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Fairfax County Teachers: 'I Can't Sustain This'

In town hall meeting with school board members Monday, teachers ask for solutions to workload and morale issues that, after half a decade, are as "worse as they've ever been."

Dan Hale has been a teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools for 20 years, but he’s never felt or seen his colleagues as overwhelmed as they are today.

He used to know his students as readers and as writers, he says; now he only knows them as bits of data or ECART scores; pacing points and percentages.

And after spending far more than eight hours at school, he leaves (with work in tow) thinking ‘What am I doing tomorrow?’ — planning time in the context of the school day, he says, is nearly nonexistent.

The story was one of many shared by a few hundred teachers Monday night at a town hall sponsored by one of the county’s largest teachers unions, an effort to better connect school board members with teachers and workload issues that have persisted for at least half a decade, the union says.

For years, both the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which sponsored Monday’s event, and the Fairfax Education Association have asked school board members for help in reducing some of their requirements and responsibilities and the shrinking amount of time in which they have to do it.

This year, teachers said Monday, has been the worst year yet.

And morale is low.

“I used to get up in the morning and go, ‘I love my job,’” one longtime teacher told school board members Monday. “That’s not the case anymore and that’s sad.”

School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), one of 10 members who fielded teacher concerns in a ballroom at the Fairview Park Marriot in Falls Church, said it was time for a solution.

“This has been brewing for quite some time,” Schultz said after the event. “We need to fix it.”

The board is planning on a work session on the issue in April.

Growing Responsibilities, but No Extra Time

Along with keeping pace with the state of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests and a new teacher evaluation system, teachers are also dealing with new elementary school report cards that make grading take three times as long as it used to, assessment tools that require more data and analysis and the rollout of online textbooks, among other technology tools.

As enrollment swells, so too have class sizes, and with each additional student comes even more hours to prep, coach, test and assess them.

Yet no responsibilities have been taken away, nor has more time been given to accommodate them, teachers say. Pay also been more or less “stagnant for years,” they say

One teacher said he once had two and a half hours of planning time each week; now, it’s about an hour and 20 minutes.

Tasks have “been piling up like one rock after another on our chest while [we’re] being told ‘you better do well or else,’” one teacher said.

Since the beginning of this school year, Lynn Schmauder, a math teacher who has 130 students this year at Woodson High School, has spent at least 36 hours giving after-school help, nearly 20 in parent-teacher conferences, 37 hours replying to parent emails — and what amounts to 41 days, on top of her day to day responsibilities, grading papers.

The number of weekends she’s been able to put the work away: 0.

Schmauder, who is in her third year of teaching after 15 years with the Department of Defense, said she either needs more help or less students. Neither is an option about which she is optimistic, given the system’s budget forecast.

“What I know is that I can’t sustain this,” said Schmauder, who said she feels like she is missing out on her children’s lives.

Outlook and Solutions

The system’s proposed budget includes a 1 percent market rate adjustment for all teachers — but

Administrators have also said

Teachers called on administrators — from the superintendent to the leadership team to the leaders of each of the system’s clusters — to spend more time in schools, shadowing teachers to get a better understanding of what their day is like.

When teachers do give leadership feedback about best practices or pilots, it’s often not reflected in what is handed back to them, teachers said Monday, pointing to the recent widely-criticized rollout of an online math textbook  program.

Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said Monday it seemed “the feedback that comes from the front lines doesn’t always come back effectively at the top.”

What’s more, teachers said, students are suffering, too. There’s no time left to host colonial days, or work math into a lesson on cooking — the kind of hands-on activities that bring concepts full circle and keep school experiences from being a string of “factoids,” teachers said.

Schultz said the board is in a better position than in years past to act on some of the issues outlined because “the tenor of the board has changed,” she said.

There are more people willing to ask difficult questions and have “actual engagement,” she said.

“The reason we ask difficult questions is because our decisions have consequences, and this is the bad side of those consequences,” she said. “We need to have actual engagement. We need to listen to the public.”

FCFT President Steve Greenburg and school board members said Monday was not the end of the dialogue — it was the beginning of a path that would hopefully lead at last to some solutions.

“We all want our kids to succeed,” board member Patty Reed (Providence) said, offering her support to a better classroom environment. “Let’s not forget that.”

See also:

Teacher Pay a Heavy Topic at Schools Hearing

Teachers To School Board: 'Our Members Will Be Heard One Way Or Another'

Teachers Say They’re Overworked

This article has been updated.

T-Bird March 15, 2013 at 02:15 PM
Barbara, you could find studies on alien invasions and the 4th Reich on the internet if you wanted. No, I am not so soft minded to believe every blog I read on the internet as "fact". I understand it was your opinion, as was mine. As for what "group" you represent, you clearly indentfy and alinged yourself with the teachers in your comments. That was what I was referring to. I don't think I misread, but you never know.
Cassie March 15, 2013 at 05:33 PM
There are definitely lists which show how many staff are at each school and within administration. Maybe Fairfax Parents should put together a coaltion just to help out with some of this research - the start of an audit committee of sorts. Just from viewing the AAP sessions this year, it's obvious that the school board does not have enough information to make their decisions and then to top it off, the school administration then goes ahead and makes other plans that counteract what the school board has done verses working together in unison.
Barbara Glakas March 16, 2013 at 12:58 PM
T-Bird, There is both junk and good information on the Internet. I was not suggesting you read blogs. I said “studies,” and, in that suggestion, I meant legitimate studies. As far as other issues go, I was not trying to represent or align myself with any group, but simply clarifying some statements that were made here on this blog. For instance, some people earlier in this thread said they made $51K and $61K as teachers. I’m sure that is true but I wanted to clarify that such salaries are more of a seasoned teacher and do not represent starting salaries. I did not take a position on whether the salaries were too much or too little. Also, some were saying how teachers get the summers “off” and I wanted to clarify that teachers are not paid for the two months they have off. Some suggested if teachers were paid more money they’d be satisfied. My opinion was that if employers better understood what “satisfied” teachers then they might realize that money was probably not the primary answer. That's it, buddy. Have a good day.
scottt k April 27, 2013 at 07:51 PM
Kenyon, Stephanie M Grades 1-3 Teacher, ES Cunningham Park Elementary School $58,303
Kawsar Sultana May 22, 2013 at 06:49 PM
In my country, the two most reputable jobs are that of doctors and teachers. Doctors heal the body while teachers heal the community. I am a doctor back at home but I also used to teach when ever I had the time. It is my passion. However, in the US, I have seen teachers get denigrated time to time. Parents accusing teachers for bad grades, calling them lazy and what not. I agree there might be a few that fit the description, but let it be known to all parents, contribution comes from both ends. Pushing the blame on one side is not helpful.And children shouldn't be taken too lightly. You will be amazed at how smart kids can be only if teachers are given the liberty to train them the right way. Being an international student, I see the difference between kids here and kids back at home.

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