The nation is currently deep in another election year and as we are all aware, the commercials for both sides are coming at us fast and furiously in the hopes of drumming up support for their candidate. I will not discuss who I support or who I don't support here, that wouldn't be appropriate in this forum. But, I do want to clear up some misrepresentations I have been seeing in an ever increasing set of commercials that have both myself and many of my fellow educators angry. The commercials I am talking about are local to the NC political races and state a couple of things about teaching in our state that warrant deeper examination. These claims include: average teacher pay in NC has risen to an average of over $50,000, candidate x voted for a 15% pay raise for teachers, and the state of education in NC has improved in recent years.
The NC teacher pay scale is a matter of public record and published online every year by the Department of Public Instruction. So I have no problem stating openly that as a teacher going into my 14th year with a Masters of Education degree, I am not making the average salary of $50,150 as the commercials claim. Nor are many of my colleagues who are veteran educators. In fact, last year, my non-adjusted income after participating in a one-year paid fellowship and including my spouse's part-time income barely surpassed that claim. It is also important to note that this figure is not talking about average salary alone, it incorporates ALL earned teacher income. That includes added pay for earning a Masters degrees (a benefit that was removed for newer teachers a couple of years ago), added pay for those with National Board Certification (this amounts to a small percentage of teachers across the state and provides a 12% pay raise), paid fellowships (which are few and far between, and require the same process and commitment as applying for a second job, which many teachers already need just to make ends meet), and added pay for local supplements (which are neither required of local districts nor standardized across the state). And, they completely ignore stating the increase they gave only to new teachers at the bottom of the scale over the past couple of years to raise the pay scale floor. All of these things compounded together make a huge difference in calculating overall average teacher pay. So, for those who take the time to examine this claim on a deeper level, it should become clear that there are distinct problems with this statement.
Another claim some of these commercials make involves supporting a 15% pay raise for teachers. And, on face value, these claims are correct. But, what they fail to point out is that this raise is only true specifically for a subgroup of all teachers: those just starting their careers in the classroom. And, it is also only true when combining the individual raises that starting teachers received over the past three years. Veteran educators saw no raise whatsoever during the previous two years, despite the increasing cost of living and personal out-of-pocket expenses due to shrinking employee benefits. Although, it must be stated that our politicians do claim they gave veteran teachers a small raise one of those years. But, what they really did was play a shell game where they provided a raise in place of the one bonus that veteran teachers receive in the form of longevity pay, which we used to get annually on top of our salary for remaining in the classroom longer than 10 years. So in place of a raise on top of an anticipated bonus, we lost the bonus and received what actually became a loss of income under the disguise of a raise. And, they did offer veteran educators a small raise if they would relinquish their contracted rights to career status, better know to most people as tenure. This school year, teachers across the board will receive a 4.7% raise. This is clearly different than the stated 15% the ads mention and far less than the rejected proposal of a 10% raise for all teacher that was made by the state superintendent, which is the amount needed to get NC to the national average for teacher pay. But please, don't misunderstand this information, teachers are very happy to receive the raise we are getting this year.
The third claim made is with regard to improving the education system. I am curious about their definition of improved vs. what most people would agree is an improvement. After examining teacher surveys which the Department of Public Instruction collects from teachers annually and posts publicly online (latest data is for the 2014-15 school year), it becomes clear that NC just experienced the largest loss of teachers in over eight years, with a turnover rate of 14.84%. More importantly, this loss has increased nearly every year since the 2008-09 school year. When looking at the reasons teachers list for leaving even closer, it becomes clear that 16% of them stated the decision came as a result of dissatisfaction with the state's public education system. These teachers either left teaching entirely or moved to teach in another state. Granted, it is often said that 40-50% of all new teachers leave the profession in their first five years. But I wonder how many of those who left were veteran educators (note that the above number does not include those retiring) and if this loss is a result of the extended low pay scale in NC (most people don't realize teacher salary is capped at $50,000 for 30 years of experience, though this will increase to $54,000 over the next three years), loss of career status or Masters degree pay, the increased focus on high-stakes standardized testing, or the ever increasing class sizes and shrinking amount of support that results from educators leaving the career or state. And this decrease in the number of teachers doesn't solely relate to those currently in the classroom. There is also a 30% reduction in the number of college students enrolling in schools of education due to program cuts and their belief that there is little-to-no future or chance for advancement when working in public education. This combined shortage of teachers has resulted in several schools across the state lacking the staff needed to provide equally for all students as the current school year approaches. So this brings me back to asking: how has the state of education in NC been improved?
