The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 23, 2013

Teacher respect issue discussed

What was once thought of as a highly respected and sought-after job title is becoming an increasingly difficult position to fill.  

Becoming a teacher used to be a profession youngsters dreamed of, college kids strived for and adults respected.

But nowadays, Raleigh County Superintendent Jim Brown says that’s a thing of the past.

“A lot of teachers who came into the system 20 or 30 years ago came into the profession because they thought it was a calling, that they were meant to be teachers,” Brown said.

“Teaching was a very well-respected position. I remember when I graduated from college and got my first job, my parents were very proud that their son was going to be a teacher and in the profession.”

Now, Brown said the entire state of West Virginia is facing a generation of teachers on the verge of retirement, with slim hopes of filling all the needed positions.

“Knowing that we’ve got this possibility of a high turnover rate with a lot of teachers retiring, we need to make sure we’re bolstering the profession and holding it up to that high level of esteem we want people to recognize.”

Brown said there are simply not enough teachers in the pipeline right now.

“When I first got on, 28 years ago, a lot of teachers had to function as substitute teachers for up to eight years before they could actually get in the system.”

For a lot of young adults choosing a career path, Brown said, unless they have a passion for teaching or feel that it’s a calling, they are not going into the teaching profession.

So why has there been such a societal shift?

Brown suggests the shift stems from a combination of lack of respect for the profession, how challenging the profession proves to be and lack of commensurate pay.

He said a couple decades ago, kids understood how to be respectful to adults and people in positions of authority.

“There’s just a disconnect in today’s society. I think parents need to hold our schools accountable. We not only expect that, but we respect that’s important. We have to earn that respect at the same time, but they are difficult jobs.”

As a parent, Brown said he remembered when his son had friends over at a young age.

“Three kindergartners in a room together can be a struggle. Can you imagine 20 of them in a classroom, not only getting them all together, but trying to teach them a skill?”

With the transparency of test scores and continuing referendums on education, Brown said this profession can be quite a challenge.

“I don’t want to underscore the fact that we know our results need to improve across the state and across the nation, but I don’t think we can achieve that by consistently bashing teachers. In our school system, we have some of the best teachers across the state and probably across the nation. We’ve had a lot of recognitions, several at national conferences, but unfortunately, that’s not always the story that gets out there.”

Brown said many first- and second-year teachers leave the profession because of a fear of not being able to do the job, whether it’s classroom management or dealing with challenges in the classroom.

“That comes back to the system and society supporting the teachers and the work they do. It’s a tough job. As professional educators, we need to be on top of our game. We need to be able to produce results, but at the same time, schools were designed to educate children. Now, so often, we’re looked at to assume a lot of responsibilities at a greater depth than we ever did before.”

Those responsibilities include child nutrition, wellness, leadership skills, etc.

“There’s a lot more on our teachers’ plates and our school principals as well. There’s a lot more to this process than just math, reading and writing,” he said.

“We know that the school facility and the classroom environment have an impact on student achievement. We know that leadership has an impact on student achievement. We know that parent involvement has an impact on student achievement. But all the research comes back to the greatest influence on student achievement being within the teacher. If we believe in that and we value that, then I think the profession can be brought back to that high level of esteem.”

In addition to giving teachers the respect they deserve for their challenging roles, Brown says the pay scale also needs to reflect their hard work.

“If we expect to recruit the brightest and our best students to be teachers, then they’re going to expect to be paid in that category. Entry-level teachers make $33,000 a year. I don’t know that the salaries equate to being able to recruit students into the profession coming out of high school expecting to make that salary.”

Brown said he believes our teachers need to be paid based on the work they do.

“It’s also that space between us being able to recruit and maintain highly effective teachers in the classroom. If we can’t recruit, it’s going to be devastating.”

The Legislature is doing a lot of work on education reform, and Brown said he commends them for the work they are doing, but ultimately, “the focus has to come back to teaching and learning. That’s what’s going to change the face of West Virginia.”

For anyone thinking of becoming a teacher, Brown offers the following encouraging words:

“You have an opportunity to change lives every day. To be quite honest, as a superintendent, it’s a tremendous responsibility, but some of my fondest days were as a teacher. Just to be able to see that smile on a child’s face when you made a difference, there’s no greater reward.”

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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