Hard Lessons

As legislators slash budgets, teachers worry about the future of the work they love.
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The rules are a little different in Penny Smeltzer’s classroom, a portable trailer at Westwood High School in Round Rock. When student messengers come from the main office, they recite a quotation—anything goes, from a sports star to a 17th-century English poet. Her students smile with her when she demands the quotations. They shrug good-naturedly when she urges them to turn in their textbooks so they won’t have to wait in long lines. “You are the generation that plans to wait till the last minute,” she says, her Michigan accent strong after 30 years in Texas. “It’s your senior year. Go to the lake.”

Smeltzer has spent nine months pushing her students hard, with one goal: perform well on the advanced placement statistics test. “I do not stop,” she says. “We go bell to bell.”

On this cool, sunny Friday in mid-May, the class can relax. It’s the first time they’ve seen Smeltzer since the exam Wednesday. “[The exam] wasn’t as in-depth as any class period that we had,” one student says. Smeltzer tells the class that sometimes the tests are graded harder if the questions are easy.

“Oh, no,” one boy says as others agree. “I don’t think your average statistics student in Mississippi would get them right.”

The students aren’t just saying that to make their teacher happy. Smeltzer’s one of the best AP Statistics teachers in America, with lists of awards to prove it. She’s been from coast to coast and to Singapore teaching other teachers how to get kids excited about math. Smeltzer recruits AP Statistics students wherever she goes—grocery stores, school plays, anywhere she sees a parent or high-schooler. Once they’re in her class, she finds a way to prepare everyone. “If they’re not understanding a manufacturing problem about quality control in statistics,” she says, “then maybe what I need to do is talk about the price of prom dresses.”

After almost 30 years at Westwood, she says, “I’m still learning. I’m still enjoying it. I don’t feel like I can leave till I get it right.”

Smeltzer’s creative approach fits at Westwood High. For all the discussions of Texas’ failing public education, teachers here are doing something right. Ninety-three percent of students go to an institution of higher learning; 73 percent attend four-year universities. Westwood offers 24 AP courses; foreign languages range from the traditional French and Spanish to American Sign Language and Mandarin. On SAT tests, Westwood students average about 100 points higher than the statewide average. While the school is majority-white, reflecting the local population, one-quarter of its students are Asian American, and another 9 percent are Hispanic. Nearly 20 percent are “at-risk” by state standards.

Penny_SmeltzerSmeltzer frequently trades tips and ideas with fellow teachers, and she says the whole campus is stronger for it. “I’m fortunate to work with so many good teachers,” she says.

She will soon be working with fewer. Because of state budget cuts, Westwood High will lose almost one-eighth of its staff—23 teachers. Pink slips have gone out. Those who remain, like Smeltzer, will likely teach more classes, and those classes will be more crowded because of new, higher student-to-teacher ratios.

Smeltzer worries the changes may be too much. Some teachers already have around 200 students—six or seven classes of almost 30 kids. Even basic homework assignments mean hours of grading every night, after teachers put in full days in the classroom. Adding 20 students to the load is a daunting prospect. “The kinds of teaching that inspire real problem-solving and thinking for students takes time,” Smeltzer says, “and we may not have the time.”

That observation leads her to a more serious concern, widely shared among Texas educators: If teachers must work an increasing number of hours and can’t do the kind of teaching that makes a difference, why stick with the profession? “Many of the best and brightest will have opportunities elsewhere, and they’ll take them,” Smeltzer says.

 

Almost every district is bracing for major reductions in state funding. With a $23 billion shortfall, the Legislature chose to rely heavily on cuts to balance the budget. Education makes up 40 percent of state expenditures, so schools
were bound to take a hit. At press time, lawmakers were still negotiating how many billions to cut from public education. At a minimum, it appears, Texas will spend $4 billion, or 9 percent, less on schools. It will be the first time the state has reduced education funding since the modern school-finance system was implemented in 1949.

Because the Legislature has never decreased funding, school districts have few mechanisms for cutting costs. As they anticipate the budgetary blow to come, and with only three months before the next school year starts, layoffs have been the only option for schools like Westwood. Cutting pay or furloughing teachers, rather than firing them, are forbidden under state law. Teachers’ groups have fought tooth-and-nail against reforms that would allow more flexibility, arguing that by allowing pay cuts and the like, legislative reform would erode hard-won protections for teachers.

Education experts point out that even talking about cutting teacher salaries shows a decided shift in philosophy and priorities. “Ten years ago, nobody ever talked about reducing salaries,” says Lynn Moak, a school-finance specialist for more than 30 years with Texas schools. “A teaching job was a pretty safe proposition as a lot of people saw it.”

Tim Lee, executive director of Texas Retired Teachers Association, says he’s “heard more and more often those senior retired teachers telling me, ‘I would never encourage my children or grandchildren to get into the profession of public education.’ ” 

The makeshift teachers’ lunchroom at Westwood looks like a large supply closet. Here, that sense of abandonment is palpable. Amidst Lean Cuisines and Tupperware, nine teachers have assembled, looking stressed and exhausted. Someone puts a container of chocolates on the table. “Go ahead,” Smeltzer tells a colleague who reaches for a second piece. “It’s a two-chocolate kind of day.”

At the end of the table sit three teachers who’ve been laid off and won’t be back next year. Two did not want their names used in this article because they plan to hunt for teaching jobs elsewhere. The other, Jonathan Cooper, left a private-sector job in engineering to teach physics. With the layoff, he’s returning to his old line of work. There, he says, at least the pay is good. “I came for the stability,” he says wryly. Now “I’m going back for the stability.”

Those who remain at Westwood are nervous about juggling already-packed schedules with the new demands the budget cuts will bring. Despite the layoffs and larger class sizes next year, the state hasn’t delayed implementation of new standardized tests, which will be more rigorous than current assessments. “We have to do more with less—with more students,” Smeltzer says. “We understand there’s a budget crisis, but quit putting things on our plate.”

One teacher shows me a list of more than 60 tasks she must perform in addition to teaching. “You cannot be creative because there is no more time to be creative,” she says. “You teach from the heart. And for the moment, the heart is cut open.”

Still, the teachers emphasize their love of the work. “On a good day, when you can capture ‘em—when things are going well—there’s nothing better than this,” Smeltzer says. “It’s just, it’s getting harder and harder to shut out all the …” She pauses.

“Noise?” offers one colleague.

“The noise,” Smeltzer agrees.

In this roomful of educators, no one seems optimistic about the profession. One of the laid-off teachers mentions a conversation he recently overheard. A couple of students asked another if she were going to be a teacher someday. No way, the student replied. “She said, ‘You just work hard, you don’t get paid anything, and then you get fired.’ That was heartbreaking.”

 

Read more about lawmakers’ efforts to pass “mandate-relief” bills for districts.

Learn about how some students are protesting teacher layoffs.