At the high school where Suzan Falls imparts English, there are more than a few students who don't try, dispatched by parents who seem disengaged. The scent of marijuana sometimes snakes under her nose. Classes can be sidetracked by pupil profanity duels, and "at least once a month" somebody gets physical. With all the PA chatter, the comings and goings, the mini-crises, the building can seem as chaotic as "a MASH unit."
So here's how Falls summed up being a teacher, after nine years as one:
"It is the most gratifying job I could possibly imagine."
In her "great" school with "phenomenal" colleagues, she said, nothing overshadows the reward of seeing children exit her courses with more knowledge than when they walked in. "That's what keeps people here," said Falls, who teaches at Riverdale's Parkdale High School, adding, "It just makes me feel what I do has purpose."
A Washington Post poll of teachers found just such a complex world within the area's public high schools, with teachers combating significant academic and behavioral problems but the overwhelming majority still enjoying what they do.
The survey was conducted as the 1998-99 school year closed and involved 802 public high school teachers from every area jurisdiction. It found that teachers worry that too many students coast, that too many other teachers are not up to the task and that too many parents pay too little attention to their child's progress.
Nearly half the teachers voiced doubt that a diploma from their school is proof a student has mastered the basics. Within their department or subject area, 39 percent said, there is someone who should not be teaching. But within their school district, it's too cumbersome to fire such teachers, 62 percent said.
Three of four high school teachers said disruptive students were a "serious" problem in at least a few of the classes they taught in the last school year, and 53 percent encountered in class at least one student who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Twelve percent feared that a specific student of theirs might harm them.
And the pay leans toward miserly, 46 percent said.
For all that, and at a time when public education is often criticized, 96 percent of those at the head of the class like being there. And all but a handful said a big reason they show up each day is this: They believe they make a difference, both in the life of the nation and the lives of children.
"I love doing what I do because I love feeling like I can actually mold minds, mold kids from being children to adults," said Raymond Miller, who taught social studies for seven years at Cardozo Senior High in Washington and is now training to be a principal.
"Every year, there are a dozen kids you'd do anything you could to help them," said Mark Craver, who has taught literature and writing for 14 years at Fairfax County's Hayfield High School. "They're just wonderful kids: polite, want to learn, try to help you. You fall in love."
Hefty majorities of high school teachers think their principal is an effective leader, and they are reasonably content with their course loads and class sizes, for all the debate about those issues. All but 15 percent are satisfied with the degree of control they have over what they teach.
"I've always been able to shut my door and do what I want, within the confines of the curriculum, with very little interference," said David McElroy, who has taught chemistry at Albert Einstein High in Kensington for 32 years. "When someone has that kind of opportunity in work, you find a great deal of satisfaction."
Seven in 10 are at least "fairly satisfied" that their textbooks are up-to-date and that their schools have the equipment and supplies they need, although most reached into their own pockets last year to spend at least $100 on materials.
Across the spectrum of classroom issues, however, sentiments are not uniform. Generally, teachers in Fairfax and Montgomery counties feel more positive about their work environment and many aspects of student performance than those from Prince George's County and the District.
Far more teachers in the District and Prince George's have concerns about the physical condition of their school buildings. More contend with students unprepared to handle the course work. More have been threatened during the last school year. More teach at a school that has experienced a shooting. More feel underpaid.
Montgomery teachers are the most loyal; even if they could teach in any school system in the area, nine out of 10 say they wouldn't leave. More than six in 10 District teachers say they would continue to teach in the city, and 58 percent say their schools are better than you think they are.
But there are few differences among districts when it comes to how often classes are plagued by students who are disruptive, violent, drunk or high.
On the scale of what troubles teachers, student apathy looms large. Students content to do "as little work as possible" posed a serious problem in at least half the classes they taught last year, most teachers said. And 39 percent of teachers said that no more than half their students completed homework assignments on time. In the last school year, the average teacher caught seven pupils cheating on a test.
"A lot of students don't understand: `Whaddaya mean about performance? Just give me a sheet of paper and let me circle something and I'm finished,' " said Ardell Thompson, who has taught for 27 years in the District's public schools, most recently at Eastern High.
McElroy, the Einstein High teacher, said some students simply do not come to class, and "it's difficult to teach a student who's not there."
"When someone won't buy into their own education," McElroy said, "there's not much you can do. . . . It has to do with a society that wants everything instantly, and the thinking that there's someone out there to take care of their problems. They become dependent and have no desire to do any better."
The survey suggests that a reason many students do so little is that their parents are not involved in the world of school. Eighty-six percent of the teachers polled agree that the parents of students who need the most academic help do not give it until the student has failed.
And 60 percent of the teachers reported getting too little backing from parents in disciplining their children. In fact, during the past year, the average teacher never saw or spoke with the parents of half his or her students, the poll found.
"Everything is so expensive -- especially in this area -- that both parents have to work and don't really have time to watch their kids," said Sheila Bullock, a special education teacher at Fairfax's South Lakes High. "I have one parent who is working 2 1/2 jobs. That parent doesn't know if their child is in the house or at school or out running the streets."
