In the Classroom

Bill to loosen union control of teacher pay moves ahead

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Bill 1004 would allow districts the freedom to determine where on the pay scale teachers in hard-to-fill positions should fall.

Lawmakers moved ahead with a bill today that would weaken teachers unions’ control over where teachers are placed on salary scales they negotiate for all teachers.

The bill, House Bill 1004, would allow districts to decide where teachers up for hard-to-fill positions would fall on the district’s pay scale without going through their unions.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the bill, which passed the House Education Committee today in a 9-3 vote, would let districts use higher salaries or benefits to recruit teachers for shortage areas like math, science and special education. The effort would notably help schools in rural and high-poverty urban areas that have the hardest time finding qualified teachers.

“I want to make sure this is as flexible as possible,” Behning said.

But the state’s largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, strongly opposed the bill because it circumvents unions and could pit teachers against each other.

“The heart of the teacher shortage in terms of retention is a professional wage, and these bills don’t address that,” said Gail Zeheralis, the union’s lobbyist. “The consequences of House Bill 1004 will be to foster ill will in districts and buildings.”

Indiana’s teacher unions have already seen their power diminished in the state. When Republicans took control of the Indiana General Assembly in 2011, they enacted limits on teacher collective bargaining, restricting negotiations to issues of salaries and benefits. Educational issues that used to be negotiated, like class size or school calendars, are now off the table.

This bill would take even more authority from unions. Currently, the union chapters in each school can agree to let schools pay some teachers more to address a shortage, but districts are not allowed to make that decision on their own. The bill would let superintendents or school leaders declare that a position is difficult to fill. They could then decide the pay rate for a candidate without consulting the union. The bill would not allow individual teachers to contract with the district, Behning said.

Teachers unions have been a regular target for Republican lawmakers in recent years. Other bills introduced in the last two years would allow all teachers to individually negotiate their contracts

Those efforts led to a testy exchange today between Zeheralis and Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland.

Burton said he has received 4,000 emails from ISTA members on various legislative issues that he described as “cyber bullying” because of the burden they imposed on him and his staff to read and answer.

“You are using a computer technique … to try to intimidate us, and it’s not going to work,” Burton said.

Zeheralis said that advances in technology, like email, make it easier for teachers to engage with lawmakers, especially during a process where bills move very quickly.

“We’re not doing our job if we aren’t using every means within our power to let those that agree with us and care about those issues act,” she said.

Lewis Ferebee, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, said he supported that extra power for administrators to attract teachers to their schools. IPS already has a provision in its union-negotiated contracts that pays teachers more to work in hard-to-fill areas.

“Administrators should have the authority, need be, to have great flexibility when it comes to filling these positions,” Ferebee said.

The bill would also let teachers with licenses from other states transfer their licenses to Indiana if they have bachelor’s degrees in the subject area they teach and a college GPA of 3.0 or higher. Transferring teachers would also have  to pass Indiana’s teacher license subject exams.

John Barnes, a lobbyist with the Indiana Department of Education, didn’t say whether the department supported or opposed the bill, just that the licensure section would bring “unintended consequences.” Barnes said the state already allows teachers from other states to take up to a year to pass the subject exams. In the meantime, the state offers  an “emergency license” that allows teachers to work while preparing for the exam and awaiting a full review of their qualifications.

“(Teachers) already have the one-year period where they can go through and teach if they meet other requirements,” Barnes said.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said she worried the new pay structure and out-of-state teaching requirements could send the wrong message to existing classroom teachers.

“I appreciate the fact that districts are having a difficult time (recruiting),” Austin said. “But I think we are really opening up a path to diminish the quality of teachers.”

The committee also considered four other bills today:

  • Teacher career pathways. House Bill 1005, authored by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would give extra pay to teachers who are rated effective and agree to mentor peers. The bill would also let teachers in their first two years of work receive salary raises even if they receive a poor rating on their evaluations.. The bill passed committee 11-2. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, and Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, voted against the bill.
  • High school diplomas. House Bill 1219, authored by Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, would require public high schools to offer students the opportunity to earn any diploma the state offers. Currently, some  schools do not offer the less-rigorous General Diploma, which advocates say is be a better fit for some students, such as those with special needs. The bill passed committee 9-0.
  • Innovation Network Schools. House Bill 1394, authored by Behning, would require the Indiana Department of Education to reset the accountability clock for schools that convert to Innovation Network schools, autonomous schools run in partnership with an outside organization or charter school that are still under the umbrella of a school district. Currently, schools with six consecutive years of F-grades can be taken over the state. In 2017, the timeline will be shortened to four years. The bill passed committee 13-0.
  • Minority student teaching stipend. House Bill 1179, authored by Rep. Donna Harris, D-East Chicago, would let students from underrepresented ethnic groups that are pursuing degrees to become school administrators receive a stipend from the minority student teaching fund. The bill passed the committee 10-0.

