Imagine a college student preparing to graduate with a teaching degree; we’ll call her Kim. The year is 2005, and Kim is ready to enter the work force, well-prepared with her university education, excited about the prospect of positively affecting the lives of her students and confident of her chosen career path.
That university education came with school loans, however, and Kim was warned by a number of people the she would “never get rich in education.” A love for children and a passion for learning outweighed the warnings; at least she would have job security, she reasoned.
Fast forward to 2011. Now a teacher, Kim finds paperwork taking more of the time she would like to spend developing engaging activities for her students.
She worries about how to prepare students for the new end-of-course exams. Beleaguered by the myriad problems her students bring to school, Kim doubts that she is having any impact on her students at all. She sometimes wonders why she chose education as a profession, burdened by her school loans, a car needing repairs, and still living in an apartment because she hasn’t been able to save for a house. She spends her free time working a second job.
And thanks to the most recent legislative session, Kim lost her stipend for her extracurricular duties and is now teaching eight periods a day instead of seven. At least she wasn’t one of the recent layoffs, she reasons.
The 2010-11 year was a tumultuous one for teachers.
A new testing system, budget cuts, and increased class sizes would be enough to take on without hearing political rhetoric questioning the profession of teaching and reading that a new study declares teachers to be overpaid.
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, recently likened the new education accountability mandates to “giving the schools a higher bar to hurdle then digging a deep ditch in front of it.”
Many teachers are at a breaking point, and school board members are keenly aware of the plight of their teaching force.
A School Board Mantra
“We feel their pain,” Lytle ISD Board President Nan Boyd affirmed in explaining her desire for the board to be kept apprised constantly of any program cuts. “We can’t leave it up to the administration to make cuts while we ignore the impacts. We note every one.
It’s important to our board that the administration and teachers know that we have a clear understanding of how the budget cuts are affecting their day-to-day environment and our students, and that we are actively working with the administration to review our finances to identify opportunities to bring back some of the programs we cut.”
This is the mantra of many school boards. Most are staying informed at a level never seen before in order to be aware of the budgetary constraints brought about by the school funding shortfall. The recruitment and retention of high-quality, effective teachers has long been a concern of school boards, but this year has brought it to the forefront.
Making Morale a Priority
A number of boards are taking steps to combat flagging morale, sending a clear signal to teachers that the board stands behind them and appreciates the challenges they are facing.
In recent goal-setting sessions, both the Spur ISD and Karnes City ISD boards recognized the current environment and noted the significance of this by incorporating the issue of teacher morale into the districtwide comprehensive goals, pledging to do their part to make it better. “In a time of increasing standards for student achievement and decreasing budgets, the Spur ISD Board is sending a message to teachers that they are important and appreciated by making it their goal to create an environment that promotes positive morale,” said Spur ISD Superintendent Earl Jarrett.
Board members continuously search for ways to show their appreciation for the work teachers do. Spur ISD Board members resolved to support their staff, even going so far as creating a plan to look into possible teacher housing to help ease some of the time and financial burdens of teachers who commute.
In Karnes City ISD, board members are working to provide monetary rewards such as gift cards and Christmas bonuses. Claude ISD this year was able to provide Christmas bonuses in a way that had never been done in the district.
Because mid-year pay increases raise legal issues, the superintendent conferred with legal counsel before proceeding.
“Our faculty worked together to cut costs, allowing us to put money in the bank—so we needed to share it,” said Claude ISD Superintendent Toby Tucker.
Board President Shay Christian said that she’s only too aware that the teachers could go to nearby districts that pay higher salaries.
“It’s not a big thing, but it’s a way to say ‘thanks for sticking it out with us,’” Christian said.
More than Money
While financial rewards are one aspect of the morale issue, board members are going beyond the simple act of rewarding teachers, taking the step of becoming actively involved with their staff. In Claude ISD, for example, board members show up early to cook and serve breakfast for their teachers at the beginning of the year.
“We actually have a lot of fun doing it!” said Tucker.
The Lytle ISD Board also decided to find a way to have fun with its employees. The Lytle ISD Board, this year’s Region 20 Education Service Center Board of the Year honoree, went to the teachers during back-to-school convocation to share the board’s vision of Lytle ISD and invite the teachers to join with them in making this come to fruition.
Choosing the theme “The Future’s So Bright We Gotta Wear Shades,” board members attended the event donning light-up sunglasses and going person to person through the faculty, handing each a pair of shades and inviting them to join in the celebration.
Claude ISD takes a similar] approach trying to incorporate fun into the work with the district’s Teacher Challenge Teams.
Elementary Principal Reagan Oles creates randomly selected teams of her entire faculty, devises a series of challenges that range from professional tasks—every member having grades turned in on time—to fun challenges that take place with the students cheering them on. At the end of the year, the team with the highest point total receives a bus ride to Amarillo for a day of pampering that includes spa time and lunch.
Recognizing the Profession
Both Lytle and Karnes City ISDs have recently worked with the community to launch local foundations. These organizations provide funding to help encourage creativity and innovation.
“Teachers are energized to go above and beyond in the classroom,” noted Lytle ISD’s Nan Boyd.
“The overwhelming support of the community keeps teachers at Lytle ISD motivated,” added Lytle ISD Superintendent Michelle Smith. “When teachers feel supported by the community, great things happen in the classroom.”
The Karnes City ISD Education Foundation encourages the community to support the foundation, pointing out that the quality of life and economic growth in Karnes City are directly related to the quality of education. This board also has expressed a desire to invest in things such as business cards and personalized stationery to validate the professionalism of the teachers.
In a time when teachers are feeling besieged professionally, boards can demonstrate their respect by acknowledging the teacher’s professional capabilities.
When board members adhere to appropriate communications, always utilizing the chain of command when dealing with community interaction, district employees are empowered to fulfill their role.
“Our board always uses the chain-of-command process, and it does wonders for morale,” noted Oles. “When Mr. Tucker started the Two Notes initiative asking teachers to send at least two notes to parents, our board members joined in, sending notes to all faculty and staff.”
All in This Together
“Creating a total climate of Utopia is impossible. However, as a team of eight we consider it essential to show our appreciation to our entire school family for the efforts that they make daily,” said Tucker.
Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn noted, “Our teachers and staff are amazingly committed to the success and well-being of all students, never accepting ‘good enough’ as the standard. The board-superintendent team believes it is important to let them know how much we value them as members of the KCISD family and appreciate their dedication to our mission.”
Karnes City ISD Board President Dennis Mika summed it up like this: “We want our students to feel loved and appreciated. There’s no way that can happen without the teachers first feeling appreciated.”
So what about Kim, our weary teacher? She now works in a district where the board has made teacher morale a priority.
She is energized by the board’s presentation to the faculty and feels their support. She is thrilled with her Christmas bonus. Like so many others, Kim already has plans for part of it: a new set of books for her classroom.
Diana Freeman is a TASB Leadership Team Services Board Development consultant.