The parents of only 17 of the 67 students in Falls's dropout-prevention program came to back-to-school night in September. "And I felt that was a good number," Falls said. The problem is that parents believe high school is a time to start separating from their offspring, Falls said. It's not. Falls needs them as much as ever.
"The kids who have been most successful within my program are the ones who are supported at home and school," she said.
Not only are parents disengaged, only 17 percent of the teachers believe strongly that parents respect them: "Because nearly everybody who is alive has gone to school, they think they know how to do it," Eastern's Thompson said, "but unless you've actually done it, you really don't understand what's involved, and you don't know all of the little parts and the nuances."
The high school teachers are tough on each other, too, particularly the peers they know best.
"Teachers sometimes get burned out," McElroy said. "And there's no counseling, no help. Sometimes, they get rid of them. Sometimes, they just pass them on to someone else. . . . Often, the ones who need the help the most won't show up or admit they have a problem. The view is, it's better to bluff your way through."
Although an overwhelming majority of teachers frown on social promotion -- the act of passing to the next grade an unqualified student -- a third said that the practice is at least "fairly common." It appears to be more common in the District and Prince George's, but roughly three out of 10 teachers in Montgomery and Fairfax, which boast national reputations for excellence, believe students are promoted who should not be.
The practice, some say, starts long before the students reach their buildings.
"We're a high school. How am I going to bring a kid who comes in reading on a third- or fourth-grade level up to a 10th-, 11th-, 12th-grade level?" said Miller, the Cardozo teacher. "It's like a cancer. That cancer has grown. That cancer has been here before we got here."
Beyond that, some say, they are second-guessed. A teacher summoned to the principal's office to talk about a plethora of failing grades in his class understands the subliminal message, McElroy said: "I must somehow get my grades higher."
"There's an inordinate amount of pressure to, at least on paper, achieve," he said.
Margaret Penn, who has taught history for 19 years at Gaithersburg High, blamed "serious parental interference," moms and dads who question the evaluation their children have been given.
"Every parent wants the school system to crack down," Penn said. "Every parent wants the school system to make academic demands on the kids. But every parent doesn't want their kid to suffer. And yet, learning requires some frustration before success."
Social promotions might be a reason that 47 percent of the surveyed teachers agree that "a high school diploma from my school is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics."
Penn, the Gaithersburg teacher, put it this way: "For the most part, are kids getting a good education, and does that diploma mean something when they graduate? Yes." But there are "always a number who are pushed through and graduated under very suspicious circumstances."
Amid the academic difficulties, disciplinary problems are increasing, two out of five teachers say. Two out of five say the problems have stayed the same, and only one in eight believes they are decreasing.
"I tell you, some students talk to teachers in a way that we wouldn't talk to anybody," said Janice Zimmerman, a math teacher for 15 years at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax.
When students show up late for class and she asks to see proof that they have a hall pass, Zimmerman said, they are likely of late to answer something like: "Why do you care? Leave me alone!"
More than one-third of the teachers have heard a student threaten someone's life, and 45 percent say they themselves have been threatened with bodily harm sometime in their teaching careers. Bullock, 41, the special education teacher at South Lakes High, said she was threatened just this past year.
"I was a little concerned, because he had attacked teachers in the past," she said of the youth, who was expelled from the system.
He will return in the fall.
"Basically, they get kicked out of one school and show up at another," Bullock said.
Even so, she said she feels reasonably safe in school. Although violent students are a reality and even one is too many, the percentage of teachers who routinely encountered violence or threats last year was 3. And 2 percent regularly detected students under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
There's this, too:
"I don't know if it's an aberration or it's a trend," Zimmerman said, "but I've had more `nice' students this year than I've had in a long time."
But not enough to keep her teaching. Zimmerman just retired, tired of the pressure "to solve all the world's social problems, right there in school." And tired of the paperwork, she said.
Sixty-two percent of her peers, by the way, don't like the paperwork, either.
Tomorrow: Teachers are divided over the growing emphasis on standardized tests.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Washington Post staff writers Victoria Benning, David Nakamura, Manuel Perez-Rivas, Brigid Schulte and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.
In addition, Claudia Deane, The Washington Post's assistant director of polling, and staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Beth Berselli, Jennifer Lenhart, Jay Mathews, Linda Perlstein, Christina A. Samuels, Liz Seymour and Valerie Strauss contributed to the design and execution of the poll.
GRADING THE JOB
Washington area public high school teachers overwhelmingly say they enjoy their job, but many report problems with unruly students, incompetent peers, inadequate resources and limited parent involvement, according to a new Washington Post poll.*
Q: Do you personally enjoy being a classroom teacher, or not?
Q: Generally speaking, how satisfied are you with:
Your principal in terms of leadership and effectiveness.
Very or fairly satisfied
Prince George's: 73%
Not too or not at all satisfied
Prince George's: 27
The amount of money you are paid
Very or fairly satisfied
Prince George's: 27%
Not too or not at all satisfied
Prince George's: 72
The availability of needed equipment and supplies
Very or fairly satisfied
Prince George's: 62%
Not too or not at all satisfied
Prince George's: 37
Q: Some people say one problem with some public school districts is that it is too difficult to fire an incompetent teacher. Is this true for your district, or not?
