A Call to Action for Teachers

custom_billboard_low_angle_14067 (1)Anthony Cody has been an advocate and activist for public education and for public school teachers and the students in public schools for many years. I first ran into Anthony’s work when I was a new member of the then Teacher Leader Network (now the Center for Teaching Quality) back in the 2000’s. Anthony is now often quoted in Diane Ravitch’s blog as he is a regular blogger himself, and he writes a blog entitled “Living in Dialogue” which is featured in Education Week Teacher.  His latest post is entitled, “Teachers:  A Call to Battle for Reluctant Warriors.”

It has been true for a long time now that public education has been under both overt and covert attack. Education advocates and activists like Anthony Cody, Diane Ravitch, Nancy Flanagan and others have been sounding the alarm for a long time. When I was President of the Virginia Education Association (2008-2012), I spent a good portion of my annual address to the Delegate Assembly trying to share my own sense of urgency about what was happening that too many of them were unaware of because, instead of following education policy news, they were busy trying to teach their kids and keep up with the never ending demands of their districts.

Teachers have been far too reluctant to fight back even though they feel attacked, however. Like “good soldiers” they have gone about the business of meeting the increasingly impossible demands being placed upon them by policy makers and politicians. Too many have shied away from fully believing that there has been a conspiracy afoot with the ultimate goal being to eliminate their positions and to eradicate public education forever in favor of privatized, corporate-run charter schools.

What Anthony Cody is arguing is that it is time to get over the reluctance to fight back if there is any hope of preserving public education as a democratic value in our country. As the gulf between the have’s and have not’s grows greater by the day, and while teachers work harder and harder everyday to try to meet the impossible demands,  time is running out. If you don’t believe me, read Anthony’s article from Education Week here.

I join Anthony in asking that teachers pay attention. It is time to fight back if you believe that public education is an important value. I do. I hope you do, too.

Note:  Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board- certified teacher, he now leads workshops with teachers on Project Based Learning. He is the co-founder of the Network for Public Education. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning.Follow Anthony Cody on Twitter.

Another Teacher Resigns Over Low Pay and Lack of Respect

Another teacher–this time a National Board Certified Teacher with 13 years of experience–resigns because she can’t pay her bills on the low salary she was earning in North Carolina. She is tired of trying to make ends meet, and she is really tired of the disrespect being offered to teachers in NC, not to mention the fact that teaching is no longer fun, given the over-emphasis on testing and reliance on data. See the interview and read her letter of resignation which she addressed to the Governor of North Carolina along with others here.

Another Teacher Quits in Frustration

custom_stack_of_books_11960On March 23, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post offered another article that caught my attention and then ignited my interest and finally touched my heart on a deep level. She offered the perspective of a Massachusetts kindergarten teacher who is, in my opinion, both a “teacher in distress” and a “teacher in transition.” After 25 years of teaching kindergarten, Susan Sluyter has decided she has had enough. She knows in her heart and soul that the obsession with data that is driving our school systems of today, thanks to wrong headed initiatives and generally bad education policy, is not serving children, and she just can’t participate in the farce any longer. Below you can see her letter of resignation. We have clearly lost another dedicated teacher because of these poorly thought through initiatives. When will the administrators and policy makers hear us? When more teachers like Suzi Sluyter make their voices heard. At least, that is what I believe. I don’t want to believe that it is too late…but I do fear that time is running out. More teachers need to find their voices and speak up…not just for themselves and the damage that has been done to our profession but for the children who are not being served by this current data obsessed system.

My favorite line from Ms. Sluyter’s letter is here:

“The overall effect of these federal and state sponsored programs is the corrosion of teacher moral, the demeaning of teacher authority, a move away from collaborating with teachers, and the creation of an overwhelming and developmentally inappropriate burden imposed on our children.”

The entire letter is worth reading, however as is the entire article.

Please feel free to share widely. I know that this letter will resonate with every teacher (especially the ones who remember what it was like to teach before No Child Left Behind).

