One of the great joys of my son's elementary school years has been getting to know the marvelous women who have been his teachers.
The kids at Shamrock Gardens Elementary need a lot of help. Most of them are poor, and many speak no English at home. Tragedy and instability play regular roles in many of their lives. As well as teaching math, science, reading and other subjects, our teachers comfort, inspire and uplift day to day.
These teachers come from different backgrounds and different corners of the country. Each has her own personality, her own opinions and her own way of doing things. But they have meshed into a strong, supportive team that makes a tremendous difference for those children who walk through their doors. As soon as you enter our school grounds, you can feel how much they care.
I have especially enjoyed watching our younger teachers develop. When Parker entered kindergarten, many of Shamrock's teachers were just starting out – a typical situation at high-poverty schools, where constant turnover fuels a steady stream of novices. Happily for us, a core group of thee new teachers chose to stay. As these young women have matured, becoming more skillful, more confident and more committed to their calling, the school has strengthened with them.
At the same time, however, I have also watched the job get harder – both for the younger teachers and for our seasoned, dedicated veterans.
As the economic crisis has sharpened, support staff has shrunk and class sizes have risen – even as economic pressures have put added pressure on our students and their families.
The spreading reach of high-stakes standardized tests has cut into instructional time and heightened pressures to narrow the curriculum to testing strategies and tested material.
The national "reform" movement has taken aim at teachers who work in high-poverty schools such as Shamrock, regularly blaming teachers for many of these schools' shortcomings, while questioning their skills, their credentials, and their dedication.
In Charlotte, this latter trend took the form of a sloppily-designed pay-for-performance scheme, the most prominent component of which was a massive battery of new standardized tests that heightened teacher anxieties even as they disrupted teaching and learning at schools across the system. The plan's drawbacks underscored how difficult it is to work in public education these days, and I was not surprised to hear dedicated classroom teachers start to talk about other careers.
Still, I am heartened by the ways that North Carolinians have stepped up to support public schools and the teachers who work in them.
This past spring, for example, economic hard times did not stop a majority of state residents from supporting a penny sales tax that would have helped avert cuts to state education funding (our legislature, alas, chose to go the no-tax route instead).
Here in Charlotte, a coalition of local activists was more successful, convincing county commissioners to set a property tax rate that boosted education funding and helped preserve the jobs of teachers, assistants, media specialists and others.
Parents have also been standing up for teachers regarding testing and pay-for-performance. Charlotte's new testing program sparked an outpouring of opposition from parents who were keenly aware of the many drawbacks of standardized testing – from the way it narrows the curriculum to its poor track record in teacher assessment. Working together, parents and teachers were able to stall state legislation that would have cleared the way for test-based pay-for-performance. This fall, voters elected the recently retired head of a major teacher organization to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, a choice that will greatly strengthen the voice of teachers in key decisions.
Across the country, rising standards, shrinking resources, economic strains and a changing curriculum are making the task of teaching our nation's children more daunting than ever. The women and men who take up this challenge – especially those who choose to make classroom teaching their career – need our support in many ways.
As voters, we need to make it clear that we support levels of educational funding that will equip our educators with the resources that they need to address their students' growing needs.
As parents, we need to continue to challenge the push for more and more standardized tests, a trend that saps life out of classrooms and drives strong teachers from the profession.
As friends, neighbors and community members, we need to encourage the broadest possible range of community support for our teachers and their students – both inside and outside the classroom.
Genuinely addressing the challenges our most struggling students face requires hands-on, day-to-day efforts. As our dedicated teachers go about this crucial task, we need to laud them for their sacrifices and accomplishments, as well as provide the support and the encouragement they need to reach even higher goals. The task is far too great for any one group of people to accomplish on their own. We must all be in it together.
Pamela Grundy is the 2011 Mom Congress delegate from North Carolina. She and her family have been spending the fall in Shanghai, China, where she has been homeschooling her 10-year-old son, an endeavor that has greatly increased her respect for the dedicated teachers who devote their lives to this challenging task. They have a blog about the family's experiences at http://www.parkersshanghaitimes.blogspot.com.