Saturday, April 27, 2013

#111 April 27, 2013- The View from One School

There is a lot of discussion about our public schools these days.  Most of the public conversations are centered around the ideas put forward by school "reformers".  These focus on test scores, accountability for educators/schools and school budgets.  As a result they usually seem to miss the human element of our schools.  Yet, the fact of the matter is that this missing element in the discussions is the key component to our efforts to educate the youth in our communities.  Education is not done in an assembly line manner, but rather is shaped by the individual involved in ways that many outside of our schools fail to understand.   

Over the past couple of years I've been able to be a part of many informal discussions about public education and what is important in our schools.  These face to face conversations between people from different parts of the educational community show a very different reality than the one that is presented in many public forums and the media.  What emerges from these discussions is a sense of shared purpose and commitment to making our public schools work.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our schools, they often look for ways of improving schools by adding to what is working, and supporting the educators who work on a daily basis with students and families.

Another thing missing from the public discussions about public education are the voices of the educators in the schools.  When these voices are heard they are too frequently responding to attacks and criticisms.  Instead of voicing the positives and offering hope for the future of public education, educator's comments often are defensive in nature.  The tone of the debate has been established by those who seek to dismantle our public education system.  The result is that many educators feel attacked, powerless and voiceless.  The good things that happen in schools are washed away by a tide of negative press, vicious attacks and data designed to damage the credibility of educators.

Public educators and those who support public education need to change the debate.  We need to engage the community in discussions, not based on the assumption that our schools are "bad", "broken" or "failing", but on the premise that we have the ability and dedication to help public education fulfill its tremendous potential.  Public schools are unique in their mandate to educate all children and to bring entire communities together.  In order for this to happen we must establish open, honest communication between the different parts of our community and break down the barriers that exist between groups.  Groups who view themselves as separate, but which in reality could be united through dialog around education. 

In the conversations that I've been a part of, one thing consistently comes to the surface as an issue of concern.  Communication between schools, families and the community is inconsistent and confusing.  People don't understand what is going on in schools, and they don't know where to turn to in order to get clear, accurate information.  The media parrots test scores and quotes from the same sources.  School district communications often are confusing due to "eduspeak" and frequently changing numbers and initiatives.  Educators struggle to share information with families for many different reasons as well.  The end results are confusion and divisions where clarity and solidarity are needed. 

I'm often asked, "What do the educators think?" or, "What do educators need/want from us (parents, community, etc.)"  These are difficult questions because of the wide diversity in schools, classrooms, students, families and educators.  There are as many answers to these questions as there are educators.  Yet, there are some consistent themes that emerge as one continues to have conversations with educators.

It was a little over a year ago that I completed a series of conversations with every staff member in my school.  I sat down and listened to what they had to say and shared this information in a couple of posts.  The stories that I heard were uplifting and troubling at the same time.  They painted a picture of a school staff that was struggling to stay afloat in a sea of negativity.  The struggles and challenges were offset by a sense of commitment and hope as educators did their best in a difficult environment.  The staff in my building spoke about many issues that I summarized under these general headings:

-Concern about the political situation in Wisconsin.
-Concern about the future of public education in Madison, and across the state/nation.
-We support and need our union to protect our voices in the education debate.
-We feel stretched, overworked, over-managed, and disrespected.
-Education "reforms" aren't what's best for our students.
-We are challenged by the increasingly diverse student body and the increasing needs of our students and families.
-Educator needs and student needs are intertwined.
-We care for our fellow educators.

So, what is the status of educators in my school building a year later?  Educators approach our jobs with the understanding that education is a work in progress.  We look for growth and positive change as we evaluate and assess our students, our professional growth and our school climate.  Educators are eternal optimists, always believing in the power of education and the promise that our students have, not matter what the challenges. 

However, the constant struggle and perpetual criticism of our schools and our profession is clearly taking a toll on morale in our schools.  The reality is that many of the same feelings and challenges from a year ago are still with us, and the concerns about these issues has increased.  This becomes clear when one looks at the concerns, hopes and goals that staff at my school offered this year. 

Our personal financial situations are becoming more challenging.  Educators are feeling the pinch as our contributions to our pensions have increased and wages have stagnated.  I know that there are those who still harbor jealousy towards the "extravagant" contracts and "luxurious" benefits that educators receive.  When the prospect of educator wage increases of 1.5% was suggested, the outcry from anti-educator forces was immediate and misleading.  The argument that educators shouldn't get raises because of the "built in raises" that are part of our salary schedule was raised.  Yet, part of our "raises" are based on continuing education credits that we must pay for.  My wife and I recently shelled out a significant sum of money for university credits needed to keep our certification.  The "raise" that we receive for this payment will not cover the costs incurred for a significant amount of time. 

The reality is that many educators are barely scraping by.  As a union representative in my building I've had several interactions with educators who are facing difficult financial circumstances as a result of the recent changes brought on by Act 10.  We do what we can to help these individuals and their families, but it is heartbreaking to see hard-working educators facing financial disaster because of legislation passed to directly harm a specific group of employees.

