Education Chat

Chat Transcript: What Teachers Want

John Parker, superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District in North Carolina, discusses how he overcame the teacher-recruitment odds facing rural schools, how his district supports teachers, and the "lifestyle advantages" of rural districts.

What Teachers Want (March 23, 2005)

GUEST: John Parker, superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

Scott Cech (Moderator):
Good afternoon, and welcome to Teacher Magazine’s Live Chat. Joining us live is John Parker, superintendent of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. Despite its rural, relatively isolated location in northern North Carolina, and the attendant challenges of attracting and retaining new teachers without bigger cities’ amenities, Parker has been able to cut the district’s 13 percent faculty turnover rate in half over the last five years.

I’m Scott Cech, managing editor of Teacher Magazine, and I’ll be moderating this discussion with Parker on how he overcame the recruitment odds facing rural administrators, how he keeps his teachers from burning out, and what he thinks about standardized tests.

We’re getting lots of questions for Mr. Parker already, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Joe Jerles,Ed.D. - Music Teacher, St. Bethlehem Elementary School, Clarksville, TN:
Dr. Parker, Along with recruiting and retaining new teachers, many systems struggle to keep those excellent veteran teachers who serve as mentors for the younger ones. What steps do you plan to address both burnout and retention of experienced teachers?

John Parker:
Joe, As I am sure you are aware, there are no magic solutions to preventing burnout and ensuring retention of veteran teachers. We work from these assumptions: 1. Teachers who are learning and improving their skills, while having their intellects challenged are less likely to burn out. 2. Teachers who feel a part of something bigger than themselves through the organization are more likely to remain with us. Thus, we work hard at providing professional development that is content rich and pedagogically practical; and, we work hard to communicate the importance of public education to society and the important role we play in the community as a whole to graduate students who will make “good neighbors.” An important challenge that I believe is a major contributor to burn out that we have not resolved is providing time for professional colleagueship during the school year. Our teachers are with students all day and do not have the quality time to develop the professional relationships that college professors and other business professionals have.

Question from Martin Olszewski, Kindergarten Teacher, Trafford Elementary:
Teaching is my second career. I have been teaching for only 5 years and I feel that I need to rethink what I am doing. Nclb is forcing myself and other good, quality teachers to reconsider their vocation as well. Teaching to the test, and the prospect of losing my job because my school is labeled as failing are to big reasons. I know I do my job and am effective. However, if my school or district fails it’s everyones fault. Nobody seems to support teachers. It seems as though teachers, based on popular opinion, are blamed for every problem in this country. I do not know what to do. I love my job. I am so passionate about educating kids. This decision is tearing me apart. I am looking for some guidance.

John Parker:
Martin, I believe this is a common feeling among teachers and one with which I identify first-hand. When NC began the accountability mania in 1985, I was a high school mathematics teacher. My feeling at the time was that there was a systematic loss of trust in my professional judgment as a teacher, especially as the discussions about testing led to decisions of promotion, retention and course credit. This feeling has had a strong influence on my philosophy and decisions as an administrator. We do not discuss “test results” with our teachers. I emphasize that we are doing a disservice to our students and the community if we become “test driven.” I believe this is a professional responsibility of mine as a leader of a public school district. The only advice I can offer is to exercise your passion for kids through the ways you plan and teach and trust that you will develop the professional reputation with your community that sets you apart as a teacher in this era of high stakes accountability.

Question from Ericka Caruso, Student (Maryland):
Am I understanding correctly that although you do teach things that will be covered on “the tests”, you simply don’t convey to the teachers that it is worth stressing over? Or do you actually teach to the test only minimally?

John Parker:
Ericka, I have literally threatened to have “test prep materials” book burnings. I communicate to our teachers that the test is not worth stressing over and that we are about something so much more important than achievement on state tests that we need to find other occupations if we let this drive what we do. In spite of this, I see evidences in our district of “teaching to the test.” This does not make me happy. We have worked hard on providing professional development experiences with a strong student assessment component to help our folks use assessment methods that get beyond selected response measures. The Southeastern Region Vision for Education (SERVE), and more recently ASCD, using the work of Wiggins, McTighe, and Brown, have been helpful resources. Their instructional designs are anchored in state curriculum standards, but focus on bigger ideas. We have faith that if we are using designs like this that are connected to state curricula, yet require emphasis on engaging and worthwhile goals, our students will be successful on state measures.

