SOE News

Teachers talk policy

“Effective leadership . . . smaller schools . . . more time for teachers to think and plan . . . opportunities for experienced teachers to help their schools and other teachers . . .”

Those are some of the major needs in North Carolina schools, which were expressed by 10 practicing teachers assembled at The Carolina Inn on Sept. 13, 2006.

Twenty policy makers, legislators, education leaders and University faculty members listened as the teachers voiced their concerns. The teachers represented all levels of K-12 schooling and various areas of the state, from Burke to Halifax to Carteret counties.

Setting the context for dialogue, School of Education Dean Tom James, co-organizer of the roundtable event, said, “We are in a place where it really is possible to take bold ideas and make changes. The University realizes the urgency here. We have the capacity to leverage resources and knowledge. We need to hear from teachers.”

Ferrel Guillory, event co-organizer and director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, invited the teachers to speak from the heart. He asked, “What’s happening in classrooms that policy makers ─ both in the University and in state government ─ need to hear?”

Governor Easley’s Senior Education Advisor J.B. Buxton and Teacher Advisor Ann McArthur reported preliminary findings from the survey of Teacher Working Conditions (TWC) conducted last spring for the Office of the Governor by the Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill. Based on responses from more than 75,000 educators across the state (a 65 percent response rate), the three factors most important to teachers were: leadership, time and empowerment.

In the ensuing roundtable discussion, the teachers voiced concerns consistent with those factors.

“School leadership has to be a priority,” said Bill Ferrier of Salem Middle School in Wake County. “The principal is the most influential person in the building.”

Ineffective leadership is frequently a problem in failing schools, according to Mary Ward of Southeast Halifax High School. “The state needs to set up a licensure procedure for principals that assures quality,” she said. 

“It’s important to teach principals how to work together [with teachers] as a team,” said Jenn Morrison of Piedmont IB Open Middle School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “All are working for the benefit of the students.”

“A principal must be an instructional leader as well,” remarked Shirley Prince, superintendent of Scotland County Schools. “The NBPTS [National Board for Professional Teaching Standards] keeps the best and brightest teachers in the classroom; we need the same for principals.”

Melinda Fitzgerald, of Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, added, “In addition to being a leader and a team player at the same time, principals also need to be a voice for change.”

Principals can use the TWC survey results to move forward, suggested Nancy Guthrie of Broad Creek Middle School in Carteret County. “Administrators need to help schools design a School Improvement Plan that’s actually used, not just put on a shelf.”

Beyond effective leadership, teachers also need more control over their time. “In schools, teachers live in the tyranny of the moment,” Morrison said. “Teachers need time to think. Leadership needs to be defined as empowering to the professional community.”

“I’d like to be able to facilitate conversations on my learning team, but I need time to do that,” Ferrier said. “I’d like to see 12-month positions created that allow teachers to be hired in the summer to produce and deliver professional development, to use their skills to enrich the profession.”

Kindergarten teachers face particular challenges in that regard. Lesley Wade of Frances Lacy Elementary in Wake County explained that kindergarten teachers rarely have planning time. Often they need to help take care of their young charges during planning periods rather than having that time available for planning.

Harriette Davis emphasized that small schools offer many advantages for teachers and students. A 35-year veteran teacher who spent the last two years in a small school, Davis described those two years as the best teaching and learning experience she ever had. “It’s amazing what a difference it [being in a small school] makes. All voices matter. The power is phenomenal. The focus changes from teaching to learning.”

“In larger schools, providing ways to restructure time allows teachers to have autonomy over instruction,” Fitzgerald noted. She also suggested creating more networks that provide opportunities for teachers to talk about their practice and exchange ideas. “We gain ideas from each other and can bring those ideas back to our own schools,” she said.

In conclusion, Buxton asked the teachers to specify what they want principals to do better.

“Tap the knowledge and expertise of teachers,” Ferrier said. “Empower teachers and don’t be threatened by their expertise.”

“Open up and inform teachers why they are being asked to do things in a new way,” added Cathy McCluskey of East Wake School of Health Sciences.

“Expect teachers to do their job well, and understand what that job is,” said Amy Vaughn of Freedom High School in Burke County. “A principal’s job is too big, complex and stressful, but it’s still important to be in the classroom once a week.”

“A teacher [advisory] cabinet can help a principal do his or her job well,” Morrison added.

State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee pledged support and action at the state level. “I am convinced that we are poised for action in the state. The stars are aligned . . . ,” he said. “The State Board of Education and the Governor are committed to find ways to work with local boards and with superintendents. Thank you for sharing with us tonight. This has been very valuable.”

Sponsored by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education and the UNC-Chapel Hill Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, the roundtable was the third event in a series titled “Carolina Seminar on School Improvement.” At the first event in December 2005, policy makers, business and civic leaders, public school educators and university faculty discussed the state’s educational future. The second event in March 2006 focused on developing approaches to address the shortage of mathematics and science teachers in North Carolina schools.