But even with all that being said, I don't want to end this post with a completely negative outlook on the state of education in NC. It's not all doom and gloom. Every so often, my commitment to remain in the NC public education system is reaffirmed. Earlier this week, I received an email from a parent thanking me for all I have done for their son. I am very blessed to work in a school that contains students from grades 6-12. I have taught this particular young man every year since the 8th grade and will do so once again during his final year in high school. As a result, he has taken every computer-based course we offer in order to learn as much as he possibly can about the tools and techniques that are relevant to the game industry. As a game design teacher, I am always thrilled to learn how I have helped further a student's passion to pursue such a career. But what truly made my day was when his mom divulged that while he was going through the college interview process over the summer, his passion and knowledge of game design was so evident that it impressed the interviewer enough for them to comment on how well our game design concentration prepared him for their program. This friendly email of gratitude absolutely increased my objective to be the best teacher possible for my students and helped to energize me for the coming year.
You see, like so many other educators, although pay is an important thing (I do have bills and a family to support), it is the experiences like the one above and the difference I can make in a student's future that matters most to me. I truly enjoy working with my students, fellow educators, and administrators to make a difference in both our state and the country as a whole, even if I do on occasion get grumpy. Am I happy with the current state of education in NC? Not in the least. But...is that dissatisfaction so deep that I would leave my current/future students whom I have developed a deep connection with over many years together? Once again, the response would have to be: Not in the least!
When an individual states that they are a gamer, the first questions that comes to mind for most people include:
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in tabletop games thanks in large part to the development of Eurogames such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and many others. These games tend to require a short period of time to play, contain lots of social interaction, use simple (and a wide variety of) game mechanics and lack player elimination during gameplay. And, unlike video games, tabletop games have a longer shelf life as they are not dependent on hardware that quickly becomes obsolete. You can still play tabletop games that originate from hundreds of years back but have great difficulty playing the popular console games from even just 10-20 years ago. In fact, tabletop games have grown so popular in recent years that many popular video games have been converted to the format. There are highly acclaimed tabletop versions of games like XCOM, Portal, Gears of War, Bioshock, Street Fighter and even World of Warcraft. And that is not to say they fall into the genre of roleplaying games.
One of the things a game designer needs to keep in mind when converting a digital title to tabletop format is how to keep the feel of the original game. This becomes an interesting balancing act for designers because the rules, procedures and mechanics need to be significantly simplified due to players officiating the game instead of a computer. But, it must still remind the player of the gameplay they experienced on a computer/console. For this post, I want to examine how this was recently accomplished with a classic game many will remember from their youth: The Oregon Trail.
For those who do not know, The Oregon Trail is a video game title produced in the early 1970s by a couple of student teachers and has often been used in schools since its creation. The game has continued being wildly popular since then with new releases coming every few years covering a variety of platforms (Macintosh, DOS, Windows, Wii, and 3DS) and as recently as 2012, when it was ported to the Windows phone platform. The Oregon Trail video game was designed to teach students about life in the 19th century as pioneers traveled by covered wagon along the Oregon trail from Independence, MO to the Williamette Valley along with the hardships they endured along the way. The goal of the game is simple: move your character to the Williamette Valley without being killed by starvation, disease or any other peril along the way. So, how did they measure up with the card game?
So, why/how do I use tabletop games in my classroom? By examining and creating tabletop games, young designers have to think critically about the various components that make up games including: objective, conflict, rules, procedures, resources, probability, and boundaries. And, there is often a faster turnaround time to create a board/card game as well as see problems with the overall design. Because students need to think about the limitations of people officiating their game instead of a computer doing it for their players, examining, playing and creating tabletop games forces them to think more critically about what will make their game fun for other people to play. If a game is too difficult or too easy, players will stop playing the game so it is important for young designers to grasp the concept/techniques of carefully balancing the components that make up all game formats.
So, the next time a friend says let's play a game and you see them pull out a box and dice, don't come up with an excuse to do something different or mock them because it's not on a computer/console. You just might learn something about design techniques and have fun along the way!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.