Culture Shock

Education ConsterNation: Teaching in the shadow of layoffs

Friday, Nov 08, 2013 2:58 pm

When push comes to shove, local budget-makers tend to shove out our teachers. Yet even with stagnant salaries and long, thankless days, they’re some of the most dedicated public servants we have.


By Anne Slater


It is 6:30 a.m. and Ms. D is already on her way to a Boston-area public school, where she teaches first grade. It is still dark when she pulls into the parking lot. I greet her as she hauls the day’s materials up the school steps: picture books and magnetic tiles “borrowed” from her own children, beads and contact paper, photographs of each child in the class pasted in an individual blank book for a project on identity and a book of the work of British artist Andrew Goldsworthy. Her classroom is a mix of what you might call regular-ed—typical kids—and children with special-education plans to address anything from a slight stutter to autism.  She arrives early each day to ensure she has a few quiet moments to stage the room before the students take their seats.

At 8:20, the children come up from the cafeteria and hang their coats in their cubbies. They stop at a white board near the door and respond to the question of the day. What does it mean to be an artist? Then to their browsing boxes where Ms. D has filled magazine containers with an assortment of books and poems matched to each child’s reading level. They are reading quietly when Marco bursts in the door. A big boy who thinks the room belongs to him, he is offended if anyone is absent, thrown by any changes in the day. He can go from sweet to violent in the time it takes to tie a shoelace. Quickly, the teacher greets him with a smile and brings him over to his desk where she has procured a book of maps to engage him.

After the morning message, and reading workshop, then writing workshop, it is almost lunch time and a new child is introduced into the class. The boy has moved here from El Salvador and speaks not a word of English. The Boston public school system was cited last year for not giving second-language learners the support that is their right by law. At Ms. D’s school, more than 90% of the students speak English as a second language. The Department of Justice guidelines tell us that students need two-and-a-half hours of separate instruction daily to be in compliance. But for this school, there isn’t funding for a separate teacher to pull students out. The teacher is expected to teach English as a second language separately to basically everyone grouped by their language level. The only way to do this is to modify what you are already teaching. So Ms. D, along with many teachers in the system, must give over her free time to special needs. On any given day, Ms. D might forgo her lunch break to have a quick meeting with Marco’s behavior support team, or the OT teacher, or the literacy coach.


“At my last school, I was able to stop to eat lunch, but here I am learning so many new things that I don’t have time,” Ms. D admits to me. “I’m experienced, National Board Certified, but I still have to prove myself every day.”


“Everyone gets what they need”

I remember the first year that I transferred from classroom teaching to consulting in the Literacy Department. I was sitting at a meeting thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.” It was so stress-free to be at a table where nothing went wrong if anyone’s mind wandered for a moment. Now as I watch Ms. D, I’m humbled by all that the classroom teacher does, and how smoothly she does it. For the past 10 years, I’ve played the role of the evaluator or advisor. How easy it was to tell teachers, “You should review all of your writing folders every night. You should be able to do eight units of study. You need to differentiate for all of your students.” This year I took over the writing instruction for one first grade class, so I now see the classroom experience in real time. There have been moments when I thought to myself, “Please don’t let a deputy walk in right now!”


What is hard, I ask Ms. D, about working with children on the autism spectrum?

“Marco is so energetic, funny and inquisitive that everyone falls in love with him. But that said, if I don’t do everything perfectly and anticipate all of the angles of every situation, an outburst can occur.”


To be sure, Marco has been known to go from friendly to furious in the time it takes to tie a shoelace. “You know its part of the disability that you might get hit,” Ms. D continues. “You might get sworn at. A child might tell you that you are fat or old or ugly. Or spit.”


As a teacher in this environment, you soak it in and wring yourself out somewhere else. Not at school. This year there is only one Marco in Ms. D’s class, but last year there were three. The skilled teacher differentiates for each of the children in the class, adjusting the environment, the management system, the instruction to fit each child’s needs. Marco works to earn breaks so that he can use the computer or take a walk down the hall. The other children understand and stay focused on their own work, even when there is an outburst.  “The kids in the class bought into the fact that we are a family that everyone gets what they need, and we don’t all need the same things,” Ms. D explains.


It’s almost 5:00 p.m. when Ms. D finally climbs into her car with a heavy canvas bag filled with student’s writing folders and a book on teaching reading comprehension. As she heads out to pick up her own children, she takes a minute to call Marco’s mother. “I try to call her on the good days, too,” she says. “In teaching, the hard way is the best way. I can’t give in, but I can give a hug.”


Out-of-pocket butterflies

Down the hall it is Ms. A’s first year of teaching kindergarten. “Everybody said the first year was going to be horrible and a lot of work,” she confesses to me, “but I don’t think I was mentally prepared to have my own classroom even though I had been an assistant for two years. I don’t think anything prepared me for demands of managing the classroom. On my first day, there were at least three kids crying all day long, one boy roaming around the room, some children starting school for the first time without a word of English.  I couldn’t talk with many of the parents because of language differences.”


She remembers a particularly difficult day early on when one little boy threw tantrums so violent that the rest of the class needed to be evacuated from the room. He bashed a little girl in the head with a stapler, sending her to the hospital for stitches. After he attempted to jump out the window one afternoon, he was moved to another classroom. Try to figure out classroom management with all that going down.


“Every night when I go home, I write lesson plans until sometimes nine o’clock,” Ms. A says, describing her exhaustion. “On Sunday, I do the whole weekly plan. Everything is new. I can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it the way I did last year.’ I just spent $40 on butterflies and it turns out they will hatch in the middle of the school vacation week. The other teachers knew to order them a week later.”


