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School administrators battle morale problems

Scott N. Miller

EAGLE COUNTY – Something is going on with teachers in the Eagle County School District. Just what’s going on isn’t exactly clear.On one hand, comments from a pair of surveys seem to indicate a fairly high level of tension among teachers, apparently due in large part to the district’s controversial Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. On the other, teachers in the district seem, on average, to like their jobs, believe in doing good work and think “learning is fun” in their classrooms, but report their morale is low overall.One survey, commissioned by the school district and professionally administered by an independent firm from California, is considered statistically valid. The other, a self-admitted “grass roots” effort with little scientific validity, was put together by a group of parents and teachers who acknowledge they were primarily motivated about their worries about the effects of TAP on teacher morale.The two surveys may prompt some changes to TAP, as well as closer cooperation between the school board and a group of parental skeptics.The skeptics are an ad hoc group called the Committee for School District Accountability. They had a long conversation with the school board at a recent work session and both sides said the meeting was productive.”We were pleasantly surprised,” group member Agnes Harakal said. “It was a good session.”District officials felt the same way.”I don’t think it could have gone any better,” board member Connie Kincaid-Strahan said. “I felt they were very interested, respectful; they didn’t come in attacking the district.”That could be due to the common ground both seek: better understanding by, and relations with, the district’s teachers. But how to get better “morale” marks from teachers remains a wide-open question.The parents focused largely on TAP because of what they were hearing from friends who are teachers, Sarah Giovagnoli said. “We’re just trying to give constructive feedback,” she said.

While the committee focused on TAP, board member Mary Ann Stavney, a former teacher, said the program isn’t the sole cause of whatever worries are running through the faculty.”Teachers had an opportunity to specifically say, ‘TAP is evil,'” Stavney said. “We didn’t see much of that.”The district survey seems to back up Stavney’s comments. Plotted on a scale of one to five, with one being “strongly disagree” and five “strongly agree,” virtually all the attitude questions came back with ratings in the threes or fours. Only the specific question about morale came back with a score below three.The committee’s survey was a far more harsh assessment of the work environment at schools, especially regarding TAP.What the school administration and the parents’ group agree upon, though, is that attention must be paid to how teachers perceive TAP’s system of evaluations, collaborative meetings and focus on achievement. And TAP will continue to evolve.One of the biggest complaints raised in the individual comments in both surveys is teachers’ uneasiness about being evaluated by the “mentor” and “master” teachers in individual schools and the potential for personality clashes and office politics. Those clashes are especially important since pay raises are attached to those evaluations.The most common call bubbling to the surface is for a district-wide “evaluation team” to take the office politics out of the process. “That’s probably doable,” district spokeswoman Pam Holmes Boyd said. “Until now that’s not what we’ve heard that teachers wanted.”And district officials say the early emphasis on TAP as a tool for performance pay might have been a mistake. “We probably should have approached this more from a collaborative angle rather than performance pay,” Superintendent John Brendza said at the work session. “Hindsight is always 20-20,” he said in a subsequent interview. “We’re all trying to learn more to do a better job.”

The fact of the matter, though, is that TAP is the method the district is using to address performance pay, and, more important, student achievement.”TAP wasn’t intended to ruin morale, but raise student achievement,” school board member Louise Funk said. Given the advent of state and federal standards, as well as a growing number of private schools in the district, Funk said the public school system had to “step up” and improve student learning. While Brendza said the current program reflects accepted theories about improving achievement and will be given a fair chance, it’s not the last word in the district’s education reform efforts.”If we get five years down the road without improvement, we’re going to make a change,” Brendza said. But, he added, five years from now TAP will probably look different than it does today. “There’s a lot that’s completely different than it was when we started two years ago,” he said.How teachers feel about TAP may change over the years, too. But one member of the committee said that’s going to take a renewed effort by district administrators to get teachers on board.”Morale is down; that’s a common theme between these surveys,” committee member Vern Brock said. “There’s been a big change with TAP. The board and administration have to change the way they present it … You have to sweet-talk them in a little different way.”One board member said the issue might not be sweet talk but more effective straight talk.”I don’t see it as selling, but providing information and answers,” Kincaid-Strahan said. “People either don’t know where to get information or aren’t getting it first-hand.”Getting that information out better is the point of a district marketing and communications plan now being developed Kincaid-Strahan said. That should help, she said.



But there’s a strong undercurrent of paranoia among teachers. Many of the written comments from teachers allege they have been either told outright or had strong hints that speaking out against TAP will endanger their evaluations or their jobs. (Teachers who spoke against the program in previous newspaper stories have faced no repercussions, and Boyd said at least one has been promoted).That undercurrent of fear is real, parent Mary Lou Keller said.”There’s a scary level of paranoia out there,” she said. “You have some credibility repair to do.”The goal, parent Giovagnoli said, is giving teachers a voice and making them feel they’re heard.”Everyone needs to know TAP is a work in progress,” she said.At least one parent believes that while the district’s current version of TAP is flawed, it still provides a solid foundation for better teaching and, by extension, student achievement.”I like teachers working harder,” Brock said. “I’m happy with a lot of parts of this, but the district needs to re-sell it, and bury the hatchet with teachers.”If morale is low, it’s low,” he added. “Let’s ask what changes we can make to make it better.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Colorado


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