‘I Almost Quit’ Teaching

NSEA Helps Novice Teacher Cope with Tough Teaching Assignment, Move to New School

A wise man once said it is more prudent to polish what you have than to toss it aside in favor of something new.

NSEA believes that axiom applies to those in the teaching profession. Omaha Education Association member Shylo Harkness agrees.

Harkness was nearly cast aside last year after she was assigned to an ill-fitting classroom and struggled through an extremely difficult school year.

“I really wanted to leave teaching,” said Harkness. “I cried every night from October to December.”

Fortunately, Harkness had made the decision early in the school year to join NSEA.

A brief encounter between Harkness and an NSEA organizational specialist at a February seminar for Peru State College student teachers was the first step in a positive collaboration between

Harkness and NSEA, and between NSEA and OPS Chief Human Resource Officer Charles Wakefield. That collaboration turned things around for Harkness, and saved her job.

“I almost quit in December,” said Harkness.

“By the end of the school year, there was a complete turnaround.”

Another Profession?

A few months ago, Harkness wasn’t the only one thinking she might be better off in another profession or school. Midway through the 2016-17 school year, an administrator advised that Harkness might resort to a more traditional student teaching program, or at least transferring to another school building.

Harkness had signed a contract with OPS in August 2016, and was working under a provisional teaching certificate. The plan was to wrap up her classes at Peru State College during the first semester and officially complete her student teaching requirements during the second semester. She would earn her degree and teaching certificate in May 2017.

Somehow, this first-year, yet-to-be-certified teacher drew a most difficult teaching assignment: a self-contained upper elementary  behavior disorder classroom in central Omaha. Nine students, a paraprofessional and the untested, inexperienced, rookie provisional teacher occupied the classroom.

It was, in the words of NSEA Organizational Specialist Marlene Wehrbein, “a tough job.” Once Wehrbein was involved, she asked one question of every OPS administrator she encountered while working with Harkness.

“I asked whether this was arguably one of the most difficult teaching assignments in the entire State of Nebraska,” said Wehrbein. “They all said ‘yes.’”

Nightly Crying

In the first semester, the district had assigned two coaches to work with Harkness. But almost without fail, as the two coaches would arrive at her classroom, one of her students would act out.

At that point, all others in the classroom – including students, paras and coaches – were directed by district policy  to leave the classroom to allow the teacher to work with the troubled student.

“That literally happened every time coaches visited,” said Harkness, “so I didn’t get a lot of assistance in that regard. I just tried to figure it out on my own.”

By October, Harkness was informed that her skills were not improving and that she was in danger of being placed on informal observation status, the first step toward possible non-renewal of her contract with OPS.

That’s when the nightly crying began.

“They said I wasn’t doing a good job, wasn’t progressing,” she said. “Then, in March, they told me I was where I should have been in August.”

‘This Will Not Happen’

After Wehrbein spoke at a February seminar for student teachers at Peru State College, Harkness approached Wehrbein and told her story.

“Marlene told me ‘this will not happen, you will not be fired’ and urged me to call her the next time I was to meet with administrators,” said Harkness.

That happened in March, when Harkness was called in to talk not about her skills, but about a particular student. In addition to administrators, the two coaches were on hand. Ideas and suggestions for improving her teaching began to fly. Wehrbein was in the room and saw what was happening. She urged a slowdown and a focus that would give Harkness a chance to improve her skills in one area at a time.

“Marlene calmed the water between me and my supervisors and the administration,” said Harkness.

“That eased tensions and made it easier for me to do my job,” said Harkness.

Further, OPS Human Resources administrators agreed immediately that the placement in that classroom put Harkness in an extremely difficult situation.

Harkness was given more support, as well as a transfer to a new school for the 17-18 school year. Today, Harkness is a grades 4-6 resource teacher at Walnut Hill Elementary School.

Wehrbein praised the willingness of administrators in the OPS human resources division to work with and keep a brand-new teacher in the system.

Harkness, meanwhile,  said she had been ready to “throw her building keys and walk” in December. Now she’s optimistic, in a new school and a new year, and with renewed appreciation for her Association.

“I thought about not joining OEA that first year, but I’m very glad that I did. It saved my career.”