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Virginia Journal of Education

Who Are Our Teachers

A once-every-five-years VEA study looks at Virginia's teaching corps.

by Tom Allen

In poll after poll, survey after survey, teaching consistently ranks as one of the most respected and trusted professions in the working world. And it should-after all, families across America place some very precious things in the hands of teachers every day: the education and future of their children.

Because teachers play such a vital role, every five years researchers at the VEA survey a sample of the commonwealth's classroom corps to learn a little about their expertise, experience, working conditions and feelings about their work. Last spring, VEA contacted 1,000 classroom teachers/association members, and here is some of what we learned about them:

They know the ropes. Two-thirds of teachers in our survey have been in the classroom for at least 10 years, and 43 percent have 20 or more years of experience. That means that our students get the benefit of seasoned perspectives.

"Being able to draw on what has been done in the past is helpful when thinking about what and how we teach," says Betty Webb, a Smyth County Education Association member who can certainly do that after 44 years of working with middle school students. "Methodology changes but it is based on what's worked in the past, and that knowledge only comes with experience."

And when teachers preach the value of education and life-long learning to their students, they're not just pushing platitudes: Slightly more than half of our classroom teachers have already earned a master's degree or better, and many of the others are currently pursuing graduate credentials. In addition, a growing percentage of Virginia's teachers (nearly one in 10 in our survey) have successfully completed the rigorous process involved in achieving certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

"The NBPTS program was absolutely the best professional development I have ever done," says Sandee Darden, a member of the Education Association of Suffolk and an art teacher who earned certification in 2007. "With over 16 years of teaching experience and a graduate degree in art, I found the idea of focusing on my teaching method as well as my subject matter intriguing. It was not until I was well into production of the portfolio that I realized just how much it was helping me to understand why I do the things I do. I also found out, after taping myself for the fifth time, that just because I knew my subject matter well and I love it did not necessarily make me a great teacher. The national certification process has helped me to focus on what is important in what I do. And I now find it is easier to pinpoint what I want my students to learn, how I'll teach it, and how I'll assess their learning."

They look back with pride. If they had the chance to go back to college and make their career choices all over again, a strong majority of the commonwealth's teachers (about 60 percent) would still head for the classroom. Their top three reasons for choosing a career in school have remained consistent for years: a desire to work with young people, the value to society of education, and an abiding interest in the subject matter.

For some, the road to teaching was a winding one. "When I was in college, I had no desire whatsoever to teach," says Melodie Henderson, a Chesterfield Education Association member and a middle school special ed teacher. "I majored in sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice. However, after college I worked with adolescents deemed as 'problem kids' and realized that I didn't want to be on the intervention or consequence end of their lives. So when opportunity knocked, I answered the door to education. I have no regrets about that decision. I wish education had been my first choice! Even in the grips of AYP and NCLB, I enjoy teaching and feel that I can better serve future generations by helping young people develop skills that empower them to become positive, contributing citizens. It's great when I run into former students who once struggled with academics and they share that they are getting good grades, or are applying to college, or landed a really cool job. That's my measure of success. So as long as there's that possibility, I'll continue to teach!"

So will Lola McDowell, a Richmond Education Association member and kindergarten teacher. "I teach in a very low income area that has a very high crime rate with young single parents with very few parenting skills," she says. "I'd rather teach there then in a middle class neighborhood because the children need me and you can see the appreciation of the parents for what you do for their children as well as the children when you expose them to things they have never been exposed to before. The reward for me is to see the enthusiasm and excitement in my children's faces as they learn something new."

About one-quarter of our teachers responded that they would probably not become a teacher if they had it all to do again, and their reasons boiled down to a couple factors: working conditions and salary.

Their working conditions are difficult. Often, there is just flat-out too much to do and too little time to do it. "I often hear, 'My plate is full,'" says Carol Jones, a member of the Henrico Education Association and a middle school home economics teacher. "The additional demands of new testing and technology leave no room for 'dessert.' Most teachers just dream of having enough time in the work day to improve a lesson plan or create a new one! Most time is spent communicating with parents, mentoring students, attending meetings or in-services, or completing stacks of paperwork. What we would love is a 'chocolate fix' of actual time to collaborate with our fellow professionals."

