My afternoon in Ms. Austin’s classroom

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The most impactful person in a student’s life, other than his or her own family, is a teacher. And Utah is blessed to have some of the very best.

This afternoon I worked as a teacher’s aide in Darcie Austin’s kindergarten class at Washington Elementary. Working with a classroom of 20 active 5-year-olds, all on different skill levels, is a real challenge. Yet Ms. Austin, who has taught for 14 years, does it day after day, and makes it look easy. Great teachers do thatthey make teaching look easy, but I can attest that it is anything but easy.

Ms. Austin, and the other teachers I met, really love these kids. In the PLC (Professional Learning Community) meeting I attended, the kindergarten teachers talked about how to help those students who were having difficulties with letter names and sounds, as well as how to challenge students who were already reading. Their love for and dedication to these students was very apparent throughout the meeting. I have heard a lot about PLCs this past year and observing firsthand how they work helped me to understand the importance of giving teachers this extra time to collaborate.

A teacher’s day doesn’t begin with the first bell or end with the last, and their work extends far beyond classroom instruction. At Washington Elementary, where 20 percent of students enrolled come from the homeless shelter, teachers arrive early on a daily basis to greet impoverished students who arrive before school starts to eat breakfast. They also lead children in a variety of exercises such as yoga to help them focus and excel in the learning environment. These are just two examples of the many ways teachers go the extra mile.

If there’s one thing I was reminded of today, it is that, much like parenting, teaching is rewarding, but very difficult work. Research shows that next to a parentan effective teacher is the most critical factor in student success and yet, we are seeing an increasing trend of teacher turnover and a growing teacher shortage.

Last week, the State Board of Education released a report stating that of the 2,417 new teachers who began their teaching careers in Utah schools in 2010, only 58% remained on the job 5 years later (2015). This turnover represents a loss of experience that is critical to improved student outcomes.   

I went to Washington Elementary to demonstrate my support for Utah’s teachers, but more importantly, to hear about their successes, their challenges and their ideas for improving public education.

When asked how we could better help teachers, Ms. Austin pointed to the need for volunteers from the community to help manage a busy classroom with diverse students who are learning at different levels, each with their own unique social and emotional needs. Another suggestion we discussed was finding better ways to help parents become involved with their child’s education. Reading with your child at night and helping them with homework are small things, but they sure add up.

Of course, teachers also need more funding which is why nearly two-thirds of my proposed budget for the current fiscal year went to my number one budget item, education. I will continue to fight for those dollars to go to the classrooms.

To my new friends at Washington Elementary, thank you for letting me get just a glimpse of the great work you are doing to change young lives. And to all Utah teachers, thank you for your investment in our children. God bless you in this most important work. I promise that your influence will be felt for generations to come.

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