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It's time for teachers to speak up

Posted: September 14, 2012 4:28 p.m.
Updated: September 17, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Every year during the week before school starts, I have the privilege to speak to all of our teachers as part of the district’s instructional fair. Normally, I use this occasion to thank and recognize these dedicated professionals for all that they have done and continue to do to keep our district moving forward. When I spoke to our teachers on August 14, my main message was that although our district has fallen to the bottom third of our state in terms of funding, the results they are producing are certainly far from the bottom third. (The fact that our district lags so far behind in funding is a topic for another day…)

This year, however, I also talked more about the legislative process than I ever have when speaking to a large group of teachers. I believe that the times require that educators in our state talk openly and honestly about what is happening to the profession. Here in South Carolina, misinformed politicians and well-funded special interests -- many that receive huge amounts of out-of-state money -- have attempted to paint public education as a “failure” in order to advocate for vouchers and other so-called innovations. Unfortunately, this crowd now monopolizes the narrative.

I believe that part of the reason this has occurred is that our profession has failed to talk proudly about what we do, about the fact that we serve every student who comes to our door and do our best to meet their needs -- regardless. Educators are typically pretty modest. They normally just “do their thing” and don’t make a lot of noise. But I believe that in the current environment, especially in South Carolina, educators need to be more willing to highlight their work and celebrate why it is so special, important and essential.

At the instructional fair, I shared the story of Jamie Vollmer, a Midwestern business executive of an ice cream company whose blueberry flavor had been recognized by People Magazine as the best in the country. At the end of a speech he made to school district staff in which he advocated that schools operate more like business, a veteran English teacher asked Mr. Vollmer what his company did when a batch of inferior blueberries was delivered. When Mr. Vollmer replied that he sent them back, the teacher retorted, “….We can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!” Not surprisingly, the audience went wild. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I would note, however, that after this eye-opening experience, Mr. Vollmer became and continues to be a vocal champion of public education.

Over the past 10 years, teachers have had to endure increasing intrusion into their work, mostly foisted upon them by politicians and others who have no clue about teaching and would probably be lost in a K-12 classroom. More testing, more mandates, more reports, more of almost anything you can think of. Except for funding. There’s a lot less of that. The bottom line is that not-so-well meaning politicians and others with a self-serving agenda are now setting the tone.

Recently, Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed funding for teacher raises, which was thankfully overridden by the General Assembly. In addition, she led a vote by the Budget and Control Board to pass more health care costs on to all teachers. At the August State Board meeting, State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais stated that teachers do not want to be accountable. I believe these actions are emblematic of the lack of respect that many of our state leaders have for teachers.

The S.C. Department of Education has now rolled out a plan for “Value Added Evaluation,” which will significantly base teacher evaluation on one-time standardized tests. No matter that studies show as much as a 35 percent error rate in value-added models. No matter that teacher involvement in the process to develop the proposed plan was negligible. No matter that the plan was written in isolation by political appointees having limited, if any, classroom experience. Think of all the outstanding teachers in Kershaw County alone who could have lent real expertise to the process. It’s simply hard to justify.

It’s time for teachers in our state to speak up loudly about their profession and what is being done to it. The Kershaw County Board of School Trustees has established a goal for the year to raise staff awareness of the impact of the political process on the classroom. There are about 50,000 teachers in South Carolina. If 50,000 teachers start to demand respect and a seat at the table on decisions that affect them and their students, it would be hard for politicians to ignore. I sincerely hope that this sleeping giant will awaken, and soon. Fifty thousand (50,000) teachers and their families could swing any election in our state.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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