Joyce Helmick has taught school for more than 37 years. In July, she took the leadership reins at the Mississippi Association of Educators, an organization that provides professional development for teachers, and represents their interests in the state Legislature and throughout the public- school system.
Helmick comes from a working-class family. She was her family's first woman to graduate from college, and she holds a bachelor's and master's degree from Mississippi College.
One of MAE's goals this year is to secure raises for Mississippi's teachers, whose average pay, $41,975, is the second lowest in the nation. Starting salaries are $31,187. It's a goal Gov. Phil Bryant is adamantly opposed to. He and leading lawmakers also opposed fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula that determines state funds for public schools and provides additional, leveling funding for less prosperous districts.
MAEP, which the lawmakers have only funded twice, has been on Helmick's radar for years. MAEP funding, she stresses, is just adequate, not extravagant.
"You get what you pay for. That's just plain fact," Helmick said. "Teachers, educators, are not asking for a lot. We're not asking for the Taj Mahal. We're asking for what it takes to educate our students. ... The bottom line is that they're just trying to do away with public schools, and we know that. Everybody knows that."
Helmick spoke with the Jackson Free Press in the midst of MAE'S professional development conference, "Highly Engaging Classrooms," held in Jackson Oct. 10 and 11. The conference focused on training educators to implement Common Core Standards.
I want to talk about Common Core a little bit. One of the main criticisms that I've heard about Common Core is that this is just like No Child Left Behind only it's on steroids; we've upped the level of the challenge when the students couldn't meet the standards of NCLB. Draw some distinctions for me, if you would.
First of all, I'm thinking that we're meeting a lot of the standards of No Child Left Behind pretty well. The scores are moving up. We do have some schools with problems, but we have a lot more schools who are improving and doing better.
What Common Core does is level the playing field. This is not a curriculum; it's standards, and it's standards from K through 12. These standards are doable. It's just, it's a process that we're going to have to go through, to learn how to use the standards. Since it's not a curriculum, it's not dictated how we should do it. It's just a standard.
The ones of use who have been working with it do not see this as more work. We see it as different. It's not piling on to what we're already doing. It's just changing the way we've been doing it. For those who are really experiencing Common Core and working together with professional learning communities—which by the way, is one of the best parts of the Common Core element.
So professional learning communities (a strategy for creating collaborative learning among colleagues) are actually part of the Common Core?
Yes, it is. It's part of it. It's what is suggested as how we get to those standards.
One of the reasons we're so excited about Common Core—I spent 37 years in the classroom with teachers who were working hard, hard, hard—and the students were working. We felt like we were doing well, and then we'd get these scores and it looked like we were not. What we discovered through the Common Core, those of us who have been working with it for a while, is that these standards are telling us where our students should be, on the same standards as in California, in Oklahoma, in New Hampshire, in Connecticut—everywhere. So we're seeing where, "Hey, our students can do that." It's just going to take a while to get them there.
Between text messaging and everything getting resolved on TV in an hour, we have this short-term culture. From everything that I've seen, and you just said, Common Core is not a short-term solution. Have people understand how the changes are going to come about to make this long-term solution be viable.
One way to have that is through the professional learning communities, which means that a learning community in school might be the five language arts teachers. It would expand to bringing in the math teachers, and then you'd have another learning community that would bring in art—the extra classes—art, French, music. So then you have these cells of learning communities where we're looking at what we're doing, and we're sharing that with the history and the art teachers. We're sharing about reading and about writing. In other words, we're not in isolation. I'm doing my thing in my classroom, but, "Hey, how about we do this over in the art room?"
So the art classroom now turns into a classroom similar to mine. We're reaching for the same goals.
For too long in our schools—we may have an English department and all the English teachers may be on the same page, but the history department is on a different route, and the math department is on a different route.
Professional learning communities provide a way for teachers to come together and collaborate on information and make all the classrooms look basically—not the same, because I'm not going to be doing what an art teacher's going to be doing—but our goals will be the same: reading, writing, learning math, and using all those things to see the practicality of their education.
So an English class may be reading about an artist, and then the art teacher can teach about the art.
