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Are You There, Mr. President? Madison is Calling

Today I bring you a post from a former teacher. Please read. Please listen. Please share.

Peggy Robertson

When I was twelve I read a book that changed my life. It was titled Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. I read it again and again. In that book, I finally saw that someone out there understood me. Ultimately, we all desperately desire to be heard and understood. Expert teachers know this; they spend every waking moment trying to figure out what makes their students tick. We watch, we observe, we truly listen and we make changes based on our students' needs.

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When I was in my twenties, and a new teacher, I read another book, The Dreamkeepers, by Gloria Ladson-Billings. It rocked my world. It made me cry. The book came at a crucial time in my career as a teacher. I worked at a school "across the tracks," in a town in southern Missouri. My students were mainly African-American and many were very poor. I, like many new teachers today, got placed in a school with high need, high poverty students. It was the best job I ever had. Gloria was the voice in my head helping me along the way. She was my mentor but never knew it. She understood.

On February 17th, I attended a presentation by Diane Ravitch here in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to have her sign my copy of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but I honestly couldn't do it. I was feeling so emotional and I knew I might unravel. Diane hears me; my experience is simply an echo of the voices of many educators out there today. She knows what today's teachers are going through. If Diane and I did talk, she would understand what was beautiful about my fifteen years in the education field as well as what was haunting. She would know why I am debating whether I should return to the education field or not. She reports the facts accurately. She is our collective voice. She listens.

Are you there, President Obama? It's me, Peggy Robertson, the voice of a former teacher. Are you truly listening? I must say, with respect, that it does not feel as though you are. I have felt hopeless during your presidency. This week, for the first time, I have hope. Watching the public workers of Madison, Wisconsin protest and ask to be heard made me sit up a bit straighter. The American people have a voice! I saw democracy in action. But are you listening? I now hear that they are asking you to join them. I hope you do.

But this is about more than Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is the first snowball. Once it starts rolling, it may be unstoppable. We've got a lot of mountains here in Colorado and I hope that snowball heads our way. The corporate education reform going on here is devastating.

My fifteen years as an educator were spent teaching in the elementary grades as well as supporting teachers and administrators in developing and refining effective instructional practices. During my five final years I suddenly became jaded. NCLB destroyed my spirit. I watched it's evil hand touch children, teachers, schools and districts.

I saw the strangle hold NCLB had on everyone. I tried to support teachers with all of the obstacles NCLB placed in our way. I watched Reading First fail. I saw principals come and go and schools get closed. I saw students caught in the crossfire. I saw the light go out in children's eyes when they were drilled continually for the state test. I worked with teachers who told me we needed to hurry up and help that child read (in kindergarten mind you) before a negative label was placed on that child; we were in a pressure cooker. I supported administrators in knowing what to look for when they observed and evaluated teachers; many of them did not know what they were seeing because they had not actually spent much time teaching. Or, they had spent time teaching subjects, such as Spanish, in a high school classroom and they were now being asked to evaluate elementary school teachers who were focusing on developing readers and writers. Such an irony - teachers evaluated by administrators who haven't taught what the teachers are teaching. The administrators were under immense pressure as they are today. The scores simply had to be good.

When I left the education profession I left angry.
My beliefs about education had been trampled on. I didn't believe in what I was being required to do. Too much testing. Too many young children not being allowed to be children. Too much data being shoved down everybody's throats. I have stayed home the last four years with my youngest son, and I have watched the destruction of our American school system continue. My youngest child is ready to start school, and I wonder if I should re-enter the education profession. But, do I really want to enter the lion's den? I want to work in the education field again, but I also want to be heard and respected.

The current corporate reform taking over our public schools is handing us many more teachers, administrators and superintendents who will need immense support to do their jobs well. If the new administrators haven't taught, then how in the world can you expect them to evaluate teachers? How is a former army sergeant, now made superintendent, supposed to evaluate and support administrators? How is a teacher with five weeks training expected to support our neediest students? And, (lucky us) we have the Bush Institute training principals, in cooperation with Teach for America of course! It's insulting. All of it - it's a slap in the face to students, educators and parents.

It appears there is no point in getting a degree in education with the TFA program leading the way. And then we are told that our master's degrees are pointless too? I think about that every month when I pay my student loan bill. And this week, my eyes rolled back in my head when I heard that the U.S. Department of Education just gave fifty million dollars to the TFA program. The TFA program is a band-aid. And it hurts the neediest children when those teachers leave after their two-year contract has ended.

In your State of the Union Address you asked for more college students to go in to education. I'm sorry, but I seriously laughed when you said that. I would pay both my children money to stay out of the education field right now. It's a hostile environment. Teachers have to teach to the test. The new common core standards are developmentally inappropriate. Children get labeled as failures before they've even finished kindergarten thanks to the pressures of NCLB. And let's not forget that those five year olds don't get a nap or a recess or time for imaginative play. RTTT is punishing to teachers and to schools. Encourage my children to enter the lion's den to teach? No thank you. Your administration has shown no respect for educators, parents or students.

Are you listening Obama? The strangle hold of RTTT may result in the death of public education. Have you read Ravitch's book? Have you followed any of the research being shared on expert educator blogs across the country? What do you really know about TFAs? Merit pay? Value-added assessment? Standardized Testing?

News Flash - it's all bad. Why are you listening to Gates? What educational credentials does he have? It is so difficult to have a voice as a teacher. We don't have a lot of money so we can't buy the media, such as the new Media Bullpen, like Gates can. But we can march. And march we will. July 28th to July 31st concerned citizens will find their way to Washington D.C. to take part in the Save our Schools March and National Call to Action. Will you join us? Will you listen?

When I voted for you I voted with my heart and soul.
I believed everything you said. I thought you heard me. I thought we had found a president that truly understood the needs of the American people. I don't believe that anymore. There has been too much damage done. We now have Arne Duncan (a non-educator) leading the way with the corporate reformers whispering in his ear. We have more testing, more teacher bashing and more children being hurt at the hands of corporate reform.

Are you there President Obama? Did you hear Stephen Krashen talk about poverty? Again and again? Did you hear that our international test scores are actually excellent when we look at the scores of the children not living in poverty? Do you really believe poverty has nothing to do with the woes of our public schools? Have you read the research? I could provide all the links but it doesn't seem necessary considering they are all over the internet on every single education blog I read. I don't think you are listening. I think it's going to take an uprising for you to hear us. Madison, Wisconsin, is speaking.

I am placing my faith in the American people. I am listening Madison, Wisconsin. I signed the letter. You are speaking for all of us. President Obama, please listen. Please renew the hope we all had when we elected you.

Peggy Robertson
Former Educator
Centennial, Colorado

Peggy Robertson taught kindergarten, first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth grade, beginning her career in Missouri and continuing in Kansas, for a total of ten years. She was hired by Richard C. Owen Publishers in 2001 to serve as a Learning Network Coordinator and spent the next three years training teacher leaders and administrators in educational theory and practice in the state of Colorado, as well as around the country during the summer months. In 2004 she was hired as the Literacy Coordinator by the Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado. While working in Adams 50 she mentored teachers and administrators and supported them in the writing and implementation of school development plans.

What do you think? Are you ready to sign on to the letter from Madison?

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