A Rural Teacher Makes a Tough Decision

Last Updated: May 27, 2014

This article appeared in the May 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor’s Note: Some non-essential details have been altered to protect the identity of the featured teacher and school.

By most any measure Ms. Johnson was a dream applicant for the rural school she began teaching in this past fall.

  • She is certified at both middle and high school levels in a hard-to-staff STEM subject.
  • She has taught successfully in neighboring states with a track record of good test scores and good relationships with students.
  • Her family is from a rural region of the same state and she lives in a neighboring rural community where her children attended the diverse, high-poverty local rural public school.
  • She likes a small school setting and understands that the advantage of getting to know students and their families well is accompanied by the demands of multiple preparations and extra co-curricular duties. She thinks the demands are worth the opportunities.

Hamlet High, where Ms.Johnson works, is the smallest, highest-poverty, and most remote school in its countywide district, which also includes a small university town. More than 70% of students at the school qualify for free and reduced lunch; 55% of students are white, 36% African-American, and 6% Latino.

Despite first-year-at-a-new-school jitters, Ms. Johnson immediately liked the school, the students, her special education co-teacher, and the administration’s stated philosophy. Other teachers were friendly.

Ms. Johnson arrived early, alternated morning bus duty with two other teachers, kept the athletic gate on Thursday evenings, and tutored four afternoons a week. She prepped five classes and spent most evenings and long weekends getting up to speed on a new and highly controversial state curriculum. 

“I know that the first year is the hardest,” she says. “But I was optimistic about the work load and felt like I would settle in. After all, I love teaching and had always managed just fine, even when all my kids were young and living at home.”

Early signs

Ms. Johnson, like many new teachers across the country, was hired at the last minute, just a few days before school started. “I know it’s hard for districts, especially in tough budget times to know where they will need teachers,” she says. “But if I had known I had the job earlier I would have done a lot of prep in the summer.”

The more troubling problem was the lack of academic and professional support—some of which appears directly related to the demographics of Hamlet. “There are not enough books for all the students and only a couple of computers in my classroom,” she says. “I was never given a teacher’s manual or codes for online access to teacher support materials, even though I keep asking.”

Midway through the year Ms. Johnson learned that the other district high schools were using a special support program in her subject, a program not available at Hamlet. “The longer I’m here the more I realize that this school doesn’t get the resources the other schools get. It’s very unfair.”

Faculty members were friendly and Ms. Johnson felt supported by the other teacher in her subject area. But there were no structured opportunities for teachers at Hamlet to collaborate, no venues to talk about students or teaching. When teachers spoke up at rare faculty meetings, ideas were shot down. Success was met with chiding to do even better. “I know teachers have ideas, but they’re discouraged,” Johnson says. “Everything is top-down. It starts at the state and goes right down through the district to the school. Teachers don’t feel like they have any say.”

Disciplined for failure

The lack of say became a big problem for Ms. Johnson when one of her students was sent to the Alternative School, almost certainly dooming him to fail ninth grade.

“You have to understand that this school says it’s very strict about discipline,” Johnson explains. “But they don’t pay attention to teachers about what would help. Instead it’s focused on punishing. I got chastised for not writing up students for things I could easily manage.”

Because Ms. Johnson believes that good instruction is rooted in strong positive relationships with students, she found the punitive orientation disruptive and counter-productive. 

The incident that got Johnson’s student sent to Alternative School was a Zero Tolerance issue. As is the case in many schools, the district's policy is to remove any student involved in a physical fight, regardless of who started it.

The incident happened in the hallway near Johnson's classroom. “First of all, the incident was not worth sending anyone to Alternative School for,” Johnson says. “It probably could have been prevented in the first place if there were more supports for good behavior. Second, they sent both students to Alternative School. There's some indication the student who started the fight just wanted the other kid out of Hamlet. But there's no protections for that kid.”

Johnson was furious. “This student didn't do anything. He's a great kid. He struggles in this subject, but he works really hard and he was making good progress. Getting sent to Alternative School will be hard on him personally and it won't be able to provide him the extra support he needs in this subject. It will be nearly impossible for him to pass. If he doesn’t pass, he can’t graduate because there's not room in the schedule to make up the course. His only changes will be to stay in school an extra year—so he could make up a class he would have passed if he had not been punished for something that is not his fault. It’s that simple. His future, his whole life could really be harmed by this. I talked to everyone I could and was told ‘this is the policy, this is what we do.’ It makes my blood boil.”

Tested and evaluated for failure

Johnson says she knew when she started the year that testing pressure was intense, but she had not considered all the ramifications, nor how testing would interact with teacher and administrative evaluations.

