The Letter I Meant to Read…

I was recently at an important gathering for educators where we were asked to share with constituents our feelings about the current education climate. Unfortunately, the one person that really needed to hear us, was absent due to “health issues”. I don’t think anyone in the room was surprised. After all, in my almost 20 years in the classroom, no one who holds power for change in education has ever shown up at school to ask me what is working, what isn’t working or how I feel about all of it. Though the audience was surely discouraged, we forged ahead, and for two hours we heard heartbreaking stories about schools, teachers and children that brought many of us to tears. The leaders sitting before us listened and responded in any way they knew how, yet it offered little solace when I realized we were truly “preaching to the choir”. Looking back, I wish I had stepped up to the microphone early on, but my fear of public speaking (yes, many teachers have it) forced me to stay seated for too long. About an hour into our forum, I realized that most of what I had prepared in my heartfelt letter had already been said in one way or another. Instead of stepping to the mic, I sat and listened some more, took notes and pondered what I could do to help the first grade children who took “Forty tests in the first thirty five days of school”, the child who vomited all over his state exam then watched as his teacher and principal ziplocked it to send back to the New York State Education Department because they were told via phone that “every test needs to be accounted for”, the developmentally disabled child who fiercely pinned his friend against the wall by her throat on their way back from a lengthy exam that obviously frustrated him to the point of violence, the teacher who steadfastly demanded that we stop allowing schools to be closed in poor districts where schools “are the community”. Nothing surprised me that evening, but I was inspired by my colleagues, and their personal accounts reaffirmed for me why educators and parents will continue to push back against the corporate takeover of public education, one of the most crucial, fundamental rights in our country.

So, here is the letter I meant to read…

To Whom It May Concern,
I have been a public educator for almost 20 years. Although I have many things I’d like to say about the recent burdens that have been placed upon boards of education, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and children, I’m here today to be a voice for my 9 year old son and many other children like him. Forgive me if I get emotional, but I am VERY emotional about what he has encountered during his 3rd grade year at public school. Yet, I am probably more emotional about what he has NOT encountered, and that is hands-on, authentic learning. My son is a brilliant, piano-playing, baseball-loving, kind human being. He is a sponge who thrives on learning about the world around him, AND he reads at a 6th grade level. Early on in the school year, my husband and I started seeing some behaviors that were out of our son’s character. Tears fell on his math homework more than once. Worse yet, the Pearson Reading Streets tests, that come home EVERY SINGLE WEEK for corrections, have been a constant source of frustration for him and our whole family. Often, we will all sit down and look at the questions my son got “wrong” and none of us can figure out which answer is “right”. Every parent knows that it is extremely uncomfortable to be in that position where you cannot help your child as he or she searches your face for guidance and assurance. The questions and passages on these tests are worded so poorly, and they are so developmentally inappropriate, that even students like my son, who is instrisically motivated to always do his best, are constantly feeling inadequate to the point of breaking down. With the new “system”, it seems nothing is ever good enough. Of course, just as heart-breaking are the kids who read below grade level or have IEP’s and are lost from the start of most activities because they can’t read the text or move quickly enough to make even small gains. I even hear from parents who say their child is unaffected, yet because of my experiences with children over many years, I know this is not the case. Those student have simply chosen to accept that life at school means doing worksheets and taking tests. I worry about them, too, because they are the ones who will probably never love school even though they have the potential to become great learners. They are the kids who enter high school with a glazed look on their faces and do what they have to just to get by.

After several meetings and phone calls with my son’s teacher and principal and after much research on my part, I came to a startling conclusion a few weeks ago. My son and his 3rd grade classmates will take over 500 pages of tests this year. The number is shocking, I know. Unfortunately, I have no power to change this, and because I am an educator myself, I feel guilty for even challenging what another educator chooses to do in her classroom. After all, I know the challenges of being a teacher. Yet I also know that when I became a mom, I became a much better teacher. 

 
I have now accepted what I obviously cannot change, and I do everything in my power to counteract the negative effects that this kind of “textbook” education could have on my son. The narrow curriculum leaves little to no room for science or social studies, so when my son recently read a story about rocks in his Pearson text, I suggested we gather rocks and look at them under a microscope that a science teacher at my school kindly let me borrow. My son was excited and inspired, and my colleague was quick to gather more rocks for us because, as he admitted to me, his 2nd grade daughter is encountering the same thing- an education that focuses on ELA & Math only. Amazingly, my son had little anxiety that week for his Friday test and did really well in his writing about rocks. 
 
Even through all of this frustration, I have come to realize that my child is one of the fortunate ones. He has me to help supplement his textbook stories as well as a dedicated dad to make his often confusing math work more realistic and concrete. Yet what about the others? What about the child with the single mom who has no time each day to go through her son’s backpack and sit down with him to talk about his school day or what he needs to prepare for tomorrow? What about the child who is so poor that her mom and dad can’t afford to supplement with information from the computer or with novels they don’t have? What about the student that has an abusive father and desperately needs a connection at school that he may not make because his teacher is so overwhelmed and concerned with the tests that she does not notice his real needs? These questions bring us back to the foundation of what public education is supposed to do for children – provide a fair and well-rounded education to ALL.

I come from a family of educators. My father was a teacher for thirty five years, and my mother was a high school and college educator for twenty years before moving on to the business world. I was in school before I could walk or talk. I was the cute little mascot/cheerleader for the football team when I was four. I valued my education from the time I entered school, and I was taught that I was to respect all teachers and learn from them. My AP English teacher inspired me so much that I became one myself. To this day, Mr. Baines is the best teacher I have ever known. My high school basketball coach loved me unconditionally and showered me with awards that made me truly believe in myself for the first time. She made me a better basketball player, but more importantly, she made me a better person.

