen to high achieving AP students who have been admitted into the most competitive of colleges and universities. And while I may take pride in their passing state tests or AP exams, I try and measure my performance by what happens to those students later in life.
• When a student ends a “thank you” card because she felt like she learned something, then I did a good job.
• When a student stops me in the grocery store years after graduating to introduce me to his child, then I made an impression.
• When I read an email from a student in college who sends me a copy of her first English paper that received one of the three “A’s” given out of a hundred students, then I feel good about what I did in the classroom.
• When a student comes to visit me on his break and flat out tells my current students that what I did in class prepared him for college, then I was successful.
• When a former student emails me from half-way around the world to tell me what life is like for her since graduating, then I am validated.
• When a parent comes to you to ask how his/her child could be helped in a matter totally unrelated to academics, then you have made an impression.
• When you speak at a former student’s funeral because that student loved your class, then, well that’s just hard to put into words.
None of those aforementioned items could ever be measured by a test. Students do not remember questions on an EOCT or an EOG or an NC Final or a quarter test. They remember your name and how they felt in your class.
However, the greatest irony when it comes measuring a teacher’s effectiveness in the manner that NC measures us is that is it a truer barometer of how much NC is being hurt by this current administration and General Assembly.
• Think about Medicaid not being expanded.
• Think that nearly a fourth of our children live in poverty.
• Think about the Voter ID law.
• Think about the lax regulations for fracking and coal ash ponds that hurt our water supply.
• Think about less money per pupil in schools.
• Think about more money coming from out-of-state Super PACS to fund political races here in NC than exists in the operating budgets of many counties.
• Think about TABOR and HB3.
• Think about HB2.
• Think about cut unemployment benefits.
All of those affect students in our schools. And we still do the job. Rather, we still heed the calling.
That’s the best measure of what we do.
That and the drawer where I keep all of those cards and letters because I keep every one of them.
Published by Stu Egan in Caffeinated Rage https://caffeinatedrage.com. July 11, 2016.
A group of educators marched from Durham and North Raleigh to the State Capitol on June 14- 15, 2016, asking to meet with governor. Fourteen members of Organize 2020 were arrested on June 15, 2016 after blocking a street when the governor chose not to meet with them. These teachers believe that our students deserve more. Here are their reflections on the 23-mile march, the rally at the legislature and Capitol, and their arrests for civil disobedience.
By Lisa McCool-Grime
Durham Public Schools Teacher, High School Dir. of Durham Assoc. of Educators, Member of Organize2020
June 23, 2016
My son’s father served in the military for 11 years. When I met him in 2000, I was a teacher to math students at Fuquay-Varina High in Wake County. I loved it. But I also loved him, so when he joined the military in 2003, I joined him as he moved from base to base for the next decade plus. When he left the military in 2014, we wanted to put down roots for ourselves and our son, so we settled near family in Durham and I returned to teaching math students, this time at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
With that move, we went from living as a three-person, one-income household funded by taxpayers via the military to living as a three-person, one-income household funded by taxpayers via public schools. Changing that one word from “military” to “public schools” was quite the stark contrast. For example, we gave up no-deductible, nocopay, comprehensive health care. My son, at age 4, had to go to the emergency room when he took a stick to the eye. An eyelid surgeon stitched up his eyelid and we paid that surgeon two more follow-up office visits, but not a single cent. Neither my teacher’s salary nor my health benefits could cover such an accident today. Actually, neither my teacher’s salary nor my benefits can meet the needs of our family of three at all. We lived well on one income in the military. Now that I am a teacher, we cannot make ends meet without other sources of income.
