Jessica: For the past few weeks in our series Education: A Study Abroad, we looked at different education systems all over the world. We found a common theme: the importance of teachers.
In Finland; Ontario, Canada and Shanghai, China, the teaching profession is prestigious, selective and respected. And teachers help make the policy decisions about education. So, we invited teachers from all over this country, and also one aspiring teacher, to have an honest conversation about what it means to be a teacher in the U.S. and how we can improve the education system here.
Maryanne Woods-Murphy was the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year and has been teaching for more than thirty years. Bill Davenport teaches science and technology in Woodbury, Connecticut. He is also part of the Future Farmers of America program. Alicia Ragan teaches at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York serving low-income students. Leah Lechleiter-Luke was the 2010 wisconsin state teacher of the year. She has been teaching english and spanish for more than 20 years. Derek King teaches in Coldwater, Mississippi. He graduated college in 2010 and this is his second year of teaching. Kelly Serrano is from Los Angeles, California. She teaches reading and writing to fifth graders at a charter school. Timothy Blinsmon is a senior in high school in Durham, North Carolina. He has wanted to be a teacher since second grade.
“I got into teaching partly because my mother and my grandmother teach, and partly because I wanted to teach and coach.”
“To touch the future.”
“I always wanted to be a teacher growing up.”
Reagan: I think I keep doing it because I think the more nerdy kids out there the better. It is just cool to be smart. It’s just cool to be smart. I think kids need to know that.
Davenport: I grew up on a dairy farm and I have a passion for agriculture, and I also enjoy loving to get that information to the students and I really love working with kids. So that’s why i do it.
Woods-Murphy: I find the humor and the joy and the kind of flexibility. The environment really suits me. So, it’s a very happy life for me.
“I want to be a teacher because it’s a job I’ve been wanting to do since second grade.”
Jessica: You all know that tests show that the U.S. is falling behind other countries. Do you think this is a problem? And if so, how do we fix it?
“Oh yeah. It’s definitely a problem. And I think we need to, kind of, refocus the direction of education instead of just kind of running through curriculum to get to a certain point and get to a test so that kids take. I really think it takes a lot more to it, as far as having the students actually learn the material to retain it, to see how it’s applied in the real world so that they have that grasp and actually understand the applied learning part of it versus just going through one day and getting a test done.
Jessica: The United States is still the place where Facebook and Google were created. We are still known for our creativity. So, does it really matter that test scores show that we are falling behind?
“What we’re thinking about now, I think, is system change. So, we can’t just think about tests. No test. We have to think about whole-system-set support learning and teachers and community and everyone altogether.”
Jessica: In your opinion, do Americans respect and value teachers?
“I think we’ve all heard these catch phrases like, ‘if you can’t do it, you might as well teach it’ or ‘there’s always teaching.’ ‘If I can’t get a job here, there’s always teaching.’ That just devalues the work that we all do.”
“I, personally, grew up in South America and when I went to school, it was business. It was school. What the teacher said held a lot of weight into my life. My parents took what the teacher said very seriously. I feel that when I have parent teacher conferences, some parents do value that and some others…just comes back to the question of respect. How are we viewed? And at the same time, I have a question, has this changed? Or has this been the trend forever in the U.S., where teachers are not respected? The word is not ‘respected’ but we’re not very valued, in the sense of what we bring to a student’s life.”
“I go to school with a lot of kids, and looking at it from a student point of view, a lot of my classmates do not value their teachers at all.”
Jessica: So, how do you change that?
“Down in Mississippi where everything is based on test scores, like, the kids, like, we drill QDI’s which is like they’re trying to achieve a number. But it’s more about, like, the system. So, they’re looking at it like, ‘oh, if we get this number then they say we’re a successful school. But there’s no application. Or, like, if I can get a teacher who can, like, figure out the test that’s not really like a good person, whatever, like, they’re a good teacher.”
Jessica: Are you pressured to teach to the test?
“I have some flexibility because I have a great principal. But definitely, like, when they come in they want to see your objective listed on the board, what’s your agenda like, which competencies are you working from, what are your performance level descriptives, which DOK level is this question stamped. They want to see all of that every day.”
Jessica: Should student performance be linked to teacher evaluation?
“I completely agree.”
“If you have a kid who maybe scored, like, a 1.3, which is, like, minimal on this decimal scale, and then now they’re in my class and now they’re up to a 3.2, great. That’s a ton of growth. I think if you can measure that and link it to growth then definitely teacher evaluations should be based on that, because of the growth part.”