Here is Ms. Sluyter’s letter in its entirety.

February 12, 2014

I am writing today to let you know that I am resigning my position as PreK and Kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools.  It is with deep sadness that I have reached this decision, as I have loved my job, my school community, and the families and amazing and dedicated faculty I have been connected with throughout the district for the past eighteen years.  I have always seen myself as a public school teacher, and fully intended to work until retirement in the public school system.  Further, I am the product of public schools, and my son attended Cambridge Public Schools from PreK through Grade 12.  I am and always have been a firm believer in quality public education.

In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in the public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children.  I have experienced, over the past few years, the same mandates that all teachers in the district have experienced.   I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them.  Each year, I have been required to spend more time attending classes and workshops to learn about new academic demands that smack of 1st and 2nd grade, instead of Kindergarten and PreK.  I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this!  Look at me!  Know me!  Help me!  See me!”  I have changed my practice over the years to allow the necessary time and focus for all the demands coming down from above.  Each year there are more.  Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend.  I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.

I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same:  to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom.  I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.

It is with deep love and a broken heart that I write this letter.

Sincerely,

Suzi Sluyter

Possible Remedies for Teacher Burn Out

For the last couple of days, I have been following a thread of discussion on LinkedIn. The topic is teacher burn out and what might be done about it. Some solutions that were offered in one article were pretty superficial, I thought. The suggestions included offering a social time for teachers, for example, so they could get together and relax every once in a while. The other suggestions  were okay as far as they went, but they didn’t go nearly far enough in my opinion.

Teacher burnout is a serious issue and it is one that needs to be treated seriously although I don’t think enough people are truly paying attention to it. The fact is, however, that a growing number of teachers are feeling disillusioned about their chosen profession. What I hear on a regular basis from the teachers I work with is that they still love their kids, but they don’t feel like they are teaching anymore. They are, instead, delivering a canned curriculum and then administering test after test after blasted test. The fun has been sucked out of teaching and it is a sure bet the children they are teaching aren’t having much fun either.

I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on the thread and this is what I said:

“While it is certainly important that teachers be offered times to socialize and de-stress, feeding teachers’ souls is a lot more complicated. The teachers I know who are stressed and might be in danger of ‘eating their children’ are overburdened by paperwork, impossible demands at every level, lack of support from administrators and parents, debt because of low and stagnant salaries, feeling berated by people in power like the Secretary of Education who misses no opportunity to criticize teachers, and strangled by policies that have sucked absolutely all the fun out of teaching. I am also a life coach and a stress management coach whose niche are teacher leaders, teachers in distress and teachers in transition. When I conduct my workshops I always run into the same overall theme. Teachers feel overwhelmed, under appreciated and generally maligned. A social hour with colleagues will help to bond the colleagues together, but they need a lot more than TLC to help them feel better about themselves and their profession. They need to feel respected, and they need to be paid a professional salary while they are treated like professionals instead of widgets in the larger system that is doing no one any good…least of all the students they teach.”

I really believe that we are in the middle of a serious crisis with regard to public education in our country, and I fear for its future. Just today, I heard a snippet of an interview with Arne Duncan that pertained to what the President might say tonight in his State of the Union speech. One of the things I heard Secretary Duncan say was that we have been making progress…graduation rates are up and drop out rates are down…but he went on to say that the progress we have made isn’t enough and we “need to be changing faster.”

The trouble with Mr. Duncan’s premise is that he assumes that the changes we are currently making will get us where we need to go…that his policies and those coming out of his Department are actually doing anything other than creating more and more demoralization among teachers and students alike. Mr. Duncan loves to talk about our “failing schools” and how we are lying to our students when we tell them they are doing well. He also loves competition, so all of his major initiatives are based on the false notion that in order to promote public education and equity for all we need to make it about racing to the top and innovating around more and better tests instead of focusing on authentic teaching and learning.

