Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Mightiest Tool in Public Education

At the beginning of my year as the 2015-2016 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, I was quoted as saying that one of the single biggest mistakes made in North Carolina was dismantling the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. Nearing the end of my year, I couldn't agree with myself more. However, there are some things I would add. You see, recruiting is only half the battle.  We must learn how to retain while developing a growth mindset in our educators. It is an uphill battle to keep high quality teachers in a state that fosters stagnation and encourages mediocrity through low pay and zero dollars allocated specifically for professional development.

This past fall, I had the privilege of visiting Pactolus Elementary School in Pitt County. I walked the halls of this once low-performing school which has overcome the label and the hardships of an impoverished community to exceed growth. As Steve Lassiter, 2015 North Carolina Principal of the Year, escorted my Teacher of the Year team on a tour of his K-8 school, he continuously showcased the great work of his staff. I watched teachers diligently working on a Friday afternoon until the final bell to ensure student success, and I witnessed reading and math instruction that make me proud to be in the same profession as miracle workers. My entire team was in awe of the authentic culture of community at Pactolus and the great leadership. Once our tour ended, we asked the monumental question of Mr. Lassiter, “How did you do it?  How did your school go from low-performing to exceeding growth in three short years?” His response began with a simple truth:  He retained and recruited the best possible teachers for his students.  

No matter how many schools I visit or audiences I speak with, I am constantly driven back to the same truth:  A great teacher makes all the difference. Yet, when I speak this truth in many educational arenas, it becomes overshadowed with student test scores, growth predictors, or even budget issues. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are essential discussions, but with each experience on my journey, I grow more and more passionate about the monumental role of the classroom teacher. Without a high quality classroom teacher, what chance do our students have?  What use are growth or proficiency scores if students don’t feel loved, valued, and worthy of the education in which they are participating? Great teachers understand this. They empower their students by creating meaningful relationships in order to create a culture of community which fosters high quality teaching and learning. All of the conversations that must be had to improve education in North Carolina are nothing if not grounded in the truth that great teachers are the difference. They are the deciding factor in the fight against ignorance, and they are the greatest motivators of change. Therefore, we, as a state, must empower, motivate, and ignite creativity in these life-changers.

We must begin by:
1- Raising NC Teacher Pay to higher than the National Average (if we want the best, we have to be the best).

2- Re-establishing a Teacher Recruitment Scholarship modeled after the Teaching Fellows program. Heck, why not just swallow our pride and re-establish the Teaching Fellows Program? After all, why reinvent the wheel?

3- Providing top-quality, well-mentored principals for our teacher workforce. Great principals develop phenomenal teachers. If we want to sustain growth and protect against stagnation, great leadership is key.

4- Creating Teacher Leadership pathways to keep high quality educators in the classroom while providing opportunities for professional growth and flexibility through hybrid roles.

Many days I believe teaching is a form of rocket science, but I certainly don't think it takes a rocket scientist to understand what is required to fix our teacher recruitment and retention problem. Simply put, we must UNITE as one voice. In a time when we so often find reasons for dissension and argument, this a cause with which everyone on both sides of the fence can agree. Our children are our future, and they deserve the best we have to offer. So, why are we dragging our feet?  Let's unite for our children and take action. The power of a great teacher is the mightiest tool in public education's belt, and without it, our fight is frivolous.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

To the Reluctant Parents of the Education Major

Dear Reluctant Parents of the Education Major,

I am sure you have always encouraged your child to pursue his or her dreams, but I am also sure the dreams you had in mind brought revenue and reverence. I know you had visions. You imagined the possibility of respected positions such as physician, lawyer, or entrepreneur. You had high hopes, high expectations. You never dreamed the choice would be to become a teacher.  It sounds so minuscule, so degrading of your child's potential. Why would your son or daughter pursue a career where they had to endure constant criticism from the general public or even obtain a second job to attempt financial independence. You didn't picture them working a full day yet struggling to accomplish everything at home in preparation for work the next day. You didn't picture the mounds of paperwork, the disrespectful emails, or the emotional drain. You wanted more, so much more for your progeny.  

Your concerns are warranted. You are justified in your unsettled feelings about your child's pursuit of a degree in education.

Now, let me tell you the truth about the teaching profession: It is the hardest job to put into words, yet the easiest to capture the heart. Your son or daughter will leave the classroom tired every day, but the exhaustion will come because he or she fights the good fight: Ignorance is losing, and knowledge is winning. You see, your progeny will shape our future, mold our tomorrow, and work tirelessly to build leaders and citizens who understand what is happening in the world around them rather than being ignorant to other viewpoints and perspectives.  Your son or daughter will teach the next generation how to truly think for themselves, how to work collaboratively, how to actively listen, and how to powerfully engage in conversation.  That is education from a teacher's perspective.  That is the world beneath all of the battles over teacher pay, Common Core, standardized testing, and school choice. Under all the negative gleams the positive.  Your child will do a good work.  He or she will have life-altering experiences as a teacher, good and bad, but your child will never stop learning what it means to be human, what it means to love, what it means to hurt, and what it means to be real. Your minuscule teaching descendant will probably not be written about in history books, but he or she will be remembered in the hearts of each student that steps foot in his or her classroom.  Lives will be changed, futures altered- all because of the decision your child has made to educate young minds.

Isn't it time you got behind them?  Isn't it time you put aside your fears and gave your whole-hearted support for the days and years ahead? Invest in our tomorrow by being positive and supportive about the decision your young, independent, vibrant, and intelligent child has made. No, the decision wasn't to be a doctor or a lawyer, but the decision was even more essential and fundamental.  After all, where would our country be without passionate and dedicated teachers to lead the way?

