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8 Challenges for the New School Year

No doubt you will have more than eight, but here are some of the biggest -- plus a few ideas on meeting them.

1. All those kids!!

How many students did you have in your classroom last year? It’d be safe to count on a few more this year. In Georgia this May, after state funding for schools was cut by nearly $1 billion, the state Board of Education voted to lift all class size limits. “We don’t have a choice. We didn’t give them enough money,” said state school Superintendent Kathy Cox.

And, of course, it’s the same story in states across the country. It’s tough for you—but even tougher for those kids who need your attention. “There are a lot of geniuses sitting in the back of our classes, but they don't get properly taught in classrooms with more than 30 other kids,” said one Los Angeles student in a Los Angeles Times forum.

What you can do

While the situation is far from ideal, there are a couple of things you can do to make a big class easier on you and your students. First, make sure you have routines and procedures for every small task — from collecting homework to recording lunch choices. Then, consider breaking the class into small learning groups and training them to work independently on specific tasks so that you can rotate your undivided attention.

In Elisa Carbone’s book, Teaching Large Classes, she also recommends “one-minute papers,” a strategy for checking in on older students. Every day, before they leave your classroom, ask them to quickly jot down a question for you, maybe a note about what material they still don’t understand. That way, even if you haven’t attended to every child during that class period, you’ll still know who needs help. 

2. Turning on technology

Your students today are technophiles. They love their video games—all fast-paced and addictive—and they can’t put down their smart phones, iPods, and social networks. And you? You might also love new technologies, but even if you don’t, you realize that technology often is the key to locking in a student’s interest. The challenge is, how do you do it?

What you can do

Deitrya Anderson, a Tulsa teacher, puts those phones “to an educational use” through a site called Wiffiti that receives and displays student questions via text message. Many of your colleagues also are using Twitter—you can send tweets to students to remind them of key points from the day’s lesson or use it as a language arts tool. George Mayo, a Maryland teacher, used it as a platform for a collaborative story. (Read more here.) Even Facebook has its merits. Susan Colquitt, a New Mexico teacher, says she uses it to answer her students’ questions and mentor them.

3. Cyberbullying

Remember Phoebe Prince? Or Megan Meier? Both girls committed suicide after long, humiliating bouts with cyberbullies. Their deaths were tragic and unusual, but many kids are struggling to cope with this particularly virulent form of bullying. According to Pew Research, nearly one in three teens say they’ve been victimized via the Internet or cell phones.

What you can do

Your role—or your school’s role—is still fuzzy in many places. What legal rights or responsibilities do you have to silence bullies, especially when they operate from home? To more clearly define their prerogative, many schools are writing cyberbullying policies into their handbooks, in effect forcing students and their parents to sign contracts that allow schools to discipline them for Internet abuse. But prevention is the best policy and experts say the answer is more conversation with kids. Talk about it. Peer models—often from older high school grades—can be effective discussion leaders.

4. NCLB

“Testing, testing, testing, what is the point of testing? Do we use the data to remediate those who do not measure up? No!” complained Shelley Dunham, a Kansas special educator, on an NEA discussion board. Instead the federal law takes those test scores, which are incredibly flawed pictures of achievement, and uses them to punish schools. (And don't even get us started on the inappropriate use of tests with students with disabilities....)

What you can do

Work with your Association to write a better law. This year, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (better known as NCLB) is up for reauthorization. The Obama blueprint offers more of the same, but the NEA's Positive Agenda for ESEA Reauthorization would offer multiple measures of student learning, smaller class sizes, adequate funding, and support for teachers—even while insisting on high standards for students. Go to http://www.educationvotes.nea.org/ to find out how to support this more sensible approach.

5. Parent involvement

Often, it feels like there are just two kinds of parents: The ones hunkering in a cave somewhere and the ones camping in your pocket. Unreachable? Or unavoidable… Either way, you wish for the kind of parent involvement that supports learning.

What you can do

Elusive parents usually have a reason for their mysterious ways, like language fluency. First, assume they do want to help their children. Then, consider an invitation they can’t refuse. In New Mexico, teacher Ricardo Rincon asks students to host parent conferences—isn’t it harder to no-show your own excited child? He also crafts homework assignments that don’t assume parents have advanced skills. For example, instead of asking them to supervise the addition of fractions, they might be asked to ensure their kids read for 30 minutes at home.

For the helicopter parent, set clear expectations around communication. If you provide your email address, let them know you expect to respond within say, 48 hours, except on weekends.

6. Your salary

What salary, you ask. After you pay your mortgage, medical bills, utilities, car and food, what's left? “With pay cuts, furlough days, increased taxes and other bills, for the first time I am falling behind in my financial obligation, ruining a 30-year record of perfect credit,” writes one fed-up California teacher. “I feel my only route is retirement and possibly filing for bankruptcy.”

What you can do

Be part of NEA's campaign for professional pay for teachers and support professionals. It doesn't happen overnight, but well-organized union members eventually do win the pay that they deserve. Check out NEA's 10 steps to professional pay. Also, especially for ESPs, read these proven tactics from Kentucky. “Dust off your shoes and be ready to do some foot work,” says New York paraprofessional Mary Ann Bynes, whose local association recently won a two-year-long living wage battle.

7. Getting healthy

Everybody from Michelle Obama to the Naked Chef Jamie Oliver has turned their attention to that kid who can’t quite fit behind his desk in the back row. According to the federal government, nearly one in five children and adolescents are obese—nearly triple the rate of a generation ago—putting them in great risk of diabetes and heart disease.

What you can do

First, the Child Nutrition reauthorization bill, which would establish national nutrition standards for school food and provide more training opportunities to cafeteria employees, needs your support. It passed the Senate in August and still needs a vote in the House. Then, take a look at what some school districts already are doing. In Oregon, as part of a growing effort to close inequities in hunger and nutrition, using local produce and balanced meals, head cook Rhonda Sand has been slicing up jicama spears and filling trays with mixed berries—“They really weren’t a fan of the beets though,” she told Today’s OEA, smiling.

Sometimes, just presenting the a la carte fruit differently—say in a pretty wire basket rather than a dull metal bin—can boost cafeteria produce sales, as researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab recently discovered.

8. Finding the funding

On the one hand, you've got public schools that can't afford to pay their educators, fix their leaky roofs, or replace their moldy textbooks. On the other, you've got hostile legislators who would love to divert the ever-dwindling funds for public education to private schools and companies and a federal government that believes the Race to the Top Fund, a  $4.35 billion reward for states that promise to tie teacher pay to test scores, is the answer. (Clue: It isn't!)

What you can do

The answer is your activism. First, it’s critical to help elect pro-public education candidates—and you can do that through donations to the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education and participation in local phone banks and door-to-door walks. Then, hold those politicians accountable.

“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, but I’m not political. I’m an educator!’” says Lee Schreiner, an active Ohio teacher. “And I say, ‘Bull! Name one thing in your job that isn’t political.’” To get started, visit http://www.educationvotes.nea.org/.

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