Changing curricula, student behavioral problems and inconsistent parent support—just a few of the challenges teachers say they face in schools today at all grade levels and in all districts across the Rochester region.
Regardless of the stage of their careers, teachers further their professional development and remain motivated in order to manage those struggles. And they’re succeeding, enjoying the work that is most important to them.
Tricia Simone has taught four grades in the Greece Central School District for 23 years. Now leading a classroom of fourth graders at Brookside Elementary School, Simone says that, like many teachers across the state, she is most frustrated by the Common Core testing required by the state and the impact it could have. She admits she does not know how to advise parents who ask her if they should withhold their children from the testing as they are allowed to do.
“It is high-stakes testing and we’re caught in the middle,” Simone says. “We have to watch kids struggle through them. And they want to base our job security on (the tests) when they aren’t even developmentally appropriate.”
Parental involvement in her school is excellent, says Simone, who also sees attentiveness from the school administration.
“Morale in the district has been great since the superintendent (Barbara Deane-Williams) has taken over. She was a teacher herself,” Simone says. “All the principals and administrators allow us to be creative and try new ideas.”
“Change keeps you on your toes!” she adds.
Simone plans to keep her work fresh and help other teachers through the district’s Teacher Leaders program. Si-mone will teach her regular classes in the mornings, but in the afternoons she will spend time with teachers who may want help with a new teaching method, a student behavioral issue or other challenge.
“It’s a program that’s ramping up. The administration gave every building a teacher leader. I’m excited,” Simone says. “I will be helping but I will also be learning from young new teachers as well as my colleagues.”
A similar program in the Rochester City School District has been in place for nearly 30 years. The Career in Training Program began as a pioneering agreement between RCSD and the Rochester Teachers Association. The peer-to-peer support system pairs first-year teachers with veterans in their grade level or subject matter. The arrangement has a rejuvenating effect on both participants, officials say.
Since the program’s inception, the retention rate for teachers has exceeded national averages, with the 2010-15 retention rate standing at 87.5 percent.
Robin Hill, a 23-year elementary teacher with RCSD, has been a mentor teacher in the program for 17 years.
“I think I’m teaching them, but I always learn a lot from them too,” Hill says. “New teachers always have a lot of energy and you get some of that through osmosis.”
Hill believes a large part of his job is helping new teachers believe in themselves.
“One thing teachers do really well is beat themselves up,” Hill explains. “I’ve had teachers come in my room and just start crying. There are fears they have. They don’t trust what they are doing. Without a mentor they would have to bear that alone.”
First-year teacher Corey Hepburn sees the same struggle with his students. While he is learning from Hill, his mentor, he is passing the same lessons on to his class of 18 third-grade boys at the Boys Academy at School No. 9.
“One of my challenges is motivating my students to believe they can do what they can do,” Hepburn says. “Motivating them is something I look to develop in myself, giving them the wisdom we have as adults. We develop that over time, so we don’t give up when we are challenged.”
Hepburn says a gap exists between the learning and achievement of his students as it relates to their background knowledge. He believes they are performing far behind students in more affluent districts, but he won’t allow that to deter them from what they are capable of accomplishing.
“It’s not a frustration; it’s more of a motivation. I tell them, ‘We’re going to shock the world!’” Hepburn says. “The foundation of my teaching is positive practice. I model that. If I don’t show I’m happy, how can I expect my students to be?”
Dawn Knapp has been teaching for 19 years, 15 of them at Victor Senior High School in Ontario County. Newsweek recently ranked the school among the nation’s top 1 percent of high-performing high schools.
That does not mean the school and Knapp are without challenges. Knapp teaches algebra and calculus to a mix of freshmen and seniors. She also has a mix of ability levels in many of her classes.
“They will take the exact same algebra Regents exam as part of the Common Core requirement at the end of the year. It’s a graduation requirement,” Knapp explains. “Some kids are really scared. I try to build a lot of confidence. It’s a challenge to teach kids of all levels.”
Knapp also teaches advanced placement classes and enjoys a challenge of a different kind—motivating students who have accelerated abilities.
Knapp constantly pushes herself to remain relevant in her field. She and her colleagues take part in professional learning communities in which teachers of the same subjects meet to share what works for them.
“Collaboration is huge. We share ideas,” Knapp says. “Is it key to keeping me motivated? No. But it helps motivate me to want to perform my best.”
Knapp last year stepped outside the classroom to work on a curriculum development project. The experience made her realize how much she enjoyed teaching, and she was glad to be back at the chalkboard this fall with her students.
“I love learning, the math and the kids. That’s my biggest motivator,” Knapp says. “It might not be the best time to be in public education, but surprisingly I can say I’m as happy, or maybe even happier today, as the first day I started teaching.”
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