A Proud Product of Passionate Educators

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Real Issue with Teacher Pay

After continuously reading the headlines on dealing with teacher pay for the past week, I just can't stay quiet any longer.  So, buckle up, brace yourself, and see this teacher's perspective on the ongoing teacher pay debate:

I am paid too much for being a teacher. Yes, you read that correctly.  I am paid too much for being a teacher. Now that I am assured your attention, let me clarify that the "pay" I am talking about is nothing monetary. In fact, I am really paid in most facets other than money. Some days I am paid with disrespect, humiliation, and degradation. Others, I am paid with rudeness and demeaning conversations. I am paid too much negativity for being a teacher. Yet, I am still a teacher. Why? Because I am, also, paid on those days with the ability to teach love, worth, kindness, gentleness, and hope. On a fantastic day, I am even paid with heart-warming notes, hugs in the hallway, and a whispered "thank you."  The real story of teacher pay far exceeds the salary that is causing so much hype in North Carolina right now. Do I believe teachers need a 10% pay raise as Dr. June Atkinson proposed last week to legislators?  Absolutely. Yes, I do. I actually believe far more is needed to provide teachers in North Carolina anywhere close to the national average for the job they perform on a daily basis.

However, our perspective needs to change. As a culture, we as North Carolinians must start thinking outside of what our lawmakers and politicians identify as our constraints in educational spending.  You see, I remember a day a long, long time ago (but not too long ago) when North Carolina led the educational world.  We were the exception. When other states were struggling with respecting public education, our state lived out the belief that providing an education was worth every penny spent. Our culture was emblazoned with the motto that "knowledge is power," and every student, regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomic status, was entitled to a sound, quality education. There are remnants of this mentality floating around many educational arenas still today; however, the difference is these have gone from actions to whispers. There are a great few leading the charge to change the course of education in North Carolina for the better. There need to be far more of us.    

For the past decade, teacher support, morale, salary, and respect has been on the decline. Constant headlines, editorials, articles, and movies depicting teachers as immoral and selfish has created a culture where balancing the budget on the backs of educators and school systems is tolerated. Contempt is what we are really paying our teachers.  Not only are we insulting the education professionals with barely mediocre salaries, we are paying them with the ultimate in cultural disrespect for the profession.

Having been in my current position for seven months, it still continually surprises me when individuals I meet in public respond to my position as the 2015-2016 North Carolina Teacher of the Year with "oh, so what do you think about the teacher pay situation?"  Um...hello.  I am a teacher.  Why is the first thought in our culture about how much I am paid?  If I had responded that I was the North Carolina Firefighter of the year, I can only imagine that the response would be something like, "Wow, thank you for your service.  I know you sacrifice so much to keep North Carolina safe.  You are a true modern day hero."  At least, that would be my response.  Maybe even, "I know we don't pay you nearly enough for your sacrifice."  Now, before some people take my comments completely out of context, let me clarify for everyone that I love and appreciate firemen and ALL state workers.  As a matter of fact, I would have lost my home to wildfires twice if not for my local fire department! 

So, what does this line of questioning illustrate?  Our lack of cultural awareness as to the real job of a teacher. For many, the only dealings with teachers come from their own childhood for which the reality and clarity has faded with age. Many believe everything they read on social media or see in the movies is the reality of the classroom.  Let me assure you, I could make a movie of my classroom, and some days would make you want to give everything you have to provide a loving home environment for my students, while other days would make you want to start taking anti-depressants if you have to hear one more parent or community member degrade your professional career. Regardless, you will find an educator who respects the needs of her students and constantly instills in them that they are loved, valued, and worthy.  You see, we educators understand that education is an essential element of a contributing citizen.  Why, then, must our society base the value of education on monetary gain?  Where are the North Carolina educational values of days past?

Bottom line: Educators need a raise.  Not just the novice, not just the veteran.  Every. Single. Educator.  ALL state employees deserve a raise. A raise not only in salary, but a raise in cultural respect for our professions. Only then will our past educational values finally resurface to bring inspiration and hope for North Carolina’s future generations.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Long, lost Blogger returns!

Yes, it has been a while since I have blogged.  It has been a whirlwind the past few months, and honestly, it has been hard for me to keep up with myself! In an effort to "catch everyone up," let me give a quick highlight of what has happened since September of 2015:

  • Visit with the State Board to schools in Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County.
  • Public School Forum and the Education Policy class (EPFP) is in full swing having had a fall retreat, classes this fall, and a Christmas gathering. I am learning SO much from the incredible opportunities afforded by the Public School Forum.
  • Ocracoke Trip with Appalachian State University's Appalachian Community of Education Scholars (ACES).
  • State Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Council Meetings.
  • North Carolina State Board of Education meetings each month.
  • First meeting of the Educator Quality Workgroups (the TOY and POY teams merged).
  • Various speaking engagements with Teacher Cadets and Beginning Teachers from ECU to Wilmington.
  • 2016-2017 Regional Teachers of the Year announcements.
  • Convening of State Teachers of the Year in San Antonio, TX (which will receive a blog post of its own very soon).
It really doesn't look like much, but this list has afforded 13,000 miles on the State vehicle. In the coming blogs, I will focus on a specific aspect of what I am learning during this incredible once-in-a-lifetime journey!  Thank you for your constant support and prayers during my year as NC Teacher of the Year.  I am honored to represent the greatest educators in the nation!