State tests take all the living and learning that happens in our classrooms throughout the year and reduce that to a single number of “proficient” students. So too, we could take my lived experience of different standards of living, quantify it and reduce it to a single data point. Some folks might then want to claim that single data point is a measure of how poorly our culture values teachers. But my lived experience tells me that the truth is much more complicated. For example, I receive the same kinds of thanks and praise when people learn I am a teacher as my son’s father did when he was military. Many of my lived experiences suggest our culture believes that teaching is a noble profession, that teachers offer a valuable service. To better understand my decrease in standard of living, we must hold wealth’s measuring stick out and look at the far end. There you will find a good number of my students whose family members work as many if not more hours than I do, but bring home less money with no health coverage and no thanks for their work from the community at all. One of my brightest seniors this year worked 40 hours per week outside of school to contribute to her family’s income because her mother was sick and could not. Neither her potential to learn the math nor my ability to teach that math made any difference, because she was so exhausted she often didn’t make it to school and when she did, she fell asleep. If we want to better understand my decrease in standard of living, we must also look at our jails which house so many of our children. In the detention center after my arrest, in every room that I sat, I sat jailed with jailed children.
Every day of the school year I sit with young people at the hard end of wealth’s measuring stick. Young people who, if judged by their fierce resilience, would surpass me by far. Young people I am privileged to know and love. I am learning from them that their lived experiences reveal what the data is actually pointing to: we have failed as a culture to value the lives of our poor students and students of color. The struggles that public school teachers face making ends meet–these struggles are just the collateral damage in the systemic devaluing of my student’s lives. If you truly want to support teachers in their work, you must love and support their children and their children’s parents. You must provide for their health and wellness.
McCrory talks of raising teacher pay but stands in the way of our students’ and their parents’ access to Medicaid. He wants to sock away the surplus while school nurses are split between buildings, while school resource officers far outnumber school social workers, while my son’s first grade classroom has over 20 students and no teacher assistant. We are calling him on this. We marched 23 miles to make clear to those in power that our students deserve so much more than our state currently provides for them. And when I say, “those in power” I mean McCrory and other elected officials, but I also mean the public at large. Because what we discovered when we arrived at the capitol with our plan for raising per pupil expenditure and expanding Medicaid was that McCrory did not care enough about us or our students to even greet us. But we also discovered that you, the public at large, did care. You met us with food and shelter at resting spots during our march. You asked us questions and wished us luck. You honked your support and drove alongside us. You not only greeted us along the route we took, but you took the streets with us to clear traffic in protest so that 14 of us could safely lock arms and remain in the street as the symbol of our collective insistence that students deserve more, that we as a body of people are also powerful and that we intend to use that power to get the resources our students need.
While McCrory tries to paint those 14 of us as fringe, his constituents continue to show their support for our message and our plan. He would do well to listen to his constituents. While McCrory slanders us by claiming that we are working for Roy Cooper, he reveals how divorced he is from the way that true public service functions. I work for my students. I walked for my students. I stood blocking traffic and took arrest for my students. The governor’s job is to work for us—the public at large, who stands with public school teachers and their students–and we will hold anyone in that office now or in the future accountable to our children. They, unquestionably, deserve that.
By: Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
This quote encapsulates how education policy is framed in North Carolina. Why are business leaders and our state legislators taking the lead on education policy? More troubling still: why is teachers’ input seen as superfluous?
Our state legislators, as part of a part-time legislature, are predominantly entrepreneurs and professionals. They bring those valuable perspectives to policymaking, but their experience proves a liability when they apply such principles to education.
It is dangerous to blindly accept the assumption that businesses are the proper referencing institutions for developing public education policy. While there are some ways in which education is like a business, there are significant ways in which it is not. Knowing that nuance makes all the difference in policymaking that is effective in classrooms.
This article is the first in a three-part series. Here, I will explore how schools are not like business, in the second article I will explore how they are like businesses, and in the final article I will explore why we need to return to an alternative and superior referencing institution for nurturing children – the family.
