Slice of Life 2013

Slice of Life August 6, 2013: Return on Investment?

Slice of Life
How much are teachers worth?

Depends upon who you ask and when you ask them.

Lately here in North Carolina, your answer might be “not much.” Recent actions by the NC legislature sent a clear message to those of us in the trenches that our contribution to society is minimal at best, a complete drain at worst. We are “whiny,” “lazy”, complainers who always want more money for working “banker’s hours” and having “summers off.”

Yet, in the wake of a school shooting or natural disaster, teachers who gave their lives to protect students are hailed as “heroes.” The public can’t say enough wonderful things about how great teachers are and how they should be paid well to reflect the adoring public’s admiration and gratitude.

That is until the next state budget talks begin.

You see, as a nation we have a short memory.

It seems that many Americans have forgotten the very people who helped them to get to where they are today. After all, today’s politicians, doctors, lawyers, executives, did not get to their current positions without the encouragement and support of a few good teachers along the way.

Think back over the course of your life and identify at least one teacher who stands out in your memory as the one that made the difference for you. It could be he/she helped you to love reading or writing, maybe to finally understand algebra, discover your passion for science, or a love of history.

Most of us, no matter what our experiences have been in school, can identify at least one teacher (if not more) who made a difference in our lives. Their impact might not have been discernible to anyone other than us. Our parents and our closest friends might never have known the impact this teacher made on our lives, but we know.

We remember the teacher who…

Noticed us when we felt invisible.
Recognized an emerging talent and encouraged us to pursue it.
Cared when we were going through tough times.
Fed us when we were hungry, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Represented stability in our lives when so much was changing.
Lit the spark that fueled the fire of a lifelong passion or career.

It all started with that teacher. The one we will never forget.

These days the talk about teachers seems to forget the many “untestable” things that teachers do and the major influence they can have on young lives. It appears that our value is all about that “one test” on that one day. Teachers know that there are a multitude of influences on a student that they can’t control that will determine a student’s score on these high-stakes tests.

For example, I am a National Board’s certified teacher and I also hold a Master’s degree in addition to my certification in middle school English/Language Arts. I am one of the “lucky ones” who is paid for these “extras,” something that the state of North Carolina does not see as valuable.

The legislature feels that the “return on investment” for the state on these “extras” is not worth the money they throw at it. According to them, teachers who go the extra mile to enhance their training and education don’t always produce the highest test scores on end of grade tests. The return on investment for the state is not good enough to warrant paying us for these extras anymore. National Board’s pay is still being given, but it was on the chopping block this year and we expect it will be next year. It follows that if all teacher “incentives” are being removed, cutting National Board’s pay can’t be far behind.

But I challenge you to consider this: Teachers who pursue advanced degrees and training often share similar characteristics. They are lifelong learners who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and share their love of learning with others, including their students. I know that whenever I take a workshop, read a book, or participate in some type of learning experience, I can’t wait to share that with my students. They see me as a role model of an adult who takes lifelong learning seriously and they catch my enthusiasm. Message: Learning isn’t just for kids!

Teachers who pursue the rigorous process of National Board Certification, are dedicated enough to devote countless hours to this process, over and above the requirements of their full-time teaching positions. When I was pursuing National Boards, I spent every weekend getting together with two of my colleagues to work on the extensive writing required for the products. This took months to complete and we sacrificed much time and energy, including time with our families, to pursue this certification. National Board Certification requires that a teacher closely examine his/her practice, critically and reflectively, and that process can’t help but influence the student learning in those classrooms. Will this necessarily translate to higher test scores on the End of Grade test? Often it does, but is there a direct correlation? No. Here’s why.

As a master’s level, NBCT teacher, I teach to the best of my ability every day. My passion and enthusiasm for learning spills over to my students, and most learn the daily objectives and more. Many of them will show what they know on this one test on this one day.

But then there’s…

Nadia, who has only been in this country for one year, speaks little to no English and has to take this reading test.

Jack, who can read just fine, but has decided he “just isn’t feelin’ it” on the day of the test and sleeps through three quarters of it, bubbling in random answers ten minutes before time is called.

Jon, who can barely keep his eyes open because he was up until 3am playing the video game, Grand Theft Auto.

Tanya, who can’t stop crying because she got into a fight on the bus on the way to school, and she is scared that she will be beaten up when she goes to gym later that day.

Mary, who has ADHD and didn’t take her meds that morning. She is barely able to sit still and needs to do so and remain quiet for close to 4 hours.

Sam, who’s fighting to stay awake, too. You see, Sam’s family is homeless and sleeping at the shelter is hit or miss. His cab got him to school late today and he wasn’t able to eat the free breakfast that is provided for him. He’s hungry and tired and passing this test is the last thing on his mind.

These are examples from my own classroom, but my experience is not unique. Children like this populate all teachers’ classrooms to one degree or another. Some teachers may have less, some more, but ALL teachers have students in our rooms that are under the influence of circumstances that are not things we as teachers can control.

So, yes, you can see how having a Master’s degree or NBCT cannot change the basic realities of life in public school classrooms today. Sometimes, in spite of these overwhelming circumstances, my students rise to the occasion and perform exceptionally, but many do not. They are also smart enough to know that accountability on high stakes testing is really not about them. The stakes are high only for us, the teachers. Why worry about how you are going to do on a test if you know that you will move to the next grade regardless of your score? Students may not perform well on these tests, but they are not stupid.

So, is the “no return on investment” argument worthy of our attention? Does it make sense to cut this incentive to teachers, one of only two ways teachers can increase their own pay without leaving the classroom?

Even if these teachers with “extras” don’t produce consistently superior test scores on this one end of grade exam, their impact on students will still be felt in so many intangible, untestable ways.

Remember those teachers who made a difference in your own life. My guess is their influence had little to do with your end of grade test scores, but the imprint they left on your life is indelible.