“I think we have to be careful though how much we weigh the test scores.”
“In Wisconsin, we have a new framework that will be deployed on a trial basis this fall and then across the state for evaluation systems. Standards, how students perform on the standardize test, only account for 15% of that teacher’s evaluation. And I think that’s fair.“
Jessica: Should how you do on a test be criteria for the effectiveness of your teachers?
“I, personally, have not been a good test taker. Let’s say math. Until recently, and it’s not because it was the teachers’ fault, it was the lack of preparation on my part. But it also has to do with the teacher and how they’ve taught and how close they are with the student.”
Jessica: The U.S. attracts just 23% of teachers from the top third of graduating classes. Other top performing nations attract 100% from the top third of graduating classes. What is your reaction to that?
“I guess with that top third you were talking about, there have a been a lot of scathing critiques of schools of education in colleges about the quality of students they have.”
“As far as having more stringent requirements for schools of education makes a difference in the kind of teachers you eventually put in schools.”
Jessica: Alisha, I know you are at a very selective Master’s program. Does that make a difference?
Alisha: There is no one in my grad program that is not Teach for America, is not an NYC fellow, has not already had to go through one, two, three, four application processes and interviews and be screened and have transcripts reviewed.”
“I like being around 200 and something people that are type A personalities who are willing to lose a lot of sleep to, literally, fight with guns blazing for what our kids are not getting and should be.”
“I think we need to look at our students younger — like middle school — and look for students who are helpful and interested in sharing what they’re learning with others and perhaps give them empowering opportunities to work with their peers, like Tim has talked about, and find ways we can nurture those skills, and that’s what we see also in high performing nations. They look at people as younger students and develop their talent.”
Jessica: Do you find most teachers are prepared for realities of classroom?
“I think teaching is the one profession where whether you’re a first year teacher or not, you’re expected to be on target from day one. You have training and you have apprenticeship. When I was put in my classroom, I was expected — day one — to be good. It’s weird. For other professions, you kind of a have time to learn and kind of grow but no, you’re thrown in and you have to be good right now, so it makes a big difference.”
“I think it gets back to mentoring — how important it is, especially for new teachers to have someone they can go to, can meet, and learn from each other. They’re right next door to each other but there’s never collaboration that needs to happen that can help those teachers not leave the profession, and get ideas from them too because they have some great, new ideas.”
Jessica: Shanghai. The teachers there — new teachers — they’re mentored. The teachers are required to have 200 hours of professional development within the first five years of their teaching experience. Is that something that could happen in U.S.?
“It’s already happening in some places. When you enter my charter network, you are automatically matched with either a dean of curriculum, a literacy coach, a math coach, your instruction leader who literally follows you around. I mean, emailing your lesson plans four days before you teach them, sending them back with track changes. We are expected to videotape ourselves…“
Jessica: But is that common?
“In the U.S., no. In charter schools and in some public schools in NYC, yes. And I know that in NYC education reform is very, very different than elsewhere in the country and it is very forward thinking.”
Jessica: I know professional development should happen but when you’re in schools or school districts that have little-to-no funding, your professional development is very undeveloped.
“We’re still in a capitalist society, so even though you’re putting in all that time, like, you’re still saying, ‘I may make 45 versus… Me. Ok, I’m great at math and science. I’ll go be an engineer make 80 to 90 coming out. And so, even so, no matter how much passion or how much skill you have, you have to find a way to, like, take out that dissonance where they’re not worried about the monetary aspect of it.”
Jessica: Are teachers paid enough?
“We absolutely have to raise the salaries to match other professional salaries. Absolutely radically. We also have to figure out a way to make the work day be more professional. Time for collaboration embedded in the day.”
“I’ve been in teaching for over thirty years and I love it. It energizes me. But it would be great to have some of the things I do into the night until two o’clock in the morning for all of these thirty years be done in the workday. After ten, fifteen, twenty years of that, it’s tiring and not everyone has the stamina.”
Jessica: How do you get teachers to stay in the classroom? Half of teachers quit within the first five years.
“I think many leave because of lack of support. There’s just nowhere to turn. There’s so many things to do. The public perception of teaching is you come to class, you leave at three, summers off. When someone talks teaching, the first thing that comes to their minds is not education. It’s time off and that’s just wrong.”
“I think if you look at, I’m sure it’s a much different percentage of teachers who leave the classroom within five years in, like, low-performing schools versus high-performing schools. I don’t know if anyone else teaches in, like, you know, a critical needs school district but it’s quite different. Like, I feel like if you find yourself in a suburban area with invested parents and eager children and great infrastructure, it’s much easier to teach there.”