If anyone were really serious about addressing teacher burn out…and I don’t think anyone really is serious about it or they would be doing something about it…they would stop telling teachers to “do more with less.” They would lighten up on the testing regimen because there are only so many tests that a child can take that they even have any meaning. They would forget the crazy notion that a child’s test score is a measure for whether or not to keep an otherwise effective teacher on the payroll. And they would stop fighting about Common Core and let a few states pilot it without drastic negative consequences for everyone involved in the meantime.

Public education is a value that I grew up believing in. I grew up poor, but because of educational opportunities and my belief that an education would provide me with an opportunity to thrive economically, I have thrived. As public school funding shrinks in favor of ideological arguments for choice, vouchers, and charters, I fear that the poorest children will get left behind and dropped through the cracks. We are at a real crossroads in this country, it seems to me. While the haves continue to thrive, the have nots are struggling. In the past, getting a solid education was the ticket to a better life. That seems to be growing less and less the case these days.

I know that teacher burn out is a real thing. I just don’t think that offering a social hour is the answer to it.

My Thoughts on Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Once again, just as she did in her last book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch has written clearly, plainly, and astutely about the problems facing public school education and public school educators today. She has not only researched her subject exhaustively, she demonstrates her knowledge of education history, her awareness of the many various public education detractors, and her understanding of the issues that lie at the heart of the current debate about which is better—public education or privatization of public schools giving free market full, unbridled reign.

Not only does she offer a clear and cogent outline of the various issues, problems, and dilemmas facing public educators today, she offers ideas for how to remedy those issues, problems, and dilemmas. And she has clearly struck a cord with some of the more notable “reformers” because they have been quick to criticize her work and to dismiss it out of hand. Indeed, just recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to her and others who have the temerity to criticize Race to the Top and other initiatives with his thumbprints on them as “armchair pundits.” The irony, of course, of that criticism is that most of the “armchair pundits” are educators like myself—either still practicing or retired—who know more about the needs of children and what works and doesn’t work for public schools than Mr. Duncan could ever possibly know. But I digress.

 In Reign of Error, in Chapters 1-20 Dr. Ravitch lays out the problems facing public education today. She offers clear and indisputable research to support each and every one of her assertions. She has not “cooked” the research the way many reformers do these days. She is a researcher and she doesn’t have to distort the data to find the disturbing trends that she identifies here. Chapter 5, for example, is entitled, “The Facts about Test Scores;” Chapter 6’s title is “The Facts about the Achievement Gap;” and so on. She writes brilliantly about “The Facts About Teachers and Test Scores” in Chapter 11; and she even includes a chapter about the disturbing new trend toward virtual schools in Chapter 17, which is entitled, “Trouble in E-land.”

After methodically laying out all of the various issues, she then outlines her proposed solutions in Chapters 21-33, starting with “Solutions: Start Here” in Chapter 21. Unlike many education “experts,” she doesn’t just harp on the problems…she offers possible solutions based on research and her own understanding of what public education represents to our country as a democracy.

In Chapter 24, for example, she writes “The Essentials of a Good Education.” In Chapter 25, she writes about why “Class Size Matters for Teaching and Learning.” Each chapter offers a specific recommendation for how we might go about fixing the problems that face us. But never does she suggest that fixing those problems will be easy or cheap. Instead, she points out the fallacy in the thinking of those who seem to believe that education reform is easy OR can be delivered cheaply.

 Starting in the “Introduction,” Dr. Ravitch outlines what her book is intended to do which is to answer four questions:

             First, is American education in crisis? (Answer: Yes).

            Second, is American education failing and declining? (Answer:  No).

            Third, what is the evidence for reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted in many states? (Answer: None).

            Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children? (Answer:  Things that are complex and expensive starting with suspending the war on teachers and their unions; providing smaller class sizes; offering wraparound services; eliminating excessive testing; forgetting about merit pay as a panacea; etc., etc., etc.)

