Saturday, May 17, 2014

I am a Teacher

A couple of weeks ago we at ICPE-Monroe County hosted a wonderful forum, "Let's Hear Teacher Voices: A Community Conversation," where seven local teachers spoke passionately and eloquently about what their profession means to them and how the current climate of educational corporate "reform" is affecting them.  In the spirit of that event, we want to share this eloquent piece from a friend and teacher in Texas, Heidi Vance:

 I am a Teacher

Today, there is a war against education. Men in offices are actively making decisions that will affect the way we teach. Today, there is a war against children. Men in offices are actively making decisions that will affect the way children learn. Today, we are their foot soldiers. Every day we march into our classrooms and do the work of these men in offices. These men who know nothing of children, or teaching, or education. These men who believe they have found the answer: accountability.

I am so blessed. I have an amazing administration that allows me to do what is best for my students. The great Sir Ken Robinson gave an interview and in it explained, that for the children we teach, we are their educational system. The children know nothing of policy or politics, all they know is what we do in our classrooms. And I took great solace in that. I decided to make sure that I always did right by the children in my class. But recently I started thinking of all the children in other schools, other cities, and other states. What about those children? And I realized it is not enough. I cannot say I hate what is happening in education and continue to passively support bad policies every day in my classroom.

A few weekends ago I went to the Network for Public Education National Conference. I met educators, parents, activists, and journalist from all over the country. We all shared a common goal – to take back public education. Public education is paid for by the people and belongs to the people. It belongs to us. And I had forgotten that. I lost my voice, but there, in Austin I found it. It is loud, and it is great. It is my teaching voice. You know the voice I am talking about. The other day my daughter came into my classroom while I was teaching. Later she told me “Mama, you sound weird when you teach.” I joked and told her that when you are a teacher you can have no fear. Children can smell fear. So today, I am using my teaching voice.

I am not afraid.

When I was at the conference, I felt so empowered. My mind raced with ideas. My body vibrated with excitement. I returned from the conference and all the joy and energy drained from my body, and I thought “now what?” How do I take all my ideas and turn them into action? So that is what I am doing today. I do believe in accountability for teachers and today I am holding myself accountable.

I am accountable to the children I teach. On Monday, I will walk into my classroom and remember that every child is different. Just like every child walks when he is ready, every child learns he is ready. I will not shame children for not following the time table set forth by politicians. Instead, I will cheer and encourage because I know that every child starts at a different point and that as long as they are moving forward, all the great teachers at my school will help each child to reach their full potential.

I will make sure that I only have the highest of expectations for my students. But I will remind myself that the burden of high expectations falls on me. It is my job to make sure that everything I ask of my students is developmentally appropriate, and I will speak up when it is not. It is up to me to support and scaffold the learning of my students. I will make sure everything I say and do in my classroom is supported by research. I will realize that high expectations, without the research to back it up, is the mantra of politicians who support high stakes testing.

I will set individual goals for each of my students. I will realize that by setting inappropriate goals, I will only discourage my children who need encouragement the most. I will demand that every day my students smile, laugh, play, and learn.

I am accountable to myself. I will continue to educate myself. I will read books by great educators and historians like John Kuhn, Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch. I will scrutinize the policy decisions of our state legislators and our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I will be outraged when he bullies our state into tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
I will support organizations like Network for Public Education, Fair Test, Defending the Early Years, and Texas Children Can’t Wait. I will spend my weekends writing letters to the editor, letters to my congressman, and letters to the president.

I am accountable to the public. I will speak up when people make false statements about public schools and education. I will explain to them that the dialogue about public schools has been hijacked by people who intend to dismantle and profit off of it. I will tell them that our schools are not failing. Instead, movies like Waiting for Superman are propaganda used to promote an agenda that will only hurt our minority and special needs students.

I will speak out when people reference our schools’ international ranking. I will inform them that when we account for children living in poverty, our students are ranked among the highest in the world. I will point out that 23% percent of children in the United States live in poverty. The second highest of any industrialized nation. Our schools are not failing; our society is failing.

