Teaching in small town America is intense. The number of responsibilities each teacher must carry to keep the school functioning is pretty overwhelming at times. Until three years ago when we moved to Green Acres in Central Texas, I taught solely at large suburban schools outside of Houston, Texas. At those schools, there were teams of teachers whom you worked with, planned with, and got advice from daily. Here, in my small town, I am the only person who teaches my particular subjects in my particular grade level; therefore, it is up to me alone to create interesting lessons for three different courses each day. Last year, it was also completely up to me for my students to pass TWO different STAAR tests because Language Arts is tested in, not one, but TWO areas. My students took the Reading STAAR test and the Writing STAAR test last year and (no pressure) there was no one else to divide up the responsibility for their success other than the Pre-AP teacher whose students are natural over-achievers as a rule. She is always willing to help me and does an excellent job in her own classroom, but I still carried the responsibility of the mainstream 7th graders last year. Nevermind the fact that some of my students were, and still are, resistant to learning, some of them are already planning career paths that do not require a traditional education and, therefore, some of them do not see the value of education even at the middle school level. Some of them just, honestly, don’t like leaving their farms and coming to school. Period.
In addition to the weighty responsibility of the STAAR test looming over me like an albatross, I am serving as the cheerleading sponsor and Pep Squad sponsor this year and have cheer practice and games after school two days each week. Along with practice, I am the person responsible for their practice clothing, uniforms, and the keeper of the peace for twenty-five middle school girls. Dealing with the drama and every day needs of twenty-five energetic middle school girls alone should earn me a gold star, for sure, but I wouldn’t trade the moments I get to watch them perform at games and pep rallies for anything!
This year, I have “graduated” from my two-year stint on the Campus Improvement Plan and will be serving on the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee. I am looking forward to seeing our superintendent’s vision for our tiny district and hoping that she is able to find a healthy balance between meeting the needs of the local community and appeasing the ever-increasing demands of the state. She has already made great progress in passing a much-needed tax increase which, in turn, was immediately handed down in the form of a salary increase for teachers in our district. I was impressed with the expediency of our raise the moment the tax increase was passed. Hopefully, more positive changes such as this will bring some new teachers and creative ideas to our little town through recruitment at universities across Texas.
In addition to leading extra-curricular activities and serving on district committees, all teachers are given the daunting tasks of lesson planning, the even more daunting task of tracking student progress via data collection, and the never-ending task of grading papers and projects.
Have I mentioned TEACHING? Let’s not forget the innate desire of teachers everywhere to teach engaging lessons that inform their students, to incite interest in a given topic, and to create a deep desire for learning beyond the classroom. Teaching wouldn’t be teaching without teaching.
This new age of data collection and accountability is all pretty overwhelming even to a veteran teacher like me. When I began teaching 30 years ago, all I thought about were the amazing, fun, and engaging lessons I would teach to my students and the relationships I would build along the way. Believe me, both of those things are still reigning supreme in my heart; however, the time spent on the many, many outside pressures and data collection activities mandated by the state have superseded the desires of my heart and are being forced to take center stage for my attention.
Teachers in small towns and, I would venture to say teachers everywhere across the state and nation, are facing challenges that are almost impossible to meet. Between the demands of the state, the needs of the local district for manpower to serve on committees and as extra-curricular sponsors, and the time desired and needed to plan lessons and to grade assigned work, it is virtually impossible for a teacher to ever feel like she is accomplishing her goals. There is always something else to do. Always something else to turn in. Always another meeting to attend. Always a test or evaluation looming in the distance. Always a parent needing a response. Always a spreadsheet to be filled out to collect student data. Always the next lesson plan to write. Always something else to grade. And most importantly, always, ALWAYS a sweet student who needs your extra guidance, attention, and time due a difficult situation at home or school.
Speaking of the extra attention needed by some of our sweet students, let’s not forget the reason why so many of us went into this profession in the first place. We love children. We want to make a difference in the lives of children. We want to help guide children into reaching their full potential. We want to see that spark of interest in a lesson or concept when it is taught. We want to help children be successful in their lives after they leave our classroom.
This is by no means a complaint of my current teaching position. I absolutely love my spirited school, amazing school district, and tight-knit, small, Texas town. It is an absolutely amazing place to work and live. The reason I am writing this is that my brain is so overloaded with responsibilities that I have recently begun having a hard time remembering somewhat simple things. My thoughts are so full of items needing to be checked off the never-ending list that I am having trouble with every-day processing. I am hearing that from many of my colleagues across the state as well. We are all tired but pushing forward in the hopes that this season of accountability will soon be made easier in some magical way.
As I type this, I am aware that this, too, shall pass. There have been times in my teaching career when I have felt this way before; however, things seems to be getting harder and harder as the years go on in public education. The state believes we can be ALL things to ALL people with NO room for error. Our evaluations will soon be linked to our student performance even though we have only had that particular student for seven months of their lives before they are tested in our subjects and their parents have had them for a lifetime. Why aren’t parents being evaluated as to what they are teaching their children at home? That idea would be met with massive resistance, yet society has allowed teachers who see students for an hour a day for seven months to be “evaluated” based on the performance of a child on one day of the year in one nerve-racking test setting. Do the state legislators know that a middle school child is in a pretty tumultuous state of life? Do they understand that, if that child had a bad morning at home or a bad morning in the cafeteria, it doesn’t matter how hard a teacher has worked with that child and how much of a relationship that teacher has formed with that child on the day he is tested? He will still, very likely, fail his state STAAR test due to his current mood if something unpleasant has occurred in his life that day, week, or even month. Trust me on this one because I have experienced this first hand with a student I spent a tremendous amount of time on in class. NOTHING I could do could erase his bad morning when he decided to just slop down answers on his test that day, yet his data is still included in my data as a teacher. No matter how many times my principal told me not to worry about data, there it was printed for everyone to see without explanations written next to each student as to how they were doing emotionally and physically on that specific day when he or she took that specific test.