Dr. Ravitch then goes on to answer each and every of those questions using research and data from a variety of sources including NAEP, the U. S. Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau, the U. S. Department of Education, OECD, and numerous citations from individuals on both sides of the education debate, both the so-called “reformers” and the proponents of those who argue that we need to keep our public schools public.

I could go on and on, but you must be getting the drift by now. This is a must-read for any public school educator, for any parent who still cares about public schools and their role in the community, for the administrators who haven’t been so brainwashed that they have forgotten why they went into education in the first place, and many, many more. I cannot recommend this book more highly. If I were writing a review for Amazon (which I may do come to think of it) it would definitely get a five-star rating. For teacher leaders and parents who are concerned about what is happening to their communities because of the demise of the neighborhood school, I urge you to read it as soon as possible and start using the information inside its covers. More importantly, I urge you to get involved in the grassroots movement that has already started in some parts of the country. There are a number of groups around the nation where the push back has begun. Some of these groups have been founded by parents, some by students, and of course, teachers have started some. It isn’t too late, but time is ticking away. We need to start speaking out and organizing now.

I will offer the disclaimer that I am writing this review on the third day of the government shut down, and I have to admit that the idea that anything can be done legislatively to fix the problems we currently face, not just on the education front but in every aspect of our government, seems pretty dim at the moment. The prospect of getting legislators, Governors, and even the President to change their minds about these important issues seems to be pretty daunting, frankly. But I am reminded of the well-known quote by Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

If we as educators, parents, administrators, and caring adults don’t take up this fight individually and collectively, the result will be a dual system of education that will serve no one, least of all our children and certainly not our country. I urge you start reading this important book today. You won’t be sorry you did.

When an Award Winning Veteran Teacher Quits, You Should Know That Something is Very Wrong

Hundreds if not thousands of young teachers decide to quit teaching after only a few years, and hardly anyone takes note. The reasons for their departure varies from individual to individual, but research shows that most young people say upon their exit from teaching that it just wasn’t what they thought it would be. They entered the teaching profession eager to share their joy and enthusiasm for learning in the same way some teacher or teachers had shared with them as they came through school; but things have shifted in a major way since those days. The modern classroom is less about learning these days and more about the regurgitation of information that can easily be found on any handheld device, smartphone, or computer,  and more about high stakes testing, making students feel that they are little more than raw test scores while their teachers are held accountable using arbitrary mathematical calculations that don’t hold up in the light of any sort of serious mathematical scrutiny.

Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons that young teachers give for leaving their jobs after only a few years…they didn’t like the paperwork; they didn’t have time for a personal life; they didn’t feel supported by their administrators; and/or they felt stymied by the lack of professional mobility and stagnant salaries. For the most part, no one questions these motivations, for they are each and every one, valid reasons for looking for job satisfaction elsewhere.

When a more veteran teacher quits, however, one should wonder what’s up? Why, after over 30 years in a profession that one professes to love would one be willing to give it up and walk away when they are so close to retirement? A resignation of a teacher–any teacher, but especially an award winning teacher–after a 33 year career is noteworthy.

Ron Maggiano is an example of just such a veteran teacher. An award winning  social studies teacher from Fairfax County, Virginia, Mr. Maggiano tendered his resignation which was recently re-printed in the Washington Post.

Mr. Maggiano offers that he can “no longer cooperate with the standardized testing regime that is destroying creativity and stifling imagination in the classroom.” He goes on to say that he is “sad, angry, hurt, and dismayed by what has happened to education and to the teaching profession.”

I understand Mr. Maggiano’s decision only too well. A year ago, I had the option of returning to my school division after having served as the President of the Virginia Education Association for four years, but the thought of going back into the classroom and subjecting my students to the rigid and sometimes ridiculous requirements that my state and school division have imposed made my heart sink at the mere prospect. After many sleepless nights and lots of thoughtful contemplation and heartfelt prayer, I decided that I simply could not do it. So, much sooner than I had ever anticipated, I decided to opt out and take retirement. It was not an easy decision, but in the end, I know I did the right thing for me; and I trust that Mr. Maggiano has done the right thing for himself and his life.

