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Get serious about hiring great teachers

by GWEN FAULKENBERRY | January 22, 2023 at 1:53 a.m.

There is something special about the community of professionals who make up public education in Arkansas. I have felt this sense of family since I was a kid.

I remember my parents sitting around with other teachers and administrators swapping stories, talking about problems, collectively looking for solutions. A crowd of them would gather in homes after ballgames. Many went to church together. My dad hunted and fished with some of them, and my mother would walk after school with a group around the track. Those ladies were fast as cheetahs, and now as a teacher, I can see why. I walk like that, trying to work out my angst.

I am fortunate to have so many public educators in my life, people I can go to when I have questions about things I don't understand. Which is often. Working with the coalition we have built through Arkansas Strong, I can go to educator groups on social media and hear from retired teachers, urban teachers, rural teachers, administrators; some 20,000-plus members strong. It's an unspeakable privilege to enjoy those relationships, and I do not take them for granted.

Outside my family there is one person I bug the most with my questions; he leaves the line of communication so open for me through email and text that our threads almost read like streams of consciousness. I don't know why other than the fact he had both of my parents as teachers when he was a child growing up in Charleston and married my beloved junior high social studies teacher.

He reveres my mother and warily respects my father, who he describes as an extremely large human who hulked over his desk and occasionally tapped on his head with a class ring in order to discourage smart-aleck behavior. His father--Guy Fenter--was the superintendent who hired my parents right out of college.

Dr. Glen Fenter is the superintendent of Marion Schools. At 63, he's forgotten more than I will ever know about education. He's done it all, and all over Arkansas. He started as a teacher and coach at Alma, and worked his way through the ranks to become president of the Mid-South Community College from its inception in 1992, growing it into a nationally acclaimed leader in developing a regional workforce for emerging jobs.

After retiring, he agreed to help out at Marion for a year or two. That was six years ago. This past week as I worked to comprehend the legislative session, I roped him into helping me out on an education podcast that is now in production for Arkansas Strong.

I hope interested readers will listen when it releases. Dr. Fenter is as funny and bold as he is compassionate and smart. If I were governor, he'd be my pick for a homegrown secretary of education. Any interested governor or education official could call on him and benefit from his expertise. He's right there in Crittenden County, at the helm of Marion Public Schools. I learned so much from our recent conversation I want to try to reiterate some of it here.

The impetus for the conversation was that I had seen a memo that went out to all public-school superintendents from Dr. Jacob Oliva, our new secretary of education in Arkansas. It introduced the executive order that prioritizes the Arkansas LEARNS Initiative.

I try--I really do--not to be critical in spirit even as I think critically, which is not an easy row to hoe. I believe the healthiest posture for an individual and a society is to think critically while assuming good intentions and moving forward with relentless hope.

So when I read "Our students deserve the best, and we are ready to roll up our sleeves and begin the work to ensuring all students receive an education that prepares them for success in life," I tried to give Oliva the benefit of the doubt and assume he does not suppose that work begins now, with him, and a new administration.

Surely no human who earlier this month was looking for his first home in Arkansas, and has fewer years of experience in education--in a different state--than many leaders who received that letter possesses that level of hubris.

The executive order is public information so I'll not use space for it here. It outlines six things the education secretary is directed to do in order to implement the sweeping reforms of LEARNS.

While I appreciate the appearance of commitment to change--public educators are more aware than most of the need for big changes, and support the zeal of the new administration for reform--there is not a need for all these reviews. That is a waste of the state's time and money.

Educators such as Glen Fenter and many others around Arkansas already hold pieces to the puzzle, answers we have known for a long time. The problem is not that we need new studies. The problem is that we need the political will to fund and implement with fidelity what is proven to work.

Dr. Fenter and I talked about seven things educators know how to do that would solve all or most of the problems identified in LEARNS if they were funded appropriately and consistently implemented.

Let's address the elephant in the room, the problem through which every other problem is either solved or made worse. It does not matter where the school is located, nor what kind of school it is. The absolute most important component for learning to occur is that there must be a great teacher in the classroom.

To have this, we need monumental changes in how we pay teachers. Here's Dr. Fenter's idea for a study that would matter: Assess the education levels and skillsets required of certified teachers, including management skills, psychological skills, and expertise in content areas, then translate this into what they'd be making if they chose to take that education and those skills into the private sector (which is happening in unprecedented numbers).

The current push in the Legislature is for a $4,000 raise. Our coalition has begged for this. And while I applaud legislators who are working hard to get it passed, I believe such a fair and clear-eyed assessment would show $4,000 to be not meaningful in addressing the problem of teacher shortage.

More fitting would be a $5,000 raise today, then $5,000 more each year for the next five years. This would send a message to people contemplating what field to enter (or leave). They'd see Arkansas as serious about hiring and keeping good teachers. Our talented college students could count on good jobs if they go into education. The shortage would be solved.

This would be real reform. And before the specter of a teacher union looms, those protective of fair dismissal have to understand that if we want a private sector wage, there has to be a path to dismiss teachers who aren't performing. It could be done, based on rubrics that outline exactly what is expected from the job.

And those expectations would have to be reasonable. Not based on ridiculous one-size-fits-all measurements like the current standardized testing we do that rewards schools in affluent communities while denigrating those in poverty. Educators know what measurements accurately reflect student growth in their areas.

Trust us, in partnership with our learning communities, to agree to appropriate rubrics and perform as required or face consequences. We do this with our students all of the time.

I'm cheering for anyone ready to roll up their sleeves alongside those of us who are already up to our elbows in the fight to ensure our students receive the very best education. Reform is needed and help is welcome.

It would take extraordinary courage and humility to do what is right for Arkansas children. I just hope that's what LEARNS is really all about.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at gfaulkenberry@hotmail.com.

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