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Editorial: Why good teachers quit

Janet Meckstroth Alessi has been an English teacher at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, Florida, for nearly 35 years. With more than 3,600 students, John I. Leonard is Palm Beach County’s largest high school.

Five years ago, my friend Sarah and I, who have been Palm Beach County teachers for decades, weren’t even talking about retiring from teaching. Now, she’s planning to retire at the end of this year, and I’m planning to retire within the next four years.

Why? As Sarah says, “The descent of teaching started with testing and the loss of teacher control over curriculum.”

I have been an English teacher at John I. Leonard High School since 1983 ... We have students from more than 20 countries, and there’s no other school at which I would have preferred to teach all these years.

>> Read more trending news

Sarah, who asked that I not use her last name, has been a high school teacher for 31 years, 24 of which have been in Palm Beach County. We met in 1984 when we were taking a graduate course together. She is one of the most intelligent, assiduous people I know.

For most of my career, I’ve loved teaching. I don’t regret having dedicated 34 years of my life to teaching, and it still thrills me when I can make a difference in a student’s life.

However, if I were just starting my career, I’m not sure how long I’d last.

The simple reason: So much testing has diminished true learning.

Unless you are a teacher yourself or have a child in the school system, you’d be shocked by how much teaching-to-tests, practice testing, retake testing and make-up testing occurs.

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On a regular basis, gym classes lose access to the gymnasium, and students lose access to the media center due to testing. Nearly every day, teachers receive lists of hundreds of students who need to be sent out for testing.

I find it difficult to even keep up with all of the testing acronyms: FSA (Florida Standards Assessment), EOC (End of Course), USA (United Statewide Assessment), PBPA (Palm Beach Performance Assessment), PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), ACT (American College Testing), AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education) and AP (Advanced Placement).

I used to teach magnificent novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” My students and I read these novels together, while listening to them on tape. We discussed and analyzed what we were reading. Charles Dickens is not easy to read, but most of my students thanked me for making them read “A Tale of Two Cities,” telling me they never would have read and understood it on their own.

Not only did they improve their reading comprehension, vocabulary and even their self-esteem by reading novels, but they also came to know and love memorable characters such as Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton. And they experienced literary devices such as foreshadowing and conflict in action.

More importantly, they were left with valuable life lessons and role models.

I also used to teach Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.” I sewed costumes for my students, who made wooden swords and shields so that they could act out the plays as we read them. They learned about love, hate, revenge, strength, ambition and more.

Sadly, there have been years when English teachers have been instructed to suspend the teaching of novels, Shakespeare and even vocabulary because of standardized testing.

What will students remember about practice SAT, ACT and FSA passages when they’re adults?

I, on the other hand, clearly remember numerous characters and themes from stories that I read in school. These stories have helped shape who I am.

For the first 25 years that I taught, before each grading period, I wrote out my lesson plans for the entire nine weeks. Now, I write them one week at a time, as I often have to “be flexible” and change them, mostly because of standardized testing.

I love to teach. I was hired to teach. Let me teach, damn it!

Another key reason good teachers quit, as my friend Sarah says: “The kids and their parents have increasingly less accountability, and we have more.”

I have 130 students this year. Only three of their parents came to open house. And last school year, the parents of one of my students, who had 51 absences second semester, hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the school board because their son wasn’t graduating.

Instead of teaching students to be responsible, we’re feeding their sense of entitlement.

A couple of years ago, I was assigned to proctor an AP test. Unbelievably, this was a make-up of a make-up of a make-up test, and when one of the two students didn’t show up, I was asked to call her.

We were paying for her to take the test. Did we have to wake her up as well? Where’s the accountability?

When she showed up, she didn’t have a pencil. Why would she? She knew from past experience that one would be provided for her.

When a student is suspended, he or she is now allowed to make up work. Where’s the punishment?

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Students have to pass the FSA in order to graduate. However, if they fail it but receive a high enough score on the SAT or ACT, they can still graduate. Therefore, we spend an inordinate amount of class time trying to improve students’ SAT, ACT and FSA test scores.

