Archive for Friday, June 13, 2003

Survey reveals teachers’ tension

Educators frustrated with budget constraints, high expectations

June 13, 2003


Lucinda Crenshaw is feeling the sort of job pressure that zaps the energy even of classroom pros.

Crenshaw, a West Junior High School science teacher, is among a handful of teachers in the Lawrence public school district who have completed the rigorous task of earning national board certification. But those lofty credentials don't shield her from unprecedented federal education mandates, drastic state budget cuts and growing community expectations that place teachers under duress.

"Disgruntled is not accurate," she said. "I'd say overloaded, and getting close to that burnout feeling."

Her sentiment is shared by teachers across the nation, according to the study "Stand by Me" from the nonpartisan policy research group Public Agenda. With a survey of 1,345 teachers, Public Agenda discovered a theme of frustration among the nation's classroom educators.

Committed but dispirited, the researchers say, most teachers are unfairly blamed for academic shortcomings in schools, undermined by parents and distrustful of administrators.

Teachers surveyed feel squeezed by financial constraints that hold down salaries at the same time government edicts put more emphasis on accountability measures that punish poor performing schools and educators.

Janice Nicklaus, the Lawrence district's executive director of educational programming, said the survey pointed to an inescapable fact about U.S. public education: "Teaching is a very challenging job."

Interviews with Lawrence classroom teachers reveal support for some, but not all, of the survey conclusions.

Important, difficult job

Findings of a survey of nearly 1,400 teachers by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan policy research group:¢ Teachers love their profession but often see themselves under siege. For many, testing and accountability is the latest battleground.¢ Teachers have confidence in their own skills, but they doubt whether teachers by themselves really can make sure that all children learn.¢ Teachers often feel vulnerable to a wide range of influences -- unfair charges from parents and students, bureaucratic favoritism, simple-minded educational solutions and cost-cutting. Their union is their ally.¢ Teachers freely acknowledge that some teachers shouldn't be in teaching, but they believe tenure is needed to protect good teachers against unfair treatment.¢ Teachers are receptive to giving extra pay to those who work harder or who work in the most challenging schools. They balk at paying more to teachers based on test scores or the subjects they teach.¢ Teachers believe new teachers need help, especially in areas of discipline and classroom management. They encourage mentoring, but are mixed about professional development.

There's consensus among Lawrence teachers that teaching is still an important career. And there's agreement that the collision of dwindling resources and escalating accountability rules makes their jobs more difficult.

However, teachers in the district were split on the role of parents and administrators in rising stress in education circles.

Crenshaw said the gap between expectation and reality in the new federal education reform law No Child Left Behind had her colleagues on edge.

"When federal or state policies are put into place ... you always have the implementation. How do you make it happen versus what is on paper?"

Growing reliance on student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teacher effectiveness is troubling, she said.

"We all know that doesn't tell the whole story," she said. "There's some frustration with that."

Gretchen Lehman, who has taught music for 30 years, most recently at Kennedy School, said pumping up academic performance of all children in a 10,000-student district the guiding principle of No Child Left Behind would be daunting. It may even be unrealistic, she said.

"But I'm optimistic, because I have to be. I have to produce," said Lehman, a former Lawrence teacher of the year.

Shifting beliefs

Karen Lyerla, a teacher for 28 years who is in the integrated studies program at Lawrence High School, said the survey affirmed her belief a shift had occurred in teacher opinion about parents and administrators.

Parents don't demand the same level of discipline of their children as they once did, Lyerla said. Instead, she said, they place more of that burden on school teachers.

In addition, she said, some administrators don't stand up for teachers like they did in the old days.

"We have a lot of very dedicated teachers who give 150 percent every day," Lyerla said. "I don't think there is the quite 100 percent backing with teachers by administrators."

Ginny Turvey, a fourth-grade teacher at Broken Arrow School, said she implicitly trusted the school's principal, Larry Bakerink.

"I feel like I can go to him and he will support me," Turvey said.

However, Turvey said, detachment among central administration staff in school districts could be a problem.

"Sometimes when someone is away from the classroom, they do lose touch with what it's like in the trenches," Turvey said.

The rough ride education is on now increases the need for people to be supportive of public education, said Kathy Rathbun, a first-grade teacher at Langston Hughes School and winner of the 2003 Bobs' Award for exceptional teachers in Lawrence.

"We're here for these kids," she said. "If things are not going great in the outside world ... the more you feel kids need you."

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