I understand that there needs to be some accountability. I get that. No one wants a bad, ill-equipped teacher to be in the classroom, but I am pretty sure that principals and superintendents would eventually weed out the poorly performing teachers. That scenario has played out since the beginning of public education. It shouldn’t take state-run test data to decide if someone’s teaching is good or bad. The proof is in the climate of the classroom and the ability of students to learn the subject matter in a healthy and safe environment. It just seems that, no matter how many times we are told , “Don’t worry about the test”, all other data collection and printed public records prove that, yes, we need to worry about it. A lot.
Also, many of you may be thinking “Why doesn’t she just tell her principal ‘No.’ when he asks her to serve in a position at the school?” Well, in a small town school, EVERYONE is serving and teaching in many capacities. We are all teaching several subjects, sponsoring extra-curricular groups, serving on several committees, and coaching numerous sports. We MUST say “yes” in order for our students to be able to participate in the activities they love and for our school to function well. We do it because we know it is important to our students and their happiness and well-being to be involved in extra-curricular activities that put their talents, passions, and dreams on display. I know that seems impossible for others to understand, but I can’t think of anyone I currently teach with who isn’t wearing multiple hats within our school district. Coaching sports. Coaching UIL teams. Sponsoring Cheerleading or Color Guard. Serving as Department Head. Serving on committees. Leading extra-curricular clubs. Serving as Team Leader. Directing Fine Arts programs. The list is endless.
I will be completely transparent here and let you know that I began teaching in 1988, yet my salary is less than many FIRST YEAR professionals who graduated from college only months ago. My son is 23 years old and just got his first job making significantly more than I currently make as a 30-year-veteran teacher.
Do our parents and nation value what we do as educators? Do we hold the future in our hands? Does the success of children depend on their education? If the answer is “yes” to any one of these three questions, they why can’t a person support himself or his family on the salary of even a veteran teacher? I have known many men in teaching who have to take extra jobs and eventually left the profession they loved, due to the fact they could not provide for the needs of their families through this profession. We need men in classroom and in the schools. It is important for young boys and teenage boys to be taught by men as well as women. Thy need role models, yet the salary has almost forced many good male teachers out of the classroom over the years.
Just so everyone is clear, let me assure you that I have never regretted my decision to become a teacher. I absolutely love teaching. It is my passion. I absolutely love my students. They bring me abundant joy. In fact, I am still in frequent contact with many of the amazing students I have taught over the past thirty years. This is not an epistle about the loss of love for my profession. Au contraire. It is a call for others to understand that it is becoming increasingly stressful from year-to-year due to seemingly impossible state mandates that are now trickling down into even the lower elementary grades. I spoke with my dear former sister-in-law yesterday and she, too, is a twenty-year veteran who is experiencing the feeling of this being her first year of teaching based on the unbelievable amount of time she is spending at school after the final bell and almost every weekend. She told me that she went to school last weekend and there were six other teachers in her hall alone up there having to override the a/c system to keep cool while they worked for hours on the paperwork they can’t keep up with. Do you know what grade she teaches? SECOND GRADE, Folks. If a twenty-year veteran is having to spend hours and hours of her own time on paperwork and grading due to state legislation and the feeling that “Big Brother” is hovering over her shoulder in the form of state mandates and testing, there is something really wrong. If that same teacher is held to almost impossible standards and, at the same time, is not compensated at a fair rate compared to other professions, we are in trouble. Who will be teaching our children in the years to come? I venture to say it will become increasingly difficult to recruit and retain professionals with the current demands and expectations that educators are experiencing.
Many of you might be wondering about my vested interest is in the whole scenario. Is it a larger paycheck? No, it is not. It would be a great perk to be compensated at a fair rate for my contribution to society as a professional educator, however, I am thinking much beyond myself. My oldest daughter, Miss Sunshine, will be graduating from Baylor University in less than 8 months with her teaching degree and she has worked as hard as any other student graduating from a large, reputable university. She deserves to receive compensation that matches her drive and determination to make a difference in this world. THAT is why I am writing this blog. I am hoping that anyone reading it will begin to try to bring this situation to the eyes and ears of public officials so that they can get a glimpse into the heart of public education. Not the perceived view of an outsider, but the true view from inside the lines for three decades. There is so much more that could have been discussed concerning public education, but for today the focus was solely on compensation and autonomy in the classroom.
What I regret is the lack of value our country is giving to educators in the form of compensation and the right to teach as we have been trained while we were attending credible and prestigious universities. May your ears hear the respectful tone and your heart understand the gut-wrenching concern I have about what I am writing. I want nothing more than for public educators to be truly valued, deeply trusted, and whole-heartedly respected by the law-making officials and citizens of this country. The pursuit of education and the conviction of its importance will not settle into the hearts of our young people until the respect for this profession is returned to its proper level.