Photos by Angie Gray
Delaware educators and administrators say our teachers are underpaid, underprepared and under pressure. Here, they propose possible solutions.
When Delaware Today set out to write about critical issues in education, we didn’t anticipate the number of educators who would be afraid to speak. One recanted her interview. Two special education teachers agreed to speak, then later declined. Another called our reporter back the day after her interview. “I feel like I’ve been in a 24-hour panic attack,” she said. “I was so happy someone was actually asking me these questions that I didn’t consider the ramifications of my quotes being published.”
While those educators who did talk (one only on condition of anonymity) spelled out concerns, each also said they couldn’t imagine leaving their students for another job.
“Growing up, I was an [English language learner] student,” says Diana Magaña, who teaches third-grade Spanish immersion at Las Américas ASPIRA Academy. “I was low-income, my parents didn’t speak English, I had to grow up and learn the system on my own considering the language barrier. I see myself reflected in many of my students. When I think of all the wonderful teachers who supported me, I could never walk away from my students.”
A Faltering Teacher Pipeline
“Before we talk about the state of education, we need to talk about what happens before an educator gets in a classroom,” points out Aaron Bass, CEO of Wilmington’s EastSide Charter School. “The teacher pipeline is problematic. …Not only are there [fewer] students pursuing education but many beginning teachers aren’t coming out with a repertoire to teach effectively, particularly in high-need areas.”
A March 2022 American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education report noted a 35% national decline in students seeking teaching degrees between 2009 and 2019, and the ramifications are being felt in Delaware. “Vacancies exist throughout the state,” Bass says.
Even with requisite degrees, Bass thinks we’re failing educators by sending them out high on pedagogy and low on practical application. All teachers must pass the Praxis II test for content knowledge, he notes, but where’s the test for differentiating instruction? “You might have a class where [one] child is reading on grade level [but] four are below and two are ahead,” he says. “Our teachers have to engage each student and deal with other classroom-management issues, and it’s frustrating to me that things like that aren’t taught.”
Then there are teachers with students whose lack of economic mobility manifests in the classroom. “If mommy has four jobs, then how much time does that child actually have getting support?” Bass asks rhetorically. “We’re also dealing with intense trauma in Delaware, as documented on the ACEs survey.”
The 2021 Delaware Epidemiological Profile (a DHSS report) examined Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Delaware children and found that almost half experienced at least one ACE—most commonly divorced parents or economic hardship, followed by living with a person with substance-use disorder. More than 1 in 5 Delaware youth have been exposed to multiple ACEs, and certain populations—like Black children, poor children or those with immigrant parents, for example—experience even more.
“We’ve had students who have witnessed murder, suicide,” Bass says. “I have a student homeless as of yesterday. …We are taking teachers in their first year who are not evenly matched—through no fault of their own—and requiring them to be effective in situations they are not prepared for.”
Systemic problems require systemic solutions, Bass asserts.
Proposed solution: Bass wants to see more intentional, high-level practitioners involved at the undergraduate levels who bring more to the table than pedagogy. “Pay teachers more when they get here and prioritize growth,” he says.
“It dumbfounds me that we have some educators moving mountains and it doesn’t matter. Our current state assessment [only considers] if you are on grade level. There are teachers taking students four grade levels behind and moving them two grade levels behind, yet that teacher is a failure because the student didn’t pass the state test. What we could do instead is measure this child at the beginning of the year. He was at 36 percent. You got him to 50 percent. You’re amazing. But we don’t applaud that.”
One thing that’s not lacking: educators’ passion and compassion. “But we can’t send people into this vocation armed only with energy, love and optimism,” he says. “Educators are fleeing because they have not been prepared. Children are not learning as a result. And adults are arguing in vacuums that never reach a classroom.”
Lingering Fallout From the Pandemic
Diana Magaña never imagined she’d be faced with students who couldn’t tie their shoes. But when a pandemic shuts the world down, certain things fall by the wayside.
Like most current third-grade teachers, Magaña’s students were in kindergarten during the March 2020 shutdown. “They didn’t finish developing foundational skills,” she says. “Many then spent first grade remote. Second grade was in-person but masked, and the importance of students’ ability to read lips is critical to reading and understanding, so that’s yet another barrier to progress.” The 2022–23 school year is their first normal year.
But little feels “normal” in Magaña’s classroom, she says. Her pre-pandemic movement across units is off. “The pacing is wrong, and that’s because we’re finding ourselves having to dig deeper into certain content because there are too many gaps,” she explains. “I feel that my teaching partners and I are spending so many more hours at home brainstorming and lesson planning…just trying to figure out how we can prepare our students for the fourth and fifth grades.”
