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Kristy Peters: Want to know what not to do in schools? Look to Florida

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Teachers and school personnel celebrate after the state Senate approved a bill to increase state workers pay across the board by 5% at the capitol in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, March 06, 2018; the ninth day of statewide school closures.

I want to share my teaching story with you. I hope it helps the public understand just what we stand to lose, if we don’t care for our teachers and all public employees.

In 2011, my husband and I considered a move. So many things were happening, and we were trying to carve out our own young family. We liked Florida a lot. Who doesn’t, right?

By the summer of 2012, we were in the process of moving to Florida, and I was super excited to be at a 5-star K-8 school. From the outside, it looked like everything I could ever want: state-of-the-art facilities, lots of community support and a commitment to quality education. I heard how much better the salary would be, too.

My excitement was dampened at orientation when I discovered that I would lose my five years of experience and transfer in as a new teacher. (Apparently, those five years of experience were no longer valuable). It was a pretty big hit — but, hey, we were staying with my mom, and we could save a little longer.

The second hit virtually broke me. When the benefits coordinator came to school a week or so in, I almost had a panic attack. My husband Jamie was working part-time, waiting for a full-time position to open. I covered the insurance in West Virginia; I’d do it again. No big deal.

But just to cover our child and me was over $850 a month, and the coverage was pathetic. I cried, but Jamie insisted he would go without because we couldn’t afford upward of $1,000 a month on a $33,000 salary.

But I loved my job, right? No. I worked with a few great people, and they were terrific teachers who took me in and under their wing. I used to love going to work and quickly grew to hate it.

Teachers were demoralized. Kids spent more time testing than learning. Service workers were punished for things like giving food to kids who didn’t pay and couldn’t afford it.

My “evaluation guide” was about 30 pages long. It was rubric after rubric of things you had to hit during each and every classroom observation. Administrators who gave good evaluations were often harassed and penalized or replaced, because higher evaluations meant they had to pay those teachers more. Poor evaluations equaled a better bottom line.

If you think I’m exaggerating, the year I was there, the state teacher of the year received a failing performance evaluation. The climate was so bad that most of the teachers I knew were on some type of anxiety medication, and many got physically sick around evaluation time.

There’s more. We had “book studies,” where we had to plan a lesson and then teach it to someone else’s class, while several staff and administrators evaluated our ability to teach a class that was not ours.

I was taken out of the classroom regularly for “data” meetings. Quarterly, our students’ data scores were flashed across the projector and we were subsequently praised or admonished by our test scores in front of the entire faculty.

I was lucky. I was praised for mine, but I watched a colleague nearly come to tears after being humiliated for hers. This was a teacher who went above and beyond for her students. She was a former military jet mechanic. She was at her dream school doing her dream job. She loved teaching and her students and followed every protocol, jumped through every hoop.

Was I that much better than her? No. Then why the difference in our scores? I had none of the kids with special needs that year, and she had them all.

I don’t care what kind of miracle worker you are, it should come as no shock that kids, sometimes with severe disadvantages, score lower than average. It’s a requirement to get an individual education plan that a student disability must be shown to adversely affect their educational abilities.

There was no discipline, because discipline reports counted toward the school’s grade. Once, a teacher was plowed over by a student who had been released early from detention for good behavior. She was knocked unconscious and had a broken hip.

One teacher was scolded for calling 911 first and not the office. Another received a written reprimand for touching the student in question when she put out her hand to stop the boy.

The paperwork requirements were ridiculous. Writing a child up involved filling out a page-long document about the conditions in the room, the likely cause, what we thought was behind the behavior and what our solution to the behavior should be.

The teachers had no union. Or, they had one, but Florida has stripped every bit of power and every bit of teeth out of it. Teachers wore red. Teachers held meetings. Teachers tried to “work to contract.” But really, what teacher can do that and provide a quality learning experience for their kids?

I had 45 minutes of planning each day. On top of that, massive resources had been stripped from public schools like mine and dumped into failing charter schools, which were performing no better. Schools were largely segregated. All that, and education and test scores weren’t really thriving.

