Principal at Corbett Elementary School in Reno takes on the serious problem of overworked and underappreciated classroom teachers

By Joe McCarthy

Principal Denise Dufrene helps out in the classroom, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

The nation’s public school teachers are a beleaguered lot.  

The assumption has always been that teachers love to teach and believe they were born to teach. 

Yet, the approximately 4 million public school teachers across America now face extraordinary and thoroughly unrealistic demands by the day. The job of teaching children has changed dramatically since the advent of No Child Left Behind and has never been more intense for teachers. 

Today’s teachers must navigate a morass of politically-driven, federal and state policy mandates. Educational reform has grown ever more baffling. Most of our 50 million school-age children are enrolled in public schools that suffer from insufficient funding to operate effectively. Teachers are saddled with mandatory non-teaching duties over and above the six hours a day in the classroom.

For teachers, students come and go for a variety of reasons, like the need for families to move to bread-winner deportation. Student turnover numbers are staggering. 

Contrary to persistent myths, no teacher works normal hours. They do not have large swaths of time off. It is an old fashion misconception that teaching is a 7 am – 3 pm job for 180 days per year, with summers off. 

In actuality, a teacher’s workday usually starts at 6:30 am for meetings, duties and classroom prep. The workday doesn’t end until around 5 pm. Teacher lug work home to grade, finish paperwork and plan for the next day. 

As for the generous time off myth, when schools are not in session, teachers are back in school to satisfy continuing education requirements, on their own dime. They work second jobs just to make ends meet.       

Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, classroom teachers work between 55 and 60 hours per week, while the typical average working American puts in an average of 44 hours per week.  Teachers have always been responsible for shaping the next generation of American citizens. That is how the stress begins.  

A recent Labor Department study revealed that in 2018 classroom teachers left the profession at the highest rate ever. Teacher shortages are the new normal for school districts. Enrollments in the undergraduate education programs nationwide have dropped to a new low.  With fewer teachers available, class sizes grow.

Besides the physical demands of standing six hours a day, hoping for a bathroom break in aging buildings with concrete floors, the mental toll of their day-to-day grind has helped to rank classroom teaching with the honor of being one of America’s most stressful jobs, right next to air traffic controllers. 

Adding to the stress factor, teachers have no control over how many students come to school without sufficient sleep, hungry, late for class or not at all.  

But, the hardest part of the job for teachers may actually be what they have no control over, relentless public scrutiny. In the age of instantly available information, teachers know that everyone is watching and expressing sour opinions of their work. They especially feel the media’s heat and its gotcha tendency to inspire the public’s visceral lack of respect for the public school teaching professional. 

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on how to “improve” public education. Most of these opinion-makers have never taught a public school class or have been in a classroom in years.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, more than 50 percent of America’s public school teachers say they are actively looking at other employment opportunities, especially outside of education. 

Corbett Elementary School bucks the trend

Corbett’s classrooms pulse with energy. Students sit around large tables. Teachers freely move about tight classroom spaces. It is a bustling vibe of student-teacher concentration, awash with attentive faces.

image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

To lessen the pressures that her teachers face daily, Principal Denise Dufrene has put into action a system of collaboration that is yielding a positive workday atmosphere. 

Dufrene, a former classroom teacher in the district, knows that for today’s classroom teachers to be fulfilled in their work, she cannot maintain the untenable, antiquated model of one teacher per classroom.

Over the last several years, Corbett has successfully transitioned from the outdated teaching model of disparate, stand-alone classrooms into a collaborative venture where everyone works together in support of educating all students.  

 “We have shared ownership in the building,” says Dufrene. “If a teacher knows that someone else is doing something really well, the teacher will say, ‘I will observe, to take it back to my own my own class.’ Dufrene believes, “With the right support, we all could be better, right? Even if you look at the sports world, they don’t stop coaching the top players. They keep coaching and improving. So do we. We are all in this together,” she says. 

Her leadership team includes an embedded instructional coach, a seasoned school counselor, and a veteran dean of students in charge of behavior management efforts and mentoring.

“For students, wraparound support may look a little different at times,” she says. “If needed, we access outside agencies for any kind of mental health or medical concerns for our students.” 

To keep a close eye on things,” she says “We meet with all the grade levels throughout the year, while including our dean of students, our instructional coach, our school counselor. We talk about who’s doing well, who’s struggling, what support our students and our families need.”

