“As teachers, we were teaching to the test”
“To walk away is the most difficult decision a teacher can ever make,” Crystal McKinnis said quietly of her decision to leave the profession – a profession that continues to hold her heart – after 11 years in the classroom.
Crystal, a Jackson native, started as a “reluctant teacher” she described.
“There was a lady in my church who kept telling me I was going to be a teacher,” she laughed, “and I never took it seriously.”
However, her friend at church was right. Crystal made her way to the classroom after developing a love of teaching while working with her nephew who was diagnosed with autism.
Identifying a Disconnect
Crystal found herself teaching French at Murrah High School in Jackson, and quickly learned that some of her students were falling through the cracks.
“I began to see early on that there was a disconnect between what we were doing in the classroom and getting the support and resources we need to meet the needs of our students,” she said. “In a lot of cases the teacher has to be everything – the nurse, the counselor, the parent, the conflict resolver – and there is a gap in the support that is offered.”
Crystal recognized that her students were not doing well in the tested subjects and so she began tutoring them.
“It was so sad to see,” she said. “I remember an 11th-grade student I had. One of the other students in my class was writing for him and giving him answers.”
Upon further investigation, Crystal discovered her student could not read.
“That baby didn’t know how to read. He got to the 11th grade and didn’t know how to read,” she said softly. “They pass these children on without teaching them mastery of skills. They are teaching to a test instead.”
The focus on testing, according to Crystal, is overwhelming.
“There is so much pressure to perform on a test,” she said. “As teachers, we were teaching to the test. It wasn’t about learning. It was all about the test. It makes me sad to talk to my teacher friends who are still there because they are overwhelmed.”
As an educator who entered the field to help children learn and grow, Crystal was heartbroken to see how often that is not the case.
Going Back to the Basics
Three years into her career, Crystal transferred to Key Elementary School in Jackson with the idea that she could help students earlier on their path.
“I wanted to get them when they were younger and set them up for success,” she said.
Crystal taught kindergarten and third grade on a rotation at Key Elementary School. She had a strong administrator who supported the teachers, and the students were happy and thriving.
“We learned, though, that what was happening at our school wasn’t happening everywhere else in the district,” she said.
Crystal’s administrator allowed teachers at her school to be creative and teach to the needs of the students, but it changed with a change in administration.
“It feels like we are set up to fail,” she said. “Children are not getting what they need and the emphasis for teachers from their bosses has been placed on the test and so much paperwork. The message from administration is that paperwork is more important than what we are doing for our kids. We had come to a crossroads while I was teaching and that’s why I went to work helping with curriculum because I thought I could make a difference.”
Teachers Know Best
Seeing the struggles in the classroom, a group of about 70 teachers including Crystal volunteered to write the curriculum for their district.
“It was a huge success,” she said. “The teachers loved it and the students were doing well, but that changed when the district decided to go to an outside source for curriculum. I think it has a lot to do with making money off of the district. That’s why we switched.”
Crystal said the change in curriculum was disheartening to teachers.
“It doesn’t have to do with the students,” she said. “As teachers, we felt like they didn’t have confidence in us. They were willing to pay outside people for work that our excellent teachers could do. On top of that, the group of teachers who wrote the curriculum had to fight for the pay we got for writing it.”
What is Crystal’s hope for education in Mississippi?
“I want to see change,” she said. “I have seen so many good teachers leave. We need smaller class sizes and control over our own classrooms. There is no control over what we could teach. If the curriculum wasn’t working for kids and we wanted to use other resources, we couldn’t.”
Crystal also said taking away some of the top-heavy administration would be helpful.
“They need to take away some of the figureheads and put more money into resources in the classroom,” she stressed. “Teachers need better pay, but they need to be able to teach in their own classroom. We are losing some good teachers to administrative positions because they see a way to get out of the classroom and make more money.”
Crystal’s last year teaching was 2020 – the year of the COVID outbreak.
“It was awful,” she said, “but we learned that some children can benefit from a hybrid model. The administration doesn’t want to say that. They want you to think that they are teaching to the children’s individual needs, but they are not. They are still teaching students with a one size fits all mentality.
“There are so many limitations in education. There is a disconnect between the higher-ups and teachers who are actually in the classroom. These are the things that make teachers quit.”
Today, Crystal gets to use her teaching talents in different ways. She is a financial literacy coach and also tutors children through her organization TRIAGE Learning Solutions.
“We offer tutoring, special needs consultation, and other services for parents,” she said.
While she is able to use her skills, Crystal said she misses her students.
“I miss my babies,” she smiled. “Children are so funny. They are honest and the purity of the love from a child is like nothing else. Regardless of what’s going on at home, my babies knew they could come into my classroom and feel loved, safe, and protected.”
Advice from a Teacher
Looking to lawmakers, Crystal’s advice is simple.
“Our job is to make sure children are productive students and to prepare them for life,” she said. “The education system in Mississippi is going down if we don’t adjust.
“Teachers need the ability to be creative in the classroom and meet the needs of our students. They need to trust us.”