I will educate people about the failures of high stakes tests, merit pay, VAM, and retention. I will explain to them why charters and vouchers are not the answer. Every child deserves a high quality, neighborhood school. No child should have to put his hopes and dreams into a lottery. I will inform them that researchers already have the answers to help low performing schools. They include preschool for all children living in poverty. The earlier, the better. Prenatal care for mothers. Safe homes and safe neighborhoods. Wrap around services like school libraries, school nurses and school counselors, smaller classes, and a well-rounded curriculum rich in the humanities and the arts. I will remind people that our country has only been successful because we are a country of innovators and that standardized tests stand to crush every ounce of creativity our children have. I quote Robert Schaffer who said “Believing we can improve schooling with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height."

I am accountable to my fellow teachers. We must allow our teachers to collaborate, not compete. It does not benefit children to have teachers competing for bonuses or the highest test scores. We cannot set up a system where teachers are afraid to work with the neediest students for fear of losing their jobs. High risk students should not equal high risk employment.

I am accountable to my students’ parents. I will support and educate the parents who are unable to help their children. I will provide them with materials and compassion because they are not the enemy. Inequality and inequity in schools is the enemy. Segregation is the enemy. Years of bad bilingual education policy is the enemy.

I will even have compassion for the so called helicopter parent. I will realize that my silence has allowed for them to lose all faith in public education. The media has fed them a steady diet of failing schools, failing children, and failing teachers. With our unstable economy and a shrinking middle class, it is not surprising that parents are fighting tooth and nail to help their children succeed. Every time we are silent we allow for the continued distrust of educators and for the deprofessionalization of teachers.

I am accountable. I am accountable to myself, the public, my colleagues, my parents, and my students. But even more I am accountable to all the students in classrooms across this vast and diverse country. But I am not afraid. I am a teacher.

I stand before children every day and I teach them. I teach them things they need to know and things they never dreamed of knowing. I teach them to believe in themselves and each other. I teach them to question, and push, and explore. I teach children with no parents and no home, and children with 4 parents and 2 homes. I teach children that they are the difference this world needs. They are amazing, and creative, and on the verge of excellence, all while being only a small piece of the puzzle that is humanity. I am a teacher.
And so on Monday I will go into my classroom, and I will teach. I will use my teaching voice with my students, and when I leave I will use my teaching voice with anyone willing to listen, and even those who refuse to listen, because I am not afraid.

I am a teacher.

Heidi Nance 
El Paso, TX

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Future of Public Education in Indiana: A Vital Primary Race

Today is primary day and voters in house district 91 in Indiana have a very important choice in candidates.  Our state's House Education committee chairman, Robert Behning is being challenge by a man, Michael Scott, who is pro-union and pro-public education.  Here is a letter from a parent (who happens to be our ICPE-Monroe County chairperson), Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, explaining the issues surrounding this race:

"As a mother of four, I see how decisions made by non-educators at the statehouse are directly affecting my children in their public school classrooms. My third-grader just took a test that will determine whether or not he is to go on to fourth grade, regardless of his teacher’s opinion. He is about to take the ISTEP and the stigma of a failing school grade rests on his small shoulders. His teacher knows that developmentally appropriate practice is the best way to reach him, but she also knows that her job is tied to his test scores and she needs her income. How did we get here? Take a look at the legislative record of Rep. Bob Behning and then follow the money from his campaign contributors

If you have wiped your child’s tears over the stress of testing, I hope you will go to the voting booth this May.

If you had concerns about new standards and were happy that they were being reviewed, I hope you remember this quote: “Frankly, most of the time the public would not have a very easy time even understanding what standards are, let alone trying to help form them.” 

If you voted for Glenda Ritz, I hope you remember who said that her win indicated that the “public didn’t really know the issues.”  and don’t forget how he introduced the bills that would undermine her control. 

If you have raised money for your schools at bake sales, I hope you remember that last year alone, $81 million dollars of our taxes was redirected to private schools through the vouchers that Behning’s authored bills made possible. They sold those to us as a way of giving poor children an opportunity for better schools. Now Behning says it’s not about quality, it’s about giving families a choice regardless .