“All these kids have ever known is a testing environment. And because the sanctions are so severe, the teachers wind up teaching the kids little tricks. I don’t blame the teachers. Or the kids. But this is a cumulative subject and the tricks that work for 8th grade content don’t work for the content in 11th grade.”

In addition, the state’s new curriculum makes little sense. “It introduces something, then jumps to something else,” Johnson says. “It’s really hard to make this curriculum work so that students can actually learn what they need to know. It’s almost like they want students to fail.”

Two of Johnson’s classes had end-of-course tests that are factored into their final grades, and many students started the year behind. “They didn’t have all the concepts they need to do work at this level. So, we’ve worked really hard all year,” Johnson says. It is one reason she does so much after school tutoring. “The students have made huge progress. If they make this much progress next year they will be back on track. But a lot of them won’t get there in time for the test, which is this year.”

And here’s where teacher evaluations come into play. “So my evaluation is tied to my students’ end-of-course test scores like this,” Johnson explains. “If the grades I give my students are more than a few points off the score they make on the state end-of-course exam, I fail my evaluation. Mind you, this is a new curriculum and no one knows what the test will be. And if I fail my evaluation, that downgrades my principal’s evaluation.”

“So where does that leave me as a teacher?” Johnson continues. “I can fail students who have worked hard and made huge progress and are on track to learn the content before graduation. My evaluation and the principal’s come out better if I do that. But what kind of message does that send students about effort and their ability to turn things around? If I give those students a failing grade, many of them won’t or can’t graduate. One test score has huge consequences for their lives. I cannot in good conscious fail them when they have worked so hard to put themselves in position to succeed in the long run. It makes no sense.”

Ultimately it was this conflict that persuaded Johnson to make a heart-breaking decision. “I’m a teacher, my job is to help students learn what they need to be successful, to see that their hard work can pay off. But the policies that I have to follow if I’m going to be a teacher force me to do things that are harmful to young people and will damage their futures. I just can’t do that. It breaks my heart to leave, the students say: ‘oh, no, don’t go; we’re learning this; it’s fun.’ And I can’t tell them that if I were to stay I’d be pressured to fail them.”

Final scores

The date for signing next year’s contracts in Hamlet’s district was weeks before the end-of-course tests. Johnson waited past the deadline. Finally, she signed on the line declining a position in the 2014–15 school year.

“There’s a quality of life issue for me,” she says, “to have to work so hard with so little support and so little influence. But the real thing is what we’re doing to kids who have the most obstacles in their way. It’s just wrong.”

Earlier this month test scores were released. Johnson’s students scored the highest in the district, matching those of the university town school. The town school, overwhelming white, with a poverty rate less than two-thirds of Hamlet’s also has a concentration of resources and students with highly educated parents. It is positioned to outscore most of the state.

The scores affirmed the efforts and abilities of Hamlet students. Johnson was elated. But she was also frustrated.

“As soon as they heard the scores were in, students started rushing to my room.” Johnson say she did her best to protect student privacy, but it was difficult. Despite a relatively high rate of students passing the test, many students missed the cut score. There was no containing the emotion.

“The students who ‘failed’ almost all started crying or they got really mad,” Johnson says. She told students that although the test was a factor in their final grade, it didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t pass the class.

She created personalized plans for students to bring their grades up and continued after-school tutoring. When Johnson assigned final grades she counted effort and progress. “If the student was very close to a passing grade, had worked hard all year, and was on track to catching up, I passed them. No single test should determine the future of a teenager,” she says.

Johnson knows she could make a choice that preserves her students' opportunities for long-term success because her evaluation does not matter. She knows that's a choice many teachers don't have.  

"I knew that things had changed in schools," Johnson says. "But I didn't realize how many things are working against students. Most people don't know. All these changes just about guarantee that some students will fail. It's worse for students whose families are struggling, but it is affecting everyone. Anyone can be unlucky at some point."

Johnson says that her year at Hamlet has given her a much bigger perspective on what is happening in public education. "All these changes are subtle and maybe one at a time they don't seem that important. But they add up. It's counter-productive discipline; it's curriculum that makes no developmental sense; it's hinging an individual child's future on a test; it's taking away opportunities for teachers to relate well to students and each other; it's the hierarchy of evaluations that punish everyone in schools."

Johnson notes that her state is rapidly expanding charter schools and that those schools don't have nearly as many restrictions on curriculum, testing, and teachers as regular schools. "You can't help but think that these policies are driven by people who want public schools to appear to be failing, to make schools intolerable for many students and families, to push them out," she observes. "It's time everyone starts paying attention. There are real consequences to these things."


Read more from the May 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters, Teacher

Related Tags: School Location, Teacher Issues