Lessons from the Classroom
What Congress Could Learn in Your ClassroomIn letters to lawmakers, NEA members have urged their elected representatives to do what’s best for students.
By Mary Ellen Flannery
If those suited-up politicians could spend a day in your shoes, they might think differently about No Child Left Behind, health-care reform, or merit pay for educators.
That’s why we asked educators to write letters to their members of Congress, describing what they might learn if they traded the marble halls of government for the classrooms of America. And your responses—rich with emotion and detail—should move even the most cynical mind or heart.
“I love teaching and I love my kids, but I don’t understand politicians who think teachers are lazy and bad. Please come to my school and try my job for a few hours,” urged Kansas teacher Patricia Barnard. “Get a dose of the real world, outside the halls of federal legislation,” said Colorado teacher Martin Wolf.
What would you say to your legislators? Read from letters sent by your colleagues, below, and then head to NEA’s Legislative Action Center, where you can contact your lawmakers directly on the issues that are important to you.
Your letters on NCLB point to very real discrepancies between the fantasyland of federal legislation and the realities faced by teachers, especially special educators. They point to the tragic narrowing of curriculum: What happened to music and art? In some schools, science and social studies are disappearing too. And they also described how the current climate, where what you teach and how you teach it is prescribed by lawmakers, has led to the demise of the art of teaching.
“Today my principal told me that I can teach only reading and math in my sixth-grade class… . I’m not allowed to teach science, social studies, or writing… Can I incorporate some of this into my reading and math? Yes. I can do that because I’m a great teacher who cares about a well-rounded student. But it won’t be enough.”
— Kevin Clark, Centralia, Washington
“I am spending six weeks out of the precious school year, preparing my first-grade students for testing using a testing booklet [that]… does not test in a way that first-grade students learn. The students end up thinking they are not very smart and yet they are very capable students… The tears that I have wiped from students’ eyes would break your heart.”
— Jane Cross, Clayton, California
“Fewer and fewer teachers at our school look at their work as a profession, most of the creative potential having been taken away. [It’s become] nothing more than just another job, like flipping hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant—where someone else prescribes what to teach, the pace of teaching, the assessments that must be given, and, more and more, prescribing how the hamburger must be properly flipped.”
— Robert Blecher, Oak Park, Illinois
“Language delays are a common diagnosis with students who are deaf or hard of hearing… . One of my biggest frustrations with the federal testing requirements is that a child with a reading level of 2, let’s say, may be in the eigth grade. This student is not tested on his reading ability level; he is tested on his grade level. That means in tough core curriculum—math, science and social studies, as well as reading, students are being expected to pass tests they can’t read!”
— Andrea Pelzel, Dallas, Texas
On Merit Pay
How about merit pay for Congress? Your letters point to the impossibility of attaching educator pay to student test scores in a fair and equitable way. How about this instead: Pay educators what they deserve.
“Now if you’d like to apply that same kind of pay-for-performance idea to your job, I might be a little more ready to accept the way you want to pay me… . In reality, it would be impossible to determine how well you are doing your job based on the success or failure of our economy. In the reality of the classroom teacher, it’s just as impossible to determine pay based on student performance.”
— Denise Blackmon, Hinesville, Georgia
“I am a special education teacher in Virginia. I work harder than most people I know. My husband, who is as equally educated, makes three times as much as I do. When he comes home, his work is done, but mine goes on even into the weekend.”
— Lana Ludovico, Stafford, Virginia
On Health Care Reform
Thank you, President Obama. And thank you, Senators and Representatives who refused to roll back these welcome and needed reforms. Educators who see sick and hurting families are writing to tell you that they know that these measures will make a difference.
“Students whose basic health needs are neglected… are at a strong disadvantage in the classroom. These disadvantages show up as part of the achievement gap, discrediting capable students who struggle with medical issues, not learning issues.”
— Lisa Wintner, Calabasas, California
On Funding for Education
There’s only so far you can stretch a dollar before it falls to pieces. And that’s what many educators report they’re seeing in their classrooms—the remnants of a once-glorious public education system. While state and federal budget cuts might be saving the jobs of politicians, it’s certainly costing their students.
“Due to budget cuts last year, my school lost their art, music, physical education, library, and foreign language teachers… . It’s sad to see such a quality education be devastated.”
— Patricia Mulligan, Cherry Hill, New Jersey
“With the budget cuts that have already been made, education is working on the bare minimum of what is required to adequately teach our students… . Students, teachers, and other educational staff have to deal with the consequences of [your] decisions. Please never forget to keep that in mind when you are voting for budget cuts or salary issues.”
— Philippe Saari, Silver Spring, Maryland