Thursday, April 25, 2013

"I'm Not Leaving My Profession . . . It Has Left Me"

Veteran teachers are becoming fed up with the direction of our public schools, with an ever-increasing emphasis on unproven and disproven "educational" methods like high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, the de-professionalization of teaching, privatization, larger class sizes, and longer school days, all being driven by dilettantes, charlatans, ideologues, and for-profit companies that prioritize profit over education.

This incredibly well-written and well-reasoned resignation letter has been making the rounds. I wanted to share it with you. This is exactly the kind of teacher we need in our classrooms, this is exactly the kind of person that will not choose teaching in the future unless we push back. It is a national tragedy that so many teachers are finding they have no other option that to shut up or resign. This is why the rest of us must continue to fight the good fight.

Our children deserve better than schools that run like factories.

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:
It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.
As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.
I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.
A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?
My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.
After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.
For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.
Sincerely and with regret,
Gerald J. Conti

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Teena said...

Hey Tom! When I clicked to read your full post today, I got a message that "Facebook thinks this link may be unsafe." I chose to continue on through. Much like CS Lewis's Aslan, your post may not be safe, but it is good. My heart goes out to those who persevere within this system, as well as to those who step out to forge a better way.

Anonymous said...

I got that message, too. Is Facebook trying new security code, or something? Anyway, great post today.

Daina said...

Great post Tom! I live in Australia and we aren't at the point you are in YET...We now have nation wide "testing" in several grades to tell teachers what they already know about their students. But the gov loves it. I am still baffled as to why our gov doesn't look at some countries where education is highly valued and successful, but looks towards models in countries where they test and teach to a test. Creativity, problem solving and high emotional intelligence are essential for our future but aren't qualities that can be tested...sigh

ako said...

Same shit going on down here in New Zealand unfortunately. The march of the neo-liberals is relentless...

Melissa Scott said...

As a teacher who is relatively new to the profession, I often feel like I've been sold a lie. Instead of finding schools where I can enact the theory I was exposed to in grad school and the techniques I learned teaching at lab schools, in publicly funded schools I'm handed a Creative Curriculum book and told to keep my head down and perform.

Much as I want to see affordable preschool available to everyone, and much as I like the idea of universal preschool, I'm terrified that if we go that route then so many of the problems we see in k-12 will become even more present in preschools than they already are.

Here's a good article on the issue, and a quote from the article that has stuck with me:

"Some local early childhood programs, she says, 'are so bad that they kind of prevent people from applying what they know and continuing to develop on the job as teachers.'"

M. Jesus Sousa (Juca) said...

Hi Tom!

I'm a kindergarten teacher, in Portugal and I follow your blog for some time.
Today I had to comment, just to say that I agree totally with this post!
It's amazing how, so far away and in such different contexts, we, teachers, face almost the same problems!
Politicians really have to understand the importance of a good Education, and the role of teachers in that matter!
It's the future, our future, our kids, that is at stake!

Keep up the good work!
Congrats from Portugal!

Maria Sousa