Successful businesses control their supply chain. Starbucks desires the production of only the best coffee, and therefore requires the freedom to reject some sources of coffee that are substandard. Public schools do not have that ability; they take every child, whatever their abilities and challenges might be. The most critical period in a child’s development lies between the ages of 0-3 yet public school does not begin until age 5. Schools cannot simply reject those coffee beans which were not grown under the perfect conditions required by Starbucks. Schools do not have control over the most important teachers children ever have – their parents. Since parents vary widely in their skills and abilities, children vary drastically in their skills and abilities. However, the single standard to which we hold our teachers is not nearly so flexible. We don’t ask Starbucks to magically produce top-rate coffee from any source. Yet we frequently ask teachers to produce world-class educational outcomes in every student, no matter the supply stream.
Using business as the reference model for education also sets up dangerous expectations in parents and students. By reinforcing that paradigm, parents and students come to have a set of possibly-helpful, mostly-counterproductive “customer service” expectations. I am the first to recommend that if parents have concerns about the way their child is being educated, then they should consult with the teacher. I have become a better teacher because of such contact. It didn’t always feel good, but it made me think and act differently. However, a background assumption of business models remains that “the customer is always right.” We increasingly see a default expectation that teachers should custom-tailor instruction to meet an individual student’s individual preferences. I have students who say, “I’m a visual learner, and I just don’t get the way she teaches.” While I understand that students as consumers want the path of least resistance, we are increasingly coming to understand the importance of students experiencing frustration, developing coping habits, and demonstrating grit. The idea that learning should not be stressful and should seamlessly result from teacher input ultimately robs the student of the notion that there is one person ultimately responsible for their learning – them. Also, how will the “customer service” model of learning transition to the workplace or to family life? What shall our kids do when their role in life is not to be catered to, but to serve others? Will our children be equipped for that role reversal?
Business models that focus on production of a predetermined “product” are also dangerous. For example, it has become commonplace for elected officials to mock educational endeavors that do not directly prepare students for work. It was W.E.B DuBois who said:
“If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life”
We may want to tightly control our “production line” and pop out programmers, accountants, and engineers by the dozens, but human creation is not quite that compliant as a raw material. We tenaciously refuse to all march to the same drummer. Education is really more of a mining endeavor, and a child is a natural resource that has treasures to be developed and refined. It is the job of education to mine and shine, not break and make. Attempts to rigidly standardize educational outcomes, to produce a single student “product,” are counterintuitive, dehumanizing, and short-sighted.
Competition in the business world can yield efficiency and cost savings. Want to get that sales team motivated? Give a prize to the member of the team with the highest sales numbers! However, in education, competition results in waste and inefficiency. For example, any merit pay system that encourages teachers to compete to “stand out” above other teachers threatens collaboration and leads to “silo-ing” that prevents the sharing of good ideas and best practices. A better model is one that gives teachers a shared school wide goal that they can collectively aspire to and work together to achieve. We did this with the “ABCs of Education” model from 1996-2012. That model paid teachers bonuses when the whole school met growth goals. That ended in 2013. The state had to quit paying bonuses in 2009 because so many schools were exceeding growth. Schools demonstrating growth became victims of their own success.
These are just a few examples of how framing education through a “business” lens can be myopic and misguided. That model could only work if were to control our supply stream, if servicing our “customers” were actually in their long-term interest, if the human mind and heart were more satiated by work alone, and if good teaching were less reliant on collaboration. However, make no mistake, market forces are at work in our schools. More on that next time, and then a quick turn to “home” – and how family should be the ultimate paradigm through which we see education.
In the meantime, some advice for state legislators: Put that hammer down.
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:
- CMS: 90% free and reduced lunch; extremely low performing; rated “F”
- 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.
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”?
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.
By Nashonda Cooke
As an elementary school teacher and a mother of two amazing little girls of my own, I hear the name, “Mom” at least 50 times a day. It is one of the sweetest sounds.
What is the definition of a mother? Merriam-Webster’s latest version offers two interesting entries: (1) a female parent or a woman of authority, and (2) something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale. For example, the mother of all science fair projects.
