What Lawmakers, Education Leaders Need to Know
Column by Dr. Kim Carson-Swift
My name is Dr. Kim Carson-Swift and I have been teaching in Missouri since 1996. When the state sent out a survey in the fall of 2022, I was very concerned with the short-sightedness of the survey. While teachers deserve to be paid more, money cannot make up for the problems taking place in education. If the system is not changed, we will continue to lose teachers and substitutes at an alarming rate. Since 2021, I have seen at least ten excellent teachers from my district leave the profession because they were completely defeated by student behavior, testing policies and the educational focus of our government officials. Our schools are struggling and our teachers are bearing the load. Joy is leaving our buildings. Please consider the concerns I have listed and start looking to teachers, not so-called experts to fix the problem. Teachers know the students and have ideas to help them be successful… if someone will just listen.
Special needs - I teach an adaptive class for special needs students, which can be challenging. Some students have acted out and caused harm to themselves and others, resulting in injuries to staff. The state standards for special education haven’t kept up with the growing challenges. In one case, a student with mental health issues was not provided with services because they didn’t meet Missouri’s academic criteria, but was able to receive help in Kansas. In another case, a student with a learning disability was denied services in Missouri but qualified in Texas. Six months of data collection to test students is too long and takes away from teaching time. We need better ways to support struggling learners and revise our guidelines. Small group instruction is effective for students behind on reading, but high caseloads for special education teachers make it difficult to provide adequate attention to students. Teachers must work around classroom schedules and chronic behaviors can disrupt small groups. The state needs to establish maximum caseloads based on the number of students and required minutes for each individual. The number of diagnoses and interventions should also be considered when determining how many students a teacher can handle.
Behavior issues - Many students lack social-emotional skills, but current solutions such as referring them to the STAT program and reporting behavior to parents don’t provide daily opportunities for reteaching. Behavior should not be considered under the same requirements as a regular IEP. Students that disrupt the class often have trauma or a mental health condition that is causing them to act out. Because of this, administrators with limited teaching experience should not dictate pedagogy. Has anyone considered consulting teachers to brainstorm ideas to remedy this problem? We have so many teachers with years of experience and multiple degrees, but more time is spent telling them what to do than leaning on their expertise to create plans for our buildings and do what is best for kids.
Give the teachers their classrooms back - Give them the tools and the standards and let them teach their way. Teachers do not need more things to do. Collaboration time is spent discussing data instead of best practices. We must be empowered to use our professional judgment and make a difference in the classroom. Public officials dictating curriculum is like a political science major telling a construction worker how to pour concrete. These are children, not programmable robots. They need to be nurtured and taught with joy and love, and teachers need encouragement more than meetings.
Minimize disruptions - When I first started teaching, I was told that one of our key goals was to minimize disruptions so that students could learn. This has changed over the years and now it seems the emphasis is to keep students in class no matter the cost to other students. Many students would not get dangerous if they were removed from the classroom, taught the missing skills and given mental health support before reaching this point. We have more and more students with trauma and the office is not able to support those students. Giving us our focus rooms back would be of great benefit and is a good place to start but will still not be enough.
Consider the math - If a school with 400 hundred students and roughly 22 regular classrooms, but there are two students with trauma, two students with special needs and two students that disrupt the class often in each room, then the school has 132 students who need more intense instruction. If just one of those six students per class requires an office call, that means the office receives 22 calls that day. Where do they have space to work with and help 22 students, let alone 132 students? What is the plan when that happens?
There is no plan - Inadequate support and planning for students with behavior issues leads to frustration and disruption in the classroom. Support staff are overwhelmed with multiple calls and unable to provide timely and effective help. It is not an uncommon occurrence to walk down the hall and see two or more adults standing around a student and watching them scream and kick while other students are walking by to go to recess, the restroom or special classes. Lack of diagnosis and behavior plans for some students causes ongoing disruption despite efforts to redirect and calm them. We need to do better for those students and create better plans for how to help these students succeed that do not qualify for special education. Behavior needs to be considered a separate area of support.