Jessica: How should schools be funded? Does money make a difference?
“Money absolutely makes a difference. I think in the kind — not in quality — of education you can provide but the amount of work it takes for you to deliver that. The school that I used to teach at, which was in south Los Angeles, were we had the most per-pupil funding over many schools in the city but had the lowest-performing kids in the state of California and no one knew where that money went.”
Jessica: The U.S. spends probably more than any other nation. I think there’s one nation that spends more than the U.S. in the world.
Jessica: On education.
“Where is that money going? Because we still have tables that collapse. We still have chairs that don’t work. We have windows that don’t open, we have AC that doesn’t work. And, in some cases, schools that don’t have paper. I would like to see the providers come teach my kids without paper and without air conditioning. Just saying.”
“When they told us they didn’t have enough money to pay for all the textbooks at my school at beginning of this year, I was like, ‘Oh boy!’”
Jessica: How did that make you feel?
“It was a little unnerving.”
“If the U.S. is spending more than basically any other country in the world, why are we not getting it right?”
“We don’t have flexibility in how we spend the money.”
“There’s a lot of red tape.”
“It’s hard because you have Title 1 funds, this discretionary fund, or have to spend money on technology to fulfill what you said in your grant write up.”
Jessica: Are charter schools the answer then, where teachers have more autonomy and freedom and flexibility?”
“Are we the answer? I’m not sure. But I guess we have more flexibility when it comes to where the money needs to go.”
“I believe schools are underfunded, I mean, honestly, I took the pen from Holliday Inn because I’m going to need a pen.”
“Here’s my pen.”
Jessica: A lot of education reform talk has centered on paying teachers more, and one of the things that has been proposed is paying high-performing teachers more money to go into a low-performing school and teach a high-needs subject.”
“If I’m going to be competing with you for some dollars that are going to put my own kids in college, it doesn’t foster the idea of collaboration.”
“But as far as putting us in competition against one another, that’s not what’s best for kids, plus teachers are then distracted.”
“But in other professions, people who are high-needs get paid more.”
“I think I’ll go the other way. And I guess it’s because I’m an athlete but I love competition. And I think the teachers who do well at my school, we compete with each other.”
“I don’t think teachers are less focused, I think they’re more focused because it’s based on the instruction, not some other metric. There are incentive systems in my school district, like if your kids show growth and you get certain number, you’re going to get more money next year. Plain and simple.”
“This is what Shanghai did in order to rise in the profession. To one day be a principal, you have to go to a low-performing school and prove yourself.”
“I love the idea, actually. To tell you the truth, I think what happens is that we’re looking for the best teachers in schools where they’re most needed, right? But there are lot of blockers to that. For example, I’m in a district that is wonderful but I can’t leave the district without taking a huge pay cut.”
“But someone like me, I can’t really afford, personally, to go and work in a high-needs district because I’ll lose money that I need to pay my children’s college expenses.”
“It’s the only way you’re going to lure a teacher there.”
“Seriously. If you are a principal in a school where you’re 100% free reduced lunch, you are not going to have the same resources. You’re in an area where people don’t really want to go. What other incentive is there? Because you’re trying to get a teacher to come from something very comfortable to something that is going to be more difficult, you’re going to have to compensate them.”
“I think we need to be careful and we need to elevate the entire profession of teaching and not look to award certain interest areas or subject areas or grade levels. We need so much more opportunity to be collaborative. We’re all in this together.”
Jessica: So, Tim, after hearing all this, do you still want to be a teacher? And has it change the way you view the profession?
Tim: Yes. I just want to help kids and be there for teach kids. This has definitely given me a lot of insight.
Jessica: What surprised you the most?
Tim: Probably all the stories people had. I have a friend in Chicago who says that teaching is a cross between being secretary and babysitter, and a lot of people here sitting down have said otherwise.”
“I love my job.”
“I just graduated college two years ago. I’m not that far away from them in age but I have kids who call me dad. They know I’m 23 but they call me dad. It’s those types of things that — forget we don’t have books. Who cares. We’ll find a way.”
“I know that makes my job amazing. Whether or not I have a bad principal or a good principal or a ridiculous superintendent, teacher who is lazy. When they come in my class, we can sit down and be real and we have those conversations.”
“Despite all the funding and politics and special ed and ESL, the relationships make it amazing for me.”