When veteran teacher Abby Breaux read her “I’ve had enough” letter to the school board nearly two weeks ago, her actions paved the way for local teachers to believe that things could change for the better.
Having taught in the local school system myself, I’ve followed their story with interest and enjoyed spending time with them learning more about their plans and progress.
Rather than retiring, the path that so many talented teachers are taking in the face of the mountain of issues on the education front, Breaux, Jennifer Guillory and Linda Rhoads, three veteran and accomplished teachers decided to use the momentum the letter sparked to try and find solutions to some of the problems. Andrea Thibodeaux, one of their colleagues who retired in January, joined their cause.
They like to quote Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
Based on my conversations with them, I believe they’re unafraid of telling the truth and want the best for students and the system at large. They realize that so many teachers don’t feel safe to bring attention to the myriad of problems. One of the main reasons they’ve been able to speak out is that their administration at Edgar Martin Middle School is way ahead of the norm when it comes to supporting their teachers.
“We are looking for solutions,” said Guillory. “It’s so not an us against them game. We just need to help the education system.”
Even so, the teachers admit they were a little uneasy going back to school once the stories starting running in the media.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without knowing that the administration was who they are,” Guillory told me. “Our administration at Edgar Martin is doing the best they can. Their hands are tied. They can’t change the discipline matrix or decrease the 33 standardized tests we’re required to give our students each year.”Rhoads said some of her students asked her what the newspaper story she was in was about.
“I told them to read the article if they wanted to find out,” Rhoads said. “Then I looked over at one little girl in my class — you know, one of those perfect little girls you get every now and then. She said, ‘I saw that article and I read it. It said you lost the joy of teaching. Is it because of us?’ It broke my heart.”
For Rhoads and so many other teachers in the district, state and beyond, the problem usually lies with one or two students — the repeat offenders.
In a classroom, one bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
As things stand now with Lafayette Parish’s discipline matrix, the consequences are the same across the board for various offenses. Think about that for a moment. That means a five-year-old and an 18-year-old get the same consequence for the same offense. For example, under the new discipline matrix, if a student uses profanity, a teacher has to file a report and the consequence is that the child gets out of class and goes to meet with the counselor. Then the counselor creates a behavior plan for the student.
“Middle schoolers want to be out of class. They’re old enough to know better and young enough to do it,” said Guillory. “Plus, the behavior plan is just more forms to fill out for the teacher.”
And how effective are the plans?
Recently, two of Rhoads’ students who were on behavior plans went to the counselor’s office. They came back to class with lollipops — eating them in front of the other students. What kind of message does that send to the students who are behaving and not using profanity?
One teacher has 10 students on behavior plans. She says two of them are working. Twenty percent is failing by any standards.
Everyone involved in the education system knows there’s no easy fix for the mountain of problems, but there are steps to take in the right direction:
• Fix the discipline system. The existing matrix isn’t working — and it’s doubtful that a single matrix will work for the whole system.
• Get repeat offenders out of the regular classroom.
• Get rid of most of the standardized testing. Allow teachers to teach during that time.
• Smaller classes work better.
• Have enough textbooks for each student.
If scores on the state standardized test affect teachers’ salaries, make all the tests pass/fail for the students too, rather than isolated years. As things stand now, the tests don’t matter for some grades and students have been known to score low deliberately to punish some teachers.
Good teachers are still out there, but our public educational system is broken. More tests, constraints and demands of teachers will not fix it. Stand up for a teacher near you and demand better.