Guest Column

Provide Teachers the Support They Need

Educators are not only facing a critical lack of resources and an unprecedented student mental health crisis, but blatant disrespect from their elected officials as well

By Jenny Murnane Butcher

It’s that time of year again when our public school children are getting ready to head back to school and our public school teachers are busy preparing their classrooms to welcome students. But this year, there will be 1000 fewer teachers in Montana’s public schools to greet our students.

The problem is twofold: recruitment and retention. First, Montana has the lowest starting teaching salary in the nation, so it is no surprise that newly certified teachers exiting college are choosing to teach elsewhere. But conversations by policy makers often focus on this problem alone: how do we get new teachers in the door? The more pertinent question should be: why are our teachers leaving the field in the first place?

Retention is a much more complex problem to address, and one that lawmakers seem both uncomfortable discussing and reluctant to fully investigate. This might be due in part to a distaste for acknowledging the way our educators were treated during the most recent legislative session.

From public testimony to the legislators themselves, our schools were labeled failures and our teachers branded with all manner of nonsensical accusations. Bills were brought that would place an incredibly unrealistic burden on teachers, all in the name of “transparency,” while bill sponsors insinuated that teachers could not be trusted to present school board-approved curriculum to students. Discriminatory bills were passed that limit the ability of teachers to do what is best for individual students, all in the name of “parental rights.” And bills were passed that will siphon money from our public schools to unaccountable, for-profit entities. Educators are not only facing a critical lack of resources and an unprecedented student mental health crisis, but blatant disrespect from their elected officials as well.

There is so much that these naysayers do not, or are unwilling to, see when they label public schools as “failures.” As a 5th grade teacher, I had about 30 students each year. I had students with mental health challenges and once, had to evacuate all my students from the classroom because of one student’s behavior. I did not have enough textbooks for each student; the water in my classroom was undrinkable because of potential lead poisoning; support staff for teachers was severely limited; and because the school did not have the funds to meet the basic needs of our students, I, along with so many other teachers, purchased snacks and provided other support. 

Despite these many obstacles, I and my colleagues devoted ourselves to helping our students thrive. Some years, 50% of  my students performed “at grade level” on standardized tests. However, what that number doesn’t reflect is that despite all of these challenges, many of those students came into my classroom reading at a 3rd grade level, and came out at a 4th grade level.  Or came in struggling with basic subtraction, and came out able to multiply. We meet our students where they are and the growth they achieve is a much stronger measure of success than any standardized test score.

The lack of appropriate funding has set teachers up for failure; perhaps even more importantly, the attacks on the character of our teachers has set them up to leave the profession. Despite all this, they are performing miracles every day. It’s time that we provide them with both the financial support they need as well as the respect and courtesy they so rightly deserve that will then set them and our children up for success.

Jenny Murnane Butcher is deputy director of Montanans Organized for Education.

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