Prince George's: 65%
Prince George's: 17
Prince George's: 18
Q: Please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the following statement: A high school diploma from my school is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics.
Prince George's: 35%
Prince George's: 33
Prince George's: 16
Prince George's: 15
Q: In recent years, have discipline problems at your school increased, decreased or stayed about the same?
Prince George's: 51%
Prince George's: 9
Stayed about the same
Prince George's: 33
Prince George's: 7
Q: Overall, what percentage of your students fully complete their homework on time?
50 percent or less
Prince George's: 54%
51 to 74 percent
Prince George's: 18
75 percent or more
Prince George's: 28
Q: As you may know, merit pay programs tie teachers' salary to evalu-ations of their teaching. In general, would you support or oppose some form of a merit pay program being instituted at your school?
No opinion: 5%
Q: Now I'd like you to think specifically about the teachers in your department or subject area. Is there someone there who should not be teaching?
No opinion: 1%
Fast stats on the 1998/1999 school year (from the Post teachers poll):
Average percentage of students who arrived in class sufficiently prepared to handle the course work (according to their teachers)
Prince George's: 59%
Average percentage of parents teachers had contact with:
Prince George's: 46%
Percentage of teachers who spent more than $200 out of their own pocket on school-related materials:
Prince George's: 47%
Percentage of teachers who were threatened with physical harm by a student:
Prince George's: 27%
Percentage of teachers who reported at least one student had come to class appearing to be drunk or on drugs:
Prince George's: 60%
* Where there are significant differences between school districts on a question, individual district breakouts are shown; otherwise only a regional total is shown. Some percentages may not add to 100% because "no opinion" responses are not shown.
HOW THE TEACHERS POLL WAS DONE
Results of the Washington Post teachers poll came from telephone interviews with 802 randomly selected public high school teachers in the Washington region, conducted May 24 through June 28. The bulk of the interviewing was done in the District (151 interviews) and Fairfax (160 interviews), Montgomery (190 interviews) and Prince George's (131 interviews) counties. The Post tried to interview the same number of teachers in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's. The number of surveys actually completed in each county differs because more teachers in some counties agreed to be interviewed. More teachers were contacted in the District than in the other three jurisdictions because a lower proportion of teachers responded to interview requests.
In addition, 170 interviews were conducted with high school teachers in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Howard and St. Mary's counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties and Alexandria in Virginia. In order to characterize accurately the views of all teachers in the region, the data were statistically balanced to adjust for the fact that fewer teachers were interviewed in these jurisdictions. In this statistical "weighting" process, each school district's responses were adjusted to reflect the proportion of Washington area teachers in that district.
The margin of error for the regional results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margin of error for individual districts reported is as follows: the District and Montgomery, plus or minus 7 percentage points; Fairfax, plus or minus 7.5 percentage points; and Prince George's, plus or minus 8 percentage points. Sampling error is only one source of error in this or any other opinion poll.
To locate respondents, lists of public high school teachers were obtained from a variety of sources including school Web sites, public databases and the school districts themselves. A specified number of teachers were selected at random from the lists and sent a series of letters and postcards requesting their participation. The teachers were contacted by TNS Intersearch, of Horsham, Pa. Attempts were made to call teachers at their homes.
Respondents include regular classroom teachers, special education teachers, vocational education teachers (both those in vocational high schools and those in standard high schools), and those who teach English as a second language. Overall, about 45 percent of those in the target sample list were interviewed, a response rate similar to that obtained in large national telephone polls. Any differences between those teachers who chose to respond and those who did not represent another potential source of error in this survey.
NEW TEACHERS VS. THE VETERANS
From merit pay to disruptive students, teachers with less classroom experience expressed different views from those who had been teaching for decades, in response to a new Washington Post poll of the region's public high school teachers.
DISORDER IN THE CLASSROOM: New teachers appear to be having a tougher time keeping order in the classroom. Teachers with less than five years of experience were the most likely to say their classes were plagued by students who were just trying to get by (77 percent had a serious problem with this in at least half their classes, compared with 50 percent of the veteran teachers). Similarly, more have a serious problem with disruptive students. Newer teachers also were much more likely to report that they had at least one student come to class high on alcohol or drugs in the past year -- about seven in 10 did, compared with about four in 10 of the most experienced teachers.
SUPPORT FROM PARENTS: These less experienced teachers are looking for help from parents and not necessarily getting it. About three-fourths of those who have taught less than five years said they are getting too little help from parents in disciplining students, compared with about half of the veteran teachers.
FASTER PACE: Newer teachers also might be feeling a bit overwhelmed: Half said they had at least one class this year where they had to cover too much material, while slightly more than one-fourth of those with more than 20 years' experience agreed.
-- Claudia Deane
CAPTION: Raymond Miller, summer school director at the District's Cardozo Senior High, said teaching gives him a chance to "mold kids from being children to adults."