Decades ago, following the first grading period of my career, my principal, Luke Thornton, called me into his office and pointed out how many of my students had earned an “F” in my class. He then asked if I thought they deserved an “F.”

“Yes, sir, I do,” I replied, and that was the end of that.

Not surprisingly, when my students discovered that I meant business, their grades improved.

However, today a school’s grade is partly determined by its graduation rate; and the evaluation of teachers, administrators and superintendents is partly based on the success of their students.

Sometimes, teachers are told that they must call the parents of students making a D or F in their class. Rather than do this, some teachers bump the D’s and F’s up to C’s.

Of course, when students learn that they can carry an F all nine weeks, and then it magically transforms into a C, this has a snowball effect and inflates GPAs.

I haven’t bumped grades up, but I do understand why some teachers have. We electronically post grades once a week and send out mid-term progress reports. Shouldn’t that be enough notification?

We’ve also had too many bad experiences. The first parent I called this year, for example, told me that surely there were other students whose behavior was worse than her daughter’s. She then demanded to know why I was picking on her daughter, berated me for bothering her, and hung up.

One father declared, “When my son’s in school, he’s your problem. Don’t ever call me again,” before hanging up on me.

Yes, there are some wonderful, supportive parents and students. Unfortunately, not all parents have taught their children to respect them, let alone respect their teachers. I also believe the blatant disrespect shown by some students in television shows and movies contributes to the problem.

I have always tried to treat my students with respect, and in return, I have usually earned their respect.

However, due to pressure to not suspend students, standards of behavior have been lowered over the years. The result has been that many teachers deal with brazen disrespect on a daily basis and aren’t consistently supported by their administration.

As Sarah points out, “Many students seem to have the attitude of, ‘You have to tolerate me.’ Too often, they’re right.”

A former student of mine, who is in her second year of teaching, laments that she “absolutely hated” her first year of teaching because her third-grade students were “too rude.”

If they’re “too rude” in third grade, imagine what they’re like in middle and high school.

A friend, who’s teaching third grade this year, has a student who has informed her of the different ways he’d like to kill her. He has threatened his classmates with a fork, scissors and belt, and he has told a classmate he wished the classmate had been in Las Vegas and died. My friend has to buzz the office daily and is documenting this student’s behavior, but the red tape involved in having him placed in a classroom for students with an “emotional behavior disorder” is tedious.

As John I. Leonard High’s Dwyer Award winner Jackie Burgess-Malone points out, “We don’t even have time to get to know our students anymore.”

We’re expected to attend Professional Development Days (PDDs), keep up with our Professional Growth Plan (PGP), the Education Data Warehouse (EDW), Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Temporary Duty Elsewhere (TDE) forms, Wildly Important Goals (WIGs), Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and our Student Information System (SIS).

We must take attendance, check for dress code, check testing lists for our students’ names, check and respond to email, do our assigned “duty” during our planning period, watch videos and pass quizzes on the videos, earn points to renew our teaching certificate, provide make-up work, call parents, attend meetings, keep up with all of the standardized testing, write lesson plans, create worksheets, tests and quizzes and make copies.

RELATED: Angry teachers say principal’s second change is proof of double standards

That’s in addition to grading papers and entering grades, tardies and absences into the computer.

And, oh, yes, we teach.

When I am able to teach, I would like to be given credit for having a Master’s degree in English, having 34 years of experience, and having some idea of what’s best for my students, thank you very much.

Yet, almost every year, we’re introduced to a new teaching method. Many of us wonder if those deciding how we should teach were ever teachers themselves, and if so, how long it’s been since they were in a classroom.

(There are definitely some teachers who are stuck in their ways and refuse to change. I may not embrace change, but I am willing to change. When I’m presented with a new teaching method, I try it out, but if it’s not effective, I employ it only enough to keep my job.)

Class size is a problem as well. I thought having 34 students in one of my classes was a lot, but we have an anatomy and physiology class with 39. And I recently spoke to a physical education teacher who’s grateful that the class count for her classes is in the 50s, unlike in previous years, when it’s been in the 70s.