Amy Chavez, sixth-grader at Corbett says, “Corbett has become better for me because the teachers have been pushing us, but not too hard, so we can get a better education.” Chavez is currently reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She says she likes to learn on her own. “I study at home so I can come to school prepared, especially if there are tests the next day.” 

image of an active Corbett classroom, Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

The instructional coach

Ben Hayes, Chief Accountability Officer for the School District has been heard to say, “Our schools are data-rich, but information poor.” 

Teachers are exposed to a lot of data but do not actually know what to do with some of it. That’s where instructional coaches come in. They are the experts on staff who know how to read and interpret complex data and put it to use. 

“We have a full-time, on-site instructional coach (Cristal Cisneros) embedded within our school, says Dufrene. “Why? Because I really do think that the best teachers are also the ones who are coached.”

Cristal Cisneros, instruction coach during lunch break, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

The most seasoned and experienced teachers in the Washoe County School District make up the ranks of its instructional coaches. They are pros at maximizing teaching skills, accountability and outcomes. 

These coaches combine organizational know-how and interpersonal relationships savvy. They have earned their knowledge of content and academic standards from their years as classroom teachers specializing in the instruction of reading, science, social studies, and mathematics.  

Cisneros guides her teachers to understand what the assessment data is actually telling them. This guidance, along with her joint lesson planning work with each teacher, helps her teachers teach with confidence.

“Cristal is really our compass,” says Corrine McKenzie, a third-grade teacher. “She reviews everything we’re teaching and what we’re expecting our kids to show us that they know at the end of a unit and whether it is really aligned with the standards. 

“We do backward planning,” says McKenzie. “She’ll go back and question us as to why did you teach it this way?  She really gets us thinking. Her job is to push us to a higher level to make sure our planning is strong, why we’re teaching what we’re teaching, does it have a purpose, is it connected it to the standard.”

Cisneros explains, “In short, a coach is a kind of a jack of all trades with regard to anything that’s curriculum and instruction. Whatever the teachers are teaching and whatever the students are learning, I have the honor of helping teachers work on that to ensure that effective learning is really happening.”

Cisneros meets throughout the week with her teachers “to review the standards and determine what students still need to know.”  From there, she helps them create “checks for understanding,” a daily assessment tool. 

“They know what to measure and how to use a critical eye looking at assessment data,”  Cisneros says.

Her second-grade team gathers together weekly to review the current academic standards, look at the resources they have, and plan out their week.

 “This week, the students are reading high-level texts and are asking questions about the text,” says Cisneros.

At the teacher weekly meetings, Cisneros answers questions and provides a host of instructional recommendations. “A lot of what we’re doing now is a product of what my teachers have learned from our coaching exercises throughout the year, that is, building a backward design model, what we call a professional learning community (PLC).”

For those kids who are not grasping the instruction, she says, “It depends on what they don’t get. You can have two kids with the same score but have two different levels of ability or two different pieces of knowledge that they’re missing.

“Let’s say that the assessment is about multiplication, and one kid can group numbers and repeat the addition, but still get the wrong answer because the addition is wrong. The teachers will work together to come up with a strategy to reteach that student. Whereas if a student is unable to do any grouping at all, then that student will work with a different teacher until that student grasps the concept.” When students struggle, Corbett’s second-grade teachers divide and conquer. 

Cisneros explains, “Our teachers are really good about owning all of the kids. We don’t have the old thinking that ‘these are my kids, those are your kids’ sort of mentality.”

Cisneros’ employs time-honored tools of good instructional coaching: consulting, coaching and collaborating. She uses each at different times to ensure her classroom teachers are teaching with fidelity. The appropriate tool to use depends on the needs of the teacher she’s working with.  

For those students who exceed expectations, “We always talk about teaching to grade level and then adding instructional techniques as enhancements. It is the perfect case of teachers helping teachers.” 

Cisneros asks, “Now that we know that this student is strong in this content, do we need to go deeper?  It is an ongoing, trial and error conversation.

“Denise, our principal, has fostered a kind of learning lab sort of feel to our work. I get to have the chance to say ‘I want to try this out’ and she will say, ‘Let’s see how it works.’ 

“It is something that you don’t find all that often. I treasure being able to learn by doing. Plus the staff is now open to ideas, feedback and is always asking questions. They know that they don’t know everything right now and so they want to keep learning. It’s really a dynamic culture.”

According to Dufrene, “Whether you are a veteran teacher or new teacher, everyone needs a coach to support them to get better at what they do each day and how to navigate new policies and curriculum.”

Dufrene believes strongly that “every school in the district should have its own, full-time embedded instructional coach.”

The school counselor

Kathleen Johnson has been a school counselor for 14 years, 8 years of which at Corbett. This is her second career, having already been an optician for 28 years.

