High needs schools need high quality teachers

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with an incredible national team of accomplished teachers on a first-of-its-kind report, released today, titled “Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve.” The members of our TeacherSolutions team have taught every kind of student, in every kind of school. We are not beholden to any organization or association—our goal has been to bring the unique insights of successful teachers to one of the nation’s most contentious education policy debates.

Our recommendations make it clear that all teaching professionals deserve a professional salary. But we go further to identify four principles that we believe can be used to provide additional rewards and incentives for teachers who excel in their profession. One of those principles addresses the urgent need to assure that students in high-poverty schools have the same access to quality teaching as every other student in America. It’s an issue I know something about.

The first few years I taught, my teacher salary plus my husband’s full-time minimum wage salary qualified our family of six for food stamps. We were a high needs family. Appropriately, I also taught in a high needs school.

I chose to live and to teach in the Mississippi Delta. When my husband and I decided to relocate our family to this area where he grew up, we knew we were coming to a place of longstanding inequities. Fortunately, I also came to know the people in my community and learned that the Delta, like so many poor areas, is also a place of great potential. Still, my family and I had to make some significant sacrifices in order for me to work in high needs schools. Sixty, even 70-hour work weeks were common; so were lack of supplies, desks, and textbooks. There was also the stress of constantly having to defend my students and our school against the low expectations of outsiders and the growing pessimism within the school.

I know from my own experiences and from the research that a truly effective teacher makes all the difference for students, particularly those who have been labeled as “high-needs” or “at-risk.” Linda Darling-Hammond and William Sanders, among others, have shown that a quality teacher helps students overcome the effects of poverty, dysfunctional family, or prior ineffective teaching. But even without the research, I have shelves and scrapbooks full of testimonials and appreciations from former students of the difference my teaching made in their lives. Many of these students had been written off as failures, trouble-makers, or what my pastor-husband likes to call “the throw away kids.”

By all currently existing measures, I have been a successful teacher of my students. Yet I, and many other successful teachers of high needs students, have been made to feel worthless, treated as if we were incompetent, and put on par with other employees who could care less about students.

Effective teachers aren’t just energetic missionaries. We are accomplished, reflective, masterful practitioners who (to borrow from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards) know our subjects, know our students, and know how to teach those subjects to our students.

Effective teachers develop significant and lasting connections between our classrooms and the communities in which we teach. The parents in our communities know us and trust us with their children’s education. We’re not superpowered aliens who happened to land in a particular school, but hard-working professionals who have honed our craft the old-fashioned way. The good news is: There are more of us than anyone realizes, and we could be the rule, rather than the exception, in public education.

High-needs schools are chronically understaffed for a number of reasons. Schools, such as the ones in which I have worked, have a constant turnover of new, underprepared teachers, most of whom leave the school in three years or less. Thus, the weakest students have the most unstable teaching force. This constant flux of teachers is extremely damaging to students, who often take the staff departures as a sign of their own lack of worth.

Meanwhile, those of us who stay, and have proven ourselves effective in these difficult settings, are pressured to do more and more (including mentor the revolving-door space-fillers)—all for the same pay, no additional time, and little respect. Too many great teachers have had to do their best work subversively. We are called “radicals,” “troublemakers,” “oddballs,” and worse.

I have had to suffer through totally irrelevant inservice trainings that someone else thought I needed. I had to pretend to use scripted curriculum guides that were too simplistic, too narrow, and too demeaning for my students, and then spend precious time stolen away from my own family to develop the lessons and materials my students truly deserved. I had to grit my teeth and bite my tongue while a blissfully ignorant school or district administrator hired yet another consultant from some university who has figured out how to teach “these kinds of kids.” Ever think to ask me what works? Why not pay those of us who do this well and do it everyday to research and develop our techniques for the good of others in our building and in our profession?

Imagine a pay system that is designed to encourage and replicate quality teaching in every classroom, rather than simply rewarding people for showing up. How would schools change if we built into the system a pay scale that provided salary gains to teachers for working together and using the best professional practices, in place of the current system, which  encourages isolation and too often rewards ineptitude? In my state of Mississippi, adoption of a performance pay plan with components such as those outlined in the Teacher Solutions report would help force the issue of equitable funding for schools. It would also help to create a stable, critical mass of effective teachers within our neediest schools.

Wonder if anybody will listen? We are ready to talk.