We also have so many people using the restroom between classes that we frequently struggle to have enough water pressure to flush the toilets and wash our hands, and the air conditioning breaks down too frequently — try taking all those tests in a 90-degree room.

What’s more, there are tests for teachers — and many are failing.

In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree, teachers must pass the Florida Teacher Certification Exam. Teachers who haven’t passed this exam can teach with a temporary teaching certificate for three years; however, the certificate is non-renewable.

Two years ago, the Florida Department of Education introduced more difficult teacher certification exams. Since then, the failure rates have increased by as much as 30 percent on some sections. Since 2015, only 69 percent of teachers have passed the essay, 65 percent have passed the English language skills exam, 60 percent have passed the reading exam and 57 percent have passed the math exam.

Could our teachers fresh out of college be struggling to pass this exam because they were given passing grades when they shouldn’t have been? Were they programmed to care more about their grades than learning? Were their teachers too busy teaching to the standardized test-of-the-day to teach general knowledge? Does the exam contain poorly worded, ambiguous and/or unnecessarily rigorous questions?

Or is the answer none of the above, some combination of the above, or all of the above?

On the first day of school each year, I ask my seniors if they can name the eight parts of speech. Only one or two students in the last decade have been able to do so.

I am writing this not to complain — but to plainly state what teachers have to go through each day. We teachers want our students to be excited about learning.

My hope is that our governor, superintendent, parents, teachers, students and our community will address these problems and that our new teachers will stay because they will see that improvements are being made.

Teaching can and should be one of the most rewarding careers a person can choose.

Read the full piece at the Palm Beach Post.

Teacher told student to 'go back to Mexico,' protesters say

4 p.m. CST Wednesday: Several students who walked out of Fulmore Middle School in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday told the Austin American-Statesman they were protesting because a teacher in a Social and Emotional Learning class told a student, who was speaking Spanish at the time, to “go back to Mexico.”

The teacher made the statement about two weeks ago, according to students who were in her classroom at the time, and some Fulmore students felt that administrators did not adequately address what this teacher said.

In a letter to the school’s community, Fulmore Principal Lisa Bush acknowledged that "an adult staff member made an insensitive statement to a student. Comments such as that are not tolerated at any level and appropriate actions were taken."

>> Read more trending news

Bush’s letter did not specify what was said nor what action was taken.

Multiple students said the school building was damaged during the protest. Students mentioned a window was broken, part of a fence was knocked down and a ceiling tile in a hallway was punched.

At least one school board member commented on the situation. 

“I am confident the superintendent and his team are gathering the facts and responding appropriately,” said school board member Geronimo Rodriguez, who represents South Austin. “I expect a quick response. This is a teachable moment for our diverse community regarding our culture of treating people with dignity and respect.”

ORIGINAL STORY: A group of students walked out of the Fulmore Middle School building as part of a protest Wednesday, according to school officials.

School officials said students are now back in their classrooms.

Texas State fraternity death likely to result in criminal charges

The death of a Texas State fraternity pledge after an off-campus social event will likely result in criminal charges based on a preliminary review of evidence, San Marcos Police Chief Chase Stapp told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV Tuesday.

>> Read more trending news

“I think it is pretty likely we are going to have some kind of criminal case,” Stapp said. “Once we know the complete picture, we will have to have discussions with the district attorney on the most appropriate course of actions. It’s not going to be overnight by any means.”

The death comes about a week after the national chapter of Phi Kappa Psi ordered the Texas State chapter to cease its social activities because of an on-going investigation, university officials confirmed Tuesday. Texas State had launched an investigation Oct. 4 based on a complaint it had received in late September. The university would not disclose the nature of those allegations.

>> Related: Texas State suspends all fraternity, sorority activities after death of Phi Kappa Psi pledge

Stapp said it likely will take a month to six weeks before a decision is made because officials will want to wait for a full autopsy, which he said will be a critical piece of evidence in the case and would show the blood alcohol level for 20-year-old Matthew McKinley Ellis, who was pledging Texas State’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

San Marcos police say Ellis was dead when friends found him around 11 a.m. Monday. The university said he had attended a fraternity event off campus. The university on Tuesday suspended all Greek activity.

