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Federal and State Masterminds
In January 2001, Bush announced, pen in hand, "These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America."
Noble? Yes. Well planned? No. The top objectives listed under the act are greater flexibility for states, school districts, and schools; increased accountability; more choices for parents and students; and putting reading first. But none of these goals can be achieved without a permanent cadre of quality teachers.
So why isn't reduction of teacher turnover included in the act's objectives? Well, actually, it is -- right under the priority status of "Other Major Program Changes." Title II of the act devotes $2.85 billion dollars to "preparing, training, and recruiting" quality principals and teachers. Which is well and good, but, class, please tell me the very important missing word. That's right. Retaining! It doesn't matter how much money the government fuels into preparation, training, and recruiting if those same teachers decide not to keep on teaching, which is exactly what's happening.
Like a blind man playing darts, Bush can't see that his plan is off-target. He seems to believe that the teacher turnover problem will be fixed if he can have a capable, warm body in each and every room. Well, he may be right, temporarily -- until the next school year when he has to fill the same number of slots again.
Akin to the federal masterminds, state educational leaders often spend their time fighting the wrong problems. North Carolina has a lot to be proud of. It's committed to the standards set by the Southern Regional Education Board, its average SAT score is up by six points, and it's 21st in the nation for teacher salaries, with an average of $42,959. Still, the number of teachers North Carolina hired for the 2001-02 school year is nearly identical to the number hired the year before.
Phil Kirk, State Board of Education Chairman, says, "With turnover rates this high, we need to recruit approximately 11,000 new teachers annually across the state. ..we must continue seeking ways to improve the stability of the teaching profession."
The NC Board of Education's Strategic Plan for Excellent Schools plainly states, "Test scores and rankings make headlines in education news, but quality teachers, principals and other staff are the key to North Carolina's continuing public school improvement."
Why then have these visionaries made "Quality Teachers, Administrators, and Staff" their strategic priority number three instead of number one? Until our national, state, and local educational leaders are willing to make teacher retention their main concern, quality teachers will continue to be this century's new dropout problem.
Learning From Experience
I should know. Like Richard, I graduated with honors and a masters in teaching, ready to make a difference. My first year, in Charleston, SC, was tough. Although my hours were supposed to be from 8am to 3:15pm, I rarely returned home before 5:30 due to my assigned duty as head of the cheerleading program. When I didn't have practice or a game to supervise, I had to attend new teacher support meetings. These were designed to ease the stress of the first year; however, they only added another time constraint.
When I did finally get home, my job wasn't over. In order to be a good teacher, I had to grade papers in a timely manner, record grades regularly, return phone calls and e-mails, prepare test questions, and complete paperwork from the school. My planning period didn't give me time to get those matters taken care of since I had to run back and forth to the front office, make copies, tutor students who were behind or needed to make up missed work, and write my lesson plans in the correct format for the following day.
Even though I felt overwhelmed, I knew that feeling would pass over time as I accumulated materials and experience. And I loved the exchange of learning between my students and me. I didn't even get stuck on the student who sold marijuana from my trailer porch or the one who called me a stupid bitch for giving her an A- instead of an A. They didn't matter as much as the student who left an illustrated poem on my desk thanking me for getting him excited about writing and life again, or the students who showed up early just to share with me the short stories or poetry they had written.
I loved how vital teaching made me feel, but after awhile I couldn't handle the work environment. I made enough money to pay my bills, but I was always on edge. I rarely had time to relax during my 25-minute lunch period, and from 8am until bedtime it was go, go, go. I began to envy my friends who took a 45-minute lunch break, could use the bathroom whenever they had to go, and were able to leave work behind.