More than 9,500 public school teachers work within South Dakota’s boundaries. Some spend more time with kids during the week than parents. State Secretary of Education Melody Schopp says the community should elevate teachers with dignity and respect. SDPB’s Kealey Bultena begins our discussion about attitudes in teaching with Schopp, who says teaching is a noble profession.
The secretary leads the department of education, and teachers themselves say they struggle with the way people outside of education view their work.
Susan Dodd is a kindergarten and first grade teacher in Mitchell. She gets each class for those two years so they come back to first grade and have the same teacher until they move on to second. She’s been teaching for three decades. Dodd says she has some extremely supportive parents. She says she also encounters parents who think that kids should find education in school and that they shouldn’t have to work on learning at home.
Dodd says she stresses to parents that they are their children’s first teachers, that now that they’re in school, it’s an opportunity for them to learn in different ways with someone trained. She says they’ve done a good job, and it’s now important that they trust her with their kids’ education.
The kindergarten teacher says people have less respect for teaching now than when she first started working in schools. Dodd says it shows up in little ways. One example she provides is that she says she rarely had challenges with parent-teacher conference toward the beginning of her career. She says they showed up and talked. Now Dodd says parents don’t come or reschedule repeatedly, and she doesn’t see them making meeting with her, the teacher, as a priority.
The issue of how people perceive teachers has come up several times in the past couple of years – most notably at the beginning of 2016 with the sales tax increase that went to teacher pay. In front of lawmakers, South Dakota teachers started explaining what they do and how long they work. One thing that comes up over and over again is this notion that teachers have summers off. Mitchell elementary school Susan Dodd says sometimes she laughs it off, but other times she explains that she's planning and working on school after the 4th of July.
Teachers say it's just not true that they have all summer to disengage from work. They also say the work during the school year leaves them without time for extensive professional development that can help kids – think earning a master’s degree in education.
Other professions require long work days or people to take work home with them to complete. The difference some argue is that communities acknowledge workers who have long shifts for people who serve other people. Some teachers say people outside of education assume they work only when at school, when really they arrive early or work at multiple buildings or spend hours on work late at night when no one sees them grading papers.
Teachers say that people assume they know what a teacher does. They have antiquated images of students in desks, and they don’t understand the kinds of work teachers put into their job to benefit students.
For example, personalized learning is gaining attention in schools all across South Dakota. Teachers are appealing to specific individual students based on how they best learn and specific areas where they struggle. That sounds pretty simple - until you have 25 kids in a class and you have six classes. That takes time.
Other teachers use what was first called flipped classrooms, where students experience the lecture portion on video as homework, and then they work through problems and exercises in the classroom. That way the teacher can guide and assist, instead of kids getting stuck on problems know one teacher who uses class time to help student through complicated multiplication problems. But they have to record those lectures. They have to grade assignments and offer feedback. All of that takes time.
That concept makes sense for math teachers, but others have different job duties that requrie extra time. Physical education is one of the easiest classes to envision: running on the track, learning basketball’s rules, or the giant parachute. That's not how physical education works now. Meet this pair of teachers – mother and son – who say gym is much more than jumping rope. Longtime teacher Carol Shade is most know for her P.E. and health classes at Whittier Middle School; Casey Shade is a second-year teacher at R.F. Pettigrew Elementary in Sioux Falls.
These teachers say they aren’t complaining. They chose this profession. They followed this calling. They know this is the work, regardless of whether you think the system is set up properly. Still they don’t appreciate the fact that people question what they do at every step, and that's one reason this discussion bubble to the surface.
Verlyss Jacobson started teaching in southeastern South Dakota in 1958. She says she went to college on a Sunday, registered for courses Monday, took a class Tuesday morning, and started practicing teaching at a rural school on Tuesday afternoon. She retired from teaching in 1995, and she says the atsmophere changed enough then that she knew in the last six months of her career that it was time to leave the classroom.
These conversations focused on this concept of elevating teachers, but every single teacher brought up how technology is changing their world. Physical education teachers Carol Shade and Casey Shade say they are trying to find the right place for technology in gym class in a way that doesn’t chip away at their core mission. Longtime retired teacher Verlyss Jacobson mentions how she saw technology work in her instruction in the 1980s when some parents opposed introducing calculators.
That’s also what elementary school teacher Susan Dodd says. Technology has its place. It can be incredible. It can make education better. It can also distract. She says she firmly believes no keyboard or tablet can replace a good teacher.