Education Matters: Teacher training vs. time in the classroom: How Del Mar walks the tightrope

By Marsha Sutton

Last week’s column discussed the Del Mar Union School District’s balancing act as it tries to provide professional development for its teachers without negatively impacting students and impeding learning in the classroom.

Tiffany Kinney and Gina Vargus, co-presidents of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, discussed the discomfort some teachers have with the training.

Kinney, a DMUSD classroom teacher since 2000, said teachers are unsettled “because we want to do such a good job. I know what works really well and now I’m having to use some of that but I’m having to add some of the other [techniques].”

“Veteran teachers haven’t felt like a first-year teacher in a long time,” said Vargus, who has been teaching in Del Mar since 1991. “You have to think on your feet, and you don’t know how long something’s going to take, and you don’t know where your kids are going to be at the end of your [lesson] plan, and maybe it’s not such a great plan and I’ll have to go back and rework that.”

Despite scattered criticism that pulling teachers from their classrooms for the training sessions is not in the best interests of students, Kinney and Vargus said the training definitely puts students first.

“It’s really preparing them,” Kinney said.

“What we’ve heard over the last several years is that kids are coming out of college not prepared to be workers and … they’re not independent thinkers,” Vargus said. “I think this gives kids ownership of that.”

Former Del Mar parent Melissa Myrhum vehemently disagreed. “Absolutely not,” she said, when asked if the focus on staff development in Del Mar is placing kids’ interests first. “The priority is not the students.”

Myrhum, who moved to the Del Mar district in 2011 with three children, two of whom were in fourth and fifth grades at the time, took aim at DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg who in 2011 was assistant superintendent under then-superintendent Jim Peabody.

“She doesn’t have her client’s best interests at heart, and that’s the kids,” Myrhum said, of McClurg.

Myrhum said the schedule has meant lost time for students and adversely affects learning, and said substitute teachers are often just babysitters.

“You cannot continue to pull these teachers out and expect a great result,” she said. “It’s terrible for the learning environment.”

Myrhum took her complaints first to the principal, who she said told her nothing could be done. Then she spoke with McClurg, who she said justified it repeatedly, “to the point where I was so incredibly frustrated.”

After that she talked to Peabody, who she said told her, “It would be too hard to fight the unions to get all of this changed.”

She said she told him it was McClurg, not the teachers, who was mandating all the staff development. “But I guess it was easier for Peabody to blame the union,” she said.

“All this development, that was her baby,” Myrhum said of McClurg. “She wasn’t going to let go, no matter how much criticism she got.”

Myrhum is not alone. One frustrated parent, exasperated after two years of what she described as lost learning time for her children, protests this year by pulling her kids out of school on the days when their classroom teachers will be absent for training.

In an interview in January, McClurg defended her emphasis on staff development, saying teacher training is “the most powerful thing, [by] empowering our teachers how to teach as effectively as possible.”

She said she has no regrets about the professional development, “not for a moment.”

“Teaching is grounded in solid research,” McClurg said.

The district encourages teachers to do some of their training over the summer, to minimize lost classroom time, but McClurg said attendance can’t be compelled per the district’s contract with teachers.

“I don’t make apologies and I think it’s absolutely the right work,” she said. “That said, we are trying to determine the best possible ways to train our teachers and keep our teachers in the classroom as much as possible. I do realize when they’re not there, it’s a substitute and that is one of the pieces we take into consideration.”

Benefiting the kids

Kinney and Vargus acknowledged that many parents were initially unhappy about all the professional development during school hours.

But parents who at first objected are coming around, once they become aware of how the training and new standards will benefit the students, Kinney said.

“We’re starting to see parents becoming more and more comfortable with it,” she said. “Also, when we go to the staff development, we are getting things we can use the next day when we walk into the classroom.”

Vargus recommended that parents attend informational sessions. “The parents who have attended the evenings have been just wowed by the information they’re getting,” she said. “It is getting the word out about how valuable it is, how great it is for kids.”

“It’s our job as professionals to explain the value of this professional development – why it’s of benefit to the children,” she said.