“Any death in our community we take seriously and especially the death of a young person like this who had so much ahead of him,” Stapp said. “In any case like this, if there are appropriate charges that can be proven, the intent is to file them,” Stapp said.

Under Texas law, hazing is a Class A misdemeanor unless it results in a death, in which case the charge can be elevated to a felony.

Texas State suspends all fraternity, sorority activities after death of Phi Kappa Psi pledge

Police on Tuesday were investigating the death of a Texas State University sophomore and fraternity pledge, authorities at the university said.

>> Read more trending news

Texas State President Denise Trauth confirmed in a statement Tuesday that Matthew McKinley Ellis, a Phi Kappa Psi pledge, died after attending an off-campus fraternity event, and she announced an immediate suspension of activities of Greek fraternity and sorority chapters at Texas State.

“These chapters are prohibited from holding new-member events, chapter meetings, social functions, and philanthropic activities until a thorough review of the Greek affairs system is completed,” Trauth said.

University spokesman Matt Flores said Ellis, 20, was a business administration sophomore from Humble.

Police said he was pronounced dead at 12:28 p.m. Monday after medics responded to the off-campus Millennium apartments. Friends discovered him a little after 11 a.m. and first responders got the 911 call at 11:35 a.m., officials said. 

Police believe Ellis was a pledge for Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, based on interviews with those at the scene, San Marcos police said.

According to a preliminary police investigation, alcohol may have been a factor in Ellis’s death, but his autopsy is still pending, police said. The University Star, Texas State’s student newspaper, said Ellis died after his fraternity’s initiation. 

Joanne Smith, vice president for student affairs, is in charge of conducting the review and proposing recommendations for reinstating fraternity and sorority chapters “that demonstrate a commitment to the core values of Texas State and the ideals established by their respective national organizations,” Trauth said. “It is imperative that our entire university community develop a culture that places the highest priority on the safety of its students, faculty, and staff.”

Ellis is the second Texas State student to die since the winter of 2016 after attending an off-campus Greek event. Four Texas state fraternities were handed suspensions in January, ranging from two to five years, for alcohol violations stemming from a party last year in which a 20-year-old student was fatally struck and dragged by a bus near Martindale.

The Cox Media Group National Content Desk contributed to this report.

Are leggings distracting? Atlanta fifth-graders want dress code changes

Two leggings-clad fifth-grade girls asked the Atlanta school board Monday to change its student dress code, which bans clothing that is “extremely tight” and “distracting.”

>> Read more trending news 

The board is reviewing revisions that would emphasize the dress code must be fairly enforced. Some Atlanta Public Schools students have complained the current rules target girls and want the new policy to drop the word “distracting.” 

“This is a label applied to girls’ clothing. I do not believe that clothing is a distraction. It is just the reaction that matters,” said Falyn Handley, a 10-year-old student at Springdale Park Elementary School, who spoke along with fellow leggings wearer and classmate Ruby Segerman. “I should not be punished for other people’s behavior. I am not a distraction.” 

The dress code rewrite is scheduled to go before the board’s policy review committee later this month and then return to the full board Dec. 4. The board likely will consider final approval in January, said board member Eshé Collins, who leads the policy committee. 

Read more about the proposed dress code changes here.

Quick-thinking teachers save life of boy impaled by pencil

A Florida 8-year-old is alive because of the quick thinking of two teachers who sprang into action when he accidentally impaled himself on a freshly sharpened pencil earlier this month.

Kolston Moradi, a third-grader at Equestrian Trails Elementary School in Wellington, was waiting for his mother to pick him up from school the afternoon of Nov. 1 when he sat down with other students on the floor of the dismissal room. According to the Palm Beach County school district, the weight of his body drove a pencil in the side pocket of his backpack into his arm near the armpit.

“I didn’t really feel anything,” Kolston said in a news release on the district’s website. “But when I went to put (the pencil) in my backpack, I realized it was in me, and I pulled it out.”

