Education Opinion

Robin Reynolds Barre: An Open Letter to New Teachers and Those Wishing to Become Teachers

By Anthony Cody — February 08, 2011 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of the many letters I received more than a year ago addressed to President Obama was from a teacher in Washington state named Robin Reynolds Barre. Today, she offers us these thoughts.

Robin Reynolds Barre

I write to you as an elder of sorts in the profession. I have been in the field for over 15 years now, a baby by some standards. But for those of you just beginning, I feel this is enough time under my belt, enough time spent in the trenches that I can share some words of wisdom. I am aware that many of you are preparing to teach in a public education system that has, for the last 10 years, been heavily influenced by the policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Thus many of you are products of this influence. This is an important fact and one that warrants an awareness of that perspective. I believe that as new teachers you have a responsibility to educate yourself on what system you came out of, how it has informed your beliefs and assumptions, and to begin critically assessing the influences of NCLB. A responsibility. To step willy-nilly into the classroom where you will be responsible for the educational welfare of dozens of students, without a critical eye to your own history as a student is irresponsible at best.

I believe, too, that as new teachers you have a responsibility to articulate why you want to teach; what is it you are hoping to achieve, what are the goals you have in mind for your students. And then critically question those as well. Where do these desires, hopes, and dreams for students come from? What voices whisper behind the curtain urging you on? Are they from your own experiences as a student? Do these voices come from the policy makers? The media? College boards? The parents of the children you teach? And from where and whom do these entities gather their beliefs and assumptions?

While I have my own ideas about education, the purposes of, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, the damage to our children and public education perpetrated by the NCLB Act, and the damage that’s waiting around the corner as the Obama administration and Arne Duncan’s education cabinet tout their Race to the Top reform policies, I will not try to convince you of these opinions. I simply want to say that you have a responsibility to step into the profession of education with your eyes as wide open as possible. You must research, read as many opinions and reports as you can regarding the ongoing educational reform debates, talk with or listen to teachers who’ve been in the field for more than 5 years and from as many educational settings as possible - charter schools, private schools, inner city public schools, early childhood education all the way up to higher education. And talk with the children, the direct consumers of this institution we call public education.

To walk blindly into a classroom without arming yourself with the knowledge of the political, philosophical, pedagogical, and ideological conversations being held regarding public education is to walk into a landmine where the victims include yourself, your communities, and most heartbreaking of all, your students. In 1997 I did this very thing. It has taken many years of educating myself to come to the realization that I was woefully unprepared for the world I was walking into. My teacher education program was adequate, focused on serving inner city populations and the underserved, for which I was grateful. However, it wasn’t until years later that I could look back and appreciate how naïve I was, how that naivete did not allow me to serve my students effectively. Hindsight taught me that much was left out of the teacher ed curriculum that should have been included.

I offer here names, issues, titles, and links that you are obligated to look at. Yes, I am presumptuous enough to say “obligated.” I’ll use my own story as an example. Let’s imagine that you go to school for 12-24 months preparing to step into a rural middle school classroom. You have been taught curriculum development, laws and ethics, positive discipline, instructional methods, assessment, child and adolescent development, and a healthy dose of student teaching in real life settings. Then you step into your own classroom for the very first time and wham! It hits you. This is real life - children living in poverty with no dictionaries, scissors, glue, computers, or newspapers in the home. Children who are being abused and neglected. Children who come to school with no breakfast and go home to no dinner. Children with ADHD, oppositional children, shy and withdrawn children. You make your first child protective services report and think your heart will break. Several years later, you get the news that one of your former students has committed suicide. And the list goes on.

They don’t teach you in teacher education programs what to do under these circumstances. What is the job of the teacher when a student commits suicide? When a child comes to you with tomato juice in her hair because she is homeless, lives in the woods, and her tent was sprayed by a skunk? When your student doesn’t come to school for several days and then when she does, she tells you she was raped? What is your job? These are my stories. I am sure if you ask any teacher in education today, any teacher worth their weight, any teacher paying attention, they can tell you other such stories. What is your responsibility under these circumstances?

The website for the college where I received my teacher certification states that “Teachers have an immediate, direct, and positive impact on the common good . . . Discover how education can be a powerful vehicle for social change.” That is what I went into teaching for. I would imagine that most of you also have this dream. Or perhaps you want your students to become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, creative contributing members to their communities. If any of the above are true, you must educate yourself regarding the issues schools are facing today before you begin educating your students.

Below are many links for you to begin this research. While I have included a few that stand on the other side of the issue from where I stand, the list is fairly biased, I admit. But it’s a start. You can watch Waiting for Superman or The Lottery, read any of Michelle Rhee’s articles and those of her supporters, or look to the current educational trends in Arizona and Texas to get a picture of the side on which I do not stand. But from my experience, these views are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere. It’s the information that mainstream media does not spout, the information that gets swept under the corporations’ big money rugs that I offer you here.

It is your responsibility to the democratic right to a public education, to our communities, and most of all to our children to educate yourself and research these issues. Otherwise, what are you doing in the classroom?

No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top

* original NCLB act
* The Obama administrations’ revision of NCLB
* information regarding Race to the Top
* criticism regarding Race to the Top (RTTT)
* article which compares NCLB and RTTT

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. From 1997 to 2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program.

* In this article she responds to PISA
* letter to Florida lawmakers as they geared up to vote in 2010 on merit pay for teachers based on testing scores of their students
* criticism against Ravitch’s views, though I was confused as the blogger first accuses Ravitch of neoliberalism and then a few paragraphs down accuses her of neoconservatism.

Michelle Rhee

* Students First page about her
* from a Teach for America alumn (one of the programs that Rhee supports for reforming education)
* criticism against Rhee’s position as DC chancellor of schools

Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere

* map showing connections between big money and education reform
* critique of Waiting for Superman
* regarding the involvement of private investors in education
* more about the involvement of big business
* Race to Nowhere - interview with Abeles

Today’s Education Reform Movement and Teachers

* link to my FB note “Response to education article in Newsweek”
* link to article by a teacher ed professor addressing school leaders and policy makers regarding new teachers
* “When Did Teachers Become Bums?”
* “We’re living in the darkest times for teachers that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
* Marion Brady on teacher accountability

Repercussions of the Education Reform Movement and our Children

* link to my FB note “The Travesty We Call Public Education”
* repercussions of today’s public education system’s “movements”
* what this is doing to our children
* a short video about and by students
* on creativity
* the story behind Chinese students’ outstanding test scores

Sir Ken Robinson

follow this link and there are other videos by this engaging speaker

Henry Giroux

Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, and Penn State University. Routledge named Giroux as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period in 2002.

* Henry Giroux writes about Freire and the education plutocracy

Paulo Freire

I have no links, though be sure to check out Wikipedia’s information on this towering figure in education. Books that are on the shelves of the responsible teacher are:

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Pedagogy of the Heart
  • Pedagogy of Hope
  • We Make the Road By Walking
  • Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach

Other texts for the responsible teacher

The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, editors Goodlad, Soder, Sirotnik

The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools by Berliner and Biddle - a response to A Nation at Risk, a document prepared by a committee under the direction of Reagan’s secretary of education

What do you think of Robin Reynolds Barre’s advice? Her list of articles and books? Is there anything you would add?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.