In the comfort of my own home, I embody both of those definitions. My daughters depend on me for everything. Their meals, bath time rituals, payment for field trips, and a safe and comforting house to come home to are just a few examples. I am their provider and their guide to navigate through this world. I am a female, a parent, and the influence I have over their lives is humbly profound.
That’s really not different from my responsibilities to my students in my classroom. For the past 16 years, over 7 hours a day, it has been my calling to steer students and provide them with the most appropriate and meaningful daily experience possible. I am not the parent in this scenario, but I do have quite an affect on these young minds. I am preparing them with the necessary skills to be self sufficient and positively navigate and even improve society. It’s a huge and sometimes overwhelming responsibility to help them maximize their true potential. My calling as a mother and teacher is to simply do one thing: lead. The same characteristics that have created a caring, giving mother have created a caring and giving educator. I’m not saying you need to be one to be the other, but the similarities are so obvious. Both are a phenomenal honor.
In order for me to do my job, in order for anyone to do their job effectively, the right tools are necessary. Unfortunately, it is an understatement to say I am not being provided with adequate tools. The North Carolina General Assembly believes I am a miracle worker. While I do believe in miracles and do think I am a pretty good teacher, no one can do their job empty-handed.
In recent years, I, my coworkers, and my daughters’ teachers have been asked to do so much more with so much less. Teacher assistants are disappearing, class sizes are growing, textbooks and objectives are inappropriate and out of date, and technology is lagging.
Testing has taken over true instruction. How can I prepare my students to be accountable for information if I am not given the dignity to deliver the message at a pace that allows them to make connections and gain mastery?
Who came up with the idea of time-bound absolute proficiency anyway? Sometimes a student comes to me not speaking English or maybe he or she is reading well below grade level. Proficiency and mastery in my eyes is the growth they make that year. I celebrate all accomplishments! Big, small, every day, in every way. I do the same with my daughters. My oldest has worked diligently all year growing in her math skills. She stayed consistent and showed improvement. Her end of the year score was a two. We celebrated that two like it was a five. Her effort and resilience means more to me than a number. All our schools and students can benefit from a “growth mindset”.
Who is behind this destruction of one the world’s most vital professions? Who is refusing to fund the schools? Who is firing and pushing the country’s best educators out of a calling? I guess the more important reason is . . . why?
Next question, what can we do about it? I’ll tell you what. Speak out! Keep speaking out. Who better to improve public education than public educators? From the first day of preschool to the very last day of a student’s 12th grade year, who knows their academic needs better? Who knows how he/she would learn best? Who knows what that student needs? The teacher. So why are we allowing legislators make these decisions that have proven to be catastrophic?
We can no longer stand by hoping and wishing. Parents do not give up on their kids’ best interests, and teachers should not complacently stand by and watch our students’ potential sold off to the highest bidder. It’s time to march, make phone calls, write letters and keep doing all of those things and more. Our students’ lives are at stake. Who’s with me?
North Carolina Public School Teacher and Momma Bear
by Nancy Snipes Mosley
The North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards manual begins, “For every student in North Carolina, a knowledgeable, skilled compassionate teacher…a star in every classroom.”
A star in every classroom.
What do stars need to shine? Science is my weakest subject, so I looked it up. The simple answer is energy. When all the elements that provide energy to the star are exhausted, it collapses.
Unfortunately, North Carolina is not providing the elements teachers need to fulfil the “New Vision of Teaching” laid out in our curriculum and standards. Because schools haven’t been given enough resources to meet changing demands, teachers are increasingly pressured to coordinate and train each other. To achieve the highest evaluation ratings, teachers must agree to be exploited and work countless hours outside the classroom. It is exhausting to make so many changes in so little time and demoralizing to be held to such high standards without proper support and compensation.
To be very clear: I applaud the new vision of teaching and learning laid out by the state of North Carolina. I believe in the greater focus on diversity, critical thinking, collaboration, literacy, and other 21st century skills. If you want a teacher to advocate for this with great enthusiasm, just ask me to explain how much better this is for my students.