Blood immediately started pouring from the wound and onto the floor. The pencil, which was driven about four inches into his body, had punctured an artery.

The frightened student went to Mandi Kapopoulos, a reading teacher who was standing nearby, and showed her his injury, school district officials said. Elizabeth Richards, the school’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) coordinator, was also nearby and ran to help.

Kapopoulos pulled her arm out of her shirt sleeve and used the sleeve as a tourniquet as Richards, who went to nursing school before becoming a teacher, ran to get gloves so she could apply pressure to Kolston’s wound.

Richards laid on the floor with the boy, applying pressure and keeping him calm as they awaited paramedics. 

“There were hundreds of other kids in the hall, but I didn’t see or hear them,” Richards told school district officials. “I just focused on Kolston. I kept telling him, ‘You’ve got this. It’s going to be OK.’”

>> Read more trending news

Meanwhile, Kolston’s mother, Annalisa Moradi, was outside, waiting her turn in the car pickup line. An administrator called her and asked her to come inside.

“When I saw the ambulance, my heart sank,” Moradi said

Carrying two of Kolston’s siblings, she hurried inside, where teachers tended to her little ones while the school’s principal, Michele Johnson, took Moradi to her son’s side, the news release said.

“At first, I didn’t understand what happened, but as soon as I walked in, I felt like the situation was under control,” Moradi said. “They were calm, and they kept me calm.”

Paramedics who responded to the scene told the mother of four just how dire the situation could have been. 

“The EMT told me that if the teachers hadn’t acted as quickly as they had, my son would be dead,” Moradi said. 

Instead, Kolston’s experience ended with two staples in his arm to close the wound. He was back at school the next day.

Since the freak accident, school administrators and teachers are reminding their charges to always keep their pencils in a pencil case. 

Johnson told district officials that the incident was a first in her career.

“I have been an educator for 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Johnson said

District investigating after school video mocking slavery goes viral

A senior at a high school in Washington state is upset about a video featuring her classmates that she says mocks slavery.

Michelle Boyd told KIRO7 she recorded the video this week at Lindbergh High School. For a school project, students performed a song  during which they changed the lyrics to a well-known nursery rhyme.

"Old MacDonald had a slave," the students sang. "E-I-E-I-O. And with that slave he worked all day. E-I-E-I-O."

Boyd explained why she found the video offensive. "I mean I don't think it was necessary for them to make a mockery out of it. Because people did die in slavery. They were raped and beaten and stuff like that. I don't think that is a joke at all," she said.

>> Read more trending news

Boyd confronted the students, but she claims they told her that the teacher gave them permission to perform the song.

Boyd showed the video to her mother, Charrita Tatum, who posted it on Facebook.

Tatum said she learned almost immediately she wasn't the only one who found the video offensive.

"Anytime there's a question, it should have just been nipped in the bud," Tatum said. "I do feel like the teacher's judgment call on this was absolutely incorrect."

"It's disturbing," Renton school district spokesman Randy Matheson told KIRO7. "It's inappropriate and it needs answers."

Matheson says with school out for Veterans Day, the teacher will have to answer for this Monday.

"A teacher should certainly know that checking with students to find out if it's OK is not the way you go about making sure something is appropriate in the classroom," Matheson said.

Michelle and her mother say they want the district to talk to the teacher and the students, three of whom are African-American, to make sure this doesn't happen again at Lindbergh or any other school.

A person named John Snarski on Facebook who claimed to write part of the song said the entire thing has been taken out of context and blown out of proportion. He also said he’s black and alleged Boyd was laughing during the performance.

Florida teacher loses license over ‘naked’ request to student

The state of Florida has permanently revoked the teaching certificate of a girls basketball coach who was fired from Santaluces High in 2015 for sending a 17-year-old student an electronic message that read in part that he wanted to see her naked, according to state and school district records.

>> Read more trending news

While investigators confirmed Garrick Black sent the message, they found no evidence of anything criminal – there were no allegations of physical contact, no allegations of explicit photos being exchanged.

