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Letter to the Commissioner

It is becoming impossible to go into one's classroom and 'make a difference'

Posted: 2004-01-12

An eloquent letter, as well as a letter that bleeds words of sadness, frustration, and exhaustion. Will the joy ever return to teaching?


Dear Commissioner Gendron,

I have never written a letter like this. As I write, I realize that I may not be sending it and that you may not be the one actually reading it, but the process of writing it and pondering its content is serving an important purpose for me right now.

I am a teacher. I began my teaching career in 1978, although teaching has been part of my life for its entirety. My father was Ralph M. Atwood, a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent in the Messalonskee School District. I had the good fortune to have Duke Albanese as a high school teacher and when he became my dad's assistant we became good friends.

My brother is a former teacher, coach and assistant principal who now works at Colby College. I have a long list of relatives and friends who are or have been teachers.

My dad used to say "teaching is a way of life." You couldn't find a stronger advocate for the profession than he. He has been gone now for 6 years, but his memory and love for education live on in the school that bears his name in Oakland, as well as in the many people he influenced, including my brother and myself, who chose teaching as a career path.

I had many talks with my Dad about education. When Duke was commissioner, Dad and I chatted about the way things were going, how Duke would discuss things with him, and he joked about being glad that he was retired. When I think about what he would have to say about what is going on in education today, I am sure he would reply with one of his usual quotes, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Then, when he had the time to listen to me whine about the selected topic of the week, he would remind me to "Go into my classroom and make a difference."

Commissioner Gendron, I am finding that it is becoming more and more impossible to "Go into my classroom and make a difference." I have a pit in my stomach right now because I need to get my DRA's done by next Friday since they are due to the principal. The reading lab is not up and running yet because the "data" has not been completed. My special needs children and children reading below level need to be helped. It is next to impossible to administer DRA's without some type of assistance with the rest of the class. I have new math (investigations) and new phonics (Fountas and Pinnell) programs to implement. (both excellent by the way). I need to get prepared for my meeting with Mary Giard on Tuesday as she visits as our consultant to help us become users of "best practices".

Ironic, though, for the past 20+ years I have been proud of my reputation as a teacher who people come back and see and refer to as someone who was an outstanding teacher for their child. I now need to know these "best practices"?! I need to attend a meeting to review MEA scores tomorrow at lunch, since my team ran out of time at yesterday's staff meeting. I have to make sure that I am prepared for the math assessment in two weeks even though I am not sure why we are giving it, except that the state is telling us that we need to have one done. I will make substitute plans because I will have to miss a day in my classroom to score the assessment. Since we have no common planning time, I will try to locate my colleagues in the hall and on the way to lunch and specials to discuss some of the other things that we have due in preparation for our visit with Mary G. I need to refer a student to special education and am going to try to bypass the SAT, since that would be another meeting for which I would have to have a sub. State says I have to have SAT, though! Even though his parents want him tested and he is struggling...got to jump through those hoops to have a committee of 8 people tell me what I already know which is that this child needs help.

The previous paragraph is only a beginning and I am absolutely certain you hear this often. It is not intended to be whining, but rather to provide an entry to my final point:

I will not encourage either of my own bright, talented children, ages 16 and 12, to enter the field of public education. I will not encourage them, yet I will not DIScourage them if that is the path they choose. I have, however, chosen to be honest about what being a teacher means today, and more importantly, what is does not mean. Not to worry, they had it all figured out anyway!!! My daughter told me, "Mom, the songs you teach your kids are the things they will remember, and if they are made to feel happy in safe in school, they will do well. It won't be because of a rubric." I am certain that my father would be in agreement with me on this, considering the recent circumstances of the field. This absolutely breaks my heart. The long line of teachers in the Atwood family will become broken; it has been a proud line. None of my nieces and nephews are considering public education, either. What I am doing lately is not teaching. It is meeting, assessing, scoring, meeting, reviewing, analyzing, meeting, coming home so tired and emotionally drained that I am close to tears almost every day. It is not teaching, it is trying as hard as I can to find time during the day to share myself as a person, share a song, share a memory, share something with my children that does not have to be assessed. Meet the standard? Yes, I have a standard to meet! That standard is a way of life for myself and my family that is reasonable and important. Right now, as I prepare to head off to school tomorrow and meet those eager second graders, I am going to try really hard to stay focused on what is important, even though I will need to get those assessments done and get ready for those meetings and review those results and wait as my principal paces the floor in anticipation of the publication of "The List."

A way of life? Yes, teaching always will be for me. I will always love it with all of my heart and soul. However, I am considering leaving it, at least in the public arena, because it simply is becoming something other than what it is supposed to be. The way of life that it is becoming is one that will destroy morale and make people physically and emotionally ill. Someone needs to take a good look at what is REALLY happening and do something about it before it's too late. Students not meeting standards?

How about teaching jobs with no one to fill them? Perhaps the people who do fill the positions will be people who really enjoy how things in education are going. Perhaps there are people who really think these Learning Results are going to actually work! Perhaps these are people that pore over assessment rubrics on the web at night, not look for the latest children's books that are out there, or checking on which show on PBS they might tape for their class. My bet is that those are not going to be people whom their former students are going to see years later and give them a warm and sincere hug and say, "I loved having you as a teacher."

Thank you for listening.

Sincerely,

Karen Atwood Cook Boothbay, ME

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