A Rural Arizona Teacher’s Perspective on Education Issues

This post was originally published here.

I am what people consider a natural-born teacher. From an early age I found myself being drawn to the profession, teaching five and six year olds how to do cartwheels and somersaults in the hours before my own gymnastics practice. I ended up coaching through my 20’s and even when I entered the United States Air Force, I held several different teaching and training positions in addition to my day to day job.

Upon leaving the Air Force and taking stock of my talents and interests, I decided to pursue a credential and become a classroom teacher. I entered into the education field in 2001, and despite taking a few years off to have children, I have been teaching ever since. All told, I have been in Early Childhood Education for about 13 years – a length of time I’d consider to be early to mid-career.

For the last four years I have been teaching in a rural school with a population of about 600 students district-wide. Like any other setting, rural education has its pros and cons and like most other jobs there is a delicate balance of elements that factor into whether one stays or leaves.

There is so much turmoil in education today, from the highest administration to the state and local level, there seems to be a negative shift in both respect for the profession and our teaching institutions. There is a lot of uncertainty of the future for educators as we are seeing repeated cuts to budget, increased emphasis on standardized testing, and what appears to be an all-out war against public schools and teachers.

Many public schools are operating on budgets so thin that they are systematically losing programs essential to effective operation. They have difficulty sustaining art and music programs, providing enough appropriate technology for students growing up in a technology-dependent society, and affording counseling and intervention programs. Teacher salaries are not keeping pace with inflation; effectively creating a backwards slide in net salary year to year and making teaching one of the lowest paid degree-bearing professions in the U.S. In our district, we are lucky to have enough students to warrant two smaller classes at each grade-level but there is jarring talk of combining classes and compartmentalization at grades as low as 1st.

Another difficult issue is the simultaneous push for differentiation in instruction; meeting a child where he or she is personally and academically, yet asking that same child to take a computerized standardized assessment to measure mastery. If that weren’t bad enough, the results of said tests are weighed so heavily and tied so intrinsically to money that schools can’t help but get into a vicious cycle of trying to out-test the test. Teaching and assessing in a holistic, genuine way becomes secondary to making improvements to test scores. In this system, the teachers and students are set up to fail and many are indeed failing.

As if this wasn’t enough, it appears that the overall public impression of schools and educators has declined significantly in recent years. In just the past year, I have witnessed a number of vicious, unsubstantiated social media attacks on teachers in which large numbers of commenters proceed to distort and invent truths in an attempt to embarrass, discredit, or outright harm the teacher. The overwhelming sentiment I feel is disrespect for the teaching profession. When this type of attitude is condoned and even promoted at the highest levels of government, it is easy to see why the general public thinks teachers and the education system are failing.

I have experienced all of these difficulties first hand and each has its hand in making teaching a less and less desirable profession for me. I have watched our teacher retention rate plummet increasingly every year, with almost 35% of our staff leaving last year alone. This turnover puts increased burden on remaining teachers in the form of training new staff, taking on increased responsibilities, and often picking up slack derived from the learning curve of new teachers.

Additionally, even with a solid 13 years in the field, a veteran status, and a Master’s degree, I see recent college graduates making more money right out of school. Due to inflation, I make less money than I did when I started in the district four years ago with no hope of a scheduled raise for at least another 6 years. I fear for my job each year; not due to incompetence but to cuts. I fear for my students and my own children who are depending on us to set them up with the tools and resources they will need to succeed in today’s world. I tire of not feeling heard, not feeling valued. Yet, I stay. So what is it that keeps me in the field?

One thing that keeps me in the classroom is the leadership opportunity I have right now. Becoming a Hope Street Group Fellow has put me on the trajectory to doing more within my community and state with the promise that my work will make a difference. Through Hope Street I get to work with a group of like-minded peers from across Arizona on common goals, all with the hope of advancing education for every student. That opportunity has reignited a spark of hope and creativity that the cause is not lost.

On a similar note, with my current administration, I am finding leadership opportunities within my own school and district. More so than in any other teaching setting I’ve been in, I can go to my administrators with ideas to connect with our school families, to improve our literacy and STEM, or to provide more resources for our stakeholders and expect to receive a “what can I do to help you make that happen?” response. Having strong, innovative leadership that believes in its staff has been a defining factor in my willingness to stay put.

Finally, despite a few incidences of social media nastiness, the community I live in is incredibly supportive of students and the schools. We have countless volunteers and donors making up for some of the losses we have due to budget cuts and constraints. If we want to make something happen, we have had incredible luck finding the money within our community. Being part of a greater whole that values children, my own children included, has given me a much needed boost in the direction of remaining in the district.

For now, the balance of pros and cons is tipping in favor of remaining in the field; at least for the time being. I’m lucky to be able to pay my bills without having to work two jobs all year, like many of my colleagues. I’m lucky to live in a community that values education and students, if not always teachers and administrators.

Of course, a meaningful raise in pay would go a long way in feeling like our policymakers value educators as would a general show of support for teacher and public education. My story is just one of many thousands, but I think many share my feelings and it points to how broken our system is becoming when it is pushing out people who genuinely love to teach.

Louise Durant is a kindergarten teacher at Williams Elementary-Middle School in the Williams Unified School District. She is part of the Arizona Hope Street Group Fellowship, a group of teachers who are working to advocate for students and educators.

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