With teacher bashing all the rage these days, we thought we’d show what teachers are actually facing when they step into the classroom each day. In no particular order, here are the top eight challenges facing educators this year:
1. All those kids!!
In Georgia this May, after state funding for schools was cut by nearly $1 billion, the state Board of Education voted to lift all class size limits. “We don’t have a choice. We didn’t give them enough money,” said state school Superintendent Kathy Cox.
And, of course, it’s the same story in states across the country. It’s tough for educators—but even tougher for those kids who need their attention. “There are a lot of geniuses sitting in the back of our classes, but they don’t get properly taught in classrooms with more than 30 other kids,” said one Los Angeles student in a recent news article.
2. Turning on technology
Students today are technophiles. They love their video games—all fast-paced and addictive—and they can’t put down their smart phones, iPods, and social networks. And educators? They might also love new technologies, but even if they don’t, they realize that technology often is the key to locking in a student’s interest. The challenge is, how? Deitrya Anderson, a Tulsa teacher, puts those phones “to an educational use” through a site called Wiffiti that receives and displays student questions via text message. Others are using Twitter—sending tweets to students to remind them of key points from the day’s lesson or use it as a language arts tool. Even Facebook has its merits. Susan Colquitt, a New Mexico teacher, says she uses it to answer her students’ questions and mentor them.
Remember Phoebe Prince? Or Megan Meier? Both girls committed suicide after long, humiliating bouts with cyberbullies. Their deaths were tragic and unusual, but many kids are struggling to cope with this particularly virulent form of bullying. According to Pew Research, nearly one in three teens say they’ve been victimized via the Internet or cell phones. A teacher’s role—or a school’s role—is still fuzzy in many places. What legal rights or responsibilities do they have to silence bullies, especially when they operate from home? To more clearly define their prerogative, many schools are writing cyberbullying policies into their handbooks, in effect forcing students and their parents to sign contracts that allow schools to discipline them for Internet abuse. But prevention is the best policy and experts say the answer is more conversation with kids. Peer models—often from older high school grades—can be effective discussion leaders.
“Testing, testing, testing, what is the point of testing? Do we use the data to remediate those who do not measure up? No!” complained Shelley Dunham, a Kansas special educator, on an NEA discussion board. Instead the federal law takes those test scores, which are incredibly flawed pictures of achievement, and uses them to punish schools. (And don’t even get us started on the inappropriate use of tests with students with disabilities….) This year, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (better known as NCLB) is up for reauthorization. The Obama blueprint offers more of the same, but the NEA’s Positive Agenda for ESEA Reauthorization would offer multiple measures of student learning, smaller class sizes, adequate funding, and support for teachers—even while insisting on high standards for students. Go to EducationVotes to find out more about this sensible approach.
5. Parent involvement
Often, it feels like there are just two kinds of parents: The ones hunkering in a cave somewhere and the ones camping in your pocket. Unreachable? Or unavoidable. Either way, teachers wish for the kind of parent involvement that supports learning. Elusive parents usually have a reason for their mysterious ways, like language fluency. In New Mexico, teacher Ricardo Rincon asks students to host parent conferences. He also crafts homework assignments that don’t assume parents have advanced skills. For example, instead of asking them to supervise the addition of fractions, they might be asked to ensure their kids read for 30 minutes at home.
6. Your salary
What salary, educators ask. After paying the mortgage, student loan debts, medical bills, utilities, car and food, what’s left? “With pay cuts, furlough days, increased taxes and other bills, for the first time I am falling behind in my financial obligation, ruining a 30-year record of perfect credit,” writes one fed-up California teacher. “I feel my only route is retirement and possibly filing for bankruptcy.” NEA’s campaign for professional pay for teachers and support professionals is trying to change that.
7. Getting healthy
Everybody from Michelle Obama to the Naked Chef Jamie Oliver has turned their attention to that kid who can’t quite fit behind his desk in the back row. According to the federal government, nearly one in five children and adolescents are obese—nearly triple the rate of a generation ago—putting them in great risk of diabetes and heart disease. The Child Nutrition reauthorization bill, which would establish national nutrition standards for school food and provide more training opportunities to cafeteria employees, needs support. It passed the Senate in August and still needs a vote in the House. Some school districts are ahead of the curve. In Oregon, as part of a growing effort to close inequities in hunger and nutrition, using local produce and balanced meals, head cook Rhonda Sand has been slicing up jicama spears and filling trays with mixed berries—“They really weren’t a fan of the beets though,” she told Today’s OEA, smiling.
8. Finding the funding
On the one hand, there are public schools that can’t afford to pay their educators, fix their leaky roofs, or replace their moldy textbooks. On the other, there are hostile legislators who would love to divert the ever-dwindling funds for public education to private schools and companies and a federal government that believes the Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion reward for states that promise to tie teacher pay to test scores, is the answer. (Clue: It isn’t!) Activism is critical this year. NEA activists will help elect pro-public education candidates—through donations to the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education and participation in local phone banks and door-to-door walks. And they’ll be holding those politicians accountable. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, but I’m not political. I’m an educator!’” says Lee Schreiner, an active Ohio teacher. “And I say, ‘Bull! Name one thing in your job that isn’t political.’” To learn more about NEA’s work for pro-public education candidates and issues, visit EducationVotes.
Illustration: David Clark