Sunday, May 16, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Clark County’s classrooms can be pressure cookers for teachers under the gun to prove they’re doing their best. And no wonder. Entire campuses can be labeled as failing if just a few students fall short on standardized tests, which can come back to haunt teachers.
On the other hand, the School District is exploring whether to reward its best teachers with extra pay.
Last week the district recognized 30 teachers who voluntarily completed a rigorous, 400-hour program to earn advanced certificates in their specialties from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Five teachers also renewed their advanced credentials. For their effort and heightened expertise, each earned a 5 percent pay increase.
We asked some of the newly minted “master teachers” what they gained from the program and how they feel about merit pay — a controversial concept among educators. Their comments are edited.
Tonia Holmes-Sutton is spending her ninth year as a teacher working with 3-year-olds in the preschool program at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, where many of her students are English-language learners. Holmes-Sutton is also working toward her doctorate in educational leadership at UNLV, one of several programs expected to be eliminated for budgetary reasons.
“Getting my national board certification made me a better evaluator of my own performance and more reflective, and I also included my students in that process. At the end of the day I would ask them what they thought had gone well that day, and it was interesting to learn from their answers.
It’s devastating that UNLV might eliminate the educational leadership department. I’m grateful I’ll be able to finish my degree, but it’s unfortunate others won’t have access to the same opportunity. What I’m learning now should be taught in education classes at the undergraduate and master’s degree level. If I’d known some of these things earlier in my career, it would have made me a more effective teacher."
Six years ago, Timothy Massanari left a successful career as an architect to become a teacher — taking a 70 percent pay cut. A Clark County resident for 33 years, he is the father of five district students. He teaches first grade at Glen Taylor Elementary School, and remembers his own first-grade teacher from 53 years ago — Mrs. Gates.
“I believe first grade is when you can have the greatest impact on a student. I left the construction industry, but I still get to build. The certification process made me re-evaluate what impression I wanted to leave on my students.
Merit pay might be a good incentive for some people. But teachers take the job knowing we’re not well paid. That’s a misconception people have about the Clark County School District — you don’t realize how hard teachers work, how dedicated they are and how much they care. What I really wish is that more parents were involved in their children’s lives — not just at the schools, but also in extracurricular activities and sports programs. Teachers can’t do it alone."
A 1981 graduate of Rancho High School, Sandra Pontillas teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at Aggie Roberts Elementary School. She’s been a classroom teacher for 12 years, has earned her master’s degree and has 32 additional graduate credits. Pontillas has decided to volunteer for the support team that helps teacher candidates complete the certification process.
“My most memorable teacher was probably Mrs. Morgan — she taught me in the third grade at Lois Craig Elementary. I can still remember how kind she was.
I have a hard time with the idea of merit pay. We’re teaching human beings. And while I have an impact on my students’ lives, I’m not their only influence. Teachers can’t control those outside circumstances.
Going through National Board certification — identifying ways to improve and things I can do better — has been incredibly valuable. So often in these times we get caught up in the accountability and test preparation. It’s important to take a step back and reflect on the kids as individuals. This process has reminded me of everything that’s wonderful about teaching — and to always go back to that.
Tonya McKinney joined the Mojave High School faculty in 2008 after 14 years teaching in Michigan. She is board certified in career technology education and teaches computer applications, accounting and business. She also started Mojave’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter.
“Mojave has an undeserved reputation as being a tough place to work. The truth is we have a diverse population of terrific kids. Some of the students have attendance problems, which as a teacher is frustrating. That’s one thing that concerns me about merit pay — there are so many things that go into doing well on a test. The parental support has to be there, and the kids have to be in their seats every day.
That doesn’t mean teachers don’t deserve to be paid more. I took a $20,000 pay cut when I transferred to Clark County, and at my old school we were the lowest paid in Detroit. The teachers here don’t work any less hard than the ones in Michigan.
For Stephanie Swain, who teaches fifth grade at Sandy Miller Elementary School’s Academy for International Studies, the certification process reminded her “you’re there for the kids, and not your own agenda.” In the era of No Child Left Behind, that can be tough to remember, said Swain, who has spent half of her eight-year career in the district.
“Teaching is not about passing a test, or checking off a list of things people expect us to do. It’s really about asking what the students need, and how can they best get it.
I wouldn’t support a merit pay model where people had to outdo each other. Teaching is not a competition. The best schools are where everyone supports and helps each other. People tell me that bonuses work in the business world, but schools are not businesses. I work with students and their families to improve their lives. If people thought I was working harder to get something extra for my own benefit, it would really hurt how people view education."
A graduate of BYU with teaching degrees in English and history, Stephen Waite was expecting the board certification process to be difficult. But Waite, who has taught in Clark County for eight years, didn’t expect it would have such a profound effect on his own classroom performance at Virgin Valley High School.
“During the evaluation process, I discovered some of my techniques — such as having students write personal essays — weren’t as effective as I had thought. Adding small group discussions worked better, because it challenged them to defend their opinions to their peers, taking it beyond just writing why they believed a certain point of view. They’ll probably remember those interactions much longer than just writing an essay.
I’m not sure about merit pay. Part of me says “absolutely” — I should be a better teacher now and improvement should be rewarded. But I have students who probably don’t do much outside the classroom. I’d be all in favor of merit pay if there was a way to ensure kids did everything we asked them to do."