A highlight of the Delta County Joint School District #50's fourth annual legislative day was the participation of a nine-member teacher panel. The teachers, who represented a range of district primary and secondary schools, responded to a series of questions posed by state and local policy makers.
This is a summary of the questions directed to teachers and their answers.
What are your biggest challenges?
Teachers responded that they are very busy and challenged to find time to run the daily operations of their classrooms. Curriculum options are limited and curriculum is sometimes outdated. Class size sometimes prevents teachers from helping students who are coming to school with emotional life challenges that affect their learning in the classroom. Teachers are seeing a rise in student mental health and basic needs issues such as nutrition and adequate sleep. They need support to help students and feel it is essential to get families invested in their child's learning.
Are there things the legislature could do to improve your job?
Teachers responded that the current school funding formula hurts small schools. Staffing at smaller schools is barebones and evaluation paperwork takes administrators away from working with teachers and students. Data collection and testing requirements take away time teachers could spend working with students. Legislators should reduce data collection and evaluation mandates and trust teachers' professionalism. Some evaluation forms are as lengthy as 27 pages. Teachers currently employed have a strong desire to stay but they need a raise and there are not enough salary and benefit incentives to attract new teachers. Teacher benefits including the Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA) are not solid. Western Colorado schools have the lowest paid teachers. A fast food manager can make more. Teaching wages are not keeping pace with private sector salaries. Education is the cure for economic hard times but education needs qualified and well-paid teachers.
Would you recommend teaching jobs to young people?
Some teachers responded yes, others said no. One teacher said she loves her job but teacher training is expensive and graduates often carry a large student debt that is hard to manage on a new teacher's starting salary. Other teachers responded that, for the right person, the teaching profession is an admirable calling despite low salaries. Teaching is a life choice but low pay remains an issue. Teachers often have to work a second job during the summers to supplement their school year wages. One teacher polled his school colleagues and their answer to the question of recommending the teaching profession to young people was a resounding "no." The issues they cited were low pay and the time devoted to high stakes testing, paperwork, and excessive evaluations rather than to student instruction. If teachers were more valued and trusted as professionals it would be easier to recommend teaching as a profession.
How have students and teaching changed over the last few years?
The teachers responded that the need for special education has increased and the number of students coming to school with significant outside issues has skyrocketed. Some students are more volatile. Counselors are essential and there is a concern that the district may lose its current counselors who are grant funded. Student absenteeism is increasing. Regarding curriculum, over the last 10 years available elective classes and activities have vanished. For example, most students don't have physical education every day. The amount of testing is out of control and testing is expensive. As much as six weeks of a school year can be taken up with testing. Accountability is needed but testing needs to be greatly reduced, perhaps to a single test. Students are already stressed and testing adds to their anxiety. Schools are being asked to provide more things which were formerly family responsibilities such as meals, clothing and transportation. Some students need special help, but if they are constantly pulled from the classroom, those students miss out on class activities. On positive notes, the district has created a good balance between traditional learning and the use of technology and today's curriculum -- if kept current -- is more relevant and rich for students.
What do you need to help you be the best educator you can be?
The teachers responded that daily time for planning is essential. Curriculum needs to be kept up-to-date. Opportunities for professional development are important and the district has been supportive in providing such opportunities. Family support is crucial because things that happen outside the classroom greatly influence student success. Policy makers need to visit schools more often and recognize that today's school experience is vastly different from their own.
Do you feel you have support of the staff and the district?
The teachers responded to this question with a unanimous "yes."