Question from Brenda S. Taylor, Principal, Rich Square-Creecy Elementary School, Northampton County:
This past year I employed about 75% of our teachers from Virginia that had not passed the Praxis Test. After two years, they will leave. What suggestion(s) can you give me since Northampton doesn’t have all the amenities of Roanoke Rapids to retain these married-with-family, wonderful, and bright young teachers.

John Parker:
Brenda, Good to hear from you. Having worked in Northampton County for 18 years and Roanoke Rapids for 9, I do not believe we have any more amenities than Northampton County. When I recruited teachers in Northampton, I emphasized the same lifestyle advantages that I emphasize when recruiting teachers in RR. One thing that makes it harder in Northampton are the artificial “tags” of failure that are put on the schools. These are driven by an accountability system that perpetuates an “achievement gap” that is narrowly measured and entirely inappropriate.

Question from Kathy Langley, Special Education Teacher, Clifton-Fine Central School:
Teachers are often locked-in at the schools where they presently teach, since they lose thousands of dollars in pay, and lose tenure and seniority when they try to move to a better school district. In order to attract experienced teachers who are motivated to work in a rural area, what kind of salary package can you offer to teachers with experience coming into your district?

John Parker:
Kathy, Our salary package is tied to the NC state salary schedule, and is, quite frankly, not we would like for it to be. However, NC gives experience credit to certified teachers coming from other states for any years they have been full-time employees in another school district; thus, a prospect does not lose the years they have worked in terms of placement on the schedule. We pay a 3.25 percent local supplement on a teacher’s state salary. We have been very successful in helping teachers achieve National Board Certification. Over 11 percent of our teachers have achieved this recognition. In NC, teachers receive a 12 percent supplement if they are National Board Certified. This is one of the best educational pieces of legislation the state has passed in the past two decades.

Question from Jeffrey E. Hahn, Instructor, Education Department, Hartwick College:
As a former School Superintendent and now teaching at the college level, I still see the trend for graduating education students to start teaching in smaller, rural schools. These same teachers, after having gained 2-3 years experience, move on to higher paying, larger suburban districts. What are your thoughts on retaining good teachers in these smaller, rural school districts?

John Parker:
Sell the lifestyle of the rural area and the access that can be had to urban areas. We are 85 miles from metropolitan Richmond, 85 miles from Research Triangle, and 150 miles from the Outer Banks. These places make for good weekend junkets and it is nice to return to a day-to-day rural lifestyle. Keep a consistent instructional focus and let that sell itself for what it’s worth.

Question from Marlene Winn Special Ed. teacher, Chicago Public Schools:
I have been teaching sp. ed in the inner city for 27 years. I would love to work in a rural area. Do you think my skills can transfer to a rural area?

John Parker:
Absolutely, come on down! We have openings immediately. Go to our website, We have on-line applications.

Question from Renee Moore, NBCT, Lead Teacher, Broad Street High School, Shelby, MS:
The teachers quoted in the Teacher Magazine article seemed highly pleased with the professional development in your district. How are teachers themselves involved in the planning, designing, and implementation of their professional development?

John Parker:
We set the broad goals as a district, i.e. active student engagement with strong content focus, and involve our teachers with more detailed input through school improvement planning, etc. We have gone to a lead-teacher model for instructional support, through which our instructional resource people are based on school campuses rather than at the central office, with the idea being that we will have better day to day dialogue on planning, design, etc. with our regular classroom teachers and school based administrators.

Question from Barbara Rippert, 1-1 Kingsway Learning Center:
You state that it is difficult to attract many young teachers to rural areas. Many students of education are starting a third or fourth career in their life. I am one and one who has found it difficult to obtain a permanent teaching position. It would seem advantageous to hire an experienced, well trained individual regardless of their age. What do you think?

John Parker:
I agree. We have a number of teachers who have come to use in mid or late career because of our focus on teaching and learning that goes beyond test score improvement. They seem to be adapting well and appreciating the opportunity. Wayne Williams, who is interviewed in Bruce Buchanan’s article “Greener Pastures” in the current Teacher Magazine, is in his tenth year as a teacher, but his second year with us in RRGSD. Carla Ledford, who is also in the story, is in her third or fourth year, but first year with us.

