Last-Minute Teacher Appreciation Gift Ideas

by Natalie Barnes

Natalie Barnes is a teacher for Prince George’s County Public Schools. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

Teacher Appreciation Week is coming up soon (Monday, May 6th through Friday, May 10th). Of course, I can’t speak for every teacher, but here are some of my ideas for ways you and your child can show appreciation.

  1. Say “Thank You.” It means so much to have a heartfelt note from a student and/or parent. Many teachers keep these and treasure them, especially on the bad days.The card does not have to be fancy — it could be on a sheet of lined paper for all we care. What matters is the meaning and feeling behind the message you share. While a thank you card is wonderful, your thanks could also be as simple as staying after class to express your gratitude verbally.
  2. Gift Cards. If you know we like a certain restaurant or store, we’d love a gift card for it. If you’re not aware of a particular establishment, gift cards for coffee are loved by a vast majority of teachers.
  3. Classroom Supplies. Pens, pencils, tissues, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, white board markers…we can always use more of them! I know these things are neither glamorous nor creative, but we’re going to spend our personal money to buy them otherwise. We’d love for you to supply some and we can spend our money on a little something for us.
  4. Volunteer. It takes a long time to make copies, put up/take down bulletin boards, Clorox wipe the desks, etc. We have long and never-ending to-do lists and would to have your help to cross some things off!

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Your Child’s Best Teacher is Probably Quitting

The writer is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools who wishes to remain anonymous. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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I am a PGCPS middle school teacher. Most of my coworkers have an exit plan. These are the reasons why.

My average class size is 34, but only because I teach in a smaller classroom. I have coworkers with as many as 42 students in a class. When class sizes are that big teachers do not have enough time to give each child the attention they deserve. We do not have enough time to calm the anxious, charm the shy, engage the advanced, and keep up with parent contact logs. We do not have enough space to provide preferential seating to the easily distracted, to separate the bickering, or to allow the fidgety to dance in a corner. We do not have enough co-teachers, para-professionals, or one-to-one aides.

We do not have enough guidance counselors or psychologists to support the students who need it. We do not have enough time to plan engaging lessons that are differentiated to meet the needs of every student, to grade every student’s work thoughtfully, or to give parents the detailed replies they deserve when they have questions or concerns unless we come to work hours before our contract time begins and stay hours after it ends. We don’t have enough support staff to keep student bathrooms clean, shovel snowy sidewalks, or get students through the lunch line in a timely manner. We don’t have enough pencils, enough tissues, or enough paper.

With all the things we don’t have, the majority of good teachers I know do have an exit plan. They are leaving high-poverty schools to teach in affluent neighborhoods where active parents’ groups mean gaps in resources get filled. They are applying to neighboring districts, charter schools, and private schools. Or they are leaving teaching entirely. The more experienced teachers are weighing the cost of retiring before they have a full pension. The newer teachers know how many years of experience the neighboring districts will accept when calculating their salary.

Teachers across the country are walking out to get better conditions for their students: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland. Teachers in L.A. went on strike for smaller class sizes, more guidance counselors, and full time nurses and librarians in every school. I hear the same wish list from PGCPS teachers. Some teachers are pinning their hopes on the next round of contract negotiations as the union moves toward Bargaining for the Common Good, but others are simply choosing to exit the system.

These are not the bitter teachers you imagine cursing the day they became teachers as they sneak a smoke by the cafeteria dumpsters. These conversations happen as teachers set out supplies for the day, as they stand in line to make copies, as they share tips on classroom management and grading strategies, as they share the stories of their students who need help that they cannot give because there simply is no time. These are women and men who love their students and work hard at their jobs, but are frustrated because they don’t get the support they need.

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Why I am Working for the Teachers This Year

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The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Lori Morrow

Last summer, I accepted a part-time position as a Parent Organizer with the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association (PGCEA). I am not an educator. I am not a union member. But I am in my 11th year as a parent in PGCPS, and I value public education. Supporting PGCEA teachers, counselors, psychologists, and media specialists is a natural extension of the public school advocacy I’ve done for the past decade.

PGCEA is “Bargaining for the Common Good” this year. It is a movement that is growing across this country, recognizing that organized labor movements can serve a greater purpose in our communities. The strike in Los Angeles Unified School District is the latest example of educators negotiating for more than just their own pay. The movement for quality public education is also about facilities and testing and evaluation systems and workload. Classroom teachers are the most basic connection children have to education from ages 5-18 and TEACHER working conditions are STUDENT learning conditions.

These past six months, my role has been working on outreach to parents and community members, sharing information about Bargaining for the Common Good, and building a network within our community. In a county as large as Prince George’s, it is not an easy task. Everyone brings their own bias and a single encounter can shape the way parents feel about teachers, or teachers feel about parents, or community members feel about a union. This movement must be bigger than any of us as individuals. In this year of discussions about the Kirwan Commission and equitable education funding in Maryland, we need to use our experiences to collaborate and work together. Ultimately, we must all share the same goal: a high-quality education for the students of Prince George’s County. I am proud to work for teachers because I know that if they succeed, our children will be the true winners.

