'Shoulders are getting tired': Retiring teachers point to increased stress on kids, testing

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PITTSFIELD — Raising a generation of young people shouldn't feel like "churning out little robots."

That's how one of more than two dozen educators retiring this spring feels about the current educational landscape in the state.

This "all-star" team of "legends for learning," as Superintendent Jason McCandless called them, have seen a lot of change in their decades with the district. They saw technology creep its way into daily academic life and they watched as dollars for public education dwindled. They saw the rise of standardized testing and more than one economic downturn.

Now, more than half of the district's student population — 51.7 percent, district statistics show — is considered economically disadvantaged, while 61 percent of the district's students meet the state's definition of high needs.

Dawn Quinlan, 60, a longtime teacher at Herberg Middle School and president of United Educators of Pittsfield, said "the job is becoming about more than teaching." It's becoming less about the kids, she said, and more about state mandates and social pressures.

Quinlan stands among the group retiring this spring.

"If the students were all I had to deal with over the course of the day, I could do it forever," she said, adding she has a special fondness for teaching eighth-graders: "The child that nobody wants to teach."

"There used to be more room for creativity," she said.

Teachers said state mandates and cuts like the 73 positions lost in last year's budget make teaching in Pittsfield more frustrating than they've ever seen it.

"Kids are coming in more and more with so many different issues; things that most adults would never have to face in a lifetime," said Sue Dassat, a longtime Reid Middle School teacher who is retiring this spring. "We have to do more and more with less and less, and it's hard."

Another impending Reid retiree, Kathy Voltoline, said when kids with traumatic home lives come into the classroom, teaching to the test takes a backseat to compassion.

"It's very difficult when you have kids who are either hungry or their parents have more than one job," she said. "We see it in the classroom; it has an effect. People don't realize with kids how much they worry and how much they realize."

McCandless said he, too, has seen the educational landscape shift dramatically since he first started working as an administrator in 2002.

"It's really a much different world," he said. "The state is less interested in creativity and more in concrete student outcomes. Teaching is not better or worse, but it's different."

Teaching all students at the same high level regardless of the challenges they face outside of the classroom, he conceded, "is really, really hard."

McCandless said that's why he plans to fill each of the positions vacated by retiring school employees this spring. He said he's working on a first draft of the budget to overview later this month.

'It's tough'

Mary Quirk said she's retiring this spring from Herberg because she can. She said she's frustrated with how rigid increasing requirements make the classroom, which she says don't take into account the social issues that come into play.

"It's teaching to the test and it's tough. It's tough for the kids," she said. "Then when you ask them to think outside the box it's challenging for them."

Ralph "Doc" Casey, 74, said he feels the same frustration with the emphasis on testing, and shares the concerns about students with outside issues, but that's not what's driving him out the door of Taconic High School. He said he's not as young as he once was. Working with new technology is challenging for him and he's tired of taking time out of his colleagues' day to help him figure it out.

Casey said he also is concerned with the cellphone culture that's taken hold of the younger generation.

"It took me a long time to decide whether to retire," he said, laughing about how he signed up for early retirement 15 years ago but never ended up taking it. "I'll certainly miss the kids."

He'll miss running the volunteer group Berkshire Youth United, which he's done for the past 20-plus years, and he remembers fondly the Fulbright Exchange Program he did in England back in 1979.

"It's been a good ride," he said.

Statewide angst

Barbara Madeloni, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Teachers Association said a unified educational angst echoes from every corner of the state.

"I hear it everywhere I go," she said. "I have educators who break into tears regularly in front of me about what's happening in the classroom. It's driving our most experienced teachers out, so we're losing a wealth of knowledge that should be there. And it's driving young educators out."

Madeloni said the new era of mandates and standardized testing began with No Child Left Behind, and then intensified with Race to the Top. She said policies like these aim to address racial and socioeconomic disparities that can only be addressed by revising the property tax-based school funding mechanism that leaves students who need the most support with the least funding.

"The true question is how do we bring the best education to those who face institutional racism and economic challenges?" she asked. "We underfund these schools because of our funding mechanism."

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state is working to level the playing field for students and she understands the frustration.

"We thank the retiring teachers for their service to Massachusetts students, and we appreciate how much work, creativity and caring went into these educators' years in the classroom," Reis said. "There is no doubt that teaching is challenging and that teachers are increasingly asked to reach every single student in their rooms, including those who must overcome significant challenges to be successful. We will continue to look for ways to work with the field to serve all students."

Voltoline said she's watched as teachers' control of the classroom slowly slipped away. She said she hopes the district looks for compassion over skills on paper when it comes to hiring the next batch of teachers, because if the kids don't trust a teacher, they won't learn.

"Kids need to know that we care about them," she said. "They know who's on their side. They read people really, really well."

Rewarding task

Younger teachers coming up in new education are so focused on the test, she said, they sometimes lose sight of what's important.

"You're dealing with kids' lives. We're not trying to churn out little robots," she said. "Test scores are important, but I think young teachers sometimes get so worried about the bottom line that they forget about the real bottom line — that child's welfare. Because once you have that, it all will flow."

Voltoline and Dassat said unless you've worked as a teacher you may not realize how invested in the students they become. As the job became evermore structured and students came in with increasing needs, Dassat said she struggled to remind herself there's only so much one person can do.

"I, myself, get very emotionally attached to my kids. You try to think you can be all things to all people and you just can't," she said. "There are children with so many varying needs that it's overwhelming. We're emotionally drained. It's hard."

Dassat and Voltoline say they've loved every second of the work, despite the drain. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the daily work, they said, comes years later when they bump into a student and get to see how they've grown.

"We give and we give and we give and we hope for that outcome that we may or may not see," Voltoline said. "I think sometimes people forget just how much we care."

The work's gotten more "all-encompassing" than when they first started, they said, because of shifts in educational policy and family dynamics. Dassat said she sees turnover increasing and fears for the effects it will have on education.

For a lot of kids with challenging home lives, she said, "We're it; we might be the only people to smile at them or take them to task."

"More and more responsibility has fallen on those of us in education," she said. "Sometimes you feel like you're on a treadmill you're never gonna get off of.

"The bottom line, Dassat said, is the community needs to rally around our kids. She said the fate of the future generation shouldn't lie solely with teachers. Their shoulders are getting tired.

"We all need to work on it together," she said.

Amanda Drane can be reached at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.


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