Jul 19, 2011

A Teacher Tackles The Tough Issues Being Debated In Education Today [Or, Blah, Blah, I Got Nuthin, Blah Blah.]

Amanda Williams has been teaching first grade for 11 years in the Arizona public school system. She has a degree in Early Childhood Education from Arizona State University.

I have taught first grade in the public school system in Arizona for 11 years and am currently pursuing National Board Certification. Based on my experiences of the last decade, I see very clearly the crisis going on in Arizona and our country as a whole and I want to support the cause of education reform. Michelle Rhee had the courage to initiate change for my profession and for children, which is why I signed the StudentsFirst pledge and strongly support this organization. I humbly speak to you as just one of the many good teachers in our country. These are my opinions, and I do not claim to know everything and have all the answers. I am only giving a picture of my experience in the public school system, and as we all know, experiences vary across the country.

On the topic of teacher evaluations:

For years, I have felt that there should be better evaluation systems for teachers. Why do I feel this way? I don't feel that administrators can get a clear picture of a teacher's ability by one or two observations a year. I also think there are many other aspects involved such as, ability to communicate well with families, involving families, providing quality interventions for students who struggle, evaluation by fellow teachers, contributions to the school community, attendance, and yes, most importantly, student achievement.

How do we assess student achievement fairly? That is a huge challenge that we face at this point. I will suggest that, I, as well as any other good teacher, can clearly show you how students have progressed in my classroom. My district has many forms of assessment that we use throughout the year to evaluate student progress. The question should be: "Did this teacher help to close the achievement gap for this student? Did the student make adequate to excellent progress while with this teacher?" Even though it is difficult, we must keep working to determine student learning as a part of teacher evaluations.

I teach in a state where tenure has been non-existent for many years, however, our evaluation systems can be improved. Our state is currently in the process of changing this system and we just recently changed the "Last In, First Out" procedure of laying off teachers based on time served not performance.

These are all very good steps in the right direction, however there are many kinks to be worked out in the process of evaluation. Administrators must rise to the challenge of holding teachers accountable and to high standards. A fair evaluation system will help them to do this. I urge districts, schools, states, to involve the teachers in creating such a tool. Administrators also need to be evaluated with the same high standards.

On the topic of bureaucracy:

Waiting for Superman really put into words for me, the frustration that I feel with our public school system. "The Blob" as they called it, is a mess of bureaucracy that is preventing change. One of the areas of disconnect can sometimes be the Governing Boards and the State Legislatures. Often candidates for these positions do not have the experience needed to make the crucial decisions that affect our schools. The public must educate them on what is best for our students, as well as be informed voters. Teachers and parents have the ability and, I believe, the responsibility, to be the strongest voice to these people.

On the topic of outside factors:

Good teachers and schools try their hardest to reach out to families and involve them in their child's education, but often our students are not having their basic needs met at home. In my experience, many families are just trying to make ends meet and get food on the table. One of the biggest challenges for teachers is that in some areas we have children constantly moving in and out of schools and districts. We do the best we can in determining students' gaps and providing interventions to close these gaps. And we can never stop working hard in this area during the time we have with children, but our communities must work hard too to help ensure no kids are left behind. I am not making excuses, just stating reality.

It is my hope that the Common Core standards will help in the area of raising expectations and standards for all children. The Common Core standards are also a huge step forward in aligning what we are expecting of our students across the country, from one state to the next. Teachers must be held accountable for meeting these standards.

Teachers working toward change:

I joined StudentsFirst because I want to be a part of change in our country. I want to be involved with a group of parents, educators and concerned citizens who know that student achievement is the absolute most important thing in our schools.

As a teacher, I want to be held to high standards and I believe that good teachers will strive to reach those high standards for their students. In my opinion, it is also a step toward great teachers receiving the recognition that they deserve and eventually changing the way our schools and our profession are viewed by our country. I care about my students and also about my profession and want to see both flourish as they should.

I see the StudentsFirst organization as a way for people to communicate their thoughts and ideas about things that are happening in our country. I am thankful and excited that I can hear from other teachers and professionals from around the country regarding educational issues. I feel that we have a power to use this network for the greater good, to spread a message for change, and to actually make change.

At times, I think the StudentsFirst message, especially regarding LIFO, can be misconstrued in a way that makes teachers feel like we are being blamed for the big mess that we are in. That is not the case.  If you read StudentsFirst's website with their policy agenda, their blogs, their editorials, their Facebook page or if you reach out to them directly like I did, you will see that StudentsFirst acknowledges that teachers are the solution to the problem, that teachers are the most important aspect of promoting change and closing the student achievement gap. I think sometimes teachers feel they need to defend themselves and what they know. And often times, we do need to do that. But this is not the purpose of the StudentsFirst blogs and Facebook discussions. None of us have all the answers, nor the means of solving all of the nations problems. Nor does StudentsFirst. However, this organization is focusing on things that need to be repaired, ensuring that great teachers are teaching children. This is a step forward and only one of many.

We teachers should be supporting each other in these national efforts, as well as in our schools. Our main goal: student achievement. We need to set aside our egos and our need to be "right" and focus on exchanging ideas and collaborating in a respectful way, just as we do in our schools with our colleagues. Instead of focusing on what is not being done and blaming others for what they may not be doing, we need to focus on what each of us CAN do, to make a difference. We are all on the same team (our students' team) and should be celebrating and supporting each other. StudentsFirst is still growing and developing more and more ways for teachers to become involved in speaking out for their students and for reform. One way is to communicate nationwide with other professionals. Let's do it in a way that will reflect teachers as the dedicated, caring and knowledgeable professionals that we are. I urge teachers to become active in their local communities in spreading the word that we need to "Save Great Teachers" and talking to other educators about StudentsFirst. We do have the power to make change for our students and our profession.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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