Equity & Diversity Opinion

How Can One Teacher be Both the Best and the Worst? A Letter to President Obama

By Anthony Cody — October 13, 2012 5 min read
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I have volunteered to help Diane Ravitch collect and organize letters for the Campaign for our Public Schools, which will culminate on Thursday, October 17. All the letters collected by then will be sent to the White House and to the Department of Education. Instructions on how to send a letter are at the bottom of this post.

The letters are pouring in. Each one reveals another facet of the lives of our schools in 2012. Today I am sharing a letter sent in by Shelley Barker, of Snohomish, Washington. Please read, and then take a few minutes to write a letter of your own.

Dear President Obama,

I am a 7th grade writing teacher. I love my school, my job, and my students. Summers are torture to me because I’m out of the classroom. I truly feel I was put on this earth to teach middle school. My job is me and I am my job; the two cannot be separated. After twenty-five years of teaching, walking into my classroom each morning still produces little sparks of excitement within me. I am a lucky, lucky person.

I teach six classes a day in a former-rural-now-bedroom-community near Seattle. My students cross all socioeconomic lines. Some children in my school come from wealthy families and some children in my school are living in cars. Some kids have never known want or need. Some get two of their meals, their supplies, and their clothes, for free, at school.

When I teach my honors class, made up of kids who are gifted and talented, I am the most amazing teacher in the world! The kids hang on my every word. They laugh at my (pathetic) jokes. They pay close attention in lessons, apply their learning directly to their own writing, and ask writerly questions. They strike up conversations about books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen. When I ask them questions, like, “What did you do over the weekend?” they give answers about museums, stage productions, sporting events (both their own and professional), music recitals, restaurants, travel, family activities, and events within their well-connected and well-supported social stratum. My job as a teacher is easy and very natural.

In another class, I am the worst teacher on the planet. The kids from that hour are distracted and disengaged. It would appear they’ve never been in a classroom. They are rude to each other, profess no need for adults like me, and they do not complete their work. Attentions are short. Stories are only funny if it involves someone getting hurt or humiliated. Many have been in fights, been suspended, and have seen the inside of the principal’s and counselor’s offices many times already this year. If I ask about their weekends, they say they did, “nuthin’.” If I refer to a piece of art or a musical or a book, I get blank stares in return. Many spend their lives outside of school unsupervised, so imagine their reactions when they enter a structured environment, like a school, or worse yet, Mrs. Barker’s class. My job as a teacher is strained, difficult, and emotionally exhausting.

So what gives? Same teacher, same twenty-five years of teaching experience. Kids from the same town, attending the same school.

Obviously, the variable is the vast differences in my students’ lives. We cannot ignore the fact that some kids come to us programmed to learn. They’ve had amazing experiences in their short lives. They have parents who support their endeavors, be they academic, artistic, or athletic. They do not come to school hungry and they do not go to bed scared. They travel during school breaks. Their houses are warm and their many pairs of shoes fit. My students who live in poverty do not have their basic needs met. In addition to lacking food, shelter, water, and clothing, many live in chaos. Violence, missing parents, low wages, drug use, loss of employment...the list goes on. How can a child focus on crafting a good title or writing an engaging lead when so many forces, out of her control, take center stage in her brain and her psyche? I’m positive you studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in your academic years. NOTHING that propels growth can happen in a person’s life until those very basic needs are met.

Here’s the kicker: none of this is ever an excuse and I’ll continue to work one hundred times harder for my students who struggle and live in poverty. I’ll go toe-to-toe with them to demand they finish their work, and finish it well. I’ll call them in at lunchtime so they can work and eat at the same time. I’ll stand strong as they unload the burdens of their brains and hearts, offer them hugs, and then keep pushing because I know education is their only way out. I’ll continue to strive to be that adult who is the example, knowing that sometimes all it takes to pull a kid from the cycle is one single grownup who cares.

Truth told, I live for these kids. Most times, I never know where they end up because of the transient nature of their lives. But in those moments, when a 25 year old man knocks on my classroom door and tentatively says, “I’m sure you don’t remember me...” and proceeds to apologize for being a little “s--t” in my class and then tells me that he’s been accepted to the State Patrol Academy and that he’s on his way to having his life in order, I am rewarded. I cry in those moments. I’m sure you understand why.

Ending poverty will end many problems in public education. We are by no means perfect, but when our mission is to take in anyone, no matter their conditions, how could we be? Our great nation has the wealth to make sure kids don’t go hungry. We have the money to support struggling families. We put our resources and energy into the things that matter most to us. By today’s standards, the United States does not value the well-being and education of all its children.

Proof is in actions, not words or plans to test the life out of children.

Please, be a democrat in the best possible definition. Please return to your idea of hope; it is why I voted for you. Your plan for education runs frighteningly close to that of Governor Romney’s and does not allow me to cast my vote for you this time around. You still have time to turn this freighter. All it takes is some honesty and commitment from you, the only one who can reject Race to the Top, the testing culture, the privatization of public schools, and the eventual collapse of what makes our nation greater than any other: a free education for all.

With all the sincerity I can muster,

Shelley Barker

Snohomish, WA

Here is Diane Ravitch’s call for letters -- from teachers, parents, students, administrators, and citizens who care about schools.

You can add your letter to those being sent by submitting it here, to the Campaign for our Public Schools.

You can also mail copies of your letters through US mail to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 20500

You can send them directly to the White House by email from this page.

What do you think? Will you add your letter to those being sent? What would you like the president to understand?

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.