Extraordinary Teachers In Extraordinary Times

These are truly uncharted waters for all of us these days.  Nothing is normal.  Each day is a torrent of bad news.

No one understands this better than dedicated teachers who work with young students.  And many are doing their best to fill the void left by the sudden closure of schools around the state.  Here is a great article from AL.com of teachers reading books to their students that can be accessed from home.

We all need a smile during these times.  I highly recommend that you click the link to this article and see some special people doing special things.  Kindergarten teacher Haley Gray from Lauderdale County can hardly hide her own delight in reading a story about a Wonky Donkey.  Watch it and you will understand why.

Alabama K-12 Schools Closing March 18

As reported by AL.com

“All K-12 schools in Alabama will close at the end of Wednesday, March 18, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Friday during a press conference in Montgomery. Schools could re-open on April 6, depending on the situation at that time.

The decision affects more than 720,000 students in 1,400 schools statewide.”

Read the entire article here.

15 Minutes With The Governor

Recently I asked educators across the state what they would tell Governor Kay Ivey if they had 15 minutes to meet with her.  Answers came from retired superintendents, current superintendents, principals, teachers and school board members.

They were well thought out and several concerns emerged over and over.

The impact of poverty was mentioned often, as was mental health.  Things like too much attention to testing and misuse of test scores by politicians and lack of input from educators when legislators are crafting education policy.

One superintendent said she would invite the governor to spend an entire day in one of her classrooms.  “Witness children with severe behavior issues, students who could care less about being in school and the hard work that teachers put in.  Don’t bring the media, come alone and stay all day.”

“Even though the governor was once a teacher, that was 50 years ago.  A LOT has changed since then,” she added.

A teacher added, “I would like Governor Ivey to sit down with teachers, without administrators or recorders, and have a discussion.”

“Many teachers struggle working with violent children with mental health issues, said a just-retired superintendent.  “Alabama has far too few mental health workers,” said another former superintendent.  “And schools are expected to take up the slack.”

Editor’s note:  Alabama has 91 mental health professions for every 100,000 people.  This is the lowest concentration of any state in the nation.  Massachusetts has over six times as many.

“There should be more funding for special education,” said a principal.

A former superintendent said he would stress to the governor the “perils of poverty” and its affect on educational outcomes.  “Until we address the needs of the whole child in many schools, we will continue to see poor results,” said another retired superintendent.

The lack of input from education professionals came up time after time.  “Educators should be kept in the forefront of all education decisions,” said a former superintendent.  “Education should not be used as a bully pulpit by politicians.  A starting point would be requiring that educators vet and provide feedback and guidance on all bills and action regarding education.

“Had Amendment One passed, the governor would have been required to appoint an advisory team of educators and others to make recommendations on education issues.  Though the amendment failed, this is a great idea and the governor should do this anyway.”

“Quit painting school systems, teachers and students as failure on an assessment (NAEP) that does not reflect our curriculum or the abilities of all our children,”  said a former superintendent.  “Public education needs to be respected and supported by political leaders in Alabama.  Collaboration and teamwork are needed to move  education forward in this state,”  said another superintendent.

“All the propaganda put out to pass Amendment One was a slap in the face to every teacher in the state.  And we wonder why there is a teacher shortage?  Why would anyone want to become a teacher when special interests spend $500,000 to say how bad teachers are?”

Many respondents would like to give the governor a quick lesson about testing, what it is and what it isn’t.

A teacher said, “We are worried about a damn test score that does not mean a thing other than how good is this kid is at taking a test.  I teach a bunch of students who have no business in an academic class room all day long.  They need a real vocational school to work program, not instruction on how to pass the ACT.”

Another teacher said, “Too much mandated testing.  And what good is it when we keep changing the assessment?  We lose way too many instructional days on testing.”

A former superintendent was especially critical of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. “This is being used incorrectly, yet it was the basis for why some thought we should pass Amendment One.  This was a joke.”

Others would like to tell the governor about the need for smaller class sizes and expanding dual enrollment opportunities

“Dual enrollment has given students the opportunity to accelerate completion of high school and also exposed them to valuable technical programs that turn into career paths for them when they graduate.” said a former superintendent.

