I am writing to you today as one voice in a chorus of millions of educators, students, parents, and concerned citizens. I ask that you take a moment to hear our stories.
Mr. President, I worked as a special education teacher at a small elementary school just two blocks from your Chicago home. Perhaps you and your family have walked by it, Reavis Elementary at 50th and Drexel? Did you ever wonder what happened inside that small, crumbling, yellow-brick schoolhouse which sits just outside your affluent Hyde Park neighborhood?
I doubt you let your girls spend much time in the park in front of Reavis, what with the frequent drive-bys and police chases. But that is where our students played before and after school. As you may know, our students' families are what's left of the population remaining after the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes. Nearly all the students come from low-income homes, and every single one was African-American. Many were homeless, gangs infested the neighborhood, drugs touched far too many lives, and the violence was an ever-present threat. But everyday, those little babies walked to our school. And we worked hard for them, spending sixteen hours days and giving up our weekends and money to try and fill the gaps of not having a library, textbooks, support staff, a full-time nurse, supplies or music in our building. We gave our all.
And Mr. Obama, do you remember the friend you wrote about in your book, Dreams From My Father? You called her "Mary". Did you know that she dedicated more than twenty years of her life to the children of Reavis? I had the privilege of working with her during my first year of teaching. She was the most inspirational, kind-hearted, good, hard-working teacher I had ever seen. She had a way of making the children light up with joy. She worked endlessly, often losing sleep. You know her history, you wrote about it, she has not had an easy life.
I'm sorry to report her life has been made worse thanks to you, Mr. President. The pressure of test after test was all-consuming. Our administration was cruel, and our principal looked for reasons to belittle us, berate us, and to fire us. Instead of letting us, as professionals, be free to create relevant, engaging curriculum we were told we must write lessons a certain way, we must configure our board a specific way, we must put up the children's test data on the walls of the classrooms, and above all else, we must obey unquestioningly. We watched as the principal targeted the older teachers, or anyone who disagreed with him. No one was safe. More than one teacher from our small school community ended up at a psychiatric facility. Marriages failed, tensions were high, and many tears were shed.
I wish I could say that school culture of fear was unique to Reavis. But it is not. For too many schools, this is the new normal in education under oppressive top-down mandates.
But "Mary" and I found small pockets of joy with our students. We secretly planned engaging lessons on all sorts of topics squeezed into the cracks between the mandated tests and while our principal was out of the building. We co-taught fun lessons that were filled with laughter, creativity, and lively questions. We had to tell the children not to get too loud in their excitement, in case someone from administration came down the hall and saw that we were not following the boring scripts and mandated paperwork. I remember one day, in the heart of an active lesson, one of our reluctant readers getting up and reading a whole paragraph which she had written herself in front of the class. We all danced and hugged and shed tears of joy, all while nervously glancing over our shoulders for fear of being discovered by the bosses. Mr. President, we shouldn't have to hide those moments. But you see, that small success won't even matter since that special education student will likely never pass the standardized test. In the eyes of the Department of Education, she is a "failure". And thus, so are we, her teachers.
Poor "Mary". She knew as a veteran teacher that no school would ever hire someone her age. So she was stuck in that abusive school. She reminisced how things had always been hard teaching in an inner-city school, but they had been better years ago. The past few years had become unbearable, she told me. The year after I worked there, she was finally forced into early retirement. She will have to live on a reduced pension for the rest of her life. According to your administration, her years of dedication, loyalty, and practiced expertise mean nothing. In fact, I'm sure the Department of Education would be happy to bring in a poorly-trained, inexperienced novice like Teach for America provides. So Mr. President, your friend "Mary" is now just another selfless soul thrown away in this barrage of teacher-bashing, deprofessionalization, and budget-cutting.
This is the world of Race to the Top. Of cold competition, deceptive data, test scores, merit pay, unfair teacher evaluations, and a constant fear of school closures or massive layoffs. I remember trembling as the list of school closures came out, knowing this time it could be our school, our fragile children displaced. Meanwhile, we would watch as the Chicago Public Schools unfairly gave new money, facilities, marketing, and praise to charter schools and turnarounds, while our neighborhood school was crushed under growing accountability with shrinking resources.