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Virginia Journal of Education


Association members around Virginia are making a difference by speaking the truth.

There is an unmatched power in a story. Sharing your experience in a very personal way conveys meaning and brings people together like nothing else can. More and more, educators around Virginia are sharing their stories with governing bodies, the general public, colleagues, friends and neighbors—and the impact of their stories is growing. That impact can’t help but help.

Here are some examples of the stories VEA members have been telling:

In Chesterfield County
At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Chesterfield Education Association members signed up for 13 of the 15 speaking spots and CEA President Donald Wilms later received an email from a Board member thanking them for speaking on behalf of their students and the critical needs of the school division. Here’s some of what those members had to say:

I am a National Board Certified Teacher and this is my 22nd year teaching students. When the Great Recession hit our community, it was clear that everyone would need to do his job with less. This was the case in both the public and private sectors as we tightened our collective belts. The teachers of Chesterfield have done their part these past five years with larger class sizes and no pay increases.

One of the key requirements of National Board Certification is to know one’s students, to understand their individual learning styles, home situations, talents, struggles, past experiences and plans for the future. This allows teachers to tailor lessons to best support each student’s needs and help him meet learning goals. However, increasing class sizes in recent years have hampered the ability of teachers to meet the individual needs of each student.

To be more specific, five years ago, my AP classes averaged 26 students, but now average 30. A few colleagues’ classes number well into the 30s, some into the 40s. The amount of time it takes to properly grade assignments, provide feedback, and work with individual students has grown exponentially as a result. It now takes me more than a month to hold individual writing conferences with every one of my AP students after school. It takes me approximately five hours each time I grade a set of timed essays for these students, and this work is done at home on my own time.
Additionally, today’s students need more support than ever as our special education population continues to grow. The size of my collaborative classes has grown from an average of 23 students five years ago to 26 now. This year one of my classes has 29 students – 19 are special education students with Individual Education Plans requiring specific accommodations. My teaching partner and I struggle to meet the learning needs of every child while covering a vast U.S. History curriculum. Under these conditions we cannot continue to deliver the same educational experience we once did. We are simply stretched too thin.

The success of Chesterfield County Public Schools has always been due to its outstanding teachers, who go the extra mile to support their students. However, while class sizes, student needs, the length of the school day, and new initiatives have increased, teacher compensation has not. In the last five years, there has been no financial recognition of the expertise and time that teachers dedicate to our students.

       --Nicole Winter

This year, three of my four AP sections began the year with over 30 students. In essence, I have an additional section of students over my past experiences. I'll spare you the details of the impact this rising workload, on top of ever-increasing demands for documentation, parent content, and data-gathering, has on my home life. I know you're more concerned about the impact on the students, because as you can guess, I no longer have time to grade some of the labor-intensive assignments that have yielded good results in the past. This year, I have reluctantly stopped giving mid-unit essays to my AP students, leaving most of their writing for the unit tests. There's no doubt that this year's kids are getting less writing practice, and I worry that their AP scores will reflect this deficit.

In addition, the large class sizes have adversely affected the things that make government class come alive, like debates and presentations. There just isn't enough time for all of the kids to speak frequently, and I worry about the quiet kids who stay in their shells because I don't have time to draw them out.

      --Renee Serrao

Rising class sizes have had a tragic effect on the study and critical thinking skills of my students, as I and other teachers have had to figure out how to find the time to give each student proper feedback on these skills when we have more students than ever. I simply no longer have the time to provide formal, written feedback—the kind of feedback that helps students grow—on assignments other than end-of-unit assessments; consequently, some students slip through the cracks, particularly those who are too shy to participate in class, while others are inadequately challenged. My students are typically bright and hardworking, but I worry about the diminishing instruction they are receiving, particularly in the crucial area of critical thinking skills because of growing class sizes.
In addition, the impact of budget cuts on student recommendations and electives has been huge, and the public is largely unaware of this "hidden" cost. As the number of teachers employed by the county has declined, elective options have disappeared. I spoke to a chorus teacher who was frustrated after a class for advanced students was cancelled in spite of the fact that there was more than enough student interest to support the class. The school just didn't have enough teaching positions for it. These choral students, and others who have seen favorite electives disappear, have lost an incentive that helps them get through their core classes. The truth is, many students are inspired to attend school and succeed there because of their love for an elective.

      --Ryan Abbott

I teach fourth grade and I’ve taught for nine years. Each year, it seems as if I need to teach a little faster, a little harder with a whole lot less (except students). I just read an article which resonated with me, published in The Huffington Post about advice for a new teacher. A more seasoned teacher suggested that children will remember our empathy and our kindness, our care and concern, the stories we shared, our lunches together and that, in essence, it’s the relationships we build that foster learning. A few years ago Chesterfield County talked about Rigor, Relevance and yes, Relationships. A number of years ago I represented our county at a national conference and spoke of our success in Chesterfield being due in large measure to our adherence to those “3 R’s.” Not so much anymore. There is very little time in the day (if any) to nurture or develop those relationships with our students. At night, at home, there is very little time to nurture our family relationships because we are grading large numbers of assessments and preparing differentiated lesson plans. I have four guided reading groups and four word study groups. I have had five or six of each at various times. Increased class size has affected my teaching. It’s virtually impossible to meet the needs of every one of my 25 homeroom students and 29 math students on a daily basis. Please know that I worry about the students who “slide under the radar.”