Kinney said teachers know in August the dates they are required to be out of the classroom for training for the coming school year. She suggested that teachers secure substitute teachers well in advance and call the ones they trust, to ensure consistency and confidence that the lesson plans will be followed.

Although teachers are not required to find their own subs, “it’s in your best interest and it’s in your children’s best interest,” Vargus said. “And it’s in your best interest to find someone who knows how you run your classroom and someone who wants to come back.”

“I’ve always felt personally that it’s been my responsibility,” Kinney said. “If I’m going to be out, I need to find someone to cover my job.”

Vargus and Kinney said they know the capable subs and try to book them early. They also rely on student teachers who are not just place-holders but are motivated to follow lesson plans closely and do real teaching.

Because all districts have to prepare for the Common Core roll-out this fall by training teachers for the new standards, finding qualified substitute teachers is a county-wide problem, they said.

Teachers not resistant

Kinney and Vargus said teachers are not resistant but simply uneasy.

“It’s not about going to the training at all – it’s about making sure that in your absence things run smoothly for the kids,” Vargus said. “Any time we’re not there, we want to make sure it’s a day just as if we were there … which is impossible to replicate. So there is stress about that.”

When asked to comment on the controversy, former DMCTA president and Ocean Air fifth-grade teacher Katrina Campbell refused to discuss the issue, writing in an email, “I am not interested in speaking to anyone in the media. I prefer to focus solely on my students.”

Carmel Del Mar fourth-grade teacher David Skinner, who served as president of the DMCTA before Campbell, did speak to the issue, saying in an email, “I don’t feel I am being pulled out of the classroom an unreasonable amount of time, but I know other teachers feel differently.”

Skinner said the Common Core roll-out “has been a bit rocky” but is not sure how it could have been done better, given the delay in the state’s approval of adequate instructional materials.

“We are going in the right direction in my opinion,” he said. “I am thrilled we are finally looking critically at how we teach and learn mathematics in DMUSD. The real shame would be reversing course just because we haven’t been perfect in our application of the Common Core standards and how to teach them.”

He said parents and teachers need to understand why the professional development is important and effective.

“We need to explain what we are doing and keep doing it,” he said. “I think the research backs us up.”

Myrhum doesn’t disagree that training for teachers is important. “Everybody needs to continue their education, teachers included,” she said. But the way it’s provided, and the consequence of lost classroom time, “is not good for the kids.”

She and many other parents believe the Wednesday afternoons when teachers leave early should be used for training sessions.

“Do it on-line, or at the school on those Wednesday afternoons,” she said. “The half-day thing is putting the teachers first.”

McClurg said professional development is also offered on the two Wednesday afternoons each month when teachers are permitted to leave work at 12:30, but those are not work hours.

“We do try to schedule … trainings and meetings on those days as much as possible, but it’s not in their contract so we can’t require attendance,” McClurg said.

The two Wednesdays when teachers are required to stay at school are consistently used for professional learning and meetings, she said, this year focused on mathematics.

Kinney and Vargus said they are working closely with district administrators, teachers and parents to identify alternative delivery methods for the training, to minimize teacher absences from the classroom.

As co-presidents of the DMUSD’s teachers union, they said they support the professional development and feel it is vital to student success, while at the same time acknowledging that it is stressful for teachers and parents.

“We all want the best for our kids,” Vargus said. “We as Del Mar teachers are lifelong learners and we relish the opportunity to learn new things and we know that the CGI training is good for kids. It’s very valuable.”

Recognizing that the missed time with their students is a great concern, Kinney and Vargus said teachers are “excited about all the great ideas” that are being presented to change the delivery of teacher training.

“We’re getting great ideas from members as well as the administration about how this can look different,” Vargus said. “There’s no one who’s stuck in that ‘this is the way it has to be’ [position].”

“We’re all looking at ways to make it better,” Kinney said, “so that we’re not having to be pulled out of our classroom [as much]. The forefront of our teaching is the children in our classroom. They are our number one priority. And we want to make sure we are the best at what we do to be able to prepare them to be lifelong learners, to be successful.”

End of Part Two of a three-part series

Next week: Sitting in on professional development

Marsha Sutton can be reached at