Finally, one current superintendent said his teachers need a time out from all the new stuff thrown at them each year to integrate into what is already a too heavy workload.  “We’re asked to deal with bullying, suicide prevention, mandatory reporting, civics tests, handwriting, literacy rules and Lord knows what all.  All we end up with is a patchwork of favorite issues that somebody has borrowed from some other state.  It’s no wonder teachers don’t stay with us.”

Education today is extremely complex.  It can not be accurately evaluated with a handy little set of numbers.  Nor can it be “fixed” by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as Amendment One wanted to do.

As chairman of the state school board, Governor Ivey would be well served to spend face time with educators like those I talked to.

University Of West Alabama Works Hard For Rural Areas

Editor’s noteOne of the truly fun things I’ve done in the last few years is come to know the good folks at the University of West Alabama.  They are passionate about helping rural communities and their schools.  The following article details some of their work.

Growing up in a rural farming community, Dr. Jodie Winship understood that education was important but, for many, not possible due to poverty, commitments to family farming businesses and a host of other reasons.

The first in her family to graduate from both high school and college, Winship is now Chair of Teaching and Learning and Chair of Instructional Leadership and Support at the University of West Alabama, striving to drive much-needed changes in rural education. She’s also part of a dream team of rural education experts leading UWA’s new online Doctorate in Rural Education degree program, launched in August 2018.

Winship’s team includes Dr. Jan G. Miller, Dean of UWA’s College of Education, Dr. Reenay Rogers; Associate Dean of the College of Education and Director of Assessment and Evaluation; and Dr. B.J. Kimbrough, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. All have expertise and experience in rural education.

The group created the doctoral program to help rural educators, administrators and community leaders address issues specific to rural education. Those include inequitable funding processes, a lack of real-life connections to classroom learning and insufficient research into the needs of rural schools.

We’re experts at rural, so why not create a program that supports rural education and helps fill that research gap,” Winship says.

Offered entirely online, the program is completely full. And doctoral candidates vary from principals and curriculum developers to superintendents, but nearly 100 percent of applicants represent rural areas throughout the southeastern U.S.

This is very much an applied program where you identify problems, and you solve them through the research process,” Miller explains. “We wanted our assignments and our courses to apply to day-to-day work and help identify problems and issues in rural education.”

Take, for example, an Alabama school district with the highest population of English Language Learners (ELL) in the state. The district enrolled a team of school leaders in UWA’s online rural education doctoral program. As part of their dissertation, they are researching solutions to the financial and curricular challenges of teaching ELL learners in a rural setting. These schools need professional development and materials for teachers and students, which, of course, requires funding.

They’ve looked at the accountability model in the state of Alabama, and they are proposing a new funding structure to the state where each ELL student would get 1.4 percent of the money versus just 1 percent per student because these students need additional help and assistance,” Miller explains.

One Ed.D. student created a consortium of school districts focused solely on solutions for ELL students. Another doctoral candidate from a rural, low-income district created a food pantry so students in need could take food home to their families.

Others are looking at topics like STEM education, teacher shortages, Career Technical Education and student achievement, through a rural lens and not trying to apply previous research done in urban areas to rural problems,” notes Dr. Rogers.

In addition to solving problems, the UWA rural education doctoral program strives to help create connections between students’ experiences in their rural communities and what they learn in the classroom. They do this through place-based learning—where educators use local geography and connections to create authentic and meaningful learning experiences for students.

Miller teaches a course called Place-Based Education and Service Learning. “What we’re finding is, in a rural area, teaching about where you live and utilizing the resources that you stand under each and every day is the best way to teach,” she explains. “If you’re going to talk about the rainforest and the rain, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about the rainforest in countries far away. Let’s talk about the rain here, how we have to have rain and how we survive.”

Winship feels that place-based learning is key to engaging some rural students. “In our rural schools, we’ve got kids from families that are generational farmers. They ask, ‘Why do I have to do all this math? Why do I have to do all this history stuff? I’m going to be a farmer; I don’t need that.’ With place-based learning, we can help them understand they need to learn these concepts to be smart farmers. Good crops don’t come by chance. You can farm smart. You can take your product and distribute it smarter, or you can market it smarter.”

