Our students need great teachers, we should try to keep them

By CATHERINE KIRK CKIRK@DDTONLINE.COM,

I have the utmost respect for educators as it is a career I never want to be in. Teachers, without a doubt, don’t get the credit they deserve. Not only do they sit with a class full of children who come from various backgrounds to teach them the same lessons, they also deal with the constant pressures of district and state testing.

My friend, Brooke, is in her second year of teaching and she is already exhausted with the career.

Brooke is someone anyone would be lucky to have as a teacher. I wish I had her as a teacher. She is smart, funny and overflowing with knowledge. She can explain subjects in ways I never could and creates brilliant projects for her students to help them better understand whatever it is they’re studying. In just her first year of teaching, she was awarded with a C.A.R.E. Employee of the Month award for the entire Texarkana School District.

But even she, someone who is a fine example of what makes a fabulous teacher, is feeling drained. How can this be for someone who is passionate about her work and a far cry from what one would consider lazy?

In a recent conversation with me, she said, “You always hear about teachers who taught for 30-plus years and I really just don’t know how they did it for so long.”

The difference in her and those who taught 30 years ago is an entirely different system, and it hasn’t changed entirely for the better.

It used to be that teachers, based on their subjects to teach, created lesson plans and went from there. The challenge of coping with a classroom full of students with various personalities and backgrounds was still there and a challenge in of itself, but there wasn’t the looming pressure of standardized tests.

Between the pressure of being a perfect teacher and producing students who come from vastly different backgrounds to produce acceptable scores is a daunting task for anyone.

I don’t believe teachers were simply better 30 years ago, but rather the system has just changed, and not entirely for the better.

The pressures and demands on modern teachers is incredible.

Monday morning, local longtime educator Leslie Nichols, who has been in this line of work for about 30 years and has taught at every grade level, and I chatted over some coffee.

Nichols, who now specializes in helping students with dyslexia, spoke to me in great detail about her years as a teacher and the changes she has witnessed over the span of her career.

When Nichols first started, she said not only was the curriculum different, there were no state tests to worry about and teachers didn’t fear losing their jobs if the majority of the 25-some students in her charge didn’t perform adequately.

“It has changed since I started, that’s for sure. I sympathize with today’s classroom teachers because they are under so much pressure,” Nichols said. “You’re supposed to teach whatever way fits every student and that’s just impossible in the real world we live in.”

To add even more stress and confusion to the mix, Mississippi has switched state tests three times in three years, starting with the Mississippi Curriculum Test and moving to the PARCC test in the 2014-15 school year. The state switched again in the 2015-16 school year and currently uses the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP).

The pressure isn’t just on the teachers, but students, too. Nine-week tests, finals, state assessments and district-level tests consume a large portion of their time.

That’s a lot of stress for youngsters, especially if they want to consider being involved in extracurricular activities or get an after-school job.

But, there’s something positive to be said for MAAP and how it has affected students’ learning.

When MAAP was first administered in 2015-16, one-third of students in the state met or exceeded grade-level expectations in ELA and mathematics. In 2018-19, closer to half of students met or exceeded expectations in each subject. ELA achievement has increased from 33.6% to 41.6% of students scoring proficient or advanced. Students scoring proficient or advanced in mathematics has jumped from 33.0% to 47.3%.

Since MAAP was first administered in 2016, the number of districts with greater than 45% of students scoring proficient or advanced in ELA has more than tripled, and mathematics has quadrupled.

It is great to see there is improvement being made, but a teacher’s fear of potentially losing their job because not enough students achieved a certain score seems downright unfair.

I attended the Greenville Public School District and I’ve been in enough classrooms as a student and spoken to enough teachers, such as Brook and Nichols, to know there is absolutely no way to make an impact on all students in the same way. Not only does every single child have a differently personality type, but their home lives make a major impact. I firmly believe a student’s academic achievement starts from the home.

If a child does not get encouragement from his or her family, the chances of them succeeding is minimal.

Some of my classmates got their only meals for the day at school. I saw on multiple occasions students get in physical altercations over wanting someone else's meal because they were just that hungry.

Some students came from homes where the parents were nonexistent and there was no one at home to love and care for them. No one was there to ask how their day went and what homework needed to be done. The only reason they even made a point to come to school was because they knew they would at least eat two meals those days.

I know if it wasn't for my supporting mother who not only ensured I had the basic necessities any child deserves, but who also made sure I did all of my assignments, I would not have done as well in my classes as I did.

For me to judge my fellow classmates who did not get the love and support I did at home would be severely unfair, just as it is unfair to expect a teacher to make those changes in a student's life.

This year, Brooke said she has a particularly difficult class. The large majority of her students come from struggling home lives, many like the ones I just described. Should her teaching skills and the worry of whether or not her contract will be renewed be judged based on their test scores at the end of the year? I certainly don’t think so.

I had many wonderful teachers who cared about their students and wanted us all to perform well, but the unfortunate truth is they cannot make the same impact on everyone. It's hard to convince a student who is hungry and doesn't know the last time they saw their father or mother to be invested in a history lesson on World War I or care about an essay on The Canterbury Tales.

"It's easy to look at test scores on a spreadsheet and make quick judgements based on the numbers, but there is so much more to it", says an education expert that made edubirdie reviews.

If we continue to punish teachers who are trying their best, they will leave and the people who could become great teachers are opting for other career paths. It is already happening.

When the day comes most of the good teachers are gone and students are left with those who are only there to receive a paycheck, who then are we really punishing?

There is no simple solution to this issue, but I know punishing teachers for factors they cannot control is not one of them. Our students need great teachers, we should at least be trying to keep them around.

Catherine Kirk is managing editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. She can be reached at ckirk@ddtonline.com.