Published Online: June 10, 2014

First Person

Is Anybody Listening to Teachers?

I am an English teacher who has been in the classroom for nine years. As an experienced educator, I have endured and complied with many new school policies and changes, most of which mainly affected teachers. But earlier this year my school was informed of some changes that would ultimately affect our students, and that I couldn't stand for.

The district had decided to cut teachers' planning time in half by instead sending teachers into other teachers' classrooms to serve as aides. The assumption was that teachers are not using that time effectively anyway so why not put two teachers in every classroom?

A teacher’s planning period has always been viewed by some district administrators and school board members as “free time” that can be taken up with meetings, extra classes, hall-duty, or any other assignment that they happen to think of. But in fact, good teachers really do use their planning time. In fact, most would say it’s essential for creating engaging lessons and improving student outcomes. Losing that time is particularly fear-inducing for hard-working teachers because we know that once we lose it, we will never get it back, and we need every minute we can get.

Before an assignment is even given, we write lesson plans that are aligned to the district curriculum. When students do poorly on a topic, we go back to our lesson plans, so that we can re-teach whatever concept they still need. When individual students need extra help, we meet with them one-on-one. We call parents for support in helping their children. In addition, we go to meetings, document information on each student, assess student work, and attend trainings. The amount of work we do outside of class is dizzying, and a lot of it comes home with us every night.

Speaking Out

So earlier this year, I attended my first school board meeting to speak out on the proposed initiative to cut the planning period. I was hoping I could get the board to understand how much we needed the teacher’s planning period. In my speech, I tried to convey how much work a teacher does outside of class every day, and how important that work is for students. I told the board that every teacher I know is already working as hard as they can. I asked for their help to maintain the integrity of what I do as a teacher.

When I finished, all the teachers present at the meeting gave me a standing ovation. Several teachers I had never met before hugged me. I had spoken up for what I believed in, and the message came through loud and clear.

The next day several teachers also spoke up publicly, wanting to know if the board would proceed with the changes. A board member responded that in the future, they would try to do a better job of communicating changes to teachers, so there would be more buy in.

In other words, the mandate would go forward as planned regardless of the number of teachers who felt the change would hurt teachers and students. Our objections simply didn’t seem to matter. And it’s hard not to feel that this was partly because we are teachers.

There is a certain stigma attached to being a teacher today. This may derive from the memories some people have of incompetent teachers who sat behind their desks and scolded them. But I think an even worse problem may be the fond memories some adults have of teachers who gave them free periods and sat at their desks and did nothing. Those teachers have given the rest of us a bad reputation because they have made many believe that our job is easy.

Learning to Teach

In fact, teaching is not easy. We’ve all heard the statistic that almost half of all new teachers leave the profession after five years. That’s not just some random number. It’s a fact of life I have seen in every school I have worked in.

I see new teachers that are blown away by the workload and by the difficulty of helping reluctant students meet curriculum and state requirements. Three years ago my husband was in graduate school pulling all-nighters almost every night of the week. We used to argue over who was having a harder time. He was struggling to finish a three-year degree in two years. I was wrestling on a daily basis with 175 8th graders who did not care about To Kill a Mockingbird. I was struggling to reach middle-schoolers who were more devoted to their gangs than their homework, or who had fathers in jail, or who had nothing to eat at home. A person has to be in the classroom to fully understand how frustrating and how heart-wrenching the work can be, despite its many redeeming aspects.

Later, my husband spent a few weeks in the classroom himself and finally acknowledged that a few sleepless months were nothing compared with the constant upward climb of being a public school teacher.

Looking at the sheer number of people that walk away from teaching should really speak volumes about the people who stick it out. I’ll admit that I stayed in teaching after my first year out of sheer stubbornness. I didn’t want to leave after all the work I had done to become a teacher. I stayed the second year because I had discovered that with good classroom-management practices, I could engage my students (and even have fun with them), and that I really did have the knowledge and skills to teach them what they needed to learn. By the third year I was established. I had learned how to effectively lead a classroom and how to help my students to grow academically.

How had I learned? I learned from the experts, other teachers. I started interviewing every teacher I saw as effective in the classroom. They taught me how to make class work relevant to students. They showed me how to get my students excited about their writing, and how to help my students to think critically about their work and about their lives. After nine years of teaching, I now share what I have learned with other teachers. That’s what good teachers do—we help each other because we want every teacher at our school to be effective. That’s what works. That is what is best for the students. That is what truly effective teachers care about. We care about the students.

And that's why teachers get so angry when district boards or administrators bring about a new mandate for teachers that will compromise how we do our jobs.

And sadly, we know who will be held responsible when student scores plummet. It happens every time. Politicians, administrators, the school board, and even parents will pass the blame because, after all, we’re the ones at the head of the classrooms. We’re the ones who are supposed to be catering to what every student needs.

Raising My Voice

A week after the board meeting, my speech and several others were quoted in the city newspaper. A local T.V. news station featured our speeches with a story, noting that many teachers felt the changes in question could potentially cause more students to fall behind. Even that made no difference. Nothing was going to change the decisionmakers' minds because, regardless of how much teachers know about student learning, they will always believe that they know better. Administrators and school boards place their students in our classrooms but they fail to trust us for input on policy changes no matter how hard we strive.

School districts need to support their teachers instead of trying to manage what we do. Ultimately, we all want the same thing—for our students to get the time and attention they need to be successful. That goal is very personal for teachers. We see our students every day; we know what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they want for themselves. They are not just numbers to us, they are our children.

When fall comes, the teachers in my district will be forced to work harder than ever before. They will do so because to fail would hurt our students; that isn't an option for any teacher I know. But I believe that as teachers work harder our voices must grow louder. We need to help the public become more aware of what teachers do both in and out of the classroom and how important that work is to our schools and to the students within them.

After my experience this year, I think it is essential for all teachers to remember that even when we are ignored, we must never allow ourselves to be silenced. We are not just speaking out for ourselves, but for those who rely on us.

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