Let's Get Real


When I began this blog I told myself it would just be a fun little place for me to write about teaching, share ideas, promote some of the things I make for Teachers Pay Teachers, and nothing more. I've shied away from voicing any frustration or negativity as, I felt, this really isn't the forum. I mean, the majority of people who may read this don't know me personally, they don't know what's in my heart. Plus you know what they say about opinions, everyone has them! Well, friends, for those who don't know me personally, I must admit I'm kind of outspoken. I come from a long line of outspoken educators and I've never been one to keep my mouth shut when it comes to children, education, or this honorable profession- teaching. So, I think it's time to get real because this teacher is fired up.
It's a difficult time to be a teacher. Seems like everywhere you turn there's a different article or person (usually a politician who has never stepped foot in a classroom) critiquing teachers.  I think most teachers have just put their heads down and tried to barrel through the "storm". We may gripe at lunch with our colleagues or occasionally yell at a news story on the TV (what? I mean I don't know anyone who does that) but I think most of us are too busy with the task at hand and too overwhelmed with all of the changes to really speak out. What changes? Well Common Core, of course. Now, I may be in the minority here but I really don't have too much of a problem with the Common Core Standards, themselves. We've always had standards and I think it makes sense for "standards" to be "standardized" across the country. I mean, it makes sense to me that my students here in Western New York should be expected to meet the same learning goals as first graders in say, California. I'm not too thrilled with how the Common Core Standards came about or were rolled out but that's a different story for a different day. My beef is with the curriculums that have been hastily thrown together to "help" students meet these new standards. In my case, EngageNY. If you're not familiar with this curriculum count yourself as lucky. I will admit it's not ALL bad. There are pieces here and there that are good. However, the parts that are bad are really bad. Take Listening and Learning, for example. This is part of the ELA piece. The curriculum is broken up into a series of Domains that include a daily read-aloud, comprehension questions, vocabulary word work, and extension activities. Sounds great, right? Well, without going into too much detail, let me just say that this curriculum is a miracle. Out of all of the beautiful, engaging, rich with descriptive language, relevant and diverse children's literature available this curriculum has chosen NONE of them. The stories are dry, convoluted, lengthy, and let's just go ahead and say it- boring. Reading aloud to students used to be my favorite activity. Planning lessons around brilliant children's literature- both fiction and non-fiction- used to be my favorite part of teaching. Now I sit in front of my lovely little children and read to them from a script, these terrible stories, with horrible illustrations and at the end I'm ready to cry. I hide it, of course, I fake it, as we teachers do, but it's killing my teacher heart. It really is. I know I can't be alone.
I digress, the curriculum will get better. It has too. I've seen it a hundred times. EngageNY just so happens to be the shiniest piece of fuzz right now. You primary teachers get the reference. The powers that be are so easily distracted by NEW, and RIGOROUS, and STANDARDS BASED, they can't help themselves. They had to chase down the fuzz. You've all had that student, haven't you? And if you've been teaching for over ten years you know, this too shall pass, until the next piece of shiny fuzz, that promises to solve all the problems, drifts by. If you're still with me, I'm about to get to my REAL point. :)
I teach in an urban setting with high poverty and a struggling school district. I've been there for 14 years. Teaching in this type of environment has many challenges. The stories I could tell you. My colleagues and I always joke that we should write a book. I know, first hand, the student who comes to school just because it is a safe place with a guaranteed meal. I know the student with severe emotional and or mental health issues that isn't receiving the proper care. I teach, every day, the student that is so far behind, so academically delayed that a little bit of RtI seems like a joke when it is offered as a solution to his/her struggles. I have sat in the CSE meeting in tears because a student supposedly "doesn't qualify" for extra services because of poor attendance, un-diagnosed or un-medicated ADHD, a lack of glasses...I could go on. I have huddled with a student, in tears, and promised them that everything would be okay even when I didn't know if it would be. I've had kids act up and display outrageous behavior in the hours before dismissal or a long school break simply because they didn't want to go home and I've had to say "No, sweetie, you can't come home with me." I know that for some of my students, I am the kindest, most consistent, and nurturing person they will see that day. I know some of my students act up because they are thirsty for order and routine and for someone to expect something from them. Expectations, they thrive on them. Any urban teacher knows this. I believe it's truly how kids know they are loved, cared for. For some of my students I'm the only person who expects anything from them all day. I'm not special, I'm not some amazing teacher or hero, I'm one of MANY. This is teaching. This is what we do! Whether you're in a rural district, in the heart of a broken city, in the most affluent of districts, this is what teachers do. We work our buns off, we put our heart and soul into those kids, and we do it for no other reason than we love it. Teaching is one of the most selfless professions.Which is why, you can imagine, I went through the ever loving roof when I heard my governor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, imply that teachers are selfish.
"Andrew Cuomo rips teacher unions as selfish 'industry' more interested in members' rights than in students needs." That's the headline. Click on the picture to read the rest. If you make it through the whole thing without yelling at it, you friend, are more controlled than I. :)
The entire article is one giant slap in the face and it is full of irony. He calls teacher unions an "industry". Hello, Pearson?! No, Pearson is the industry. The industry who is sitting in your back pocket Mr. Cuomo, steathily becoming ever richer while this 'war on education' plays out, by their design, I believe.

