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NEVADA VIEWS: Pay teachers whatever it takes

What would it take for you to teach in the Clark County School District? The Clark County Education Association is currently asking for a 10 percent raise this year, an 8 percent raise next year and a $5,000 salary increase in schools with high vacancies and hard-to-fill positions. I wouldn’t sign up for double that. And neither would you.

You see, I tried teaching last year. As a retired Air Force senior master sergeant, I really wanted to be a teacher. Teaching aligned with my values, my sense of service, my longing to make a positive difference. Teaching children in a tough school seemed like a natural career path following 24 years in the military.

It was, hands down, the worst experience of my life.

Each day I showed up to school feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. As a brand new high school science teacher, my average class size was 42 students — with some classes having as many as 46 kids. In a typical class of 42 students, about five of these students would speak no English. Several more would have Individualized Education Plans requiring significant accommodations or individual instruction. The school had a chronic truancy problem with 30 percent of the students not showing up each day — and it wasn’t even the same 30 percent each day. I won’t even get into the students with discipline problems.

Without enough space for 46 students, each day I wondered where I was going to seat everyone if they all happened to show up to class.

Not speaking a word of Spanish, each day I saw the hope in a bright young student fade knowing that he or she would not be able to understand the material and that I did not know how to help.

Each day I had to decide between helping a student needing individual instruction and the 45 other students who seemed to erupt into chaos every time I turned my back on them for only a moment.

The district’s “minimum F” policy is a catastrophe. A student can get a “C” grade the first quarter, do nothing the second quarter and still pass the semester. Every student knows this.

I was encouraged not to allow cellphones during class, but I was not allowed to confiscate a cellphone. The dean’s office walls were plastered with “No Cell Phone Zone” signs, and each sign had a student sitting below it heavily engaged in his or her cellphone.

I inherited this unmanageable mess and was expected to manage it all by myself. I found myself stressed to the point that it started affecting my physical health. Each day quickly became filled with feelings of nausea, back pain and dread. I had to get out of there. After only three months of teaching and feeling abandoned, demoralized and humiliated, I quit teaching.

In hindsight, the writing was on the wall. During my first day of orientation, I learned that 30 percent of the school’s teachers had left prior to the summer break. Every teacher in my department looked depressed and dejected. Too many vacancies still remained.

But I had thought — with my background and experience — it would all be different for me. I mean, I’ve been to war in Afghanistan. How hard could teaching be?

Our school district has been woefully underfunded, understaffed and underperforming for years. It’s no secret to anybody reading this that Nevada is the laughingstock of the nation when it comes to primary and secondary education, and most of us know why. Recruiting is poor, and retention is abysmal. Nevada public schools can’t attract and retain the right quality and quantity of people to perform well because nobody wants to work in a Nevada public school. The brightest, most talented people know that teaching in a Nevada school is an unforgiving, thankless, humiliating job. Quite frankly, we should be amazed that anyone is willing to do it at all.

We need to do so much more for the teachers who are willing to do this job. A simple pay raise is not nearly enough. They need more staffing and class size maximums. We need to pay whatever it takes to achieve this. If that price is too high, ask yourself what it would take for you to do their job. I wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars.

Eric D. McCammond writes from Las Vegas.

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