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Story published: 08-23-2011 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Haslam joins local teachers in education roundtable

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam listens during a roundtable at Unicoi County Middle School with county educators. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Adam Campbell)

By Erwin Record Online Staff Report

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam visited Unicoi County Middle School last week and conducted a roundtable meeting with Director of Schools Denise Brown, state Rep. David Hawk and a host of teachers from all grade levels, with experience ranging from one to more than 40 years.

“I honestly think the most important work that I will do as governor is to help continue the progress we’ve made in education,” Haslam told educators at last week’s meeting. “This is not meant to be just a dog-and-pony show.”

Haslam told teachers in attendance that his purpose was to get their input and responses to questions he had prepared for the discussion. The first one he asked concerned how the profession of teaching has changed over the years.

Veteran teacher Gail Clark, who teaches at the Career and Technical Education facility at Unicoi County High School, said teaching has improved drastically since she first started.

“It’s become much more intentional and purposeful,” Clark said, adding that educators in today’s time are given clearer pictures of the skills they need to be conveying to students via state standards.

“The rigor has increased tremendously,” elementary educator Jerianne Moore agreed. “What we expect of our students has increased.”

However, Emily Butterfield went on to call the strict adherence to teaching state-issued standards in each subject area a “drastic shift” away from teaching life skills, such as basic math or applying for jobs, particularly to special-education students.

Butterfield added that sticking to those standards may hurt some of those students more than it helps them.

“I’m afraid we’re creating kids who are going to be welfare recipients or Social Security-dependent,” she said.

Eleana Pate, who teaches at the intermediate school, agreed that the number of “teachable moments” she gets to have with her students has decreased in proportion to a heightened focus on teaching standards.

“I feel like when I first started teaching, I could have those moments,” Pate said. “Now, we have no time for anything other than teaching standards. I feel like we’re setting (new) teachers up for failure.”

Haslam continued the discussion by asking how participants at the table felt the state was doing at retaining good teachers.

“Not too well,” UCHS German teacher Lynn Honeycutt said. “We’re seeing a huge exodus of teachers (that are) leaving our county to go to systems within 15 minutes of here.”

Honeycutt said equalization of pay among school systems across the state could help remedy the problem, and Haslam agreed that something needs to be done.

“Fundamentally, we’re going to have to figure out a way to address compensation,” Haslam said. “Obviously the right balance is out there somewhere.”

UCHS drama instructor Lori Ann Wright added that colleges are finding it more difficult to place student teachers with mentors, as a new statewide teacher evaluation system places stringent requirements and added pressure on teachers to keep their students’ test scores high.

“That’s a huge part of your evaluation,” Wright said. “A lot of teachers are just not as willing to take on student teachers now because of that.”

Middle school instructor Lenee Hendrix also cited the loss of incentives such as collective bargaining by teacher unions, as well as new rules making it more difficult for teachers to reach tenured status, as culprits for the loss of 30 percent of new teachers from the field after their first three years on the job.

“The loss of these incentives and consistently low salaries are complicating the problem,” Hendrix said, adding that these factors, coupled with the stringent new evaluation system, are creating a “revolving door effect” with new teachers.

Seventh-grade math teacher Lisa Peterson said changes to the education system are being reported in the media and, subsequently, are making the teaching profession look like “the pit of society.”

“This job used to be one of admiration,” Peterson said.

Haslam went on to ask if the teachers around the table would encourage others, including their children, to go into the profession.

“If it’s not a calling in your life, you won’t make it,” Honeycutt said. “You better be sure it’s your life’s work, otherwise, no.”

Eighth-grade history teacher Tim Higgins said he would encourage his own children to be “open to other fields.”

Clark, however, said her career has “been such a rewarding profession,” she would encourage others to follow in her footsteps. She did say that she worries new teachers aren’t getting “enough of a chance to prove themselves” under new state tenure guidelines.

Haslam said he would like for the state to double its efforts in “sending out a message to talented, creative people who want to teach.”

The governor also addressed the new teacher evaluation system, which ranks each teacher on a scale from 1 to 5 based on a detailed performance rubric. Teachers were reportedly told that most of them would be rated with a 3.

“It’s very difficult to try so hard to meet all these requirements and still be told you’re a 3,” Honeycutt said.

Peterson also added that she and other teachers with more years of experience should be graded on a different rubric, with more leeway.

“I would hope that 26 years of teaching would count for a little bit,” she said.

UCHS Principal Becky Love said the evaluation rubric should be differentiated for teachers, just as classroom instruction is differentiated for students with different learning abilities and levels.

“We obviously don’t have a perfect answer,” Haslam said of the new system. “But we’re getting there. We’ll adjust it.

“All of us agree, I think, that we shouldn’t be satisfied with where we are in education. We have to be honest and admit that.”

Brown concluded the meeting by commending Haslam for his efforts to hold education roundtables across the state.

“I think what you’re doing now is a good start,” Brown said. “You’re listening.”