‘Rigor, relevance and relationships:’ Teachers fear cuts will restrict instructional planning, time with students
By Matthew Stewart | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Society has changed, and education is trying to change with it, according to classroom teachers.
“Education is different from any point in the past,” said Courtney Whitehead, who teaches English at Carpenters Middle School. “We’ve got state tests, increased accountability, and revised teacher evaluations. We’ve responded in multiple ways. We’re a data-driven organization that’s working to maximize the academic potential of every child through the three Rs: rigor, relevance and relationships.”
Whitehead, who was recently named the school district’s Teacher of the Year for grades 5-8, works to first cultivate relationships with her students. “I’m a Blount County native, and it’s a huge benefit. When I walk into the classroom, I’ve got some background knowledge. I know their families, and I might have known their parents. It’s an effective icebreaker.”
While working to build relationships, Whitehead strives to provide rigorous, relevant instruction. She faces some challenges, though.
The teacher is provided with a 6-year-old language arts textbook, which isn’t aligned to the Common Core State Standards. “At this point, it’s not even grade equivalent. I’ve built my own curriculum for several years, and I’ve worked to locate material from other resources. I haven’t even used my textbooks for three years.”
Whitehead gets a lot of information from online resources, such as the Louisiana Department of Education and New York Department of Education. She spends between 30 minutes and 45 minutes working on every lesson plan.
The teacher creates most lesson plans outside of school. She completes a lot of work after her family has went to bed.
Whitehead has additional school duties, as well. She leads parent meetings, performs bus and hall duties, and responds to parent communications.
The teacher also attends athletic events and other extracurricular activities. “It’s part of building relationships with the kids. They need to know that I care about them, and I’m willing to put them before other responsibilities.”
Whitehead also provides early bird tutoring on Thursday mornings, serves as cross country coach, and works on Carpenters Middle’s Leadership Team and Blount County’s Textbook Adoption Committee. “I love my job. I want my school and my students to have the most opportunities available to them.”
Staff members are working to provide students with those opportunities, she said. “We’re truly blessed to have the technology that we have at Carpenters Middle School. However, we’ve still got needs.”
Whitehead has two classroom computers, which are nearly 10 years old. “The kids have more powerful devices in their pockets.”
She has allowed students to bring their cell phones, iPads, and laptops on research days. “We can’t provide them with those tools, but it doesn’t mean that we should limit them. Businesses are going to ask them to solve a problem. They’re not going to limit their resources. They’re not going to tell them to put the technology away and get out their books, paper, and pencils. They want the answer, and it’s up to their employees to find it. When we talk about relevant classroom instruction, we have to recognize that’s what we’re preparing these kids for today. They need real-world experiences.”
Children also crave this relevance, Whitehead said. “My son is downloading apps on our iPad right now. That’s the world he’s living in, a world of technology and instant information. How can I send him to a school where he’s given a book, paper and pencil and tell him that’s relevant?”
Teachers are working to bridge these gaps on a daily basis, she said. Carpenters Middle School’s teachers rotate planning periods, giving up 45 minutes of planning time every other nine weeks to staff the school’s study hall and tutorial lab.
Whitehead personally works with students who are located within several points of being proficient on state tests. When the teacher doesn’t work in the tutorial lab, she’s using planning time to create lesson plans for them.
“I’m planning to teach a tutorial right now,” she said. “If I lose more planning time, I’m not sure what I’d do. I worry about it.”
Whitehead also worries about the potential loss of teaching assistants. A teaching assistant works 45 minutes per day in her classroom. The teaching assistant provides instructional support, such as pull-out services.
Carpenters Middle School also administers more than 10 formative and summative assessments per year, Whitehead said. “Without TAs, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to meet IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). The testing window is so narrow that it’s going to be difficult to provide those accommodations.”
She’s also concerned the changes will impact classroom instruction and student learning. “I can’t keep juggling everything forever. Something will have to give.”
Relationships are key
Some teachers, such as Mary Blount Elementary School’s Heather Woods, are already struggling to maintain relationships due to increased responsibilities. Last year, the art teacher worked four days at Mary Blount Elementary and worked one day at Middlesettlements Elementary.
Woods taught 630 Mary Blount students and 100 Middlesettlements students. She teaches students for 35 minutes per week.
“Relationships are the key to success,” Woods said. “However, it’s my biggest challenge due to the high volume of students that I see each week and the limited amount of time that I’m actually seeing them.”
Special areas teachers used to have 50-minute classes, she said. They were cut back to 35 minutes about six years ago.
If the school district cuts three elementary art, music and physical education teachers, Woods will spend less time with students. School officials would redistribute the remaining teachers between the district’s 14 elementary schools.
Teachers might be required to travel between campuses in the school day, she said. In the past, school officials have tried to minimize travel.
“Relationships are the only way to bridge gaps with students,” Woods said. “If I lose even more time, I don’t know what I’ll do. I might never get to learn their names.”
Tuesday: Teachers talk about classroom impact