Kathleen Johnson, school counselor, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Johnson helps teachers grapple with students’ psychological growth. Students with positive social skills help mitigate classroom stress. “Counselors go into classrooms and teach social-emotional education. We talk about bullying. We talk about the Better Safe than Sorry program, which has to do with child abuse. We teach the SHARE program which is sexuality, health, and responsibility education. And we teach violence prevention, empathy, problem-solving and anger management skills.” 

“Eighty percent of students in a regular classroom are able to absorb what we teach,” says Johnson. “Twenty percent generally need more instruction. In my realm, it is an emphasis on building positive social skills. 

“I see about 100 kids a week helping them improve their social skills; teaching them more about recognizing feelings, communicating feelings.”

Some students, about 10 percent, need more individualized attention. “Then I involve families. I work directly with the families using community resources counseling and mental health support.”

“We began teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) several years ago,” says Johnson. “Now our teachers implement SEL into their day-to-day work.”

Corbett’s students learn about expected behaviors within the first couple of weeks of each school year. This includes what behavior is expected in the multi-purpose room, during recess, in their classrooms, at the bus stops. Students learn they will be rewarded for good behavior. 

“We reward our students for positively addressing every negative consequence. We like to reward positive responses because the research shows if we positively reinforce students’ behaviors from the get-go, then they’re more likely to want to exhibit that behavior.”

Celebrations include Student of the Month announcements about good behaviors over the intercom system when students earn perfect scores for exhibiting a specific behavior. “We make these announcements throughout the day, every day.” 

Johnson goes in classrooms regularly, talking to students about Safe Voice. “Safe Voice is when someone is talking about feeling depressed or alone or not having friends to play with.

I emphasize that we all need to be more inclusive. “Some children have a difficult time with friendships. I personally celebrate when students on the playground automatically invite others to come over to play with them, taking it upon themselves to be able to recognize when someone is having problems finding people to play with, and saying, ‘Hey, will you come over and play with me over here.’”

The dean of students

Kristie Martin has been Corbett’s dean of students for 3 years. Her job is a little bit of everything in support of the classroom teachers. 

Kristie Martin, Dean of Students, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

“I’m very fortunate here at Corbett, we don’t have a lot of discipline issues. My day consists of a little bit of discipline, sometimes some meetings with parents, getting in the classrooms and seeing the great quality of instruction that our students are receiving, and helping out giving feedback to the teachers on what could make instruction better.”

Martin is an experienced pro. She’s taught at various schools in the district, both special education, and elementary education. She has also served as an instructional coach (implementation specialist) before her promotion to dean of Corbett’s students.

Martin’s work supports the entire leadership team. “I share the same office with our instructional coach. We work very closely together. Our classroom teachers are in good hands.”

Martin is effusive about how Principal Dufrene’s installation of a building-wide collaborative mindset has made coming to work rewarding for everyone. 

“Corbett is a very special school. We don’t have a ton of behavior problems. Students feel valued as people. The quality of instruction in the classroom is high, so the students are constantly engaged. There’s not a lot of downtimes for those behaviors to pop up.

“I love being here,” says Martin, “I’m able to be in the classrooms. Work with our families. Our families are amazing. They want to know how they can help out in any way.”

Martin believes, “just like any teacher, you go into education because you want to make an impact, a difference. Our teachers here, even though it is very difficult work, they show up every single day with a smile and laughter and they love their students.

“Often, when we are looking at our class size makeup, we have some of our teachers fight on behalf of keeping a particular student in their class. It might not be the easiest student, but they want that challenge and are always up for that challenge. We’re a village here, it takes everybody.”

When Martin first came to Corbett, it was a two-star school. Now it is a four-star school and improving, even more, every day. “We often talk about changes that schools need to make to improve, how to value our classroom teachers and how to increase students’ scores, student achievement. It is easy to forget that it is not a quick process. It takes time, no matter what changes you make, what programs you add or eliminate.  It takes three to five years to actually see the impact. You have to be strategic and patient.”

According to sixth-grader Edward Sermeno, “Corbett has changed me a lot, great teachers help you with your problems. They take you aside, help you, and that’s what’s changed me and that’s why I like it here.”

Corbett sixth-grader, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

This is part of a series of explanatory stories about public education in northern Nevada.


Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s freelance education reporter. I have an MS in curriculum development from SUNY Albany. In the 70s, I directed a community college-sponsored inner-city adult learning center in New York and in the 80s developed the first-offender education program for Northern Nevada Correctional Center. My oldest daughter is an instructional coach for the WCSD. She serves several schools in the district.