"Don't Make Me Use My Teacher Voice"

Every time the Texas legislature convenes, Austin is awash in paperwork.  There are the thousands of bills filed each biennium, of course. And for every major issue brought before our state government, there are countless position papers, policy briefs, one-pagers, white papers, and reports written up by nonprofits, political action committees, and advocacy organizations.

This year, school finance is among the biggest topics of debate, and as such, responsible for much of the ink spilled.  The Greater Houston Partnership provided a straightforward distillation of our state’s funding formula.  Raise Your Hand Texas polled public perceptions of our education system.  And the Texas Public Policy Foundation argued for a complete dismantling of school property taxes. But some of the clearest, most actionable policy recommendations came, not from a think tank, but from educators themselves.

Late last year, Teach Plus, a policy fellowship empowering teachers to lead systemic change, published “Prioritizing Education, Prioritizing Texas: Teachers’ Views and Recommendations on School Funding in the Lone Star State.”  In it, they made four practical and essential recommendations for improved school funding in the state.

And they’ve been following up -- Teach Plus teachers are diligently making trips down to Austin to advocate for these policies in front of relevant committees.  I had the opportunity to catch up with four of these educator-advocates as they prepared to testify in front of the Senate Education Committee.

Natalie Brown: My name is Natalie Brown and I'm a 2nd grade math and science teacher.

Angela Burke: My name is Angela Burke, and I teach eighth grade physics and astronomy.

Katie Benningfield: My name is Katie Bennningfield. I am a sixth grade pre-AP science teacher.

Shareefah Mason: My name is Shareefah Mason. I am a 13 year veteran.

Katie Benningfield:  This is my fifth year teaching.

Angela Burke: Seven years.

Natalie Brown: This is my 13th year.

Each taught me a great deal about the four policies recommended in their paper, and inspired me to create one of my own.

I’m Joshua Kumler, and this is the Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance. Powered by InvestEdTX.

Policy position #1: Provide more funding for high-need student populations.

Natalie Brown: My students mean so much to me. They come here every day eager and happy and ready to learn despite their life and home circumstances.

Katie Benningfield: My students deal with a lot. My students sometimes don't know where their meal is coming from and so they need those school lunches. Sometimes the safest place that they're in every day is going to be my classroom.

Angela Burke: I had a student whose brother had passed away the previous year. And I have a current student who lost a sibling. We have students who are homeless, and to expect them to go home and do an assignment on the computer when they don't have a home to go home to let alone a computer to do their assignment on, that's hard.

Natalie Brown: We have a domestic violence shelter that's within our boundaries. So we have students that don't have permanent housing. About 30% of our population is kind of a revolving door. So that provides its own unique instructional obstacles.

Katie Benningfield: My students have families who have immigrated to the U.S. recently, whether that's legally or illegally. Their parents have different grasps of knowledge and language and services that they're entitled to here. And so sometimes those families don't know how to navigate the public school system or don't know how to navigate resources that could help them.

Shareefah Mason: A lot of times, when you have impoverished students, all they know is their neighborhood schools. They don't understand the resources that are available to them to make sure that they have the opportunity to select a campus that suits them best.  A lot of times we think that it's a low-performing school so the students struggle academically, but that's not every student in the building. And a lot of our students in low-performing schools would thrive if they have the ability to have a diversified education, and that is not to knock anybody that's teaching in an impoverished school because the students in a lot of instances have so many disparities academically that the teachers have to focus on building a foundation in a certain way, which, a lot of times, stifles their ability to be creative and be innovative because the students are so far behind.

Katie Benningfield: I absolutely love Isaiah. He drove me absolutely insane. He was never really about learning. I was lucky if he brought a backpack. It was probably empty, but like he was there, he was in my classroom, and I remember just thinking, oh my goodness, what do I do for this student? Like I'm just trying to get him to just calm down and be a student. How do I get them to even think about college? How do I get him to think about math? Like, why does this math problem matter to him if he has all of these outside life things happening? But I was able to learn the skills needed in order to help him. And so we were able to get him services to help him and his family. I was able to tutor him the extra hours necessary. I was able to kind of be that person for him as he started to navigate how his future could maybe look different than his older siblings. And so I'm very happy to say that he's currently in middle school. He's doing really, really well. He is taking all pre-AP courses, which is amazing, since he was a kid who, in elementary school, was not passing the state exams. So then to take pre-AP courses in middle school where you're going above the regular curriculum is fantastic, and it goes to show that he was always capable of doing it. He just needed the best instructors in front of him.