 I'm going to quote my mother here (told you I came from a long line of out spoken educators),
"NY school test scores are exemplary - with ONE exception: pockets of severe poverty. Every single piece of evidence collected in test overkill and studied over 20 years comes back with those results. There is no epidemic of bad teachers in poor-performing districts and no evidence shows this either. Asking teachers to absorb the blame for children in poverty by "earning" unfair crummy evaluations will result in a mass evacuation of the best teachers to high-performing districts, not the fixing of what's wrong in underperforming ones. No teacher I ever knew was reluctant to be fairly evaluated." 
Ask any urban teacher, "what's the biggest problem you encounter?" and I guarantee that whatever they answer, poverty can be traced back to its root cause. No one wants to talk about it. People love to say "don't use poverty as an EXCUSE". I say those people have never experienced or seen REAL poverty. I don't think poverty is as much an EXCUSE as a simple example of cause and effect. The excuse is not that poverty stricken children can't learn, not at all. All children can learn. Just as doctors swear an oath to "do no harm", teachers believe with their hearts and souls that ALL children can learn. However, not all children learn the same or develop knowledge at the same pace. That's where poverty comes in. These students CAN learn but they need so much more. I'm going to quote my mother again:
"Most people believe that teachers in districts with high poverty are too condescending with bleeding hearts and low expectations, relaxing on easy street without scrutiny. In truth, they are the toughest bunch of martyrs one could ever know, fighting internally to cope with constant disappointment, lack of appreciation and unreachable goals, now with 3 levels of administrators watching their every move while their class sizes are among the highest in the country. He (Governor Cuomo) forgot what his father Mario told America in the '80's: We are not a shining beacon on a hill - there is misery and hopelessness in places YOU NEVER GO and among people you never see."

So, I've written a book here. I have so much more to say but I'm finding myself rambling. I'll leave you with this, an invitation:
 Dear Governor Cuomo, 
       I'm a 14 year, veteran teacher, in an urban district with high poverty, in constant budget crisis, with poor performance on State testing, and an abysmal graduation rate. I've been reading your comments about the state of education over the past several days. I've heard your message loud and clear, that you believe teachers are to blame. You seem to be under the impression that we are not working hard enough, that we are too protected by our unions, and that many of us simply show up for a paycheck and some of the (admittedly) best benefits packages available. If I'm reading your comments correctly you seem to believe that I, alone, can do it all. That I can fix every kid, teach them all there is to know, single handedly, in the six hours a day, 180 days I am with them. You seem to believe that I can do this with as many children as you see fit to put in my room, with as few resources available, and with the shining beacon of light that is the EngageNY curriculum.  You sir, may be right. Maybe my 14 years of experience in the 3rd most poverty stricken school district in the nation and my Master's degree in elementary education really do stand for nothing. So I would love to formally invite you to my classroom, to shadow me and maybe a few of my willing colleagues for a day. 
       What I would really love is if you would arrive at my building at 7:50am, a full hour before students arrive, with no cameras, no "handlers", and in plain clothes. I'd like there to be no fan fare signaling your arrival. I would like you to just observe an average day. I'd love your help setting out the breakfast that I serve my students daily. Take a look at some of my data, especially the data that shows that in January, out of 22 students, only 3 are performing on grade level. I'd love you to sit with me during my 30 minute planning time and come up with a way that I, by myself, with no other support, am going to fix that by June. Then I would love it if you would help me escort my 22 first graders to lunch. We'll pick them up 25 minutes later and begin math, with no bathroom break and no recess. I hope you'll consider this offer. It's genuine. 
                                                                                                                         Sincerely,



