This was a rough year for metro Atlanta teachers.
They dealt with more budget cuts, ongoing pay freezes and an increase in the number of kids per classroom. They had to adapt to new national teaching standards and new performance measures while reacting to yet another school massacre, in Connecticut this time. They also continued to deal with an Atlanta cheating scandal that is staining their profession.
It’s the end of another school year, and for teachers it’s a time to say goodbye to students and to take stock of the highlights and the low lights.
There’s been plenty of good happening in schools this year, but often it took a back seat to the transgressions, says Jay Nebel, who teaches world history at Norcross High School in Gwinnett County.
“Unfortunately, when education is in the news, it’s testing scandals. It’s ‘what do we do with those failing schools?’ It’s a teacher who’s misbehaving,” he said. But those narratives leaves out so many stories, he said, like when his girls’ basketball team won the state championship, or when the failure rate for at-risk freshmen dropped at his school.
Nebel and a colleague identified 150 of the 1,100 incoming students last fall who needed academic support and started a daily tutoring program. Forty five upperclassmen, successful in sports and academics, mentored their younger peers. The result: a 10 percent drop in science and history failures, said Nebel.
The vast majority of teachers spend unheralded hours in crowded classrooms, dreaming up new ways to tame wild children and ease them into responsible adulthood, Nebel said. “Every once in a while, throw teachers a bone. Send them an email saying ‘Thank you.’”
Instead of an email, Bryan Boucher got Tweets. Teaching has its rewarding moments, and for many in the profession it comes from an abiding connection to students. This hit home for the civics teacher at DeKalb County’s Dunwoody High last November when he realized that former students had jumped into an election night Twitter conversation he’d started for his current students. Several of the grads had just voted for the first time, and they credited him for their interest in politics.
“That was so rewarding,” Boucher said. “You don’t get that in most other professions.”
Teachers like Boucher get close to their students. Without an emotional connection, he and others say, it’s all but impossible to win trust and commitment and the hard work that results. But that closeness can expose teachers to pain. A low point for Jennie Scott from Oak Knoll Elementary in Fulton County this school year came when one of her students was burned in a house fire.
“Watching her fight for her life was one of the most challenging experiences of my teaching career,” Scott said.
It’s the small success that keep her going, like when a student finally grasps a difficult concept and can demonstrate mastery by explaining it, she said.
Mario Miner, an English teacher at DeKalb’s Stephenson High, also dealt with tragedy this school year, in his case the death of a freshman. He made sure his students had room to grieve and cry when they needed it.
“You have to love your students like they’re your own children,” Miner said. That investment paid off this spring, when his students finished their end of course exam.
“They said, ‘That was easy,’” he said. “That felt good.”
While most workers know stress, some would say the demands placed on teachers are unique. In what other career must one explain Supreme Court decisions or iambic pentameter to energetic 15-year-olds and also console a teenager whose friend has died or whose parents have divorced or lost a job?
“We are foremost teachers, but we often play the role of lawyers, doctors, ministers and financial counselors as students confide in us,” said Sandy Giudice, a third-grade teacher at Macedonia Elementary School in Cherokee County. She said the job has gotten tougher as class sizes have grown and officials have imposed furlough days to save money. “We desperately work to squeeze more and more into the school day with fewer days in which to accomplish it,” she said.
Nick Crowder, an engineering and technology teacher at South Forsyth High, helps kids learn math and imagine new robot designs. But like a lot of teachers last December, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., he took on the role of comforter, too.
“I think that’s part of the job — to talk about things that aren’t specifically engineering,” Crowder said. The military veteran usually keeps his classroom door locked and told his students that if an attacker were to gain entry, he would fight back and they could join him. “We’re not going to be victims,” he told them.
Pamela Smith, a teacher at Mundy’s Mill Middle School in Clayton County, encouraged politicians with control over budgets and other education-related decisions to go visit a school and learn more. “Make a commitment to consistently visit classrooms and experience our highs and lows,” she said.
After school ends this week, teachers might not be coming to school, but many will continue to work on their teaching skills while trying to recharge their batteries. Crowder will take an educational tour of Peru, take part in service projects and continue his side job as a wedding disc jockey. Guidice will attend training sessions on teaching reading and math under the new national “Common Core” curriculum standards while working part-time as a tutor. Boucher will grade AP exams and attend a seminar about Afghanistan at Brown University. Nebel will teach summer school and get some training, but he’ll also set aside time for a trip or two with his family to Hilton Head.
Last days of school for major metro Atlanta districts
Wednesday: Atlanta, Cherokee County, Gwinnett County
Thursday: Clayton County, Cobb County, DeKalb County, Fulton County
Friday: Forsyth County