I’ve seen that if you take the best teachers and put them in schools that need them the most, those low income schools, whether that’s urban or rural, then that’s going to work, because any kid is capable of learning. You just have to put an amazing instructor in front of them. So if we’re going to fund schools then let’s fund the schools that need it the most.
— Katie Benningfield

Natalie Brown: It just really irritates me that I know my students, who come and have overcome so much already in their own personal lives, are going to have to compete one day when they graduate with students in, what is it, like 40 other states that have gotten higher dollars for their education than my students.  It's frustrating to know these kids are denied a lot of other things and don't have access to a lot of other things, and the one thing that can make the biggest difference in a student's life and their trajectory in life is education.

Policy Position #2: Adequately serve students with social-emotional needs.

Katie Benningfield: We end up with students who come in every day with honestly a lot of trauma. Texas is actually one of four states that does not require teachers to actually have any formal training in trauma. So that means, when I was becoming an educator, no one really taught me about social-emotional learning or the other issues that my students deal with in the classroom. Because if something terrible has happened at home, that doesn't just magically go away just because you're at school. Just like in our adult lives, if something's happened, it's always in the back of your mind. They still have those social emotional needs, they're still learning how to be people. They're sixth graders, if you remember sixth grade, that's awkward. That's just a terrible time to be a person.  It's just kind of funny when there are these kids that think they're completely grown but yet still want to be loved like they're little, and it's an interesting balance.

Natalie Brown: Focusing on soft skills, helping our students understand taking on leadership, helping them figure out how to handle problems, how to communicate, how to do task management, because those will all aid in closing academic gaps once they're getting the other instruction that they need.

Katie Benningfield: With the implementation of extra funding, we were actually able to implement a social-emotional learning program where we had classroom meetings every morning. We learned how to do restorative practices. So instead of suspending students when they made a bad choice, we would talk them through it and they would learn how to actually deal with those emotions, how to self-regulate themselves. And honestly, I think that's what made such a dramatic improvement in our kids, is because instead of just saying, Oh, you're just at school to learn, it's like, no, you're at school to learn how to be a better person. And academics just come as part of that.

Policy Position #3: Hire more essential personnel.

Angela Burke: So I spoke to a legislative staffer in a meeting last session, and she was like, well, we can't expect teachers to do that, they should just teach. And I'm like, well gosh, wouldn't it be really great if we could just teach?

Katie Benningfield: So what I want people to really realize is that teachers really do wear all types of hats. I am a mom.

Angela Burke: Sometimes we have to be dad.

Katie Benningfield: I am a nurse.

Angela Burke: We have to be counselors

Katie Benningfield: I am an instructor.

Angela Burke: We have to be career guidance.

Katie Benningfield: I get my kids school supplies.

Angela Burke: We have to help them write. Even if I'm not an English teacher, I've got to teach them the difference between your, you're and yore.

Katie Benningfield: I make sure they have food. I make sure that they have deodorant, because sixth graders are stinky.

Natalie Brown: We really need to have more trauma-trained counselors on schools, especially schools, I think, that have the type of demographic that we have, knowing that we have students that have experienced domestic violence or have witnessed domestic violence or don't have permanent housing.

Angela Burke: And I think that they take for granted that we don't just come in, have magical curriculum completely done for us, execute perfectly and have no interruptions whatsoever and go home at 3:30. That's not what happens.

Katie Benningfield: Teachers really are wearing all these different hats that you don't quite see in the funding. However, when you actually look at the day-to-day, if you actually want kids to succeed, all of those things are necessary to make sure that the students are capable of learning. Because they are, they just need to make sure that they're in a safe environment where they're feeling challenged and welcomed and all of those things where they feel safe to make mistakes. And that comes with making sure that we're funding all of those necessary things.

Policy Position #4: Strategically improve teacher compensation.

If we want to attract effective teachers, if we want to put the best teachers possible in front of our students- regardless of their socioeconomic class, everybody wants a good teacher in front of their child- then we’re going to have to pay them like professionals. And so I think that’s a really important part of what the legislature can do to improve public education.
— Natalie Brown

Angela Burke: We should be treated like professionals, and therefore we should also be trained like professionals and we should be required to have Master's degrees and internships and, you know, modeled after the medical and law professions, in my opinion.

