About Lee-Ann Meredith

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu Lee-Ann Meredith is a second grade teacher, author, Department Chairperson and education advocate who has spent the duration of her time in public education at John B. Murphy Elementary School in inner city Chicago. Often characterized as funny, dynamic, and an independent innovator, Lee-Ann cites her idol as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Fluent in a wide range in instructional strategies for the elementary level, Lee-Ann is dedicated to being an advocate for children everywhere by implementing 'cutting edge' strategies to increase student achievement. Some of the issues that she spearhead included: promoting literacy throughout the building, leading community meetings to advocate for full day kindergarten for all students and helping implement the Responsive Classroom strategies throughout the school. In addition to working closely with the curriculum, she also had the honor to supervise (and mentor into teaching positions) numerous student teachers and practicum students from various post-secondary institutions around the Chicago area such as: Erikson Institute, National Louis, DePaul. Northeaster Illinois, Roosevelt, and North Park Universities.

I recently made a major life decision. Instead of returning to the classroom as a teacher, I am selling my nice condo in a glam neighborhood to move into something in a safe but less expensive neighborhood. I left the classroom three years ago to write a book and pursue other avenues. I had thought I would go back after I finished the book, but I just can’t bear it. I know it sounds like I was rolling in the dough, but the nice condo and the time off were paid for by my late husband’s life insurance, not my high paying teaching job. I could manage my mortgage payment and my increasing taxes if I returned to the classroom. I am not going to do that.

The career I felt called to is in crisis. So much has changed since I began teaching in 1999 that in many ways it is hardly the same job at all. It was always a hard job, physically (I taught second grade), emotionally, and mentally. It never was a high-paying job, but you could expect to make a middle-class income with benefits. It was generally a respected profession. There were resources available for children and teachers. No longer.

I decided to substitute teach to make sure I was making the right decision. It confirmed my concerns. I am not a person who glorifies the past. I am an optimistic realist, but the idea of going back to teaching full time is not a palatable one. There are many reasons. Here are several of them.

Stress: Teaching has always been a stressful job. We are the air traffic controllers for the academic, social, and emotional learning of our children. Since No Child Left Behind we have added the additional stress of improving test scores by an arbitrarily determined amount. Since the huge budget cuts we have the additional stress of fewer services for our kids, struggling or not. Our physical resources, such as pencils or even toilet paper (in my district) diminish each year. Teachers are exhausted like never before. We need vitamin B in the water cooler, but there is no money for that either.

Lack of support for our students: Gone are the days of resources for struggling students, yet teachers are expected to provide documented time with research-based interventions. The goofiness of this makes educating all students an amazing juggling task. We have to document all the time we spend with these students as well as assessing them weekly, then graphing the results. I do not begrudge giving them all the help they need, but an amazing amount of time is spent on them to the detriment of the remainder of the children. As nationwide class sizes are on the rise, regardless of the fact that class size matters, the imbalance is growing. Teachers are struggling to come up with ways to reach all students with limited time and resources. Then throw in a fire drill, an assembly, or a child barfing in the middle of the classroom, and your finely tuned minute by the minute plan is trashed.

Lack of Autonomy: The ability to adapt curriculum or go off on a tangent for a teachable moment has been discouraged for over a decade since NCLB was passed. There is this idea of continuity, that every teacher should be on the same page, teaching in exactly the same way. This is virtually impossible. Teachers are different people, with different students, different styles, interests and skills. If we are studying, let’s say, air resistance and Little Esther comes in with an extension of the experiment of the day before that is interesting and COOL, why can’t my class have an opportunity to try it. It is what makes education relevant. If one of the kids is into fossils, why not take a day or two of your study of rocks and soils to explore them. I’ll tell you why because someone who is not a teacher has decided it is more important to be “teaching clones” than to teach our kids that learning leads to discovery. Can I insert an “Ugh!” here?

An imbalance in Teachers: In the large cities, jobs have been cut or positions eliminated. Most savvy principals just move teachers around to different grades, and hope for natural attrition such as retirement or teachers just giving up on education. In many other parts of the country, there are simply too few teachers. This is caused by several factors. Enrollment in education programs has been dropping dramatically in the last few years. To become a great teacher takes a calling, even in the best financial times. It is a career that requires ingenuity, compassion, expertise in your grade or subject area, and, of course, long hours. Why would anyone choose to do it? In the private sector, when the demand for jobs doesn’t meet the supply, salaries increase. This is not true in education. In many of the states where there are huge shortages, the pay is the worst. In Oklahoma, which just ruled that you can teach without a teaching certification, you can have a doctorate in education and teach for twenty years and still not make $50,000.

Union Bashing and Trashing: There is a movement in many states, including my own, to eliminate teachers unions or at least their ability to collectively bargain. Some states do not even have teachers unions. I am not a person who believes a union is the be all to end all, however, they are the catalyst to letting the teachers, the actual experts in education, be heard. Yes, it protects us from being fired without due process but most large corporations have similar remediation policies. It protects us when we make a stand for our students. Here is an excellent article about unions to make a more detailed point on the topic.

Pay: Teacher pay has long been an issue. We are a well-educated group with more than half of us having at least one master’s degree. Many have multiple degrees. Our pay is at the very low end for that level of education. I guess I just don’t understand what is wrong with a teacher, the foundation of our children’s future, making a middle-class salary, wherever they live. We need to be paid enough that we can focus on teaching, not working a second job.

I can go on for days about this. I was a fantastic teacher who taught with lots of enthusiasm and joy. I am just done with the control of people who have determined what is best for my elementary classroom when they haven’t even been in one for more than an hour since they were twelve years old. I miss the kids. I miss the amazing teachers I worked and collaborated with. That is simply not enough to get me back.

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