Behavior mentors - Just like we have learning mentors that help struggling students with reading and math, we need behavior mentors that work with students that are missing social/behavioral skills. It should not take an IEP for those students to get help. Classroom disruptions are affecting the mental health of other students, causing anxiety and fear. This is not the fault of teachers, who are not certified counselors or psychiatrists. Teachers require support and options to minimize disruptions for other students, and not be blamed for circumstances outside of their control.
Kindergarten - Many countries start Kindergarten at age six, not five. This allows children more time to mature before trying to learn. We should focus on building gross and fine motor skills, social skills and problem-solving. Standards need to change and stop expecting Kindergarten students to sit and do work when they are not developmentally ready. Some states have transitional Kindergarten classes for students who are not ready for Kindergarten, allowing them to work on the skills needed to be successful in 1st grade in a smaller class with extra support.
Class size – This isn’t just about the number of students, but also the quality of students in the classroom. A class with students who have learning disabilities or chronic behaviors can make it difficult for other students to receive the attention they need. I think a “quality” rating system could be useful, where a student with a learning disability or who is disruptive counts as two, and a chronic student counts as three. In this situation, the six students with chronic behaviors and five with learning disabilities would not be able to have any other students in their class because that would add up to 28, which is more than a regular class size. Many current classes would add up to the equivalent of more than 30 due to the number of students needing help in those rooms.
Legislative changes – I believe that no public official, senator, representative or appointed person should be allowed to create or vote on any educational policy without substitute teaching three weeks a year at elementary, middle school and secondary levels. We have too many leaders making decisions for public schools who have never attended public school and/or haven’t stepped in a public school (except to read a story or visit with escorts) in over 20 years. Along with this, if the legislature mandates a change to requirements for various grade levels, they must consider how to transition without gaps. You can’t change two-digit addition from third grade to second grade when the current third graders haven’t learned it yet. We need systematic plans to make these changes work.
COVID can’t be ignored – Society has told teachers that we “can’t use COVID as an excuse anymore.” What if a student is struggling with two-digit addition because they decided to stay online during second grade when that skill was taught and that student did not show up to a single math class online? Is that going to have an impact the next year when the class has moved on to multiplication and four-digit addition? Definitely. They aren’t going to magically catch up just because someone decided that the pandemic no longer has effect. This applies to social behavior as well. Teachers could mute a student on Zoom, but in person students have to take turns, stay in their space and raise their hand. Many are still learning how to navigate this environment.
Drugs in schools - At what point are districts or state and federal government going to crack down on illegal substances in our schools? They come disguised in innocent packaging, so I had to share with my eight-year-old that she can’t take any treats from anyone at school because they could contain drugs. The availability of these items to minors is very concerning. We need to spend more time focusing on getting the community involved and creating action steps to keep drugs out of our schools.
Testing - Evaluating students one time at the end of the year is not a scientific way to measure their growth and abilities. Testing does little to communicate how far students have come since they have been with us. Any basic research methods course will demonstrate that a pre-test, post-test design is optimal to measure growth. Furthermore, some of the most intelligent people I know are not excellent at taking tests, but can do data analysis or statistics flawlessly. Tests have also been shown to be inequitable to our students of color because they do not often include material and questions that pertain to their culture. As a music teacher, I often have students move into my classroom in fourth grade that have never practiced reading rhythms or melodies or played an instrument. Some never even had a music class because they came from a state that does not have music as a requirement. These students usually leave my classroom with at least the basic skills of the students a year or two younger than them (if they stay long enough). I can’t imagine how difficult this would be if they moved in and suddenly they took a state standardized test that was supposed to be a reflection on my teaching ability.
In conclusion… The majority of elementary teachers who have left the profession did so due to a lack of support and respect - not money. Teachers do deserve to be paid much more, but went into teaching because we care and want to make a difference. When we quit, it’s because we are burned out and feel like we can’t make a difference. Our opinions are not valued and all that seems to matter to our leaders is a percentage on a test. Please remember to spend time considering how to provide for the mental health support that is plaguing our nation. There can be hope if our leaders would consider the concerns listed here, listen to teachers, treat them like professionals and respect their ability to teach kids.