Katie Benningfield: So I remember the excitement of when they were going to give $5,000 to teachers just across-the-board. And I remember just thinking to myself, okay. I mean this is positive. You're right. Teachers are underpaid when you consider our education levels and the fact that we're professionals and all of these things and especially the hours that we work. However, that kind of just seems like it's not addressing pushing students across Texas forward. It seems like that is just an overall way of helping teachers and kind of wanting to attract more teachers to the field. However it doesn't seem like it's going to do anything that's best for students.

It’s important to make sure that student success is always the focus, because if we’re not looking at student success, then, you know, what are we doing?
— Angela Burke

Angela Burke: The whole purpose of being a teacher is to make sure that we're creating effective citizens. And we know that we're doing that because they're mastering critical skills. That just happens to look like them mastering content. But that's not something that's intrinsically known. We can't just be like, oh yeah, I know it's a good teacher because such and such. There has to be research behind that, and there has to be some kind of pursuit of figuring out how to make that better. We can't just cookie cutter every single district. However, there really should be a way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher.

Shareefah Mason: I think the problem now is, if I'm being honest, we've had a lot of great teachers that have left the profession. We have a lot of great teachers that have lost their shine, simply because the fight is too hard, and when you see that you can't win, you give up. And a lot of teachers are burned out.  I've always been a really high-performing teacher, but nobody knew who I was, because the school that I was at was low-performing. We want to reinvigorate the teachers that we have in this state because we need them.

Natalie Brown: We don't have to force teachers to pursue administration for financial reasons. Like, if a great teacher's a great teacher, we can pay them a wage that allows them to stay and make impacts everyday, because ultimately it's impacting our future, our community's future, our state's future.

Angela Burke: And I also understand the perspective of, it sounded like we were trying to tie teacher effectiveness to students' scores on the STAAR test. And that is one measure of effectiveness. It should not be the only effectiveness measure. We're not just looking at scores, that's not even the most highly weighted part of that score.  But right now, it's essentially: here's your feedback for how you're doing in your classroom. Great job, or not so great job. There's not a lot of follow through. If teachers aren't doing well in their classroom, there's not a lot of accountability to giving them additional support. And if they are doing well, there aren’t very many districts that do anything to reward that. But we've got to do something.

Shareefah Mason: And what a lot of people don't realize that are reluctant to this system is if you use it correctly, it promotes collaboration more than it does individualism. I think that's one of the biggest stereotypes that teachers have, and I think that's so far from the truth. And so I love to talk to people about it because I don't think people get that view or vantage point. And that perspective is so important, that if we use it the right way, everybody can grow from it.

Angela Burke: Part of being a teacher is trying to make your craft better and recognize throughout the years and even throughout the weeks like, okay, this worked this time. Let's see what we can do now to make that even better.

Shareefah Mason:  I am a teacher at heart and I know that great teaching begins at the foundations of collaboration, and I can only collaborate if I myself am willing to partner and share and expose my vulnerabilities. And I think that's what keeps the line of communication open. And I think it's also pertinent because it is the foundation for building those teachers who may not be distinguished yet, so that they understand what the role looks like and how they can better approach it, so that they can one day receive that same distinction.

Katie Benningfield:  I was able to learn so much being surrounded by such amazing teachers. They just had such a deep knowledge of their content, of what they needed to do to move students along. So I feel like I grew phenomenally by being surrounded by such amazing teachers. So now I'm a distinguished teacher, too.

Natalie Brown: It really does force you to grow, to think about taking risks outside of your classroom and grow as a professional and learn new things.  So as you take on these things, your leadership grows and develops because you're given other things to consider. So it's just made me a better, well-rounded teacher, not just a teacher for my students, but an advocate for my students.

Katie Benningfield: Yes, it's amazing that we want to give teachers more money. I'm a teacher, of course I want more money. I work really hard. However, if I'm an educator because I want all students to succeed, then the money needs to be first put in schools that need the most help. Especially if we want our future economy to be successful, we want all of our kids have a great education.

Teachers should be treated like professionals. Raise the bar, don’t lower the bar. And if we raise the bar for teachers, then we can raise the bar for students.
— Angela Burke

And finally, a suggestion from this outside observer: Listen to teachers.

