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When Teacher Appreciation Week Gets Political

In acknowledgement of Teacher Appreciation Week, Georgia School Superintendent John Barge on Monday sent a "Here's to the Teacher" letter—more of an elongated toast really—to all public school teachers in the state. The letter includes some nice, if customary, verbiage about the teacher who arrives at school at 6:00 a.m. to prepare her classroom and the teacher who "wipes the noses and tends to the cuts and scrapes of her students."

But in his effort to document the burdens on teachers, Barge goes on to paint a bit of a working-conditions nightmare, complete with references to students with loaded handguns, abusive and intoxicated parents, and draconian school budget cuts. Here's a sampling:

Here's to the rural high school math teacher, or English, or science, or social studies, who must teach every subject to every child in the school because the school is so small they only earn one teacher per content field. ...

Here's to the assistant principal who takes a loaded handgun from a student who says the only reason he brought the gun to school was to protect himself from another child who threatened to stab him. ...

Here's to the teacher who spends hundreds of dollars of her own money supplying her classroom because budget cuts have eliminated her supply money. ...

Here's to the teacher who peers into the bloodshot, vacant eyes of his student who is strung out on drugs and strives to spark an interest in Geometry. ...

Here's to the same teacher who then deals with the intoxicated parent of the same child. ...

Here's to the assistant principal whose life is threatened because he won't let a child get into a car with an intoxicated parent who came to school to pick up his child.

Here's to the teacher who is caught in the middle of a custody dispute between parents over who has the right to information. ...

Here's to the teacher who is slapped and spit on every day by the severely disabled children she teaches. ...

Here's to the teacher who tends to her unconscious student who has had a seizure in her classroom due to a previously unknown medical condition.

Whatever else it was meant to do, the letter doesn't exactly come across as the best PR for Georgia's school system, which—um—Barge himself oversees.

It could be that Barge, who's also running for governor in the state, was trying to bring more attention to the deep-seated challenges facing schools—no one doubts that many teachers do have to deal with the types of issues he lists—or that he was trying score some political points in the state's budget battles. But the letter rubbed at least one educator the wrong way. Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an assistant professor of education at Georgia State University and a former English teacher in the state, has penned an open response to Barge, saying that his missive put too much blame for the difficulties teachers face on "families or even the children themselves" and not enough on state leaders' failure to address ongoing problems in schools. She writes:

I find that your examples illuminate more about the troubling, overwhelming, and disempowering contexts in which our state's schools exist rather than the daily efforts that teachers make.

Dunn goes on to argue that "the type of 'appreciation' current educators want and need" comes from school leaders who avoid labeling others (especially students and parents) and who work with educators and lawmakers to create supportive structures within school communities. She then offers some suggestions for Barge in direct contrast to the words of his letter. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Here's to the superintendent who structures parents and teachers as co-constructors in students' education and does not position them as enemies. Here's to the superintendent who recognizes the impact of historical structures of privilege and poverty in society and schools and does not maliciously attack families in the process. Here's to the superintendent who provides state support for bringing guidance counselors and social workers to all schools so that teachers have additional supports for their students' personal challenges. ...

Here's to the superintendent who understands differentiation and provides teachers with the professional development and resources to enable all students to succeed in their classes... and who never calls some children "average" while labeling others. Here's to the superintendent who recognizes the value in the life of all children, who does not reduce some children's lives to their medical needs, and who views their teachers as more than medical technicians. ...

Probably not the reaction Barge was hoping for. ... In other Teacher Appreciation Week news, meanwhile, Valerie Strauss posts another 'rather unusual' thank-you message to teachers. In this one, Kathleen Jasper, the founder of ConversationED, repeatedly decries Fun-Sized Snickers Bars and calls out Jeb Bush, Arne Duncan, and President Obama for "hijacking" teachers' autonomy. Interesting week. ...

(H/T: Maureen Downey)

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