Exactly! And then the art teacher can bring up this material, and then they can take it over to the math class and then they can talk about it (there). The art teacher can teach the students how to figure out how it works. And what's that used for? Let's go down to the physics classroom and figure out this is how you build things so they stand up correctly, to use perspective.
All of that—reading, art, math, physics—it all goes together. What a concept.
It all goes together.
And yet, you're up against a Legislature that wants to put in place things like teacher merit pay.
M-STAR (Mississippi Statewide Teacher Appraisal Rubric). That's the teacher assessment model that we're working with.
We're up against a lot. We're up against a negativity on Common Core, and we believe that that negativity is coming from the fact that they don't want to finance this. They don't want to fund what it takes to do some of the Common Core.
We need extra time in this country to have this learning. Now, that doesn't mean we have to add extra hours to the school day. It doesn't mean we have to add days to the (teacher) contract and all that. We just need to be able, as an individual school, to restructure some of the time for this. And we need to have that flexibility.
But back to the Legislature: They're not the experts. None of them have a degree, I don't think, in English, two degrees, a master's in English with board certification, like many of our teachers do. We're the experts. We're the ones who know how to teach. We're the ones who know how to do that. All they need to do is fund what we're trying to do. And then they need to back off because they don't know. We know. That's been part of the problem for years: that our hands are tied.
All the material: "Be creative! Go in your classroom and be creative. Do all these creative things." With what? And how?
If they're going to narrow down what we do and then tie our evaluations to a test score, that's a dangerous place to go. Teachers are on board with good evaluations; we're on board with that. We're hungry for it, as a matter of fact.
Teachers in our state have long been evaluated, a lot of times unfairly, personality-wise or whatever. A lot of the administrators aren't on professional learning teams, and they don't know what we're doing in the classroom. So when they come in to evaluate, it's not a fair evaluation.
Because they don't know what you're up to?
Years ago, our district started working in groups—(everything) was group work, group work, group work. The principal had not been in on that information. He comes into my room, and I've got the kids all in groups, and they're doing all these projects. I teach high school advanced placement English. He almost had a heart attack.
"What are they doing? Are y'all playing games? They're drawing pictures! Ms Helmick, you teach the smartest kids in the school. They should be sitting over there and learning and reading and that kind of thing."
You see, there was just a disconnect. That was a while back, and I had to go into his office and educate him on what I was doing. But a lot of our administrators and superintendents are not the academic leaders. There is where our professional learning communities bring them in to what's going on. But the legislators are not part of that process.
And then, to judge my teaching on a test score? I taught the gifted, and most of those gifted kids maxed in the 8th grade on testing. They just blew the roof off. They were the top, top kids. And they test again in the 10th grade, and they don't grow that much. Gifted kids don't. That's a problem throughout the gifted community.
They don't grow because the curriculum isn't there to support them?
They don't grow much because they've already grown a lot. In 8th grade, they're the top of the line. And then, when they get to the 10th grade, of course, they're still top of the line. If you're already top of the line, where do you go from there?
If they paid me just on my test scores then, yeah, I would be getting more than some other teacher, but that's not fair. (Not) when the teacher across the hall from me has the low-level students, the ones that have discipline problems and (developmental) problems, and mine are all gifted, and their parents support them, and they can do what they're supposed to do most of the time. It's not fair to pay me more because my scores are higher than hers. It's just not fair. It's just not right.
Obviously the state Legislature has not provided full funding under MAEP. Tell me a story about how that affects a teacher.
Here's the difference: I have in my class, because of the way the gifted program was (structured) in our state, I could only have 15 in my class, 15 students. Now that changed recently, because they cut the funds. Now I can have 30.
So you have less money and need to spread it over more students.
Across the hall, in a tested area, 10th grade, students are mixed in with re-testers, which means they did not pass their 10th grade test. There are 33 in that classroom. 33. And that's because we can't afford to hire more teachers because (of lack of full) funding of the MAEP. That teacher struggles and struggles and struggles. What are her scores going to reflect? How can she have great scores in a classroom and half of them re-testers. 33.
That's one thing.