Mr. Maggiano cites in his letter of resignation that “critical thinking skills and analytical problem solving have now been replaced with rote memorization and simple recall of facts, figures, names, and dates. Educators have been forced to adopt a ‘drill and kill’ model of teaching to ensure that their students pass the all-important end-of-course test. Teaching to the test, a practice once universally condemned by administrators and educators alike, has now become the new normal in classrooms across the country.”

He offers that it is “time to say enough.” and I could not agree with him more. Our students deserve better than they are getting, and our teachers deserve better too. It is time for the righteous indignation which teachers in general have been feeling for years to be given a legitimate voice in the ongoing debate about what is in the best interest of our students and our public schools. For too long, teachers have been left out of the debate by the politicians and policy makers who have been making the rules and shifting the debate in the wrong direction. That needs to stop, and if it is going to, it will require that courage be incorporated and teachers stop being afraid to speak their truth. It is time to stand up and stand together and let their voices be heard.

My heartfelt good wishes go out to Mr. Maggiano and his family. I suspect that he will be just fine, and I know that he will now wake up with a clearer conscience, know that he is no longer contributing through silent compliance with a system that he knows is not serving the best interest of his students.

 

Teacher Leaders

Teacher Leaders:  Who Are They? Are You One?

When you think of the term, “teacher leader,” you may  think of those classroom teachers who aspire to become building administrators or central office supervisors. Certainly, many individuals do set out on the administration track fairly early in their careers. It is a way to gain power or professional prestige, and it is certainly one of the surest ways to to improve their salaries given the current system..

When I think of “teacher leaders,” however, I am considering those unofficial leaders in the building…the ones who don’t care to become administrators because they feel that their true calling demands that they stay closer to their students. They love their grade level or their subject area, and the idea of managing a building and the host of problems that go with administration just don’t have appeal. It is those folks that I am thinking of as I write about teacher leaders.

Every building has at least one…the teacher who is vocal in faculty meetings, asks the questions that everyone wants to ask but is afraid to for fear of possible reprisal, and is willing to confront the principal in public or in private when he or she is convinced that the principal is on the wrong track.

I have been privileged to work with a number of strong teacher leaders over the course of my career, and as I look back on that career, I realize that I became one somewhere along the way. I was the person people began to ask questions of, run suggestions by, and gripe to when they were afraid to say anything to the principal themselves. I also worked side-by-side with some really strong and fabulous teacher leaders who ran their departments, took on extra duties, and just generally helped to make the school the best possible environment for their students.

I have also worked with some great administrators although not all of them rank as high as others in my opinion or my esteem. The best administrators, in my experience, were those who demonstrated through word and deed that they cared about the students and the teachers in the school and they more often than not served as a buffer between the central office and the school.

When I talk about helping teachers hone or enhance their leadership skills, I am specifically speaking to helping them decide how to have the greatest impact on their classroom, their school, their school district, or their professional organization. I was never a principal myself although I earned my endorsement for Administration & Supervision and I earned a Ph. D. in Educational Leadership. I have demonstrated my leadership qualities in numerous other ways. For example, I am a National Board Certified Library Media Specialist, and I was a local leader in my local National Education Association affiliate before becoming a member of the state board of directors and eventually becoming the President of the Virginia Education Association (2008-2012).

Teacher leaders don’t have to become administrators in order to be leaders, so if you consider that you are a teacher leader who wishes to expand your influence by improving your leadership skills, let’s work together. I understand teacher leadership from the standpoint of standing up for students and for the profession as opposed to going the administration route, and I have mentored many emerging leaders over the years. If you are looking for individualized attention as you hone your own leadership skills, I am here to help. Call me at 804-404-5457 or email me at admin@teachersintransition.com