On Campus: Celebrating teachers takes more than Mars bars

Posted by Nan Austin on May 7, 2014 

It’s the week of the teacher, which in my PTA workhorse days meant planning something special to brighten every day, as well as a lunch we put on for the whole staff on Friday.

Into the rows of teacher mailboxes went cards colored by our kids, tiny Mars bars proclaiming teachers “Out of this world!,” flower seed packets noting that students blossomed under their care – all little thank-yous for a job that takes more heart and smarts than most.

Looking back on those days, from the other side of tumultuous years, those efforts seem so sweet, but also so superficial. Over the past seven years, the teachers we celebrate have weathered boom-to-bust-and-back-again education budgets and radically shifting job expectations.

For a hundred years, teachers worked independently, lecturing from textbooks and giving chapter quizzes. They built up classroom libraries and commiserated about squirmy kids.

Then came test-mania, driven by a sound-bite goal that every child score at or above average. To make the grade, instruction became almost automated. Improvising was frowned upon. Daily lessons marched relentlessly toward test dates. Pacing calendars, similar to assembly lines, didn’t wait for slowpokes.

Now, testing has come full stop. Instruction flipped to the DIY vibe of Common Core. Districts are asking teachers to band together to devise strategies and materials to bring lessons to life. Cut the lectures and challenge kids to work it out. Skip the worksheets and pose real-world problems.

Not everyone has grabbed the reins with both hands. Not all children will handle the leap from circle-the-answer quizzes to oral arguments.

On top of all that stand the problems that never change. Personnel moves and salary disputes add to the challenge of a seismic shift for what in many minds is still a little red schoolhouse.

For example, at Crowell Elementary in Turlock, 11 of 31 teachers got news last week that they will be moving grade levels. Principal Linda Alaniz said her changes were among many made districtwide, but teachers disagreed at the Turlock Unified board meeting Tuesday.

Teacher Pattie Langpaap said she spent two years getting fifth-grade lessons ready for Common Core but will be in a new grade next year. “We are out of time, money, energy, effort and, most of all, passion for our careers,” she told the board.

For better or worse, the wholesale shift added to teachers’ load in a year already loaded with work. Another layer of hope and conflict comes with improving education funding.

Ceres Unified and its teachers union appear to be in heated negotiations this year, judging from the number of emails, calls and letters to the editor coming to The Bee. Ceres boomed more than most, with enrollment rising through the recession.

So when education funding was cut, it did not lay off teachers, it slashed pay – 8.5 percent in one year, with restored salaries tied to restored funding. The funding is back, and the average Ceres teacher salary last year was $69,895, 1 percent higher than at the district’s peak in 2010, according to state records.

Ceres will see its fortunes improve greatly under the state’s new funding formula. For the next school year, Superintendent Scott Siegel has been granted a 0.75 percent raise, based on an average of superintendents’ pay in unified districts of similar size. The small annual boost hikes his pay to 7 percent above what he made in 2010. The district’s 500-plus teachers say they want the same.

But beyond what they’re paid and how they teach, perhaps the greatest change for teachers has come on something over which schools have no control: students’ home lives.

The recession brought more kids who needed backpacks, new shoes and a hug. Fewer parents had time to put cheery stickers on Mars bars.

But the California State PTA Convention, which kicked off Wednesday in Los Angeles, showcases more meaningful parent roles. Two days of workshops teach advocacy for schools, understanding Common Cre and putting budget priorities on classrooms.

Such goals may not be as sweet as at conventions of decades ago, but they still celebrate teachers, the ones in there making a difference every day of this year.

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