Accountability? How about a $91 million bailout for charters’ loans while some of our public schools can’t even afford buses to transport kids safely? Why must I buy my kids’ textbooks while the homeschool and private schools parents get tax credits? Public schools accept all learners, vouchers don’t.

Bob Behning’s website declares him “a champion for smaller government and free market principles.” Yet he has taken away our local control through his policies. Last year he even introduced a bill that would take away our local school boards and hand control over to the governor-appointed state board (HB1337). And when glowing teacher evaluations came back this year he responded: “We may have let there be too much local control”.

Schools should be for kids, not for profit in a free-market experiment. Your kids and mine are not data points on a graph for investors, they are children who deserve a fully-funded, high quality education."

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer"

Our fingers are crossed that voters in District 91 will make the choice that supports our public schools as the cornerstone for our democracy.  Here's hoping they exercise that democratic right.. and vote.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

First They Came for Our Local Control: A Parent's Call to Action

First the corporate education reformers came for our local control through tax caps, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't paying attention.  I didn't know that changing the funding from property tax to state sales/income tax would harm my schools.  I was running carpool.

Next they gutted the funding through "school choice," and I didn't speak up because I thought, "Sure. This is a free country. Everyone should be able to find the school that best suits their children." I didn't know that the vouchers would take tens of millions away from my kids' schools and make it impossible to fully fund the rich educational programs and extra-curricular activities for all children.

Then they took over and privatized some schools, and I didn't speak up because I thought, "That's an inner-city problem.  Why should I worry about that?" I didn't know that once these for-profit charter companies and special interest charter sponsors smelled money and a market demand, they would come to my town. I didn't know that when they wooed the families from my public schools, they would take with them the money for my kids' art teachers and librarians, the PTO volunteers, and divide us as a community.

Then they went after the curriculum, and I didn't speak up because I thought "Sure, we should have high, consistent standards. Kids should be 'ready' for college and career."  I didn't know that this was a money-making scheme unlike all others and that the testing involved would destroy teacher autonomy and the joy in learning.  I didn't know that laws like a grading system of schools based on one test score or laws tying test scores to teacher salaries and security in the name of "accountability" were designed to destroy public schools.  I didn't know that the maligning of schools through low letter grades (on a curve!) opened the market to charters and privates and further hemorrhaging of public school funding. I didn't know that kids would lose art, music, gym and library.  I just didn't know.  Did I mention I was running carpool?

And they came for the teachers, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a teacher.  I didn't know that the destruction of teacher unions, collective bargaining and morale would effectively silence my teacher and keep her from advocating for my kids. I didn't know that the culture of fear would make teachers unable to say: "Hey! This initiative is absolutely developmentally inappropriate for these kids!"

Then they came for my children and my school, and I found my voice.

Other voices joined in...and I did speak up.  With one local "fire" put out, we can't rest.  There is an inferno surrounding us! In other schools and other towns they are fighting as desperately as we are to keep the data mania from infiltrating our schools, to retain the child focus, to have parent (and teacher) voices be heard. But in other districts, unlike our own, they didn't pass a referendum, and they have no music programs left to save.  They have no librarians at all.  They can't even afford buses.

As I type, the legislators in the statehouse are considering a law which will allow anyone with a degree in anything to be a teacher in the classroom. Consider a teacher who has no idea how a child learns, how to spot dyslexia, what methods work best for a hands-on learner, classroom management techniques, etc.  The mind boggles. But this de-professionalizing of our teachers, of the people we trust to care for our kids every day, continues unabated. 

It’s up to us to stop this legislative destruction aimed at our public schools and our public school teachers. Raise your voice.  Please joinus at ICPE and other grassroots organizations around the state and country.  Advocate for all children as the community just did here in Bloomington.  If we showed that kind of cooperative effort on a state and national level, we could stop these "reformers" who use our children to promote their own agenda of greed.  They are making money off of our babies... and in their name.  Speak up.