Opinion Extra

Schwalbe: Don't stop investing in teachers

On Saturday, I led a workshop for 47 teachers who filled a law office conference room in Columbia. Teachers from every level and subject area traveled from all corners of the state to share their expertise and experience as candidates for National Board certification. On my drive back to home, I decided that I must weigh in on the proposal to address the state budget deficit by discontinuing both the salary supplement that comes with achievement of this advanced certification and the program that assists teachers with loans for the assessment fee.

A few things you should keep in mind: Teachers who do not achieve this certification within three years are required to repay the loan. And while thousands of teachers have achieved the certification since the program started in 2001, thousands of teachers have not. It is a rigorous process. Yet many who have not achieved say they have become better teachers even as they wrote personal checks to the state to repay the loan.

I left the classroom as a high school English teacher after 19 years to focus on the advancement of effective teaching. I have been given many opportunities to teach teachers, and I've led numerous professional development workshops for veteran, novice and pre-service teachers and administrators in South Carolina and beyond. Here's what I know for sure: Teachers are professionals who know their content and how to deliver it to students, and their voices deserve to be heard.

When the stars align with the curious intellect of children and the support of parents and other key adults who value education, effective teachers create what many might describe as miracles. Both of my daughters are on their own and creating their own families, yet I can vividly describe those men and women who went above and beyond what they were paid to do to engage my children in school and the love of learning - and in so doing to improve their chances for meaningful careers, strong and trusting relationships and, most importantly, a solid work ethic

It troubles me that our state leaders seem unable (and in some obvious examples, unwilling) to understand the irony of asking teachers to continue to do more with less and de-valuing the very kind of professional development that strengthens what they are accomplishing in the classroom.

Those policymakers who have supported National Board certification - House Speaker Bobby Harrell being one of them - deserve recognition for deeply understanding the need to create a system where teachers can continue to learn and grow in order to keep up with the demands of teaching. I've watched as these policymakers fought for this program and, over the years, took hard hits for their support of public school teachers. I hope they will stay strong and find some way to retain some semblance of the program until something better comes along. Frankly, tossing around phrases such as "performance pay" and "merit pay" and the idea of forming yet another task force to study these ideas will continue to create spin while school districts and communities simply want strong, effective teachers for their children.

For those critics who still want the public to believe that there is no research that shows that this certification makes a difference, please go on-line to find hundreds (no exaggeration) of studies that date back a solid decade now. Or just ask a teacher who has chosen to pursue advanced certification. Most of them will tell you that while the money may have been the carrot that attracted them, it certainly isn't what kept them focused on completing the process.

The teachers in the conference room on Saturday had creative ideas about scaling back the loan and the salary supplement, because they get how serious this is. However, they would not budge on how important this work is to reforming and strengthening teaching. And yes, there were those in the room who did not achieve the first time around and are shelling out their own money in order to achieve this voluntary professional certification. Without a doubt, they are grateful for the assistance they have received. They want to see more teachers have this experience so they can all learn how to teach smarter and more effectively.

And they know in deep ways that money is scarce. After all, they are professionals who are continuing to work on weekends and furlough days to keep the needs of children first. They are also strapping their babies into car seats every morning, fretting over their own bills and unemployed relatives as they drive to their workplaces to teach children how to make it in the world.

We are in a tough place with the economic strain we find ourselves in. Please do not minimize the role strong, effective teachers have in helping us turn this around. If we support them, we will survive this.

We may even emerge stronger and better prepared to meet the needs of the children who depend on us to make good choices for them as we sort out this mess.

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