For more information, visit https://www.pgcea.org/bargaining-for-the-common-good-2/ and join educators, parents, students and community members in Annapolis on March 11 to March for Our Schools, https://marchforourschools.com.

Student Learning Objectives: Making Sense of SLOs

by Natalie Barnes

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What are SLOs?

In accordance with grant programs such as Race to the Top, states are developing teacher evaluation systems to determine teacher-effectiveness. Students’ standardized test scores are often used to measure teacher effectiveness. However, standardized test scores are not “available or appropriate for all teachers and subjects,” according to a document put out by the U.S. Department of Education describing how states use student learning objectives in teacher evaluation systems. States can choose their own ways to evaluate teachers and Maryland has chosen to use Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) as part of their evaluation.

According to the Prince George’s County Public Schools Student Learning Objective Handbook, the state of Maryland has defined a Student Learning Objective (SLO) as “A specific, rigorous, long-term goal for groups of students that educators create to guide their instruction and administrative efforts.” The handbook continues, stating “Although SLOs contribute to the Student Growth component of the overall evaluation in Prince George’s County Public Schools, they are best utilized as an instructional tool. SLOs are a meaningful approach to measuring student learning because they enable teachers to determine the focus of instruction and how student learning will be measured. SLOs are not an “additional” task, but SLOs are designed for teachers to ‘formally’ monitor what they are already doing in the classroom on a daily basis.”

Essentially, two SLOs are created by each teacher and administrator. (A third district SLO is drafted by the Office of Curriculum and Instruction for high school teachers who are responsible for Biology, English 10, Algebra I, Algebra II, and Government (HSSA) courses in the previous year.) Each SLO states the goal that teacher or administrator has for his or her students during the year. The results are a portion of the teacher’s final evaluation score. Student growth measures are 50% of teacher evaluations. For teachers who teach content areas with state assessment data, the SLOs are 30% of the student growth measures while for teachers without state assessment data, the SLOs are 35% of their final evaluations score.

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Protecting Due Process for Prince George’s County Teachers

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The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

The past few years have certainly been traumatic for Prince George’s County Public Schools.. Educators, parents, and students in PGCPS have had to weather storm after storm after storm. For most of the issues that have come across the public’s attention, there are parallels with other school districts. Yet there is one issue that in its scope is truly unique to Prince George’s County Public Schools: the placement of hundreds of its staff on administrative leave, often for months at a time, during the 2016-2017 school year.

It is difficult to find another district that had an administrative leave crisis like this one. In 2014,the Baltimore Sun reported leave statistics for some other districts in the region, with Baltimore County taking the lead at 230 employees on leave in a year at a district similar in size to PGCPS. Most recently, Providence Public School District in Rhode Island had a spike in administrative leave cases this year involving new reporting requirements. However, the district revised its policy by the middle of December, as it was quick to recognize the inherent problem in having too many teachers on leave.

In the case of Prince George’s County, a whole school year went by and local news outlets had to run several stories before district leaders would even acknowledge that there was a problem. In fact, a June 1, 2017 release from PGCPS defended the district’s handling of the situation, saying “No price is too high for a child’s well-being.”

It’s an interesting statement, considering the thousands of students whose academic well-being were harmed by the sudden departure of their highly qualified teachers, often for weeks or months at a time. Not only did the leave situation cost the district almost $10 million, it also did serious damage to the academic progress of students in all grades. Substitute teachers work hard in challenging circumstances, but they are not paid to be the full-time professionals that are expected to be there to serve the students of Prince George’s County.

There have been varying reports of the number of teachers on leave in 2016-2017.  The Washington Post reported the number to be in the range of 400 to 500 out of over 800 total employees placed on leave.  Recently, the Prince George’s County Education Association (PGCEA) has stated in its communicationsthat over 600 teachers were placed on leave that year. If we take the PGCEA figure, multiply that by five instructional hours in a day, and then multiply that figure by a ballpark estimate of 50 instructional days lost per teacher on leave, the product is 75,000 hours of lost instruction by certified teachers. The impact is then multiplied by the number of students affected. While many elementary school teachers are in self-contained classrooms, PGCPS often has students in upper elementary grades go to different teachers for different subjects, and teachers at this level often interact with 50 or more students on a daily basis. Middle and high school teachers frequently teach six classes, with their impact reaching well over a hundred students.

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A Lonely Journey: Life on Administrative Leave

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The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous.

There is your badge sitting on the desk. Your smiling face and the PGCPS logo are looking straight up at the ceiling. That piece of plastic that stayed so close to you every day at work was being taken away from you. Maybe for a few days. Maybe forever. The words still ring in your ears: “I’m placing you on administrative leave.”