I work in a district—Desoto County—and we have funds because of where we live to do things. This is an affluent area; we should be able to do whatever we want to, but we still don't have the money for school buses. (Legislators) don't understand that we have to put those kids somewhere. We have to build new buildings, improve the ones we have, fix the leaking roofs. That's not happening. Our bathrooms get torn up. They're teenagers! They go to the bathroom, and they break something. ... (They) don't mean to break it. That's what happens. You have a thousand kids going through those restrooms, they get broken. How do you have the money to fix the restrooms in all of these schools? How do you have the money to repair the buses? Oh, assistant teachers. We need assistant teachers in the elementary classes. It's so sad to think that there are 33 to 35 students in the classroom with no assistant teacher. And I have many friends who are in that situation—even kindergarten.
I visited a school in Jackson not too long ago, and in a kindergarten class, 33 kids, no assistant teacher.
That's enough to tear your hair out.
Exactly. 33 kindergartners. And then you say, "Well 33 high school kids— that's not bad. They should be able to behave." Thirty-three big humans in a class that was built for 23? You can't move. How do you repair desks that are broken?
I know that some districts are not able to provide adequate textbooks. Well, OK. People are all mad about adequate textbooks. But here's a decision an administrator has to make. Here are textbooks that we've been using for quite a while, and it's workable; it's OK. But then I had six buses break down. These are motors that break down. So what do I do? Do I fix the buses so I can get the kids to school, or do I spend that money to buy all new textbooks to make people happy that we have new textbooks? Do I get them to school, or do I have (new books)? I could just go on and on. The conditions at some of our schools ...
The main thing that we're concerned about is the number of students in our classrooms. We just can't work with that.
Again, on criticisms that I've heard, the Legislature says that the amount of money that has gone toward education has increased, year over year. It's a huge part of the budget. The schools are too top heavy. Talk about that.
MAEP, full funding of MAEP—adequate education, that's a key word right there: adequate. Because what they're saying is that fully funding MAEP—they themselves passed this law to fully fund education—and they themselves said it was adequate. It's just enough to run the schools the way they should be run. It's just enough. It's adequate. And then they have fully funded MAEP two times since its inception.
And once was with (Gulf Opportunity) funds, Hurricane Katrina funds, wasn't it?
Yes. If you make a law and you don't abide by the law yourself—they're giving less than less than enough money for us to survive—less than. The word is there: adequate. They're giving us less than an adequate amount of money to run our schools, OK?
Are the schools top heavy?
I personally don't think they're top heavy. In my district, we have a county office that works for our teachers. The people that are in the curriculum department, they got us aboard Common Core four years ago. They've been working on Common Core for years. They're not top heavy; they're doing what they should be doing.
I'm not familiar with all districts in the state to say, yes, they're top heavy. I understand what they're saying about that. I don't think that that's where funds are being misused or abused. I think that if they hired someone to do a job, then they needed them to do that job.
Backing up (to increased money). No. They've cut us every year. They have not increased. That is not true. I don't know where they're getting that. It's about fully funding MAEP, to give us enough money to operate our schools the way they should be operated. And they're not doing that. We have teachers out there that are working and doing they're jobs. They're struggling. They're spending their own money, still. Spending their own money in their classrooms. The legislators are saying they're getting money. What are they talking about? They're not fully funding MAEP. They're not doing their job.
Let me turn back to Common Core one more time. I'm a product of the public schools; I suspect you are too. I remember my favorite teacher, Mrs. Johnson, in sixth grade. I was always really good at reading, at writing, and I think she decided early on that there was never a number I was going to be friends with. She was able to guide me to use my strengths as opposed to beating me over the head with my weaknesses. One of things I'm hearing is that we're trying to put everybody into the same square hole, make them be good at everything instead of using individualized instruction. Is there something in the Common Core that will allow for that individualization?
Absolutely. ... I myself have sat in a classroom, sat in the back of many, and said, after all this high-stakes testing that we're doing, "Why? Why does every kid have to pass every test? Why are we doing that to these children?"
I know it's not about trying to fit every kid into that hole. I think it's about showing us, the educators, and you, the parents, that we have higher expectations of our students. We have higher expectations, and they can pass these tests. And they can do more.
What we feel like, as educators, needs to be done is that when we realize that a student does not do well on tests, whether that be math or English or whatever, then we should have the funds to provide an extra class or an extra tutor or whatever to help get that student to that point. And then figure out what the repercussion would be if we never get to that point.