Finally, what should matter most to parents, teachers left in droves. Those classrooms were filled with unqualified people — in some cases, 18-year-olds with just a high school diploma. (That’s not an exaggeration.)

That is also why it should come as no surprise that there were plenty of issues with “teachers” acting inappropriately with students. That’s what happens when just anybody is let in a classroom.

I say all of this for this reason: This is what West Virginia teachers are fighting against. People are intending to bring here these same policies that were in Florida when I was there five years ago. They failed there. They will fail here.

I left Florida. I left my mom. I left a place where my husband was happier than I had ever seen him. I left a place that had sunshine and beaches and was full of fun things to do.

I left those things because I was miserable not being able to do my job. I tested — not taught — my students. I had to pay for even more out of pocket (I was only allowed to make about 800 copies for the year, and front-and-back counted as two copies).

I felt beat down, demoralized and devalued. I went from running to my principal to see the cool things we were doing to nearly having a panic attack when the principal walked in the door. I went from loving my job to hating it.

That was last August. In January, Corey and I packed up and returned home. I didn’t want to give up teaching, but I couldn’t go on teaching there. I was blessed that my job was still open here. I was also very blessed to have a loving and supportive husband who soon followed us.

I didn’t move back for the pay — though, with my years of experience restored, I was making slightly more. I also knew I would have great benefits that covered my entire family.

The difference is, here, I know I am valued. Here, I can do my job without ridiculous red tape. Here, I know my administration has my back and will do everything they can to make sure I am provided whatever I need to best support my kids and give them the best of myself when they walk in the doors. Here, they respect me as a professional, support my ideas and encourage my development.

Yes, we test kids yearly. But here, we understand that kids are more than a test score; that you feed hungry children even if they can’t pay; and that teachers are an important part of our community.

Here, I can do what I love — how I do it best — with the support of my fellow teachers, my board of education, my students and their parents, and my state.

What West Virginia does now will go a long way to determine the future of this state we love. This isn’t just about teachers. What they pay most state workers, like my husband, is less than what our representatives make for a 60-day session. It’s atrocious. It’s a deliberate attack on the working class.

PEIA isn’t just another insurance, it’s a form of compensation. It’s a way to say, “We can’t give you the money you deserve, but we can make sure your health, and the health of your family, is taken care of.” It is a promise that you can safely retire; that you can have your sick days whenever you need them — and if you don’t need them, they can help you in retirement.

I gave up beaches, sunshine and living in a place most people dream about. West Virginia doesn’t have beaches and sunshine, and apparently only our representatives’ pay is competitive with the national average. Keep stripping away at education, and this state will be all but abandoned. The resources will continue to go out of state. No business or industry will locate here if there aren’t employable people.

I know many young people who have left. I know some grandparents who are following them. Public services, teachers and school personnel are like the electric bill: It hurts to go in your pocket to pay it every month, but without it, you can’t do a lot.

It’s time our representatives stand up. Stop the madness, and find a dedicated revenue stream that will fully fund PEIA. Nobody loves harder than West Virginians, and that includes loving their neighbors and their teachers.

It is time for change.

Make state employees and teacher salaries competitive. No teacher or government employee should live below the poverty line. This is critically important in the correctional officer crisis as well.

Dedicate a revenue stream to PEIA. It isn’t just an insurance program.

Stop the attacks on teachers and public schools. Say no to vouchers, no to charter school, no to education savings accounts.

No teacher expects to get rich. We do expect to be valued for the critical service we supply, and we need the resources to do that, including DHHR, child protective service workers, law enforcement, school nurses and school service personnel.

Kristy Peters is a teacher in Kanawha County.

FUNERALS FOR THURSDAY, JULY 18, 2019

Anderson, Robert - 1 p.m. Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Atkins Jr., Archie - 11 a.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Burdette, Davy - 8 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Edwards, Dianna - 2 p.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Loving, Nancy - 1 p.m., Groves Creek Community Church, Harrison.

Meadows, James - 2 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Miller, Ruth - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Smith, Carl - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Thornton, Sammie - 1 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Vance, Zenda - 11 a.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Whitson, Grady - 7 p.m., Deal Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.

Williams, Mary - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.