Black said Friday that the accusations were false, “I understand what the police report says. But I just got caught up in something. I was really nervous and scared (when police questioned him). I didn’t have anything to do with that. I didn’t even write that.”

After he lost his job, Black, who said he hasn’t worked in a school since, contends he didn’t realize that the police findings would be used to pursue his teaching certification and that he missed the notifications that were mailed to him. For those reasons, Black said he hasn’t had an opportunity to defend himself against these allegations.

Black, a basketball player at Boynton Beach High almost a decade earlier, had been coaching at Santaluces for a couple of years, but his position was considered part-time or temporary. He did not teach any classes, Palm Beach County School District records show.

When first confronted by investigators about the message sent via Instagram, Black, who is now 28, denied knowing the girl and sending the message, police reported. But Instagram confirmed the source of the message was his account, authorities had a screenshot of the message and Black eventually conceded to sending it, they reported.

It was a friend of the girl’s who alerted an assistant principal to the message and triggered the investigation. The girl, whose name was removed from the report because of her age, said the coach began following her Instagram account in the spring of 2014.

She told police that Black had sent her direct messages through that account a couple of times, once admonishing her for fighting – she’d been suspended for fighting at the time, and another commenting on a picture she posted of a woman in a black tank “who had noticeable piercings on her breasts.” The student told police the message from Black “said something to the effect of ‘Hope is not a picture of you” because, she said he implied, “people might think you’re a freak or hoe.”

When the girl in December posted a photo of herself in shorts and a sports bra, Black messaged again, instructing her to take down the photo because it was inappropriate and made her “look grown.” She fired back that he was not her father and couldn’t tell her what to do. Later, he wrote, “It’s still in my head I want to see you naked …”

On the advice of a friend, the girl then blocked Black from her account. Months later, in March, a student tipped the assistant principal. Black was fired in June 2015.

Florida school offering bulletproof armor for students' backpacks

A private school in South Florida is offering bulletproof armor that students can use to protect themselves from gunfire.

>> Read more trending news

Florida Christian School in Miami-Dade County, which has students ranging from preschool to high school, is offering parents the ability to buy a piece of ballistic armor that can be placed in their child’s backpack, according to the Miami Herald.

“It’s just a tool,” George Gulla, the school’s head of security, told the Miami Herald. “I’d rather be prepared for the worst than be stuck after saying ‘Wow, I wish we would’ve done that.’”

Gulla, who has 27 years of law enforcement experience, was running through safety drills with parents at the school when Alex Cejas, founder of the body armor company Applied Fiber Concepts, suggested the idea.

Cejas created binder-sized armor that can protect students from some bullets, but not bullets from a rifle.

The pieces of armor can be bought by parents at the school for $120.

WATCH: Florida high school principal wows students with dance moves at pep rally

A Florida high school principal's dance moves are getting a lot of attention.

>> Click here to watch

Dr. Mickey Reynolds, who started working as a principal at Lake Mary High School in June, got the chance to dance in front of her students at a pep rally.

“Frankly, I thought they would just die laughing,” she said. “I was not expecting the overwhelming applause. I couldn’t believe it.”

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news 

Reynolds said she approached Kelly Lupis, the school’s Unity Revolution STEP team coach, with the idea of joining the team for Friday’s pep rally.

Reynolds coached a STEP team before and said dancing holds a special place in her heart.

She said she had no idea she would end up becoming part of the whole routine.

“They taught me the moves and I videotaped them. I practiced a little at home, and then a second practice and third to run through it really quick,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds’ moves were well-received; the crowd went wild over how well she did, and video of the performance quickly went viral.

>> Read more trending news 

A parent posted video of the dance on Facebook, where it’s been shared by more than 30,000 people and viewed more than 2.9 million times. 

“I was very surprised, and then this weekend it kept ticking up in terms of views,” Reynolds said. “The kids have been great. They’ve been very excited. They were part of the whole viral thing too.”

Reynolds graduated from Lake Mary High School in 1986, and her father was the first principal at the school.

“I made it full-circle. I feel like I’ve come home,” she said.

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