I am the product of public education. I have always been proud of the opportunities that have been afforded me. I have always been proud to be a teacher; however, in the last couple years my pride wavers. I am no longer proud of our public education system. Teachers everywhere are being forced to do things that go against everything we have been trained to do. Class sizes have grown, schools all over the country are being shut down as I write this, and students are being reduced to tears and test scores. Public schools are being sold out to businesses such as Pearson that do not have our children’s best interests at heart, and communities have little to no input in decisions that are being made for our children.

I believe every child is unique. I believe every child can learn. I believe every child has potential to do something great in life. I believe every child has a reasonable desire to learn reading, writing and arithmetic in an authentic way, not just through a text book. I believe that children are not learning when they are testing. I believe that I can and will continue to make a positive difference.

Sincerely…

An Afterword:

When I returned home from above mentioned forum the other night, I found on my facebook wall a picture/quote from a former student who was in my 9th grade English class twelve years ago. It read, “This  made me think of you”…. and the picture said, “Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.” This thoughtful gesture was a heart-warming reminder of why I will always love teaching as long as I can do it in a way that works for my students and for.  More importantly, this reminded me why I need to keep pushing back.

 
 
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26 thoughts on “The Letter I Meant to Read…

  1. Excellent letter! Even though you didn’t get to read this, you should send it to everyone in Albany. People need to hear this.

  2. This brought me to tears in a good and more emotional way than I had thought it would. You have a beautiful soul and it shows when you teach. 12 years ago you became the woman who inspired me to be better, accept others, and in fact learn to love learning.

    I worry about the day I have kids of my own and what the school will do for them. Will they have the same education I had? Will they enjoy school as I had? Play sports, sing in the play, learn an instrument? And most importantly will they have a teacher who takes the time out of their busy schedule to TALK to them. LISTEN to them. As you did for me. I have no doubt in my mind that without you taking those extra minutes, getting me that black history month calendar, which I still have, and listening to all the boring highschool drama, I would be a different person. YOU helped change my life for the better. I hope and pray there are more teachers like you, who truly care about their students outside the education system as well as inside. Thank you for all you did, all you do now, all you will do in future. You still inspire me 12 years later and that’s the greatest gift in the world. You gave me hope, faith, and love. ❤

    Forever your student,
    Kyris S Smith (Turner)

  3. There is so much truth in this letter and there are so many children who need a teacher who instills learning in the kids. Tests are for doctors who need to find out what diseases we are suffering from not for kids to parrot material to the State regents board.

  4. Thank you for this honest letter. Your story is one that too many teachers, parents, and students can relate to. Please keep telling your story. You write that “I have no power to change this” and that you have accepted what you “obviously cannot change.” Maybe you can not directly change the teachers and the experiences of your children in their current 2nd and 3rd grade classes, but you can contribute to broader change. Indeed, you are. Writing this letter is taking action, and it contributes to changing the current discourse about standardized tests, “failing” public schools, and education “reform.” And, there are other forums out there for your story and for collaborating with other parents and teachers who share your views and concerns. One that might interest you is http://teachersspeakup.com/. You do have the power to contribute to change; you are working towards change. And I hope that more teachers and parents realize their power and add their voices. Have you considered opting your children out of standardized tests? unitedoptout.com/ Thanks again for your leadership and for taking a stand!

  5. Hi Teachermomny,

    Your letter touched my heart – thanks for your emotional labor here – your courage is inspiring. As a teacher and a mom, I so connect with your words. I am in the midst of writing my dissertation on teacher activism – I would be honored if you would be interested in participating – please reach out if you are willing 🙂

  6. The sad thing is: New York State Commissioner John King wants more for his own children. He sends them to an independent Montessori school…..Yet he is willing to make policies and pass regulations that systematically strip other people’s children of the authentic learning and engagement that he seeks for his own girls. I am filled with despair and outrage about how much children are losing out and how many great teachers’ souls are being crushed.

  7. Bless you. I too, come from a family if educators, and my son had reactions to school much like yours did–to the point where I finally pulled him out, we are homeschooling, and I am looking at private high schools we can’t afford. I would never have believed that I would be doing these things. Thank you and all the educators who are pushing back against what has been done to public education.

  8. Send this to Trenton, also!! I am also a teacher and a mom, and I could not have said this any better than you did.

  9. Your letter reminds me that there is still hope that he educational system will get better and more realistic in all aspects concerning everyone of all ages, primarily the young. We need more teachers like you, an abundance of them.

  10. You have spoken eloquently and emotionally, reflecting what so many of us feel about the education climate today. I am a retired teacher in CT who feels so strongly about making our voices heard that I ran for and was elected to my local Board of Education. My town does well on state tests so people don’t question much, so it is very hard to raise awareness about how much our children are missing because of this insane need for politicians to quantify student learning with piles of data. That’s why we need to keep getting the message out. We may not have the power of money and influence behind us, but we do have numbers. Thank you so much for your passion and dedication, which are traits SO many teachers have, contrary to how teachers are often portrayed.

  11. What a well-written letter! We are feeling the exact same way in the Southern Tier, where school cuts have decimated the opportunities for our students. It is apparent that those in charge have never entered a rural school, nor understand our challenges. Whether it’s testing, the new APPR, or non-funded mandates, they are killing off small schools. I suppose my daughters are expected to ride a bus for over two hours (one way) once we are forced to consolidate. How is this fair to anyone?

    Keep up the great work!

  12. Pingback: A zip-lock bag of vomit | Tested to Despair

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