A year ago, Southwest Elementary third grade teacher Arica Malone learned she was a semi-finalist for the Kansas State Department of Education Teacher of the Year award — a nice honor for Malone and for the Pratt school district.

The best part, she said, has been professional development opportunities that include visits to schools of semi-finalists. On Monday, it was Malone's turn to host the other teachers.

The day began with breakfast at the Administrative Center for Excellence, followed by visits to preschool classes, and then moved to Southwest Elementary School.

Heather Teasley's kindergarten students demonstrated the prowess with the iPad as they solved math problems. A Great Bend teacher noted that in her district, teachers have tablet computers, but students do not.

Also spotlighted at Southwest were Principal Jason May's character education program, the district's use of MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) that provides rapid response to academic and behavioral needs and frequent data-based monitoring to guide instruction, use of the Smart Board in teaching, and Malone's use of Bal-A-Vis-X, a series of rhythmic exercises she says stimulate the brain, focus attention and calm students.

The group also visited classrooms at Pratt High and Liberty Middle School, as well as the Learning Center at Pratt Community College.

"This is cutting edge stuff," said Jim McNiece, District 10 Representative to the Kansas State Board of Education, standing in for Sally Cauble, whose district includes Pratt.

"Teachers always gain from seeing other teachers in action. We gain information about strategies, programs and curriculum," Malone said, a sentiment echoed by colleagues on the tour. "These visits are probably the most valuable part of the KTOY program. I have already implemented some group teaching strategies that I observed in Great Bend."

While the teachers were positive about what they were seeing in Pratt classrooms, participants in a panel discussion during a catered lunch sketched out challenges for the future.

Recently-adopted social studies standards, and science standards that will follow soon, will be challenging to teachers, McNiece predicted, with less emphasis on memorization and more on higher-level thinking — "your honors and A.P. (advanced placement) kids are already doing this; the challenge will be with gen-ed classes."

Julie Wilson, NEA representative, said that teachers are financially stressed because of low pay and stressed by the state's transition from No Child Left Behind to Common Core standards, and that translates to stress in the classroom.

She projected a serious teacher shortage within the next five to 10 years, as teachers who put off retiring because of the recession, will decide, with all the other stresses that "I'm out of here."

People who should be promoting education as a career, such as Wilson, and an administrator she recently visited with, are not, Superintendent Suzan Patton said.

Ruth Teichman, a former state senator and advocate for education, expects that consolidation will become more of an issue in coming years, and she is very concerned that reductions in state income tax levels will create a lack of money at the state level and the need for schools, counties and cities to pick up the costs.

"I hate to be a naysayer, all gloom and doom, but I am really worried about education in Kansas," she said, while noting that the state currently ranks in the top 10 in almost every aspect of education.

She urged every teacher to become involved in the political process, to elect representatives in Topeka who will support education. In her unsuccessful bid for re-election, she carried counties where educators were organized for her support, she said.

In response to a question from a teacher, McNiece said the state board advocates for more early education, but does not control the money.

"The earlier dollars are spent means less total dollars spent, "McNiece said. "The best bang for the buck is early education."

Another teacher stressed the need to be more proactive, to build healthy families from the beginning. Society doesn't do much to teach parenting skills, she said.

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