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Will Opportunity School District send teachers flying out of classroom?

Allison Webb is a lecturer of Spanish and foreign language education at Kennesaw State University. A 2015 piece she wrote for the blog remains a reader favorite. When Webb wrote that piece detailing her average work day, she taught at Sequoyah High School in Canton.

In this piece, she talks about what drives good teachers from the classroom and questions whether that exodus will increase under the proposed Opportunity School District that voters will decide on Nov. 8.

By Allison Webb

Less than a year ago, I was at home on a snow day, reflecting on why my profession as a teacher was weighing on me more than ever, why I was feeling unresolved about another year -- my 17th -- in the profession I love. On the eve of the election, I find myself in a different place — happier personally -- but sincerely worried about the future going forward for recruitment and retention of good teachers, and, more importantly, for the future of students in our state and in our country.

Education and access to a good one is now being used to manipulate votes, to potentially line pockets and in the end there is no progress toward the long-term goals that deserve our attention — attaining and retaining quality personnel and moving our students from where there are to where their potentials lie. These goals ultimately determine the trajectory of our state and country in years to come.

I am no longer a high school teacher. In the soul-searching that accompanied my snow days, I happened upon an opportunity that lead me to a position as a Spanish professor and molder of future teachers in higher education. When my colleagues remark, “Oh don’t let me bother or overwhelm you, I know how busy you are,” I smile and sit in what now feels like a state of Zen as I reflect on a teaching schedule which is manageable, grading which is doable, expectations which are reasonable.

But as I mold teachers whose program numbers have shrunken as the economic crisis and politicization of the profession has disincentivized genuine interest, I have to measure my words. I tell them that truly nothing is more exhilarating than watching students learn and feeling a class get it. But I also tell them their state government will be shifting the finish line constantly, they must be ever vigilant and not hide from the political agenda that will impact their daily work as a teacher and their pay and they must be prepared to feel like they are never on top of anything.

What does a quality education entail? It entails an education whose route reflects the best practices supported by research, and takes into account the students’ potential. It delivers the best possible outcome for each individual. It deserves the most prominent spot in our budget because its results tie us together as a society. We must lift those whose family and personal circumstances disadvantage them without impinging on the ambitions of those who arrive with all circumstances in their favor. We must differentiate in each classroom and tailor our curriculum to meet the needs of groups of learners as best we can. What have the state or individual districts done to help us in this endeavor?

Gov. Nathan Deal has accused those who oppose his Opportunity School District plan of not having proposed solutions of their own. In the meantime, he has failed to fully fund districts. What we know works in education is acquiring and retaining dedicated teachers and supporting their efforts to grow and better serve students. As a result of the austerity budgets, professional development for teachers and administrators has been severely cut.

Many teachers feel that the districts implement professional learning plans that are designed to check off a box and not necessarily to meet the needs and interests of teachers and students. Sometimes the training provided is not specific enough to the needs of individual departments, content areas or teachers. Often times, there has been no input provided by those teachers and their departments in the selection of those professional learning initiatives.

In addition, because of tight budgets, instead of acquiring substitute teachers and giving teachers leave time to learn, they are required to give up their planning periods or to sit in PLC sessions after a full day’s work.  To train better teachers, these learning experiences must happen in a space where their efforts to improve do not add to an already overwhelming work load. Consistent, specific professional learning in a community of educators with similar curriculum takes time, planning and money. It also takes meaningful feedback that is not punitive from a supportive community of colleagues. Peer observation has been affirmed by research to be a valuable strategy and yet there is no time to implement it. Why would you not provide to teachers what you expect them to provide to students — continuing, relevant, challenging learning experiences — and give them the time to deliver on their learning?

Adding professional learning to teachers’ workload without holding sacrosanct the time it takes to plan and implement lessons that accomplish these goals defeats the purpose. Training is wonderful, but without the time in each day to create and cater lessons to meet the needs of students, it does little to improve instruction. I can tell you from experience that a truly engaging lesson takes much more time and effort on my part to plan than a lesser quality, less interactive lesson.

In fact, I will also share that sometimes I found myself having to give students a lesser quality assignment to be able to keep up with other responsibilities — data collection, parent emails, grading, department responsibilities, etc. An earnest and systematic prioritization of teachers’ planning time would have freed me and my colleagues to collaborate more often, to design and tailor better projects and lessons and ultimately lead to better quality experiences for my students every day.

Good teaching takes planning and neither the state nor districts have truly prioritized time for teachers to effectively plan each of their lessons and fulfill the expectation that their lessons be differentiated for student needs. When high school teachers have five classes, with multiple preparations and only one planning period, which is not kept sacred for that purpose, the quality of lessons suffers. Teachers should have the same amount of time to plan as they will be teaching. This is one of the successful strategies that have brought many European school systems into the top echelons of education systems in the world. In Finland, differentiation happens constantly and meaningfully because teachers have the time to plan and prepare lessons that respond to learning patterns in their classrooms.

Gov. Deal’s plan does evoke an additional question for us. Can a charter school takeover bring about this sort of change in instruction? What politicians stress about these charter schools is their ability to innovate, their unshackled creativity and their out-of-the-box thinking.

Teachers in public schools could do that now if there were a sincere effort to release them from red tape, reorganize their days to increase their hours for collaboration with colleagues, instructional planning and meaningful and ongoing professional development. These sorts of experiences do not always have to be led by outside consultants paid top dollar by districts; there are hidden jewels in schools all over the state who could share with their colleagues to improve education and improve one another. Time must be taken to do so. And I must point out that even students would benefit from time out of their seats; study after study has shown that physical activity and breaks improve memory and retention. Cramming more material, more hours of instruction and more seat time into each school year does not result in higher graduation rates or higher achievement.

Last year, a former student of mine completed her first year as a Spanish teacher. She messaged me on several occasions, expressing the overwhelming stress, the feeling that she did not have enough time to finish anything. She decided in the spring that she could not continue, so that investment of four years and student-teaching, was now for naught. She gave up. And she did not quit because she was weak, unmotivated, untalented or unsuccessful — she quit because the system set her up to fail.

She posted the other day how sad she is that she is yet another “one and done” former teacher. State leaders cannot lament the teacher shortage, weak student performance, failing schools, and then expect the problems to improve without first listening to teachers and consulting the best research. Before we hand over our schools to state control, the state should show that it has brought all parties to the table and studied the problems with participation from those in the field.

We have the tools to improve the situation without resorting to a drastic strategy now being abandoned by those states who first implemented it.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.