Let's enact a better policy to keep teachers from leaving

On April 2, I left my Del Valle ISD classroom in a whirl of excitement and sadness: excitement because I was in labor; sadness because I was leaving my students behind, permanently. My students had been asking if I would return next year so they could visit me, and I told them that I wasn’t sure. But I knew. I see the strain of the current education policies on my students and co-workers, and that is a burden I do not want to bring home to my family. Unless we recognize the following four pillars of sound education policy, hard-working, dedicated and experienced teachers will continue to leave the profession, leaving our students bereft of our knowledge of content and school culture, role models in their community, and mentors of new teachers.

Class size matters. My largest class was 32 students. I had just enough seats for each student, but not enough time to give them the individual attention they need and deserve while also keeping the class on task. With large classes, students distract one another; differentiation is more difficult because needs are more varied; giving personal feedback is more time-consuming, especially when some students struggle more. When all classes are large (28-32), students learn not to expect detailed grading and feedback: a teacher who spends five minutes per assignment, with two assignments per week, for 120 students, grades 20 hours a week. That time exceeds a 50-minute daily planning period, especially when teachers need to make copies, call parents and prepare lessons (sometimes for multiple courses). Students deserve individualized attention, and teachers deserve time at home with their families.

Healthy employees make healthy schools. A common refrain after TribTalk published my first article was, “You don’t go into teaching for the money.” This is absolutely true. However, you also don’t go into teaching thinking that a profession requiring a bachelor’s degree and certification will need to be supplemented by income from a second job. Many teachers overwork themselves, not just by bringing grading and planning home, but by picking up part-time work to help cover expenses. If I stayed in teaching, I would need to work more to pay for daycare and my daughter’s insurance. In my school district, parents pay an additional $274 a month to put children on the high-deductible plan: families must meet a $5,000 deductible before insurance covers anything. This is a “don’t get sick” plan. Our teachers try to avoid going to the doctor, so they need more time to regain their health and energy. Students are left with either substitutes – and then a teacher exhausted from playing catch-up – or with a teacher who isn’t fully present. The inadequate pay and benefits mean our students get our teachers at less than their best.

The profession deserves respect. Students need to be surrounded by a culture that appreciates public education and its employees. It is harmful to both educators and students when public education is called “a monstrosity, a monopoly” by elected officials in the Legislature. Public education is neither: it cannot be a monopoly because it is not a business and is not for-profit; it is not a monstrosity because it is a public good providing the community with its right to a free education. Anyone who is concerned that public education is monstrous should go observe a classroom in their local schools and see the love, time and skill educators devote to our students. Perhaps once education is seen as noble and good again, the state will restore equitable funding.

Teaching is more than tests. Teachers and students alike burn out when the focus of education is on high-stakes testing. My students took STAAR-style assessments in each core subject every six weeks, so their teachers focus exclusively on tested standards. When students don’t perform well, they and the school both suffer. But students are more than a test score, and schools are more than an A-F letter grade. Narrowly defining students and schools limits the focus of public education and extinguishes the joy of learning and of teaching.

I will not be returning to the classroom this year. I will remain in education, advocating for students and teachers. Maybe, if the Legislature prioritizes education, teachers like me will return to the classroom.

 

Katie Plemmons

Former high school teacher

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