In the Classroom

Ritz's teacher panel calls for regular raises and pay for advanced degrees

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Natalie Shaw checks subtraction and addition problems with her second-graders at IPS School 61. The school is part of the district's pilot in racial equity training.

Educators studying concerns that Indiana might have a teacher shortage say the best way to address the problem is to move back toward traditional pay scales.

A 49-member panel comprised mostly of teachers from across the state today refined a series of recommendations for how the state should mentor, train, recruit and pay teachers.

Among the panel’s chief suggestions was a call to reverse key provisions of a 2011 change to state law that encouraged school districts to move away from traditional pay scales. That 2011 legislation also banned automatic pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

The teacher panel, created by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, spent this past fall researching solutions to difficulties some schools have reported finding teachers.

It found that more teachers would remain in the profession if they had “a professionally competitive pay scale” with regular base salary raises as well as the opportunity to earn higher salaries for “advanced education.”

After final editing, the panel’s suggestions will be forwarded to legislative leaders in hopes that they’ll lead to changes to state law, but Ritz admitted that many of the ideas run counter to the legislature’s recent approaches and might not catch on with lawmakers in the upcoming 2016 session.

“A great many of what we came up with won’t see the light of day in a legislative package perhaps,” she said.

But bringing the panel together was important, she said.

“It’s really those that are in the profession having a say about their profession … It was a very good conversation over several long meetings,”she said.

The panel found that dropping the incentive for teachers to earn a master’s degrees backfired when a governing body overseeing dual credit courses — high school classes that also count for college credit — recently required teachers of those courses to have master’s degrees.

“In Indiana we have been devaluing those,” Ritz said. “As a result we have needs, where we need that type of education now.”

Teachers on the panel said they believed districts that have moved toward less frequent base pay increases and more one-time bonuses or stipends have discouraged new teachers from entering the profession.

“Part of the reason people are leaving the profession is there is no continuity of pay,” said Vickie Thomas, a panelist and master teacher from Eggers Middle School in Munster. “We’ve got to get rid of stipends so people can buy homes and send their kids to college.”

The panel also called for districts to create “career ladders” or ways for veteran teachers to mentor younger educators or fill other leadership roles as way to make extra money.

“A lot of teachers want to be able to have leadership opportunities but still be able to remain in the classroom and teach,” Ritz said. “What does that look like in our profession? How can we compensate that? We will be looking at that.”

The panel endorsed the state’s policy of giving stipends or bonus pay to teachers who raise student test scores but the suggested that those stipends should also flow to teachers who raise student scores on the “formative” exams that are sometimes used to prepare for state tests, such as one known as NWEA.

The panelists also urged the state to:

  • Give districts leeway to judge teacher performance on more different kinds of tests instead of forcing them to rely heavily on ISTEP and end-of-course exams;
  • Support “a state-funded, ongoing investment in a mentoring system” in which mentors would support teachers in their first two to three years in the classroom;
  • Launch a “boot camp” for new teachers prior to the first day of school; and
  • Use data to better identify what teacher training would be most helpful.

The panel’s plan for recruiting teachers would use some of the same tools Republican leaders have suggested — college scholarships, grants and loan repayment programs — to reduce or eliminate the cost of teacher training in Indiana.

The main difference is that the panel’s report focuses more heavily on recruiting a diverse teaching force to increase the number of teachers from minority groups, including blacks and Hispanics, that are now under represented in Indiana classrooms.

The recommendations also include a proposal from the Commission on Higher Education to collect data on teacher shortages by geographic area, subject matter, gender and race across the state. Some data suggests that the state has enough teachers for all of its open jobs but that the teachers are not evenly spread around the state and that there are not enough educators qualified to teach specialty subjects like foreign languages and science.

There are also demographic shortages including what some say are too few black male teachers in the classroom.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”