Despite defeating the state legislature’s recent attempts to pass an omnibus education bill which would have increased class sizes and encouraged privatization, West Virginia teachers’ struggles to secure resources remain ever-present.
“A year ago, we put together a task force to investigate the Public Employees Insurance Agency,” Denis Chapman, a retired teacher who worked in Cabell County schools for over forty years, said at a town hall Monday at the Cabell County Public Library in Huntington.
“It’s disturbing that fixing PEIA was not even mentioned throughout the entire recent legislative session,” Chapman said. “Governor (Jim) Justice threw some money at us, hoping to kick the problem down the road, but all the same problems are still here.”
West Virginia schools lack necessary nurses, counselors and other social services to help students from struggling families meet their most basic needs, said Amber McCoy, president of the Wayne County Education Association and a teacher at Kellogg Elementary School.
“Our schools have children struggling through crises every day, and teachers are required to provide students with necessary resources,” McCoy said. “For many kids, we already function as their full-time childcare. Our schools don’t have full-time counselors.”
Amanda Lusher, another local elementary school teacher and member of WVEA, said she had eight notes from students on her desk before 1:30 p.m. Monday, requesting time for personal conversations.
“I could have stood there for an hour and a half trying to teach math, but my students have so many more pressing issues on their minds,” Lusher said. “These kids need someone to talk to.”
Vera Miller, president of the Cabell County Education Association and a teacher at Huntington Middle School, said properly funded support services, such as counselors and nurses, are necessary for West Virginia schools, and additional security guards are not a sufficient substitute when students’ basic needs are not being met.
“I work at a school of over 600 kids, and we don’t have a full-time nurse,” Miller said. “As much as teachers do our best to help, we don’t always have the training or the time required to meet every kid’s needs. We aren’t counselors or nurses or doctors.”
Joann Hurley, president of the Wayne County Board of Education and a retired teacher and current substitute teacher, said lower class sizes are needed to enable teachers to more effectively personally connect with individual students in ways they need.
“In many cases, teachers are the only adult in a child’s life talking to them regularly or making them smile,” Hurley said. “We need more counselors in every school.”
Several educators at the town hall voiced concerns regarding teachers leaving the state to seek better work opportunities or giving up on the profession entirely.
“I’m dedicated to my job, and teachers like myself continue because we are passionate about helping our students,” McCoy said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life, but because of the circumstances, I also can’t imagine continuing on like this.”
McCoy said she knows her situation is not special, because countless other educators feel the same way.
“It’s a hard time to be a teacher in West Virginia,” she said. “We felt some victories last year, and we thought we accomplished something, but this year we’ve still been hit as hard as ever, and now there’s not a lot of faith left.”
McCoy said her students constantly impress her with their toughness, dedication and abilities, despite their adverse life situations and most basic needs regularly not being met. Many of her students, she said, are already raising their younger siblings.
Even if kids are not or cannot be raised by their parents or families, McCoy said, public schools can help provide them with caring, supportive relationships essential for personal growth.
“These kids have grit,” McCoy said. “We just need to teach them how to harness it. They don’t want to live the same life their parents lived.”
Also in attendance at the town hall were Delegates Chad Lovejoy (D-Cabell, 17), Matthew Rohrbach (R-Cabell, 17), Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell, 16), Robert Thompson (D-Wayne, 19), Kenneth Hicks (D-Wayne, 19) and Daniel Linville (R-Cabell, 16), as well as Todd Alexander, president of the Wayne County Board of Education, and several additional citizens.
Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]