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Teachers in Atlanta tell nationwide audience what works, doesn't work, in classrooms

7:01 AM, May 7, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- If you want to learn, ask a teacher -- especially if you want to learn how to make the schools and classrooms in America the best in the world.

On Sunday, teachers from metro Atlanta and beyond spoke out, addressing a nationwide audience on NBC News and 11Alive News, at the Education Nation "Teachers Town Hall Meeting" about what is working in the classrooms, and what's not.

For much of the two hours, teachers were inspiring other teachers, as the moderators asked the teachers questions. The moderators were NBC News Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis, 11Alive News Anchor Brenda Wood, and 11Alive News Kids and Schools Reporter Donna Lowry.

Teachers talked about how they're dealing with a wide range of issues, such as high-stakes standardized testing, the Atlanta cheating scandal, college readiness and career readiness, to name a few.  

"The more you expect from kids, the more you're going to get," one teacher said.

"We need to prepare our children for the world," said another.

Their mission -- to make sure America's students will be able to compete and win in the global arena.

The NBC News Education Nation "teacher town hall meeting" took place at the Georgia Aquarium in Downtown Atlanta and was shown on the web and on TV, showcasing what teachers are doing that is working for their students -- including some provocative approaches.

"We find the brightest kid in the class, and that's who we teach to," said Ron Clark, the founder of Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. "And everyone in that class has to get at that level. We don't dumb it down. We have high expectations for every child."

Teachers talked about the need to learn what students already know about digital devices.

"These students are digital natives, they've grown up with technology," said Jadum McCarthy, a teacher in Bibb County. "And a lot of teachers are digital immigrants... And so that is causing some friction with our students. We're teaching them with 18th Century techniques, preparing them for a 21 Century world. And it's not working."

Teachers urged administrators -- "Let us teach. We're buried under new duties and requirements, and red tape."

"How can you build and diagnose and provide coherent instruction when you don't have time?" asked Heavenly Montgomery, a master teacher from Fulton County Schools.

She said she often works at home late into the night and into the next morning grading papers and planning the next day's lessons, and when she emails other teachers at 2 in the morning about school matters, they often email her right back -- they're awake, working at home at all hours, too.

Rehema Ellis of NBC News asked for a show of hands of the 300 teachers in the audience:

"How many teachers are up late at night working on your lessons?"

Almost all raised their hands.

A teacher from Hall County called for an end to reliance on standardized testing, and warned that if teacher salaries are tied to test results, many teachers would be tempted to falsify low scores as if they were high scores.

"Here's a great idea," the teacher said. "How about not having a billion-dollar industry called standardized testing, and instead use that money to train teachers and make sure we're better, because better teachers are what make better, smarter students."

Teachers at the town hall meeting were surveyed on various topics, using hand-held electronic touch pads to register their votes.

One topic was -- what's their most important requirement to stay on as teachers.  The most popular answer, given by 44 percent of the teachers, is career satisfaction, not high pay.

Teachers spoke of the need for more independence in their classrooms.  "Trust us to do what we love," said one teacher.  "Give teachers more autonomy," said another.

Teachers also said they do best for their students, and their students have the best chance of success, when parents are involved.

"Accountability is not just on the teachers," said Elisha Gray, a teacher at Maynard H. Jackson High School. "Accountability is also on parents, parents must take responsibility."

The teachers in the audience applauded.

"Parents in our country are so concerned with the self-esteem of their child," Clark said. "Everyone's so concerned with patting them on the back -- at the Little League everyone gets a trophy -- parents are driving us crazy, to be honest." There was laughter and applause at that remark.

"And when parents trust us and support us, then you're going to have success for the kids," Clark concluded.

"Somebody needs to get these parents involved," said Regina Wallace, a teacher at Ronald McNair High School. "If so many charter schools have mandatory parent hours that they must come to the school, if the charter schools are doing it and it's making a difference, then why can't the public schools do it, as well?"

"There's a real need to get urgent about what's happening now with the education of our kids," Ellis told 11Alive's Jon Shirek at the end of the program. "And I'm hoping that we're starting to increase the conversation about not just what's bad, we can do that. But what's good. And what can we take away from this about how we can start to change the narrative of what's happening in schools in America."

NBC News expected to have the entire, two-hour town hall meeting posted by Monday afternoon at its website, EducationNation.com.

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