In fact, many teachers make or buy much of their classroom materials.  At Ms. A’s school, which is composed of more than 90% second-language learners, teachers have to revise and adapt every lesson to support students’ growing English vocabulary. Pictures must be downloaded from the Internet, but many times school technology either doesn’t exist or doesn’t work. There might be a printer, but chances are the ink is gone.  Many charts and pictures must be mounted on cardstock, laminated, copied neatly on large chart paper. Math lessons may need custom-made dice with different numbers of dots and shapes on each side. Throughout the year, the dramatic play area evolves from a house, to a flower shop, to a Veterinary clinic, a restaurant, an airport. Add it up—soil, fake flowers, aprons, small white boards, animal carrier, stuffed animals, bandages, fake food, laminated menus, trays, small pads for taking orders, and the avocados, mangos and apples for a unit on seeds—and a first-year teacher typically spends over a thousand dollars of her own money on classroom supplies.


For the new teacher, it’s hard to stay ahead of the preparation. Every day new lessons must be prepared for every subject. Every lesson must be differentiated for the needs of the class.


“I feel like I’m getting better,” Ms. A says. “I feel like I can breathe now. I am going to keep teaching, but I can’t wait for my first year to be over.”


Zen and the art of Montessori maintenance

Enter Ms. G’s room.  The air smells of lavender and vanilla. Cool vermillion curtains filter the sun through the large windows. Lamps replace the florescent lighting. Bamboo matting decorates the walls. Children’s art work is framed and titled in the manner of the masters. Cut flowers adorn a mini table. Growing plants oxygenate. It is cool and quiet, with only the tiny hum of little minds and fingers at work. Here you will never hear a harsh word or a raised voice. Here is the same little boy, window jumper, stapler basher, working independently on a clean white rug lining up chains of beads to work out advanced mathematical calculations.


Ms. G taught for 16 years before she was asked to pioneer the Montessori program. She sacrificed her entire summer to learn the technique, revamping much of what she thought about instruction. She found it refreshing. Each year two other teachers will follow so that the school can provide a Montessori option here in this public, urban setting.


“Children have an instinct when an adult is not fully in control,” Ms. G explains. “They think, ‘If I push you, will you stand your ground and protect me?’ It’s subconscious.  Consistency is everything. Given the responsibility and the chance, children will live up to the standard. My university training did not prepare me for a classroom. Management is the big piece, and little was said about that, or meeting the needs of diverse students.


Now, after almost two decades of trial-and-error and self-education, Ms. G displays a near-transcendental understanding of her professional environment. “As the teacher, you are always aware of what everyone is doing at any given moment,” she says. “Who is engaged? Who is not engaged? Most of the instruction in Montessori is in small groups or one-on-one. You always want to catch those teachable moments and help a child through that precise instant when they get stuck.”


I note the calming ambience and room décor, and Ms. G explains, “I watch a lot of HGTV. I made the drapes. Some classrooms look like hospitals. I want my room to be cozy and inviting.”


But she adds that, even though she makes teaching look effortless to an observer, she often comes home exhausted. It’s a common condition. In this school, and many like it, there are frequent mandatory meetings on a variety of topics, such as cross cultural awareness and meeting the needs of the second language learner.  Perhaps the district has purchased a different reading or math or science curriculum and everyone needs to throw out the old and learn the new. Crises unfold throughout the day. The class fish is dead. The Internet has crashed and everyone is out of white construction paper. None of the pencil sharpeners work. A mother has found a love note passed from her first-grade daughter to a little boy. The girl comes to school with marks on her face that she innocently informs you are from the buckle of a belt. You spot a bed bug on your rug.


The constant onslaught of change and worry leads to burnout. It’s currently estimated that 47% of new teachers leave within three years. Teacher attrition rates cost the nation an estimated $ 7.3 billion a year and teacher turnover has grown 50% in the last 15 years. One report indicated that 40% of all public school teachers plan to retire in the next five years. With so much talk of late about ridding public schools of ineffective teachers, who will replace this retiring wave?


New teachers in New England start at a salary that ranges from mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. The Boston public school department is negotiating to raise new-teacher salaries, but with the gigantic budget shortfalls, most of the teachers who have less than three years’ experience will receive a pink slip.  Those who survive the cuts are paid on a step system, so that in eight to 10 years a teacher can reach the top of the scale. There are few ways to get a salary increase after that point. It takes about five years to hit your stride as a teacher, and if three years later you have topped out with pay and you are looking at working for 20 more years without a substantial raise, what does that say about your incentive to remain in the system?


A great teacher rises above all of this worldly distraction. In her, there is a level of fluidity and grace where it seems that every child is engaged magically, no one is wandering or crying or misbehaving. There is a grace, an invisible, constant sweep of the room where something is picked up before anyone knew that it dropped. She is the one person who notices one student is good at drawing, or another has a beautiful singing voice, or is skilled in addition, has a facility with complex equations.


Without her, many of us may have never become who we are today. There is a good chance she still remembers our names and our little, hopeful faces.  It seems, in these times of scrutiny, rubrics and lay offs, that we have forgotten the great power of these teachers and how they affected our lives. What do we give them in return?


Anne Slater is a former literacy program director for the Boston public school system. She is a literacy coach and consultant. She can be reached at






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One Response to “Education ConsterNation: Teaching in the shadow of layoffs”

By Andrea Devine:

Sunday, Nov 13, 2011 1:29 pm

What a beautiful article. I understand and have been all of these teachers; yes, there are moments when I even feel like the “great teacher,” but those are only fleeting moments, while I nearly always feel like the exhausted teacher! Thank you for writing this. It feels affirming to be acknowledged as a professional who is always trying to do better.

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