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LI teachers coping with changing standards

Jessica Hernandez, 22, teaches social studies at William

Jessica Hernandez, 22, teaches social studies at William Paca Middle School in Mastic Beach. (May 2, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

Teachers are facing more scrutiny than ever before.

New York's new evaluation system -- driven by federal mandates and incentives -- links up to 40 percent of a teacher's ratings to student performance.

Educators could be fired more swiftly and their ratings made public now that lawmakers have demanded greater accountability.

Long Island teachers have greeted the developments with a mix of optimism and trepidation.

Newsday talked with three of them: one at the start of her career; one a quarter-century in; and one set to retire.


Age: 22

School district: William Floyd

Years teaching: Started in April

Hernandez isn't fearful of the state's new teacher evaluation system -- at her age, it's all she knows.

She started working as a permanent substitute at the William Floyd school district in September and was hired as a probationary social studies teacher at the middle school in mid-April.

"As a new teacher, I don't know any different," she said. "I only know the new system of grading, if you will. I will be judged under this system."

Hernandez graduated valedictorian from Amityville High School in 2007 and earned her education degree from St. Joseph's College last May. She's currently enrolled in the college's master's program, attending night classes focusing on special education. It will take her two years and about $10,000 to complete.

Captivated by the Rennaisance as a little girl, Hernandez said she knew in sixth grade that she wanted to be a teacher. She was eager to make history come alive as her instructors did, and by the time she reached high school, her plan was set.

Now, as she tackles the Constitution and Bill of Rights, she presents each amendment to her students in practical terms.

"Imagine not being able to say what you want to say," she'll tell them. "Or not being able to go before a judge and a jury."

Hernandez tells her students history is unfolding around them, that they're not only a part of it but they can change it.

"When a teacher presents it in a way they can understand it . . . they are able to connect with it on a deeper level," she said.

She's optimistic about the new evaluation system, saying she supports its ultimate goal of improving education.

"I think the new system forces the teacher to do their best," she said. "Everybody is on the same page. We want what is best for our students. If this is what it takes, then that is what you have to do. It never deterred me from wanting to become a teacher -- I've never wanted to do anything else."


Age: 46

School district: East Williston

Years teaching: 24

Clarke wanted to be a lawyer. But after a year as a legal assistant with a major New York firm, he knew the lifestyle -- the long hours, the struggle to repay school debt -- wasn't for him.

"Your life is not your own," said Clarke, of Brooklyn. "And I always wanted to try teaching."

So he got a job at Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School in Queens, where he grew up.

"It was really tough for the first couple of years, but I loved it and decided to get my master's," he said. "I've been at it ever since."

It took Clarke years to develop his style; he's been long hooked on the Socratic method.

"I don't tell them what they need to know," he said of his students. "We kind of tell the story together."

He now teaches Advanced Placement European History at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury. His motivation hasn't changed -- teaching is still his calling. But it's hard to remain optimistic, even for glass-half-full Clarke.

The nation's schools are taking a beating, he said, no matter how good some might be.

"A lot of schools on Long Island are very successful," he said. "Wheatley is a wonderful place for kids to go to school. They get unbelievable opportunities. And as a teacher, it's a wonderful place to be."

But the state and nation's added focus on testing -- and the paperwork associated with it -- leaves less time to grade papers, meet with students, keep pace with their progress and help them with special projects, he said.

And even the most dedicated teacher can't help but worry about losing their job now that student test scores are linked to teacher evaluations, he said.

Two consecutive years of poor performance could lead to an expedited dismissal, even for the well-regarded.

"I would assume 17 years providing a good education for kids would count for something," Clarke said of his time at Wheatley. "But am I completely unconcerned? No."

Clarke's district, East Williston, will soon have a new superintendent and perhaps a new philosophy. And the sad thing is tests were never meant to play as big a role in teachers' and students' lives, Clarke said.

"But right now, in education, this is our lot," he said. "Hopefully, the tide will turn. But it's a frustrating time."

The district has tried hard not to focus solely on numbers.

"I think at Wheatley we have done a good job keeping that at bay as much as possible," he said. "But it's there. You can't pretend it doesn't exist."

Clarke won't leave the field -- he has about 15 years to go before retirement -- and doesn't regret becoming a teacher. It's just not always easy.

"The actual experience kids have with their teachers -- that is what they remember," he said, not their test scores.


Age: 64

School district: Locust Valley

Years teaching: 30

Duvall can still remember the moment she learned to read.

She was 5, holding the book "Peter Rabbit," when the words "the," "is," and "little" morphed from concepts she heard in school to ideas she understood on her own.

Duvall's father was a teacher and she grew up across the street from Lenox Elementary School in Baldwin.

School was a safe, inviting place and she loved to go. She knew it was something she wanted to be a part of for a lifetime.

"I always felt that the adults were there to guide me, to help me," she said. "I can remember just about every elementary teacher I had and can tell you something special about each one."

Duvall started her teaching career in Bay Shore in 1970 before leaving for a decade to raise a family. She's been working at Ann MacArthur Primary in Locust Valley since 1988 and will retire in June.

She's had many poignant moments in the classroom but was most heartened by the way one late-90s kindergarten class embraced a new student adopted from Russia.

The child approached the classroom with great hesitation on his first day.

"One of the other little boys said to him, 'Come on in,' " Duvall recalled. "I couldn't make him feel welcome on my own. It was the boys and girls in the class who made him feel comfortable."

Over the years, Duvall has adapted to many new initiatives. But the latest education reforms have her worried. Never before has she seen children and their teachers reduced to mere aggregates in a rubric hardly anyone understands, she said.

She's glad she won't be a part of it, but is concerned for the students and colleagues she's leaving behind -- Duvall fears the new system will foster competition rather than collaboration among teachers.

"We are not looking at the children as children and we are not looking at the teachers as individuals with different strengths and weaknesses," she said. "I think we are trying to make it all very homogeneous. Numbers are driving it rather than people."

And the focus on academics deprives children from learning through play, from sharing toys and working together, Duvall said.

"In years past, kindergarten allowed for a lot of socialization," she said. "Negotiations went on all the time. These things don't happen now because we are such an academically driven system."

Kindergarten teachers used to be advised to send kids to first grade with about 20 to 25 words they recognized by sight, she said.

"Now, it's 40," she said. "We need more flexibility. We're not producing cars here."


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