Natalie Brown: Oftentimes, you tell students, “don't make me use my teacher voice.” And you know that when teachers use their teacher voice, they're serious. Right? But we don't often do that to the people who make choices about what we do in our schools or in our classrooms every day. And so I think nationally, teachers have gotten to the point where it's like, we're using our teacher voice and we're serious and we're talking to legislators about things that we feel like they need to do to improve public education. Because for so long it's taken a beating and I think we're just like, look, enough is enough.

Angela Burke:  I have rarely seen where funding gets teacher input, teacher and student input, really, parent input, community input. Those are all things that, to me, are very important.

Katie Benningfield: I think something clicked for me in my second or third year of teaching, once I finally had teaching kind of under wraps, I felt like I knew what I was doing. But I was starting to look at policy and I wasn't quite understanding why it was written the way it was sometimes. And then I started to do some research and found out that most of the policy makers who are making decisions that affect my students every day, that affect me in my job, they've never been an educator. They don't really understand the ramifications of what their policies do to actual students. So I realized I had more experience after my first year of teaching then a lot of those policymakers. Why is that the case? Because if I'm the one working with students, if I'm the one seeing what actually helps them succeed, why are policymakers not reaching out to us? So instead of being passive, I decided to kind of step up and try to have that voice.

Angela Burke: Showing my students, like, you don't have to be an elected official. You don't have to be a superhero to make change in the world, you just have to have a voice, and be okay sharing that voice. So that's been really, really special, to be like, you know that seven hour video I posted on Google classroom, if you get to, like, hour six and a half, you can see me talk for three minutes. And, you know, it's neat to get to see their responses and say, “oh, that's you!'“ Yeah, and it could be you, you can speak to the school board, and a lot of students don't realize that.

Katie Benningfield:  I've been able to testify in front of the state legislature. It was a really interesting experience, because as a teacher, what I was able to provide was an actual story: This is what it looked like. This is how the school was dysfunctional. Best intentions were there. Everyone wanted the kids to do well. The kids wanted to do well. No kid goes to school wanting to fail. However, with the strategic compensation, with these incentives, we were able to be successful. And so it was kind of really exciting to be able to share that story. And I feel like that really connected with a lot of them. And I feel like a lot of that was seen with the house bills that they then presented later on in the session.

Angela Burke: I'm helping them understand what they want to do in the world and what kind of citizen they want to be. And quite frankly, I would much rather my fellow citizens be well educated than ignorant. And that's how we get progress in this nation is when we start to learn more and understand what's going on around us.

Katie Benningfield: One thing when you look at this session is as they're looking at the bills, they kind of break up all of these different aspects into parts. So, funding for social emotional learning or trauma informed instruction, funding for strategic compensation, funding for low-income schools. They kind of break it up into pieces. And what I feel like everyone needs to keep in mind is that all of these things work together, and that as a teacher, every day, I am seeing the effects of all of those things. If we don't have a social-emotional learning curriculum at our campus, then that's going to affect my students, because I'm not able to meet their emotional needs. If I'm not giving my students the best teacher in front of them, then that's going to hurt their education because they need to be successful. The way that those teachers are exposed to students, that affects kids every day.

Every student in Texas deserves a great teacher, and even though the legislators have not been in a classroom, they mostly are parents, and I know that there is a set of expectations that they have for those who educate their children. And that same set of expectations should be utilized for every teacher across the state, as well as a financial system that allows teachers to be recognized for the great work that they do daily.
— Shareefah Mason

The Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance is powered by InvestEdTX, and produced by me, Joshua Kumler.  It is executive produced by me, along with Kathryn Mikeska and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer.  Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Katie Benningfield, Natalie Brown, Angela Burke, and Shareefah Mason for everything they do on behalf of Texas children.  Special thanks as well to Lindsay Sobel and Kevin Malonson with Teach Plus. You can learn more about the incredible work they do by visiting their website, TeachPlus.org. Our website is InvestEdTX.org, where you can sign up for action alerts that will keep you up to date on school finance reform this legislative session. This podcast is dedicated to two groups of hard-workers who don’t get paid enough for all they do: teachers and Texas legislators.  The future is in both of your hands. We’ll be back soon with more of the Twisted Saga.

Joshua Kumler