She further explains that students can learn about budgeting, weather conditions, and even how to protect the ecosystem through hands-on, authentic learning experiences. They can see how these things directly affect the environment and the quality of life for communities.

Kimbrough says most educators enter the UWA doctoral program unaware of place-based education. During Miller’s course, students create a professional development session focused on place-based education for faculty and teachers at their home schools. After, many schools are so excited about the concept that they start implementing place-based units in their teaching right away.

As the program takes on its fourth cohort of students this January, it averages 25 to 30 new doctoral students each semester, with a total of 130 students currently enrolled. And interest remains steady after a rigorous admission process that accepts about 50 percent of applicants.

Despite its short existence, UWA’s online Doctorate in Rural Education program is expanding. The program began with two tracks: one for rural teachers and one for rural community and education leaders. In January, they added two additional tracks based on students’ needs: one focused on counseling and the other on higher education administration in rural communities.

Rogers says the program is meeting expectations even in its initial stages. “Everything we’re doing is rooted in helping students find solutions to the problems in rural schools, and it’s amazing how many of our students come back and say, ‘I wouldn’t have done this otherwise. Thank you for making me do this.’ That’s very uplifting.”

National Campaign Features West Alabama Teacher

In an effort to focus attention on the opportunities in rural schools across the country, the Rural Schools Collaborative has launched its “I Am a Rural Teacher” campaign.  And the first teacher to be featured is Haley Richardson, a native of Pickens County, a graduate of the first cohort of Black Belt Teacher Corps from the University of West Alabama and a second-year teacher at University Charter School in Livingston.

Go here to see Haley’s story.

Here are excerpts that caught my eye.

“Teaching is very different than I thought it would be, a lot people think ‘Oh it’s just an 8 to 3 job, when you go home you’re done,’ but teaching can be very tiring. It’s a non-stop job. You’re working all day, every day, and even by the time you leave here you’re still constantly working at home, whether it’s grading papers, coming up with ideas for the next day, or thinking about your students at home, and what can you do to make their experience at school better than it was today.”

But these challenges make the job meaningful too. Haley wants all her students to see her as someone who cares about them beyond the classroom. “If they don’t get anything else from me, I want them to know that I love them.”

For Haley, teaching is a great way to make an impact on her community. She believes being a rural teacher means “embracing where you live and inspiring your students to know that just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, or you don’t have always have to up and leave to find better, because bigger is not always better.”

Now, she works hard to create those deep connections with her students. “If a student tells me at school ‘Ms. Richardson I’m playing a game tonight,’ I’m going to make sure that I go see them. That matters to me because I know it matters to them. I could have a thousand things to do,” she laughs. “And when they look up and see me during the game, that feels good cause I know I made their night by just showing up. Just showing up and being there, it really means a lot to the parents too.”

“There’s a phrase, ‘Take what you have to make what you need.’ So in a rural town we may not have much, but what we do have, we use it to make what we need, and in turn we make successful students. You take what you have to make what you need and you in turn go out and be successful and you bring it back to your community.”

I know Haley who is truly an outstanding your lady.  Several years ago I was invited to a reception for all the members of the first Black Belt Teacher Corps cohort.  I sat beside Haley’s mother.  What I remember most is that Haley spoke and mentioned that because of the Black Belt Teacher Corps scholarship she received, she was finishing college with no student debt.  That brought a huge smile to her mother’s face and a quiet “Amen.”



Sully Strikes Again

Once again we return to Baldwin County to check on our young friend, Sully, the fifth-grade grandson of assistant superintendent Hope Zenah.

Sully has his eye set on a video game and has been diligently trying to find ways to earn money to buy the game.  So grandmother told him that she would pay him $25 to wash her car and clean the inside as well.

He jumped at the chance and two hours later came running for grandmother to proudly show her his handiwork.

He could not have been prouder, Hope told me.  “And he should have been because he did a great job.”

Except.  For. One. Thing.

The brush he used to clean the car had a long handle and stiff bristles.  Something more along the order of what you would use to sweep a sidewalk, not wash fenders.  The result was lots and lots of scratches.

Hope did not have the heart to show Sully what happened.  Nor would I.

So off she went to the nearest car detail shop and for $75 got it waxed and buffed with nary a scratch showing.

God bless him.  We all need Sully “moments” to brighten our days.