Let me give you a story. We have a student in our school who attended school every day, good kid, played ball—just a good kid. He passed the history test, passed algebra, everything, passed it first time. Then when he comes into English, he just had such a hard time. So he took in 10th grade, two times, 11th grade. Now he's a senior. He has one more chance to pass the test.
We called his mom up and we say, "Look, he has one more chance to take the test and pass it. If he doesn't, he won't graduate."
And she says, "Oh!" and she cries and cries. "Christopher's a man, he's a man. You don't understand. His father died when he was young. His step-father died. He has been helping me take care of his younger brother and sister. He's like a daddy to them. He reads to his little sister. He helps his brother with homework. He's a man. He's a man."
He comes to school every day—good kid, good kid. So some of us volunteered to take Christopher and do what we can. I had that teacher working on a part of it, and (another) teacher working on part of it. When he came to me, I said: "Look. What you're going to do is you're going to sit here and read everyday. You're going to read this."
So we started reading, and it was amazing what I found out about his inability to read and understand what he was reading. Now, we'd been reading with this boy forever, but I took some other text and I said, "Here, read this." After we'd done this for about two weeks, two, three hours a day, bless his heart, he'd go to football practice and come back. Big fella. Hot. Sweaty.
Smelling like a teenager.
He came back and about two weeks later he brought Emma. He said, "Miss Helmick, Emma's coming with me." And you know what he did? He took the book with the stories, and he said, "You're going to love this."
He read to Emma. Close reading is part of Common Core. I taught him how to close read. He'd stop. "Emma, do you know the meaning of that word?"
Emma would say, "No."
He would go through it, just like I taught him, and he'd say, "Now, Emma. Do you know the meaning of that word?"
"Well that sounds like so and so."
"Yes, Emma. That's correct." Keep on. Keep on. Keep on. "Now, Emma, what did we read?"
Christopher passed that test. Not just passed it. The counselor called us in and would not tell us if he passed it. In not telling us, we thought he failed.
The teachers I had been working with went in and sat in the room, and (the counselor) called him in, and since we were all sitting in there, he thought he had failed the test, too. She looked over at him and said, "Christopher, you passed!"
When I say Christopher's a big guy, there's not anybody here as big as Christopher. He played football at Olive Branch High School, and he played front line. He picked me up off the ground! And we cried, and we cried. His mama came in, and it was just (a) celebration. And then he wanted to know about Emma.
So, (the counselor) called Emma in, and he got to sit in the office with Emma when they told her that she passed. It was just unbelievable.
The point to that story is this: It took Christopher longer, and it took a different style of getting him to read that, but he passed it. It took a lot of different things, a lot of extra time, all volunteer time, waiting for him to get off football practice so he could get back. Taking up my planning period for weeks. Some days, I'll be honest with you, I had so much to do and so many papers to grade that I would just think, "Christopher, just give it up. Just go home." But we didn't.
What was the breakthrough point?
The close reading for him. Before, he was just reading the material, and he wasn't thinking about how this part goes with this part goes with this part. He was just disconnecting, and he would be the first to tell you that's that what it was. It was just having the confidence to read and understand what he was reading.
Before, the test scared the crap out of him.
Some kids just don't test well. They freeze up and freak out.
The legislators who think they know everything they need to know about education need to come to our classrooms. They need to listen. They need to be there before they make these decisions based on a disgruntled parent who probably has not put that much time or energy into the student, anyway.
We just met one the other day—disgruntled, didn't like what the teacher was doing. "I'm going to take my kid out of that school." And I'm saying, "It sounds like the teacher was being very innovative." From my point of view, it sounded like that was a cool thing to do. But because she didn't like the little process, she's going to take her kid out of school.
That would be the person who would call the Legislature and say, "Well, they're not doing what they're supposed to." And then the legislator would fall for that and say, "Well, we need to get rid of those public schools."
The bottom line is that they're just trying to do away with public schools, and we know that. Everybody knows that.
Well, some people don't.
That's true, some people don't. And we need to wake them up to that fact. There's a huge push for privatization. When you have weak school districts, it's just like having a dead skunk on the side of the road. That's where the buzzard are going to go. They're going to do everything they can to absorb that. You didn't ask about charter schools, but statistics do not support the success of charter schools anywhere.
