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A Way Forward

How to attract accomplished teachers to high-needs schools—and keep them there.

By Mary Ward

I teach in one of North Carolina’s “low-performing” schools. I believe there is a way forward for my children, but it isn’t the path of high-stakes testing that we are following so doggedly now.

I do not want to write about think tank research or scholarly articles. The research on children in poverty offers little practical assistance for me. I stare into the faces of the living data every morning as students enter my Accounting and Principles of Finance classes.

Mary Ward is a National Board Certified Teacher in rural Halifax County, North Carolina, and a member of the Teacher Leader Network and the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee. Read the Center for Teaching Quality’s research at

I did not realize how deep my frustration lines were until I found myself in self-defense mode with family members. They would look at me and say, “How many more years before you can retire?” My first response was always, “I love teaching.” But the stress of working in this school under the testing regime is wearing me out.

Before high-stakes testing turned our school upside down, my students spent their time working on real-world problems and projects developing knowledge and skills that could help them survive as adults. The high-stakes tests do not measure this kind of learning. Instead, my students are pressured to recall facts and data without the context that make them meaningful.

This testing takes away hope because the sought-after outcomes do not take into account the deficits carved into the souls of my children. Society blames me and their other teachers for what students don’t know, with little regard for what they come to me with. The testing is premised on a level playing field. Come visit my school if you think the field is level.

Many do come. State’s Assistance Teams, Turn-Around Teams, Local Assistance Teams. They include wonderful people who can’t erase the barriers that have built up in layers on my students: a mother on crack; a father serving a life sentence; a home without hot running water. But we are far from powerless. I believe we can reach these students if we give them accomplished teachers, consistently, year after year.

I like to think I am such a teacher. But I know many skilled, dedicated teachers who are not willing to come work in schools like mine. The real high-stakes question is: What would change their minds?

There are many parts to the answer but I want to focus on one vital piece: the prospect of working in a creative, professional learning community. That’s what can make a good teacher wake up every day and want to rush to school.

When accomplished teachers consider moving to a school that is low-performing, they are more concerned with leadership than with the possibility of encountering irate parents or disinterested children. But building a professional learning community takes a certain kind of principal. Not everyone can do it. Too often, inadequate teachers pick up administrative certificates and wind up in leadership positions. If they were ineffective teachers, they will not be effective teacher leaders.

Even an excellent teacher will not automatically make a good principal. The school leader must know how to nurture staff initiative and parent involvement while still keeping a strong hand on the tiller. She or he must organize mentoring and professional development that help staff grow and implement programs for at-risk students that keep them on track. The leader must see the vital need to combine community resources and parental involvement to accomplish school goals.

Surveys by the Center for Teaching Quality show that poor working conditions and a lack of teacher empowerment are among the top reasons teachers leave.

So how can we move ahead? Not with more tests, but by developing forward-thinking, energetic school leaders who can build professional learning communities, school by school. If we do that, I believe my students and others like them will ignite like a torch and burn with an enthusiasm for learning that will carry them to a better life.

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