The most precedent-setting decline she’s noticed is reading levels. “Students are coming in with reading levels below what we’ve had in previous years,” she says. “We’re used to seeing a small percentage of students who are reading below grade level who we can service in small-group settings. But this year, the majority of students are reading below.”
The lack of proficiency makes independent work challenging and leaves students feeling discouraged. “When they were home during COVID, many had parents next to them helping,” Magaña explains. This means more time in the classroom spent on emotional and social support.
Proposed solution: Magaña and her colleagues have adopted to a process they call “ungrading.” Rather than assign a traditional letter grade to students’ work, they write notes like “Great job!” or “What strategy could we try text time?” The idea is for students not to fixate on a letter, she says. “They see an ‘F’ and [think], I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. We’re trying to eliminate the stigma.”
“We can’t send people into this vocation armed only with energy, love and optimism. Educators are fleeing because they have not been prepared. Children are not learning as a result. And adults are arguing in vacuums that never reach a classroom.”
– Aaron Bass, EastSide Charter School CEO
An Appoquinimink School District teacher, who we’ll call Alice Smith, has never in her 10 years of teaching seen turnover in her district and school like she’s seeing now.
“We would lose maybe one or two teachers a year at my school, and for those spots, there would be maybe 50 people applying,” Smith says. “Now we’re losing more than 10 a year and have two or three candidates.”
She isn’t convinced the next generation of educators is coming, either.
“There is a shortage of students [at] Wilmington University and University of Delaware,” she notes. “The lack of people coming to the profession is really challenging, particularly because workarounds, like people coming in from industry instead of teacher-prep programs, just don’t seem to have their heart fully in education. Trying to bring people up to speed in this climate is tough. I’ve seen many experienced teachers leave because what’s being put on our plates feels insurmountable.”
Recent state testing results have not helped morale, Smith adds. Those released in August 2022 show that throughout Delaware, scores remained well below achievement levels of five years ago.
“The response is almost like, ‘What have you done wrong? We expected our levels to be where they were three years ago, so why don’t the numbers bear that out?’” Smith says. “How about isolation, disrupted academic years, mental health? There is so much pressure and responsibility put on us to get back to pre-pandemic performance levels, and I don’t think it’s reasonable.”
Things are compounded, she says, by a lack of empathy and support from administration.
“There’s this ‘us versus them’ feeling with administration…who create all these initiatives and then not offer much follow up. Like, ‘Here, I’m making this rule, but you’re going to have to figure everything else out,’” Smith says. “This is all over the state, not just in Appo[quinimink].”
Proposed solution: Smith wishes decision-makers would be more practical. “We’re throwing money at things—this consultant, this app, this device. But are these actually helping?” she says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we paid for this new platform that should accelerate kids, but now on top of all the other things we’ve added to you this year, you also have to figure out how to use this platform.…We literally don’t have time.”
She thinks it would be helpful to adopt year-long markers for progression and depend less on state assessments. “We should be assessing individual students from where they started in the fall to where they end up at year’s end,” she says. One good thing that’s come out these challenges? “Newfound unity between educators,” Smith adds. “We are in a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality. We have no choice but to develop deeper bonds with people who are going through the same struggle.”
Mental Health and Social Crises
At North Elementary School in Felton’s Lake Forest School District, guidance counselor Dana Carey says students aren’t ready to learn when they come to school each morning. “And I think a lot of that has to do with mental health,” she says.
According to the 2022 annual Kids Count study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare charity, the pandemic dramatically increased mental health issues in kids 3 to 17.
“We’re seeing childhood depression, anxiety, a lack of emotion-regulation skills,” says Carey, noting issues like food insecurity that play a part.
“Our schools are now almost a one-stop shop for social needs. We’re talking about basic needs like food security. I have 450 students in my building. I give out 100 food bags every weekend to provide a little food security. While I’m happy to do it, I think too often in education we put Band-Aids on things instead of fixing the problem. Of course students coming to school with food insecurity are going to have trouble being ready to learn.”
Proposed solution: Carey would like to see more resources and an overhaul of Delaware’s mental health and family services. “Schools are reliant upon [them] from our state,” she says. “We are all our own puzzle piece. When the puzzle pieces of quality of service are missing, that hole is gaping.” For example, if a Kent County student in crisis is under the age of 9, the only Delaware hospital that can service that student is the Rockford Center in New Castle County. “We have had students need to be admitted as early as kindergarten,” Carey says. “That there is no mental health hospital in Kent County that serves students under 9 is a critical problem.”