Time obstacles and testing requirements also wreak havoc with teachers' ability to be creative and go deeper in instruction. "I face numerous constraints on what can be taught, the time I have to teach it, and how to teach it," says Michael Weisbrod, also a Henrico Education Association member and a high school math teacher. "Understanding that the SOLs are a huge part of our day-to-day teaching, such a 'pacing' dictates a lack of investigation and exploring that are critical to student understanding.

"Furthermore," he continues, "a huge hindrance to teaching today is the overwhelming amount of assessments district, state and federal agencies place on us. It seems all we do these days is test. More meetings result from these tests, as do numerous reports and other 'administrative tasks.'"

They continue to work in a largely female profession. Just over 80 percent of Virginia's teachers are women. Men are especially scarce in elementary schools.

"With the inception of public schools in the 19th century, society began to allow women to work outside the home as teachers," says Jim Kline, Floyd County Education Association member and a high school shop teacher. "This employment was often secondary to the employment of a male spouse, and was compensated as a supplemental income source for the family. In the last 200 years, this picture has not significantly changed. Teaching is seen as a 'nurturing' occupation most suited to the maternal gender, and continues to be compensated as if it were supplemental to the family income.

"Highly capable men are encouraged to seek status and social acceptance through challenging, highly paid careers," he continues. "Highly capable women often are not. Instead, they are offered 'safe,' poorly-paid teaching careers, where their 'maternal predisposition' can be of greatest service. This condition will begin to change when society begins to recognize that teaching provides a service that is the source of our strength as a society and as a nation, and deserves to be compensated at a level commensurate with that contribution."

Women are also still seen as the traditional child-care providers and teaching careers work well with that because in education, "women are not typically penalized for taking time off to raise a family," says Carol Bauer, a member of the York Education Association and an elementary school teacher.

They're willing to put up a significant amount of their own funds for school purposes. Almost 60 percent of teachers in our sample spend at least $200 each year to see that the needs of their students are met; 28 percent spent $400 or more.

"I would estimate that I spend over $300 out-of-pocket," says Richmond Education Association member Holly Jackson-Conrad, a middle school science and special ed teacher. The spending is ongoing through the school year. It never stops. It's become the norm for me to purchase classroom supplies whenever they are needed. I generally stock up during the summer so that ample supplies are available at the beginning of the school year. Students are provided with a supply list but often the basic items are not purchased. I buy spiral notebooks, pencil sharpeners, pens, pencils, glue, glue sticks, poster board, display boards, research report covers, loose leaf paper, erasers, binders, rulers, floppy disks, multi-colored markers, crayons, colored pencils, tissues, band-aids, sanitizer, calculators, compact discs, mouse pads, earphones, headsets, materials needed for experiments, dry-erase markers, 3 x 5 cards and highlighters!"

Dot Walton, a 30-year teacher and member of the Charlottesville Education Association, can't remember a year when she didn't have to spend her own money for classroom materials. "I have spent a lot of money, averaging a minimum of $500 a year, on books for my students to read both for enjoyment and to be used as a resource in their content area classes," says the longtime elementary special ed teacher who has spent the last three years as a technology teacher. "My collection of books became known as the Walton Library. I also have a collection of well over 100 educational software programs that I have purchased throughout the years to use with my students for the reinforcement of skills, practice and motivation. I couldn't begin to account for the amount of money that I have spent just on everyday items such as pencils, notebooks, rewards, etc. that I have picked up from shopping at stores such as Dollar Tree and Big Lots-a classroom teacher's best friend."

Some further facts from the VEA report, "Status of the Virginia School Teacher":

. Virginia's teachers have learned to eat quickly. The average lunch "hour" for teachers in the survey was 27 minutes, and the majority of teachers say they are required to supervise students during this time at least sometimes.

. Eighty-one percent of respondents are white; 14.4 percent black; and the remainder place themselves in another category, such as Asian or American Indian.

. Average age of respondents was 46, and 72 percent are married. Fifteen percent are part of a two-teacher family.

. Nearly all (98 percent) of respondents say they work after hours grading papers, preparing lessons and doing other classroom-related activities.

. A large majority of teachers (86 percent) put in at least one more hour per week for club supervision, coaching and similar activities.

. Easily the most popular factor chosen by teacher when asked what helps them be better at their jobs is collaboration with and assistance from colleagues.

. Two-thirds of respondents reported a household income of less than $100,000.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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