Question from Kenneth Ondracek, Recent Grad of UGA seeking Employment:
Can you expand on the advantages of teaching in a rural school district specifically addressing the actions you take to ensure a teacher’s “professional development”? How does funding affect your ability to support a teacher’s “professional development”?

John Parker:
Second question first: We have been very successful in obtaining competitive grants that allow us to provide professional development focusing on instructional improvement. Without the grants, we could not fund through regular funds the type of professional development that teachers want and need.

Rural district question: We are geographically isolated from colleges and universities, but have developed a number of positive relationships over a period of time with university-affiliated organizations that all relate to a consistent instructional philosophy (Paideia). For example, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which is affiliated with the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and which does an annual problem-based learning workshop in the summer.

Question from :
What are the main causes of teachers’ burnout? John Parker:
Professional isolation. Lack of trust between public school and the public that has developed since “A Nation at Risk” and other political agendas that used public education bashing as a means to get votes and that now is perpetuated through state and national accountability models. These agendas play out on a day to day basis through unhappy parents threatening to call television stations and board members over relatively minor issues and weigh heavily on teachers. I could go on, but time is a limiting factor. E-mail me at our website,, to continue conversation if you like.

Question from :
How do you empower your teachers? John Parker:
We have tried to reduce the hierarchical structure in the organization and promote a leadership style that is not overly formal. Ultimately, we want our teachers and students to operate in a culture in which they learn from their mistakes within reasonable parameters.

Question from Carmen J. Cordero, Student, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA:
My Bachelors is in Business and I have a Masters in Administration and Leadership and I am currently working on my teaching credentials. My goal is to be a Principal. What do you recommend an aspiring California teacher/principal about jobs in a rural district? John Parker:
You need the credibility of having been in the classroom for more than a few years. I am finding many principal candidates that think they have the answers and have not been in the teachers’ shoes enough to develop the credibility needed. Other than that, be passionate about what you are doing and be willing to work in a difficult job whose major payback is the contribution to community and children that comes back in a variety of ways other than pay.

Scott Cech (Moderator):
We’re getting lots of messages from teachers interested in Roanoke Rapids jobs, (which I’m sure Mr. Parker is pleased to see!) Please see the Web site address he gave above for answers to your specific employments needs.

Question from Jeannie Hensley, First Grade Teacher, Newton Elementary, TX:
How do you get veteran teachers of a rural district to accept change?

John Parker:
Some of our most aggressive pioneers are veterans, but this can be an issue. I would generalize that problem as one of promoting change across generations in an environment in which teachers do not have professional sharing opportunities on a day-to-day basis.

Question from Wendy Smith, School Nurse, North Chicago, IL:
Can you please share some concepts that have helped you keep your staff on board? Also, how do you recruit? Do you advertise in newspapers, the internet, job fairs, etc?

John Parker:
Have good principals and other district leaders who share a common philosophy. Dedicate leadership meeting times to discussions of what your shared beliefs are, leadership theory, instructional improvement and limit the time that you discuss buses, books, butts, and state and federal regulations. This takes effort and is easier said than done.

We are doing more recruiting through Internet. We do job fairs, but primarily in-state, and do more vicarious than direct recruiting at these events. We have decreased our use of print media, because the cost exceeds the payback.

Question from Erin Wilcox, Principal, Colorado Springs Christian Middle School:
As a private school, we have fewer dollars for professional development than state supported schools. Are there some lower cost recruitment and retention ideas that have worked well for you?

John Parker:
Are you kidding? According to the national press, you have built-in recruiting advantages because you are private (my sister works in a parochial school in a suburb of Chicago and we have these discussions often).

Question from Deborah Armstrong, Instructional Technology Designer, Wayne State University:
I’m interested in how you use technology to support professional development. Specifically, does your faculty participate in PD via distance learning technologies (video conferences, online courses, etc.)? If so, what has been their reaction?


John Parker:
We have not used that in a major way. We have developed the infra-structure to accomodate distance learning and are looking for ways to use this without sacrificing the power of face to face instruction.

Question from Robin Jurczyk, teacher/trainer, Arkansas:
In your district promotion you mentioned less pressure for “teach to test” results. How has your district been able to avoid this pressure from funding sources?