      --Catherine Canty

In Fairfax
As part of the Fairfax Education Association’s effort to show local governing bodies the truth about what’s happening in county school as a result of underfunding, FEA has become a leading member of  The Alliance for Fairfax Public Schools, which launched an online petition. Here’s what it says:

We, the undersigned, call upon Chairman Sharon Bulova and the Fairfax County Supervisors to fully fund Fairfax County Public Schools.

Why is this important?

Our public schools are our crown jewels – the reason so many of us live and do business in Fairfax County. We are concerned that our quality of life and our children’s future will substantially degrade if we do not maintain public schools.

The Alliance for Fairfax Public Schools is a partnership of parents, students and civic organizations including the Fairfax Education Association, Fairfax County Council of PTAs, and Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. Our purpose is to tell the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that they must meet the needs of our schools and students.

Our schools are bursting at the seams, talented teachers are leaving, and already large class sizes could get even bigger. The Supervisors must make our schools the priority!

In Bristol County
Bristol Superintendent Mark Lineburg, a member of the Bristol Virginia Education Association, and Assistant Superintendent Rex Gearhart have written a book entitled Educating Students in Poverty: Effective Practices for Leadership and Teaching. Here’s what Dr. Lineburg says about why they told the stories they told:

We felt compelled to write our book for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, we believe that American public schools offer children in poverty the best possible chance at a better life. Second, it’s apparent the most challenging issue in America is childhood poverty and we wanted to offer practical solutions to challenging issue of American children in poverty, while moving beyond the perpetually burdensome testing and accountability movement. Finally, we are both children of public school educators who believe that public schools, especially those in high-poverty locations, are doing more good work than can ever be measured by high-stakes tests.
We hope this book increases awareness of the challenges students in poverty face while bringing practical solutions to the table. In essence, we believe that who you teach is much more important than what you teach. Further, teaching children in poverty is such a challenge that a single approach is not conceivable. Instead, we describe a comprehensive approach that incorporates the nuances of the schooling experience.  Our hope as authors and career educators is to give teachers, administrators, policy makers and students a tool to help stem nationwide increases in perpetual poverty.

As we note in the book, “it is abundantly clear that schools can no longer educate with a central focus on middle-class children with two parents, a constant source of quality food, and adequate supervision.” We must address all aspects of teaching children in poverty, from busing to wellness and nutrition, preschool to high school extra-curricular activities, family engagement to wrap-around school services, extended school year and afterschool programs, and attendance and behavior to instructional practices, if we’re going to meet their needs.

In Virginia Beach
Natalie Lebo, a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association, recently told the City Council this, as it contemplated a large health insurance price increase:

Thirteen years ago, my husband and I fell in love with the amazing city of Virginia Beach and all that it had to offer our family, and decided it would be the perfect place to raise our family.

Fast-forward to the present: My husband still works for a Fortune 500 company; our two children have grown into a 15-year-old, theater-loving student at Ocean Lakes Math and Science Academy, and a cello-playing 12-year-old at Kemps Landing Magnet School; I am a current Teacher of the Year nominee for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. 

Our young family has thrived and grown into the best versions of ourselves, and the Virginia Beach City Public Schools are a large part of our success. We now has the flexibility to live anywhere in the United States but we choose to live right here in this great city. The schools are second to none. My sons have blossomed into 21st-century learners who will be able compete with the best and the brightest from around the country. 

That brings me to my point: Each year it has become increasingly difficult for our family to live in this great city we call home. Our living costs have continued to rise and we are truly feeling the pinch.  The proposed cost of health care would be catastrophic to my family and so many others. This change could have damaging effects upon our city: incredibly talented teachers who have done such a wonderful job with my children are barely hanging on by a thread financially. It is worrisome to think that health care costs could drive teachers out of their profession not by choice but out of fiscal necessity. I implore you to please keep our city and schools great places to live and learn. 

In Loudoun County
The Loudoun Education Association has gathered stories from educators and community members and compiled them into a booklet. Those stories are in wide circulation as LEA talks with county administrators about issues such as class size. Here are a few examples:

As a teacher, I have not received a step increase in seven years. The money I have lost will not ever be recovered. It has hurt my family financially and with retirement looming in four years, I feel the Board of County Supervisors is stealing money I will sorely need in my retirement. Shame on them for allowing building permits, which then turn into houses that will be filled with children we will not be able to educate. We live in the richest county in the United States. Even in my desperate straits, I can afford to pay a little more in taxes. Last year, my tax bill was decreased by $50. Increasing my bill by $50 would have gone a long way to fully funding the school budget.

Take the time to come into the schools. You will not find people wasting money. What you will find are overcrowded classrooms, teachers using their planning time to do duties, and a great deal of frustration because of old technology. Shame on all of you who think that education is not worth the time, effort, or money to support! If you continue down this road, companies will not want to locate in Loudoun, and people will not want to buy the houses that are created by all the building permits. It will be sad indeed when teachers quit their jobs and move other places because you do not value education!

     --Patricia Albert

My take-home pay is $200/month more than it was seven years ago. I'm still using the same worn out Earth Science textbooks I used 12 years ago! Every year there is not enough money in our department to replace the equipment that breaks or gets worn out, so I'm constantly trying to teach with less.

      --John Hoffman



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