My understanding is that they don't do better or worse than public schools.
That's right. The other thing is that Mississippi legislators have never put their money where their mouth is because they've never fully funded MAEP over a period of time to be able to see what the results might be. They're not going to sit there and tell me that money doesn't matter. There are school districts that are very poor that are doing well. But then, the school districts that are doing very well, where are they? They're in the areas were there's more money—Clinton, Rankin, Madison, Desoto County, Harrison County. These are the places where there's more money. So they're saying money doesn't matter. That's a bunch of—you can't say it. Baloney. It's a bunch of baloney.
You get what you pay for. That's just plain fact. Teachers, educators, are not asking for a lot. We're not asking for the Taj Mahal. We're asking for what it takes to educate our students. We're asking for smaller classrooms. We're asking for every classroom on the state to have a certified teacher in there. That's what we want. We want our teachers to be paid what they should be paid so that our brightest and best students will come into that classroom and stay there. And invest in the community and love what they're doing. We have classrooms that have no certified teachers, or we have classrooms where the teacher is going to stay for a couple of years and they're going to be gone.
There was a recent study that said teachers aren't being taught well.
We have some improvements to make in that area. But it all goes back to why weren't they taught well? Because they had 35 in the classroom, and because they probably, when they got to college, they had to work to put themselves through—and that's another whole ball game.
If they're not strong students when they're in high school, chances of them being strong students in college and then going on to that classroom. When we say we have a lot of young teachers coming in to classrooms, and they're good, and they want to be there. But then they're dumped on when they have 35 to a class, and they don't have planning periods because they have to go to duty.
What do you mean, "duty"? Like watch cafeterias and hallways?
Right. They're idealism is squelched. They don't get the support they need in the classroom because principals and other teachers are overloaded. And stressed about what's going on. Therefore, those teachers don't stay with us very long. Statistics show that after first three years, we lose so many good teachers.
The other thing is—and I'll tell you a true story. Fantastic young teacher in Desoto County. She came to me one day and she said, "Miss Helmick, I can't do this any more. I'm going to have to quit."
And I said, "Why?"
And she said, "All my friends are out having a great time and doing things and going places and buying new cars. I have to live with my parents because I don't have enough money to even get an apartment on my own and pay a car note and buy groceries and pay electricity. I don't make enough money to do that. So I'm living at home with my parents. I'm a college graduate. I'm teaching high school students and telling them to go to college, and I have to live home with my parents. I can't afford to live out on my own."
That's sad. That's really sad.
I don't think that's happening only in the teaching profession right now.
That may be, but it is happening in the teaching profession. ... We're not talking about not being able to do that based on, "OK, I work at McDonald's and flip burgers." They're not investing in the future of Mississippi. We're not talking about people who are just doing a job. We're talking about people who are teaching 30 students. We're not talking about "just" a job. We're talking about a job that invests in people. There's a difference.
I can hear your passion.
I've been in it so long, and I've seen a lot of changes. I've worked with Common Core the past few years in my district, and I believe in it. It's a good thing. Our master teachers believe in it. Yes, there's a lot of negativity about it, but when the teachers dig into it, they see how great it is. And the most important thing is that they see that it's a standard that we can work with and tells us what we're doing compared to places. And that's a good thing.
If we don't get the full funding, if we don't have support of public schools from our legislators, we're just ... They're not doing what they're supposed to be doing. They're job is for the public. Our job is for the public. We're all public servants and workers. We're supposed to be interested in the public, which is everybody. And they're interested in a few people who make a lot of money. That's not the public. The public is everyone. We want a school for everyone. We want schools for the Chrises and for our little children in wheelchairs and for children who can't learn those tests—period. But they get a diploma for going to school and learning how to socialize, and then they can go to McDonald's and put the straws in the bins and talk to people because they've been with people all their lives. It's a fabulous thing so see a child go out and do something on his own. And it's a fabulous thing to see gifted students who are our future doctors and scientists have what they need when they leave the classroom and go to the college classroom and go beyond that to do what they need to do. And most of those kids are wanting to serve.
... If you ask a legislator what his priority is, he'll say education. That's a bunch of baloney. Prove it.
What's your take on zero-tolerance policies and the issue of students being shuffled through the cradle-to-prison pipeline?