Problems also exist with counselor referrals from the district. While some are underqualified because they haven’t received enough training, those who are qualified face another issue: “Many of these community counselors—who are doing the best they can—are victim to the same things we are,” says Carey, noting unlivable wages and frequent turnover. She’s had students whose therapists resigned during the course of care, and families who are desperate.
One Size Does Not Fit All
For almost 20 years, Keziah Finney taught math and science before resigning from her position 2021. It wasn’t burnout that sent her in another direction—she found a better way to help students.
She argues that the traditional school model—seated in a classroom, tuned in to one educator at the front of the room—doesn’t work for every child. “Especially one who is energetic, outspoken, who wants to interact and move,” she says. “There is so much restriction that comes with the traditional model, and teachers [are often refused, by schools or districts] the space to be flexible and innovative.”
Proposed solution: She and her husband James Finney started Lyrical Math, a pop-up education service in which Keziah, a lyricist, uses hip-hop lyrics and music to help demystify math. “It became clear quickly the traditional method of education is not working for many students. Students today are not students of years ago. As educators, we have to adapt and evolve, or we’ll lose.”
Now in six Delaware schools, the Finneys’ approach seems to be working. “The data is amazing,” she says. “You see the change happen in real time: Students go from ‘Please not math’ to ‘Give me another problem.’ They’re rapping the math lyrics during class and after. Learning is happening in a magical way.”
Keziah thinks we need to be asking teachers, “What can we do to help you be the best teacher that you can be?’” she says. “We don’t ask. We assume. Some months into the pandemic, there was a wave of ‘We need to provide self-care for teachers.’ And for most educators, it felt like leadership decided what the self-care would look instead of asking. Teachers were left almost powerless, like, ‘No. This isn’t what we need’. …Just ask the question.”
“The education of young people should be in the forefront of every single action and decision we make. If we do that, they will be ready.”
-Rony Flechier, Ph.D., Cape Henlopen High School Teacher
On the Inside Looking out
While Cape Henlopen High School’s Rony Flechier, Ph.D., Cape Henlopen District Teacher of the Year, echoes his upstate colleagues in many regards, his concerns reach beyond Delaware.
“We used to be the No. 1 country in the world in terms of student performance in math, science and English,” he says. “Today, we’re classified in the 30s. This means something we were doing well, we stopped. In terms of math alone, you can find five to 10 high schools in Delaware that don’t offer calculus. How can our students perform if they are not exposed to the material? It’s not just our state, so how can we hope to have a nation of engineers and doctors?”
Why the curriculum discrepancies? “When students don’t feel prepared to take a class, they don’t,” Flechier says. “And when there is no population, the course goes away. Students tend to develop fear for mathematics, so we have to look deeply as a nation on how we teach this content.”
He thinks the discovery method—an inquiry-based learning strategy where students are encouraged to construct their own knowledge through a self-directed learning process—is part of the problem.
“Even in high school, if you ask students multiplication problems, you will see students counting fingers,” he says. “That means basic mathematical theories and skills are not internalized. For the past 20 to 25 years, we have focused on discovery, which is a great strategy only after basic skills are in place.”
Proposed solution: Flechier says his pitch to improve the teaching method is simple. “It sounds basic, but just give the kids the tools they need,” he says. “I developed a template that relies not on notes and a textbook and memorization but instead arms my students with questions. In a word problem, I ask, ‘What information is given?’ They will say, ‘They give me this.’ The next question, ‘What is being asked?’ They identify that. And then, ‘What is missing?’ We push from there. This dialogue helps students address a problem confidently.”
He thinks another way to boost students is a more collaborative approach between teachers, an initiative Flechier is helping spearhead at his school.
“There is a connection between science and math teachers,” he says. “I’ve reached out to the Cape physics teacher and asked what math concepts would be important for him in physics. And he said, ‘Well, what do you guys talk about?’ If at the state level we could bring teachers together to train and find the data about where science and math mesh together to better serve the student, I think the district would move toward that. This collaboration would be better for students nationwide.”
He adds, “We’re in this field to help the future generation lead the country. So if we don’t instill in our students the skills they deserve to have, they will not be able to lead the nation. The education of young people should be in the forefront of every single action and decision we make. If we do that, they will be ready.”