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.

school for love

Long hours, shared goals, and unbelievable stories: Why so many teachers fall in love with each other

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Timothy Brown

When Carrie and Kevin McCormack married in 2011, they quickly became known as the “teacher parents” of East Bronx Academy, the New York City school where they both worked.

But they didn’t stay the only couple on staff for long. Soon after, two other teachers paired off. Another relationship bloomed shortly afterward.

“My principal always jokes that we’re the hookup school,” Carrie McCormack says. “So many couples have met here.”

But East Bronx Academy is hardly the only school with love in the air. According to recent U.S. Census data, the most common marriages in America are between two grade-school teachers. And nearly 20 percent of people who work in education have spouses who do, too. Many of those couples met while working together.

Carrie and Kevin McCormack met as teachers at East Bronx Academy in New York City.

This Valentine’s Day, Chalkbeat has been looking at the love stories made possible by American education. Now we’re trying to answer the question of why schools are such fertile territory for love.

There are practical explanations: People who work in schools typically get started when they’re young, work together intensely, and have little time to meet other people.

“I always joke, if I hadn’t met Cornelius, I might be alone,” said Kassandra Minor, who met her husband in the bagel line on her first day teaching at a school in Brooklyn.

The benefits of pairing off with a fellow educator accumulate over time, especially as partnerships yield children. “It doesn’t hurt that we have the same vacation schedule,” says Grace Loew, a New York City teacher who met her husband when they were both first-year teachers in 2005. They’re now raising two sons together.

But educators say it’s about more than logistics. The shared task of trying to reach students who depend on schools to change their lives, they say, forges special bonds.

“Working in education, especially urban education, is an all-in job: emotionally, physically, spiritually and everything in between. The only people who can possibly understand the reward and sorrow of the work are fellow educators,” says Sally Jenkins-Stevens, who met her husband, Alex MacIver, when they taught together at a Bronx high school.

“You understand the stressors, the schedule, the unexpected days, and sometimes long nights that are associated with it,” says Brittany Monda, who met her husband Grant in a graduate program in Memphis, where they were both teachers and now each leads a school. “It’s great to know that someone has had a similar day to you without saying much when you get home.”

Or as McCormack puts it, “If I have to go home and talk to a husband who’s not a teacher, he’d probably think I was crazy.”

The possibility of falling in love has become lore at Teach For America, the nonprofit that draws many young adults to the classroom. Teach For America teachers have mentored their colleagues on the pros and cons of dating within the corps, and the number of relationships born at the organization’s summer training institute has even inspired a new piece of slang — “instiboo.”

The group’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp, married an educator she met through Teach For America, and so did her successor, current CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

“Anyone seeking out a woman partner at Teach For America has a pretty good shot at finding someone, given the incredibly brilliant majority-women environment they find themselves in,” jokes Villanueva Beard.

About her own marriage, and the increasing number facilitated by Teach For America, she said, ’“There’s something powerful about being with a partner who deeply gets the urgency and the possibility, and who’s on a shared mission of being part of the solution, alongside our communities, to ensure educational equity and excellence for all.”

That work can bring together people who might otherwise not connect. Even though schools across the country struggle to attract as many male teachers and teachers of color as many would like to see in classrooms, they remain among the most diverse workplaces in America.

Ybelka Medina and Geoffrey Schmidt bonded at the New York City school where they worked.

For Geoffrey Schmidt and Ybelka Medina, a shared passion for reaching students who had struggled in their previous schools bridged what seemed like an insurmountable culture gap.

“I am a Dominican immigrant that grew up in a blue-collar family that depended on social welfare to make ends meet in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn,” says Medina. “Geoff is American, comes from a solid white-collar family … and initially came off as a total frat boy more interested in socializing than actually teaching. I really liked hanging out with him … but didn’t take him seriously as a teacher nor as someone to date.”

Then they spent time getting to understand what had drawn each of them to the classroom, and romance bloomed.

“Education by its nature draws people who look at our world and want to make it better,” Schmidt says. “It makes sense that this kind of intense thought partnership would lead to bigger things. I know for us, it gave us an opportunity to see one another in a different way than I think we ever might have otherwise.”

The experience of seeing someone doing work they’re deeply invested in also worked its magic on Cornelius Minor, Kassandra’s husband, who said he considers teaching an art.

“When you’re doing your art, you’re your purest and best self,” he said. “If people are in your company when you’re being that person and they notice you, that’s really powerful.”