Justin Parmenter is an English teacher in North Carolina and is nationally board certified. He recently was part of a professional conference where he was asked what advice he would give himself if he were a first year teacher. Be aware as you read that Justin teaches in a state that was once considered the leader in the South in education policy, in the number of NBCT teachers, and in teacher pay. Since 2010, when a hard-right Tea Party Group took control of the legislature and gerrymandered the state, many laws have been passed with the intent of reducing the professional status of teachers and privatizing public schools.

Justin writes about his first year teaching on an Apache reservation in Arizona.

“My first job in an American public school was teaching 6th grade Language Arts at Whiteriver Middle School. This school is located on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in the poorest county in Arizona. It was a very difficult place to be a teacher but an even harder place to be a child. Many of my students were chronically absent and exhibited serious behavior problems when they were at school. Some suffered from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Some of them struggled to read at a first grade level. Parent support was spotty, as some of my students’ families maintained deep misgivings about public education–understandably so given the appalling recent history of American Indian boarding schools that used inhumane methods to forcibly assimilate Native children into European-American culture.

“I began my job in Whiteriver believing that I was going to transform every child. My fresh graduate school perspective, cutting edge pedagogy, and research-based literacy practices were going to bring all of my students up to reading on grade level in a hurry and change the way they felt about education forever. I was in for a rude awakening.

“Despite my best efforts at applying what I’d learned in grad school, my students’ reading proficiency levels remained relatively unchanged. School and district-level formative assessments yielded disastrous results. Our pass rates on Arizona’s standardized reading test hovered around 20-25%, where they remain today(the school has since been renamed Canyon Day Junior High). Every day, the outcomes I was getting reminded me that my students were failing and, by extension, I was failing them. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and lie in bed wondering whether I was cut out for this work at all.”

He includes a graph showing the large attrition of teachers in their early years, which interestingly shows that most leave to teach in another state. This is not surprising given the legislature’s attacks on career teachers and its preference for TFA (the recently elected state superintendent is a TFA alum).

Initially, Justin blamed himself for his students’ poor scores. But over time, he realized the negative impact of poverty on school performance:

“While I was beating myself up about my inability to get my students to pass a test, I was unaware that our educational system’s data is more about measuring socioeconomic status than it is about measuring academic achievement. That was true in Whiteriver, Arizona two decades ago and it’s just as true in North Carolina today. Consider School Performance Grades, which routinely stigmatize entire schools as failures. The NC Department of Public Instruction’s most recent analysis of Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools clearly shows that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other. As poverty goes up, school grades go down.”

Justin described the changes he made in his teaching so that students found the school work meaningful. The results did not necessarily show up in test scores, but he could see a difference in student work and engagement.

He writes:

“In an incredibly taxing profession that is chronically underpaid and under respected, our sense that our efforts are worth it is sometimes the only thing that keeps teachers going. Frequent turnover at our high poverty schools means those schools are more likely to house teachers who are just starting their careers, some of them probably believing they are going to transform every child and looking for evidence of their impact on their students. What we tell or don’t tell those teachers about that impact is critical. Our successes should not just be reflected in test scores and school letter grades which are often inextricably linked to our students’ backgrounds. As former Wake County Teacher of the Year Allison Reid puts it, we need to remember to focus on what is meaningful and not just what is measurable.”

There is a lot that Justin can teach new teachers.

There are many changes North Carolina could make if it valued teachers.