John Parker:
The pay for performance bonuses in NC are $750 annually for meeting expected growth and $1,500 for exemplary achievement. These are school-based for all teachers in a school who meet state designated goals. We do not emphasize these pay for performance goals, which we believe are ill-conceived, but are mandated by the state. We do emphasize striving for National Board Certification, which pays a 12% bonus in NC for 10 years -- a longer more appropriate professional development and merit based bonus.

Question from Deb Winans, USM, graduate student:
Please explain what, if any, role mentoring has in the recruitment and retention of novice and veteran teachers in your district. Thanks

John Parker:
Our challenge is giving mentors the time to be true mentors, because we cannot afford to reduce their class loads. Mentoring is important and it takes dedicated teachers that have pride in our progress as a district to do these jobs. We have begun to use a team mentoring concept in the last several years with the team composed of teachers with different skill sets.

Question from Elaine J. Roberts, professor, Wheaton College:
You mention an “intense focus on professional development” as one of your recruitment and retention factors. First, what do you mean by that? Second, how important a role does an involved administration play in that factor’s success?

John Parker:
“Intense” -- a consistent philosophy built around the Paideia principles, a concise district strategic plan, and an emphasis on learning content -- science, mathematics, social studies, English, etc that grew from this overriding philosophy. Sticking with that through resistance and having overall administrative buy-in. Administrative support and belief is crucial!

Question from Londell McLean, student:
How do you work towards recruiting teachers of color into the classroom?

John Parker:
We have not been as successful as I would like in this regard. We have worked towards this goal by having two (out of 4 schools--remember we are a small district) wonderful principals who happen to be African-American and promoting our diversity as a strength. One particular way we have tried to address this issue in our community is by being very open about being a “public” school with all that that entails. Last year, we did an intense teaching American history professional development effort on “Development of the African American Identity, 1865-1917.” Teachers visited the Penn Center near Beaufort, SC and had the opportunity to work with nationally recognized scholars on this topic. This goes to our efforts to try to connect all issues to improvement in the classroom.

Question from Linda Kelly, teacher:
What do you consider to be your responsibility in ensuring the job satisfaction of the teachers in your school district? How do you work to promote promote job satisfaction?

John Parker:
Personally, as superintendent, knowing my teachers and being on a first-name basis with them. Being available and actually going to classes and teaching mathematics (my field). As one of my principals says, I view things from a teacher’s perspective more than a principal’s (I may need to analyze this comment in more depth). I remind people of how important their jobs in working with young people in the development of our community and society at large is. That is my “blinking” neon sign as I go into schools and it comes naturally, because that is my belief and what keeps me coming to work every day.

Question from Jim Vodraska, Licensing Candidate(Math) Ball State University:
While accomplishing this reduction in turnover, were you also fighting declining enrollment due to job loss in your community?

John Parker:
Our enrollment has been relatively stable, 3,000 students, despite the loss of over 3,000 textile jobs in the town in the past 20 years. I attribute the stability in the enrollment to a longstanding special relationship between the schools and the community that predates my work here. That tradition offers challenges and benefits. We talk about these challenges and benefits as a leadership group frequently.

Question from LeAnn Carter, Community Development Student, University of Mississippi:
What do you suggest for poor, rural school districts that feel they don’t have a lot to sell themselves on? What are some good strategies for finding those selling points?

John Parker:
Ask yourself why you work there and what attracted you? Keep asking these questions within your school improvement and leadership teams and you will find an identity. Do not let yourself become victims.

Question from Pamela Konwinski, Student Teacher, Farrand Elementary (Michigan):
Mr. Parker, I am currently student teaching in general education and have a second student teaching to do in the fall for Special Education. Ideally when I graduate in December, I have hopes to work and live in a rural town. When hiring, are there major things that you, as part of a rural district, look for in applicants?

John Parker:
First, your degree in special education is a plus. Please contact Joyce Kennedy through our Web site, Major things that we look for: Belief in young people from all walks of life; a commitment to continue learning as a professional; interest in becoming a part of a community of learners and a part of a small community in general. I would love to talk to you more and I promise a personal audience with you if you come for a visit.

Scott Cech (Moderator):
Thanks for all the great questions, and thanks to Mr. Parker for joining us. Unfortunately, though he types with impressive rapidity, we have more questions than time, so we’ll have to leave the discussion there. A transcript of this chat will soon be available on the Teacher Magazine web site. To read reporter Bruce Buchanan’s story on Mr. Parker and the district in the current Teacher Magazine, you may link here:

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