Here’s an example of how my classroom has been revolutionized using my Civil Rights unit in American History II.
In the past, my students would read the textbook to chart different groups, events, and accomplishments. They would watch a documentary on the 1960s that included civil rights information, and then they would compare a few major leaders.
Now my students are given direct instruction through a Powerpoint with corresponding video footage of protests, riots, interviews, speeches, and debates. They are assigned a person from a diverse pool – famous/grassroots, young/old, black/white, male/female, Republican/ Democrat, rural/urban, Christian/Muslim, gay/straight, nonviolent/militant. They partner up and compare perspectives. They analyze primary and secondary sources, participate in a seminar by debating from their person’s point of view about strategies and government powers, create a museum display that includes written and artistic expression, and then go on a scavenger hunt to find others in the exhibit that compare to their person and themselves.
This took a lot of time and energy, but it was worth it.
While changing how I teach, I also increased involvement with colleagues to help implement changes in my department and school. I have led my Professional Learning Team, joined School Improvement Team, revitalized our Model UN team, given technology workshops, and mentored two student teachers. Though important and rewarding, it has also been a drain on my family time and a distraction from things I could be doing for my own students.
So, how is this reflected in my teacher evaluation? Let’s consider just two of the six Standards. Despite the extra contributions I just listed, my Leadership rating has not increased much because the highest scores in that area are reserved for teachers who make a bigger impact on the whole school or district. For Facilitating Learning, my rating has gone up significantly over the past few years, but it has taken a toll and I still fall short in some areas. I have had long conversations with my administrator and believe my ratings are accurate and fair based on how the instrument is written. My issue is with the rubric (click picture below to enlarge the relevant excerpt) and the message it sends.
For example, there are 50 check boxes for the Facilitating Learning standard. For mastering all of the things that take place with students in your classroom – like critical thinking and problem-solving, instructional methods, technology, and collaboration – you would receive mostly Accomplished ratings. Based on the formatting of the instrument, “accomplished” practice lands you right in the middle column of the form. Suddenly, accomplished feels very…average.
This communicates that the “best” teachers do more and more outside of the classroom on donated time. An instrument that is supposed to be aspirational is actually demoralizing and draining. Going above and beyond feels expected, not appreciated.
Making North Carolina’s new vision of education a reality would be well worth the investment, and our students deserve it. But it will take greater investment in schools. Exploited teachers will eventually burn out. Give teachers the “fuel” to shine – more time and resources. And use an evaluation process that makes teachers feel recognized for their efforts. These changes will make their devotion of extra time and energy sustainable, and we will come closer to the goal of having a “star” in every classroom.
Students’ inability to regulate their own behavior is sapping our schools of valuable time and resources. By focusing on self-control, and tracking it by the time students are in high school, we could alleviate a significant administrative burden in our schools.
I will share a few vignettes related to my claim: My mother-in-law works at Target. She reports that young employees have a range of problems related to an inability to regulate their own behavior. They hide drinks at their cashier stations even though it is against policy. They don’t meet dress code; they can’t seem to stay off their phones. They go to the bathroom often and stay gone for too long.
Fast forward to a few days ago; I’m in the main office during first period. One of our front office administrative assistants is frustrated. It’s her job to enter the names and information of all the students who are late each period so they can be assigned a 20-minute lunch detention. Every day, she reports, she has a stack of about thirty to enter, for first period alone.
Segue to my classroom. Despite having assigned a student multiple detentions (and in the process contacting his parents and documenting the incident) he cannot compel himself to put away his phone, and I am not allowed to take possession of it. When I see it, I sigh, and tell him I will be doing another detention assignment and referral. It will take twenty minutes to do all the necessary paperwork and emails. An exchange like this happens multiple times a day and the administrative burden adds up quickly.