7 comments

  1. Nothing but total admiration for this post!! I teach in the UK and it seems the problem of 'lazy' teachers who don't know what they're doing is now a pandemic as your post could have been about our Department for Educations current attitude towards teachers! I too come from a family of teachers who have always worked in some of the toughest and most deprived areas of the country and are dedicated to out vocation and profession as much as we are to our families but obviously, just like yourselves, we're only in it for the benefits! Google Michael Gove (he was replaced in the last cabinet reshuffle but not before he had torn down everything that teachers stand for and replaced it with an awful Curriculum!) maybe he a Cuomo are in cahoots! Big respect and much love to you for baring your soul- please don't keep quiet- this post rocks Xx

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    1. Thank you so much. While I'm so glad to know I'm not alone, I'm so discouraged to hear it's not much better across the pond. :( I think it's time for an about face... We need to stop being quiet. :)

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  2. Well said! While I don't live in the state of New York, teachers in my state have our own set of problems with legislators. I'm in a low SES area as well (although rural, not urban) and children from those backgrounds have exceptional learning needs. Again, well said!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad I'm not alone. We teachers need to stick together.

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  3. Very well written and very well said. My school district is a mirror image of yours but in PA. When you get that visit, be sure to have him listen as the students explain about their previous evenings events...not eating any dinner, sleeping in hallways in the same clothes they have been wearing for days surrounded by animal droppings. Then ask him to explain how to get the standardized tests to be the most important thing on their minds each day!

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  4. Very well written and very well said. My school district is a mirror image of yours but in PA. When you get that visit, be sure to have him listen as the students explain about their previous evenings events...not eating any dinner, sleeping in hallways in the same clothes they have been wearing for days surrounded by animal droppings. Then ask him to explain how to get the standardized tests to be the most important thing on their minds each day!

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  5. I applaud you Mrs. Wheat! Similar story here. 30 children (not enough room for them all) children that say they don't have food at home, wear ripped shoes every day, the same stained uniform shirt, have the electricity cut off in 115 degree weather while living in a trailer! And they are expected to compete with children in our state with parents that are doctors, lawyers, teachers etc. My kids can learn and they do! They learn TONS. Probably way more than the other children, but they are so behind and so disadvantaged that their end scores look low performing. To me a child who went from 15% in their reading scores to 65% did a tremendous job and that should be recognized. Instead it is looked down upon because it's not an 90%+ when those children at 90% typically start the year at 70% and above. How is that better?

    And why is data being used to hurt teachers and students? That is the most damaging thing of all. Data is meant to be used BY the teacher to draw conclusions as to what lessons need reteaching, small group lessons, review, and so on. It's not a weapon that is being used to threaten shutting down a school or used to decide which teachers get a bonus or not. All that encourages is some unethical behavior (I have seen this throughout the state.) So sad! We are in this for the kids. I've seen too many amazing teachers leave my school that is high poverty in search of "easier" schools to teach in. It's depressing to think that the students that need the best teachers are losing out because of "data" and politics.

    You wrote a book and now I've written a book. Thank you for sharing your opinions and letting me express myself as well :)

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