Educators pay and benefits reflect the status of education in Wisconsin today.  Politicians and other leaders give it lip-service, but don't put their money where their mouths are.  Children and families in our public schools suffer as well, as educators can no longer afford to purchase supplies and other items for families in need.  This is especially troubling because Act 10 was supposed to eliminate the budget woes of our local schools, and yet we are seeing more and more districts across the state continue to struggle financially even after the "tools" to correct the problems became available.  

We are also concerned about future costs of health insurance.  Over the past two years we've seen changes in our insurance plans and a decrease in the coverage that many of us need.  Thanks to Act 10 and the state's reduction in aid to school districts, health insurance costs could be a potentially devastating new cost that may drive some quality educators out of the profession.      

Our workload is increasing.  Class sizes, caseloads and additional duties are another concern of teachers at my school.  It isn't enough that we are required to develop, learn and implement new curriculum, but we are also required to complete additional paperwork and perform additional duties during the school day.  These changes in our workload limit the time that we have to communicate with families, develop relationships with students and prepare engaging and innovative lessons.

Few people realize just what an educator's day looks like.  Because of the nature of our jobs we are often required to be actively engaged with students for more than 3 hours at a time.  This means no bathroom breaks, no time to check/send emails or communicate information to families or other staff, and no time to prepare our classroom for new activities.  Our classrooms are not just places for reading, writing and math, but are also science labs, conflict resolution centers, cafeterias, recreation centers, computer labs and countless other things. 

We face more demands on our time from many sources.  The time that we have to plan and communicate with fellow educators is taken up by mandated professional development.  Often these sessions are geared towards promoting a new initiative that we may have serious questions about.  We are also seeing an increase in the number of committees that seek to involve educators in the discussion about our goals and objectives.  However, we sometimes find that these committees are designed to get "buy in" for policies and not to increase dialog or shape the path of our schools.

The public is given information collected from educators, but this is not always accurate information that represents a majority of educator's opinions.  Take "Ready Set Goal" Conferences for example.  These conferences are held at the beginning of a school year and are designed to open the door for communication between schools and families.  Over the years the school district has tried to change the format and has even created forms that we are mandated to use.  There is nothing less inviting to many families than to sit down with their child's educator for the first time and see a form, in triplicate no less, ready to be filled in and signed.  Now, these conferences become a bargaining chip in negotiations that make it seem like educator's raises and benefits will prevent them from occurring.  A very divisive situation for our school communities.       

Educator expertise and knowledge isn't respected or heard.  We are directed to implement numerous new initiatives given to us from "above".  Yet, many of us question the effectiveness or educational validity of these "reforms". We find ourselves losing control of out curriculum and our methods of teaching.  Standardized curricula, assessments and rigid pedagogy are replacing flexible teaching methods geared towards specific learners and using resources particular to an individual school.  That this is being done in order to improve student achievement troubles us and makes us wonder if we are teaching for the purpose of collecting data, or to truly educate creative thinkers for the future.

We are held accountable in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons.  Staff at my school is very concerned about issues of educator evaluations and merit pay that are closely tied to student standardized test scores.  We find ourselves forced to implement untested and potentially damaging Common Core Standards in order to protect our jobs, not because we believe they are best for student learning.  In many ways our school district is governed as much by fear as by educational goals, or hope for the future.  We find ourselves dreading the next press release slamming our district while ignoring positive efforts being made to address student achievement and engagement. 

What do we want?  The biggest thing we want is to have a voice in all aspects of our educational system.  This means that we can continue to have the ability to bargain new contracts and to have a say in how and what we teach our students.  We want to hold on to our retirement benefits and the seniority system.  As system that, while not perfect, provides stability to our workplaces and has as much merit as any other proposed system.  We enjoy the protection and stability that our contracts and grievance procedures give us.  These systems allow for us to express our opinions and at the same time hold us accountable to a high standard of performance.   

We want to create a collaborative atmosphere where educators, families, and community members can dialog openly and honestly about important issues.  We need time to create the trust necessary for these conversations to occur.  These conversations must include all staff and members of all the different groups that have a stake in our public schools.  Communication between all members of the educational community is vital to creating an environment where all students have the opportunity to succeed and all voices are valued. 

This is especially true in our schools where the quick pace of change has left educators confused and frustrated.  We find ourselves lost in a maze of new policies and initiatives that serve to increase our stress and make the families we work with anxious about the quality of their child's education.  We need time as professionals to digest what has been fed to us and decide what morsels have educational "nutritional" value and what ones need to be removed from our "diet".  Many of us feel like we are losing our way and need time to reassess where we are and where we are headed as educational communities.   

We continue to care deeply about each other, our students, their families and our community.  Not a day goes by, but that some evidence of the incredible depth of caring is displayed by the educators I work with.  Whether this is making meals for colleagues experiencing life changes, or helping a student's family move into a new apartment, the real commitment of our staff to all members of the community are readily found.  While the media and education "reformers" may try and label us "lazy" and "uncaring" those who encounter an educator know the real truth about the devotion of educators to their profession and their community.

What needs to happen is for the rest of the community and the political leadership of our state to recognize the merits of our professional public educators and the value of our public education system.  We must work together to make sure that our system isn't too damaged before the pendulum swings back in a more positive direction.      

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