Last week, I discovered that two students plagiarized an essay. They were assigned two days of in school suspension, and both were provided an opportunity to resubmit the essay so their grades would not be significantly impacted. The email exchanges with both sets of parents, documentation for administration, and writing of individualized lesson plans for in school suspension took at least two hours of my time.
What do these vignettes have in common? They are all a sign that our young people are lacking a key attribute that will affect their future success and the health of our nation. That attribute? Self-regulation.
Self-regulation is also known as self-control, and includes the ability to act in your long-term best interest. Increasingly, it seems that our students are relying on external controls to manage their behavior. These external controls involve an increasing share of the time and energies of our school personnel, and they sap our morale. In fact, many teachers have been so overwhelmed by the increasing amount of time and energy it takes to regulate student behavior that they have decided it is just easier to look the other way.
I participated in just such a “selective attention moment” just the other day, and a parent who witnessed it was indignant. At lunch duty, I stopped a group of students from going off campus. I followed them at a distance to make sure they went in the front of the school instead of bolting to the parking lot. As I firmly reminded them to turn right, a student in the group yelled over her shoulder, “Kiss my a**, b**tch!” In the midst of dealing with the fallout from the cheating incident I mentioned before, I did a mental calculation. It went like this, “Huh. It is the end of my lunch duty and I have 45 minutes before 4th period. I need to eat lunch, respond to those parent emails, and work on the behavior referrals I already have for today. I do not know those girls and I don’t know which one yelled that. I could follow them, try and stop them, figure out who said what (maybe) and then complete a referral and do detective work to figure out how to contact her parents – and miss lunch and have more to do tonight- or I can just shrug and keep walking.” I chose the latter, and a parent who saw the exchange approached me in disbelief. I fully understood her point of view. She is a wonderful advocate for teachers and she was mad that the girl was going to get away with talking to me like that. But, we are bumping up against the limitations of relying on external controls to manage student behavior. We need students to manage their own behavior.
There was a time when students were able to self-regulate. It is evident in class pictures from the 1930s and 40s. I stare at them in disbelief when I realize there were 40 or more kids in each class. Today, our academic classes in high school strain under the weight of 24 students. How can we re-create the conditions of the past that equipped students with such significant powers of self-control?
First, we must inform parents about how it is fostered in young children. It is cultivated through free play; it is not developed by exposing kids to stimulating technology. Parents should be restricting screen time, limiting how many hours of the day their children are in adult-led, structured activities, and ensuring their children get adequate sleep.
Self-regulation can and should be explicitly taught in preschool and kindergarten. One program, called Tools of the Mind, has developed a range of activities that encourage students to regulate their own behavior. They plan their play, can sustain their play for much longer periods of time, and research is showing significant improvements in students’ self control and behavior. Throughout elementary school, teachers can build on those early foundations and explicitly teach skills and dispositions that extend students’ self regulation abilities.
In high school, we should elevate self-regulation to the same plane as academic performance. Self-control might actually be more important to students’ long-term success and health. Students and parents are focused like a laser on GPAs and SATs. What if we created a similar score, called a self-regulation score (SRS) that would be reported on a student’s transcript? Each time a student comes to school late, uses profanity, skips class, inappropriately accesses a digital device, speeds in the parking lot . . . their self regulation score would reflect the incident. I imagine the number of such incidents would drop, and teachers and administrators could spend significantly more time being proactive in their jobs (creating new lessons, closing the achievement gap) and not documenting, and reacting to, misbehavior.
An SRS score could be extremely useful to colleges and employers seeking to admit and hire the best candidates. How would you consider a candidate with a 4.0 GPA and a 2.3 SRS, as compared with a 2.3 GPA and a 4.0 SRS? Interesting to imagine.
Once colleges and employers begin placing an emphasis on the SRS score, it won’t be long before parents and students will make self-control more of a priority. And maybe our schools can focus more on teaching and learning, and less on trying to manage unruly behavior.
Wake County Social Studies Teacher
Public Schools First Advisory Board
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.
West Forsyth High School