In the Classroom

Bills aimed at teacher hiring take a back seat to ISTEP, for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

As Gov. Mike Pence, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and legislative leaders are rushing a bill to ease the pain of last year’s ISTEP scores, another seemingly bipartisan education issue has, at least temporarily, moved to the sidelines.

That’s a bit of a surprise.

At the legislature’s ceremonial Organization Day in November, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, touted House Bill 1002, intended to help ease teacher shortages in Indiana, to be a top priority.

It may still prove to be, but for now the issue of teacher hiring seems to lost some of its urgency, and fewer solutions with broad bipartisan support have come forward.

While there was considerable debate in 2015 about whether the state actually was facing a crisis of having too few teachers, the state has clearly faced shortages in some areas. For example, rural schools, high-poverty urban schools and schools with open jobs in hard-to-fill subjects like math, science and special education typically have the hardest time recruiting and retaining teachers.

There are still many ideas on the table about what the state might do to curb those difficulties. Legislators have offered a few bills that could alleviate the pressure, mostly focusing on teacher pay and opportunities for additional education. But it’s not yet clear what direction lawmakers will take.

Bosma’s House Bill 1002, which would reward aspiring teachers with four years of free college tuition if they commit to teaching for four years in Indiana. His plan is similar to one proposed by Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry as a way to encourage more students to go into teaching. Bosma said the bill is in its final draft form, and he anticipates support from other lawmakers.

“It’s generally been really well-received among educators, administrators and university presidents we’ve talked to,” Bosma said.

Hendry estimated that his plan would cost about $4.5 million. Bosma has not yet put a price tag on his plan but said he didn’t think funding would be a barrier, even though 2016 is not a budget year.

“We’re looking for available funds to fund those programs now,” Bosma told Chalkbeat in November. “And if we can’t, we put the girders in place and add the walls next year.”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz led a teacher panel this summer focused on the need for support for new teachers and higher overall pay to help stave off shortages. House Bill 1101, authored by Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, would take some pressure off new teachers and allow them to still earn pay raises or bonuses even if they get a rating of “needs improvement” or “ineffective” in their first two years. Right now, teacher can be blocked from earning raises if they fall in those bottom two categories on a four-point scale.

Sen. Dennie Kruse, R-Auburn, said he plans to file a bill that would establish a “residency program” for new teachers, enabling them to earn a master’s degree more quickly and receive mentoring from veteran teachers along the way.

Additional education is especially important in Indiana this year after the Higher Learning Commission, an organization that accredits state universities, changed its policies to require any teachers teaching dual credit courses in high schools have either a master’s degree or 18 credit hours in the subject they teach.

Currently, 1,200 teachers in the state would be ineligible to teach dual credit courses if the policy went into effect as planned in 2017. Indiana has applied for a extension from the commission so that the law wouldn’t go into effect until 2022.

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, is expected to file a bill that would make it easier for teachers to meet the new dual credit requirements.

Under McNamara’s bill, any teacher already teaching dual credit classes could get college credits in exchange for the number of classes they teach. For example, a teacher who teaches one dual credit course in U.S. History would be able to take one free class, or three credit hours, towards a master’s degree in that subject.

“So theoretically, if you teach one class per year until 2022, you would get your 18 hours in the content area,” McNamara said.

Some of those 1,200 teachers might already have some graduate school classes, she said, but the cost of such a program would still be fairly high, and the majority of it would fall on universities to fund. McNamara said that she doesn’t think universities should have to foot the entire bill, but some schools, such as the University of Southern Indiana, has already looked into such an exchange.

McNamara said the new dual credit policies aren’t necessarily based on substantive data that says teachers must have the extra credential to effectively teach kids. And there hasn’t been public outcry in Indiana over how teachers are prepared for dual credit classes — the change is coming solely from the commission, she said.

“In essence,” she said. “It’s harming us as a state.”

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.”