You’ve had a stellar record through all of your career. You’re respected by your colleagues. You’ve never had a whiff of trouble. And now, you can’t do the thing that’s been at the core of your being for almost your entire adult life.

Your mind turns to the alleged victim. You are a teacher because you have a sincere desire to make the world a better place. You want the best for your students, your colleagues, and your community. Yet somehow, somebody believes you have been harmful to them or that you have done something to put others at risk. Whoever is putting forth the allegations is not your enemy, but you are suddenly placed in an antagonistic position with someone you have tried to support.

As the principal walks you to the parking lot and you drive away, you contemplate how you will explain this to your family. You know they will be hurt and confused, but you still have to be the one to deliver the news. Before it even happens, you can hear what will come: the bewildered silence and the anger in their voices.

You turn your attention to what it will take to defend yourself. So many things happen in a teacher’s day. This is a profession that is exhausting based on the sheer number of decisions you have to make as you plan and manage a classroom full of young personalities and try to impart the curriculum. You don’t have time to take detailed notes of everything that happens, yet right now you wish that you had a record of every interaction you’ve had. You do the best with what you’ve got.

It soon becomes clear what is one of the most insidious aspects of being on administrative leave. The feeling of isolation is horrible. You have been instructed not to be in contact with any colleagues, students, or parents. You know they are wondering about you. Where is my teacher? Will they ever come back? What happened to our colleague? I hope everything is OK. You receive phone calls, text messages, and emails, but you know you can’t respond and tell the truth of what you’re going through.

When the school year ends, you will learn from news reports that there were 848 PGCPS staff members placed on administrative leave this year. In that sense, you are not alone. Sure, you had heard through the grapevine what had happened to a friend of a friend. It was unfortunate, but it was distant. Now it is all too close. You wish you could reach out to the others. You need a support group, but you don’t know who they are or where they are.

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More Than a Statistic: Observations from a PGCPS Employee on Administrative Leave

IMG_6404The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

Over recent months, media attention has focused on what employees of Prince George’s County have known for a long time: the problem of having too many school staff on administrative leave. According to the Washington Post, as of June 6, there were 142 teachers and 91 other employees off the job.

I am part of that statistic.

I will share part of my story. Of course, there are very strict limits to what I can share. However, with the massive number of employees who have gone through what I am experiencing, it is important for policy makers and the public to know the issue from the perspective of someone in my position.

First, some perspective on the known statistics:

There were 848 PGCPS employees placed on administrative leave this year. That means 4.24%, or about one out of every twenty-four PGCPS employees were paid for days, weeks, or even months to not be at work serving the children of Prince George’s County. To put this in perspective, if students were absent at that rate, many of our schools would not meet their own student attendance targets.

There were some cases where the wrongdoing was real. Of the 615 cases that have been resolved, 196 resulted in a reprimand, suspension, retirement, resignation, or termination. Another 170 or so resulted in a letter of professional counsel. In all, violations of PGCPS policy were found in about 60% of the cases, but only about 10% of the cases rose to the level of requiring the employee leave the school system permanently. 

From my perspective, based on past results and not on the merits of my case, I have a 10% chance of needing to search for a new job. I have about a 50% chance of having done something wrong while still keeping my job, but was it really worth having me out of the classroom to determine this? I have about a 40% chance of being completely cleared, in which case my time removed from the classroom has been completely worthless to me and detrimental to the education of the students I serve.

The logic of having the staff member removed from the schools during the investigation is that the employee may interfere with the investigation. This makes sense when an investigation is done in an expeditious manner. The interruption will only last for a few days, and if there is no fault found or only enough fault to warrant a reprimand or letter of counsel, the employee can return to duty in a timely manner.

However, when there is a known backlog of cases and it is widely understood by all parties that the process can take weeks or months, this brings into question whether the use of administrative leave has been misapplied. Certainly, it was necessary in at least 10% of the cases. But what about the other 90%? Was it truly helpful to have the employee off the job for that length of time? What could have been done differently so instruction or other important services were not interrupted or diminished?

Good teachers know that if you are going to crack down on a problem behavior, you have to plan for a timely and efficient enforcement of your class rules. Otherwise, you are not going to be respected by the students, especially those who are trying to do their best and feel like they have all been collectively thrown into a toxic pool of suspicion because of the bad behavior of a few. Why, then, did PGCPS not use that same logic and realize that if they were going to have more reporting of suspected misconduct, they needed to be prepared to handle the increased caseload?

Again, I can’t give details about the nature of my case, but the nature of how the process has been handled is very instructive. When I was put on administrative leave, I was given a vague verbal explanation of the allegations. To this date, I have nothing in writing stating the nature of the allegations. I was told not to have any contact with colleagues, students, or parents and to remain off PGCPS property until advised otherwise.

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