One of the first-ever series of meetings will be held at 5 p.m. at the Pastime Theater in Winfield on Jan. 29 that will allow teachers and support workers - including some from Winston County - to directly ask questions to Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey.
State Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, whose district includes Marion County and portions of Winston and Lamar counties, suggested the event. Mackey liked the idea so much that it is being carried out to other areas of the state.
Mackey agreed to participate in a statewide teacher listening tour. One of the four forums will be conducted in Winfield. One is being held today (Tuesday, Jan. 14), with the remaining two confirmed for Elmore and St. Clair counties.
After a December speech to the Rotary Club of Jasper, Mackey told the Daily Mountain Eagle the meetings would take place within the next six months. He said after this first slate of meetings, officials will try to more in other areas of the state, as travel allows.
"It is really an opportunity to sit down and talk to teachers. (Estes has) been really good in that area reaching out to school systems and getting a group of teachers together. The purpose is to get some input from teachers about really the teacher shortage, what the real issues are they see that is keeping young people from becoming teachers and what we need to be doing differently to encourage more people to become teachers, or to retain people as teachers."
Mackey said schools are losing a large number of teachers to burnout within the first few years. "They come into it excited and then they quickly leave the career," he said. Others who get enough years for retirement then quickly leave.
The meetings are the result of a discussion between Estes and Mackey. The first-term lawmaker has viewed the exchange with school teachers as a priority.
“Who better to provide input into the most effective ways to operate and administrate our schools than those in the classroom?" Estes said. “The vast majority of the time, new policies and management plans are implemented without input from those who are charged with implementing the plan. These meetings are the first step in correcting this problem."
Estes said he first approached Mackey in August regarding the idea at a conference, which intrigued Mackey. After more conversations, an official from Mackey's office contacted Estes in late November expressing the superintendent’s growing interest in the concept. The official stressed Mackey had embraced the idea and asked Estes’ permission to expand on the plan and carry the program statewide.
Initially, the superintendent offered to schedule the first meeting in the state in Estes' House District 17. However, scheduling conflicts resulted in the first meeting being set for Saraland this week.
The Winfield City School System will serve as the official host of the Jan. 29 event, with students from the Winfield Middle School culinary arts class providing food.
“My teachers are the ones being asked to implement state policy in the classroom, so it should stand to reason the teachers should have a seat at the table designing those policies," Estes said. “This will be an event allowing those in attendance to ask questions of the superintendent while providing insight into which state policies translate to the classroom and those which are failing to meet their objectives."
Estes has been working with the five school systems within House District 17. The area includes three county school systems (Lamar, Marion and Winston) and two city school systems (Haleyville and Winfield). Estes has encouraged each superintendent to select six teachers from his respective district to attend. The legislator has requested those selected represent elementary, middle and high schools as well as an assortment of academic disciplines.
Estes has also been working with the local teachers association to select various support personnel from across the district to attend. These support personnel duties include child nutrition, transportation and custodial.
The teachers association will also be working with local educators to submit questions to be asked at the event. Neither the state superintendent nor local school administrators in attendance will know who submitted the questions for discussion. Estes said this was critical to allow instructors to ask questions they deemed vital to the discussion.
“Public education is one of the cornerstones of this country and we have all seen where this vital part of our society has fallen under attack," Estes said. “In order for us to accentuate what is right in education while strengthening our weaknesses, there must be frank conversation. We want these questions to be asked, but we want our teachers to feel free to ask them."
While Estes would have liked all teachers and support workers to be there, it would not have been as effective, noting he didn't want a lecture at a podium.
“I want everyone sitting around the table on an equal footing and exchanging ideas," he said. "From the state superintendent’s office all the way down to the local level, we all want the same thing—an outstanding education for students.
“Allow me to commend Dr. Mackey for his willingness to participate. This is not an easy task, asking the state’s top education official to field questions from those serving our students in the classroom. But I know he is sincere in his efforts and he wants to see education improved in Alabama, as do I. This is a tremendous step for our state. But most importantly, it allows us to seek information and direction from those who are serving as our front-line troops in this battle, our teachers."