Monday, February 25, 2013

Excellent Letter

The following letter is from JEA member Leslie Thompson.  She gave me permission to share it with you.  She has articulately expressed what many of us as classroom teachers are feeling. 

February 23, 2013

Dear Superintendent Johnson, Representative McCay, and Governor Herbert:
For several reasons, this has been the most challenging year of my teaching career. One reason is that I'm teaching a new curriculum, but my students will still be tested on the old one. Another reason involves our district’s recent implementation of PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) and constant demand for statistics and results when there hasn't been enough time to gather either. A fellow teacher and I have dedicated a surplus of 80 hours outside of our contract time to develop and begin implementing the required common assessments. In addition to preparing a new curriculum for three different courses, writing a new assessment, participating in committees and clubs, and losing class time to PLCs (which I believe in, but they need time to actually work before I can assess their success), assemblies, testing, and completing requisite test-prep packets (by this I mean students filling out bubble sheets about whether or not they want to mow lawns when they grow up), I'm expected to do my day job – help kids improve and hone their reading analysis, writing and thinking skills. And I'm doing it for less money than I was a few years ago.

I'm not asking for a raise. I'm asking for an improvement in the way we see education and the role of teachers. We frequently hear that teachers are the constant and most effective factor in improving student skills – but a truer statement is that teachers are the most effective of the controllable factors within a school system. Since schools can't control parents or poverty, which are greater factors in student success, we focus on just telling teachers to do more with less. The constant barrage of teacher bashing and trying to fire "bad teachers" is ruining the profession for the majority of us who are good. And I promise you, I'm good at my job. You may ask my students, the parents of my students, or the administrators who talk to those students and work with me directly. Better yet, instead of asking my students about my teaching, ask them about the world – ask them about what they've learned and how they think. Read some of their essays or watch some of their presentations. I know that actually asking the people who matter what they think takes too much time. So, fine. Look at my test scores. They're good. Pick a test, any test: SRI? CRT? ACT? Department common assessment? My kids take them all and I'm not worried about their scores – but those scores are byproducts of ten years of other great teachers, good parents, healthy kids, and the fact that I lucked out and teach honors and AP classes. You are welcome to look at my test scores, but they paint a small portion of the picture of who my students are and how effective I am at my job.

There is money in saying that education is bad. Large companies and corporations make money when teachers are blamed – they can develop programs and sell textbooks and tax payers pay them to fix me. So we'll continue to say our education system is broken because corporate profits are more important than our kids. But if we're really worried about student success, and we really want to find models of success to emulate and implement, let's do that. The answer isn't charter schools or school vouchers. We like to compare our kids to kids in more academically successful countries – and it's not charter schools that make those countries’ students successful. Nope, it's a combination of low poverty rates and teachers who are well trained, well compensated, and well respected. It's not programs or textbooks or private schools. It is good curriculum with minimal testing. It is training teachers and giving them the time and respect to do what they do well and improving the living conditions of children so they can actually have the energy to be successful. That's it. It's simple – not easy, but simple.

Right now, you are the people who have the most control over the students I care about. Please care about the students more than politics. Please actually read the research about what makes schools better – research by people and organizations without a vested financial interest in your believing one way or another; research by people who care about kids more than pocketbooks. Of course I would love a raise; but what I'd love even more is the respect I deserve and the support to actually work with my students to help them be better citizens – fewer tests, more actual time in class with each student, and an environment that encourages them to value academics and be creative, critical, innovative, and interested.

I know that we live in a conservative climate and that the current desire to test kids and get rid of "bad teachers" through merit pay and other de-centives permeates the rhetoric. I don't believe it opposes the conservative values of our culture to localize the control of education to the school level, eliminate bureaucracy, and stop paying large corporations to tell us how to do our jobs. A good education is a fundamental right for all children and is necessary for our great country to be successful. Privatizing education and pitting teachers against each other will not accomplish the goal of encouraging all children to think critically while preparing them for a diverse workforce and participation in their communities. There are better ways that have the benefit of being both simpler and more just for all kids.

This article and this one outline some of the ideas I've shared here. I think they’re worth considering, even if you think the ideas are too "liberal." In my perfect society, we'd care more about the value of an idea than whether it came from a liberal or a conservative person. But maybe teaching our kids to think this way – to question and analyze and consider multiple perspectives – is the reason we want them to take bubble tests and forget to think. If teachers actually got to help kids be critical thinkers, we might get a generation who questioned their leaders and thought for themselves. But I'd like to believe that we all really do want to do the right thing and are just struggling to define what that right thing is. These articles should help with that definition.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Leslie Thompson, M.Ed.
Riverton High School
English Department

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