Teachers: The thrill is going

HARVEY — When Brenda Johnson talks about her former students, her face lights up. Her brown eyes dance as she recounts the children she taught in her 37-year career as a special education teacher in the Jefferson Parish Public School System.

Her eyes well up slightly when she recalls the moments when, sometimes after months, a lesson or skill “clicks” with the students, some with severe learning disabilities. No matter how long ago, she remembers their names and every detail of the interaction. Those moments are what make it all worth it, Johnson said. “It gives me goosebumps.”

Johnson retired last year after 25 years at John James Audubon Elementary School in Kenner. She said she was ready, and as she listens to the changes friends and colleagues are dealing with this year, she doesn’t doubt she made the right decision at the right time.

“They are so upset,” she said, of her many friends who teach. “I wouldn’t say I ran away, but after seeing what is happening, I don’t miss it at all. It’s so different you wouldn’t believe it.”

One friend Johnson described had 19 years under her belt — less than a year away from the 20 years required for retirement — but quit just before Thanksgiving.

Johnson said her friend’s husband had said to her, “What happened to my wife? I don’t know you anymore,” because every day her friend would burst into tears when she walked in the door after school.

“And she is a good, good teacher,” Johnson said.

Superintendent James Meza acknowledged that “more is being asked of teachers than ever before. But when students are failing like they are, we have to raise the bar,” he said

From Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch’s perspective, the numbers of teachers retiring early or quitting have been “exceptionally high” this year. While there have been major restructuring changes in the Jefferson Parish system last school year and a new evaluation system mandated by the state this year, Munch said there is a national issue of low morale.

“There’s a real burden on teachers’ shoulders, and a national trend blaming teachers for the ills of education,” Munch said.

Meza said that the projected numbers for retirements in the parish are higher than average for this year, but that’s largely because of a workforce that is unusually older, with an average age around 50. He said with changes to the collective bargaining agreement, teacher retention will be based more on performance and less on seniority, which he said will increase the district’s ability to compete to recruit high quality teachers earlier in the year.

Meza said the district is recruiting teachers nationally, working with Teach for America and local universities and bringing in more bilingual teachers to keep up with the growing Hispanic population.

At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Michelle Blouin-Williams, chief human capital officer for the school system, said that there were 108 retirements for certificated employees, which includes teachers but also anyone else with teaching credentials. From the end of the last school year until today, there have been close to 200 retirements. As of Oct. 31, the system employed 3,327 teachers.

The new emphasis on evaluating teachers based on student performance is causing some anxiety, Meza said, but the parish doesn’t have the option to debate whether or not the state-mandated new evaluation system is fair.

Louisiana’s new model, known as COMPASS (Clear, Overall Measure of their Performance to Analyze and Support Success), was mandated to begin this school year. The model, combining principal evaluation with student performance, was passed by state lawmakers in 2010 to address what they saw as shortcomings in the teacher performance evaluation process, requiring a new procedure “designed to capture the cumulative impact a teacher has on his or her students’ growth over the course of an academic year,” according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

Jefferson Parish volunteered to be part of a pilot program for the still-evolving system beginning last spring.

Meza said that pilot data for Jefferson Parish teachers was very high, with most of the teachers being rated effective or highly effective, and few being rated as ineffective.

Another factor in retirements, said Blouin-Williams, is that with last year’s “bold reorganization,” the district worked to keep everyone they could gainfully employed, but some employees may have made the personal decision to retire if they were not satisfied with changes in school, grade, or subject placements.

Blouin-Williams said that it is just too soon to tell what the effects of the new evaluation system is having on retirements and resignations.

“It is a change,” she said. “It’s a very new process.”

Meza said he does not think the system will have a negative impact on teachers, but that it is demanding. He said he is looking at an incentive pay program that will reward teachers for their demonstrated success and the extra work being asked of them. Based on current national standings, “We have to work harder and raise the bar — and that does require more work,” Meza said.

Munch said she supports accountability but sees a trend toward villainizing teachers that is driving people out of the profession and discouraging new ones from coming in.

One thing that Munch said was eliminated this year due to budget cuts was a program that allowed master teachers to work with new teachers.

“They’re starving for staff development,” she said.

As teachers adapt this year to the state’s new evaluation plan, Munch said that teachers are having to focus much of their time on tests and data reports.

“All they are doing is teaching to a test, and now the teachers’ jobs depend on it,” she said.

Blouin-Williams said that an increase in the numbers of retirements and resignations was one of the topics discussed at statewide administrators conference in September. The numbers are consistent across other parishes, Blouin-Williams said.

Johnson said the drastic new implementation of the evaluation program is simply pushing some of her colleagues over the top.

The intense focus on data has taken some of the joy out of teaching, she said. Former colleagues constantly tell her how busy they are with the extra paperwork and required Student Learning Targets.

“It’s not that teachers are against reform,” Johnson said, noting that in her almost four decades teaching, she has seen a lot of reform. But recently, she said the focus is on paperwork and how the student looks on a spreadsheet.

“I’d still teach if they’d just give me a room and let me teach,” Johnson said.