Obviously, we want our educators to look at the situation and to try to deal with the students and do everything that they can that's within their boundaries, within their limits. To have those students adjusted in school and at home, working with their counselors, possibly working with outside sources to develop some sort of relationship, that is a community to help those students.
We understand zero tolerance, and in a lot of situations, zero tolerance works. But in a lot of situations, zero tolerance is self-defeating. We don't see it being effective in changing the behavior of the child or changing the behavior of the parent who is responsible for that child.
How big a problem is discipline and the use of suspensions and expulsions to enforce discipline?
I do know that in some districts it's more prevalent than in others. I am not familiar with any statistics about it, but I do know that (lack of) discipline is a deterrent to good classroom work. A lot of times, you will have three or four students in a classroom that are discipline problems, and there's very little backup—it may be from the parent that there's no backup. It may be from the administrator. But when you have even one child who disrupts the movement of the classroom and the work of the teacher, that is disruptive to the entire class. And then when you end up with 30 kids in a class, and then you have to deal with all of those 30, and then you have two or three or four who are constant discipline problems, and then the teacher has to deal with it by herself all the time, that causes the teacher to either get burned out or feel there's nothing you can do. The teacher cannot be as effective in the classroom with that sort of thing going on.
A lot of districts deal with the discipline problems in a very positive manner. Then there are districts that have no support from families, no support from home, so it's a very serious issue. I think that it's gotten to this point of zero tolerance because of the lack of support from parents. If parents were more involved and checked the child's book bag and made sure he or she knew what was in that book bag before they ever boarded the bus, got in the car, went into the classroom, then you would have any problem with having things in book bags that shouldn't be there. But you don't have parent involvement. The school has to take some sort of stand on some of these things because it's a serious problem.
So what are the solutions? You're pointing to more parental involvement, but does MAE provide any kind of training? Are teachers prepared to deal with discipline problems in the classrooms?
We do have some professional development dealing with discipline in the classroom. A lot of the districts provide this kind of training themselves. But the real issues comes from — Let's say I'm a veteran teacher and I have had great success in my classes, up to a certain point, and all of a sudden, they put me in a class where half of them have some sort of learning disability or discipline problem. Sometimes that's the way it works out. And all of a sudden I'm having discipline problems and issues, so I take these things to the principal. Well, if the principal doesn't back the teacher up, there's a problem. And then if you go to the parent with: "Johnny's not doing this. Johnny's not paying attention." Then, you don't have the parent, you don't have the principal, and then there's just nothing else to do. A teacher becomes very discouraged, and even though my success as far as being able to handle discipline in my other classes has been very successful, here's this one: It might be the seventh period of the day, it might be the first period, it might be my lunch period, it may be that one class only that's the problem. Even the best of teachers can sometimes be given a class that has difficult discipline problems. Then, if the principal and the parent don't support the teacher, then it continues to be a problem, and they continue to be less effective.
Do you see cases where teachers rely too much on the zero-tolerance policies to get those kids out?
Yes, unfortunately, I do. I'll be honest, in my case and in speaking to teachers across the state, we don't see too many of those. Most of our teachers try to handle the problems before they even approach the parent or the principal. Then they go with the parent or the principal, whichever the administration says is the next step. To be honest, it's very difficult when you're not a really strong educator in the beginning, and then you're saddled with difficult problems, and then you have no backing. Yes, teachers do rely on zero tolerance. It seems to be the only way that they can get their classroom under control and get something done.
Is MAE a union?
In Mississippi, we are an association. We cannot be a union in Mississippi.
What's the difference?
We do not have collective bargaining rights. That's the big one.
As an association, what's the biggest benefit that you provide for your members?
Right now, our biggest benefits are three-fold: professional development—we want to grow in that area—offering professional development and aid to teachers across the state. We're pulling together cadres of teachers, especially on Common Core and MSTAR right now. In that, it's encouraging professionalism.
Number two is power as group. We offer the voice of the teachers of Mississippi, both in the Legislature and in trying to develop policy for teachers, etcetera.
And the last is that we offer the best insurance policy—liability.
I don't think of teachers needing liability insurance.
Oh, wow. The majority say that's the reason they belong. They wouldn't set foot inside a classroom without that insurance.