an open letter to public school teachers we apologize

We apologize. We’re sorry on behalf of people who went to public schools, have kids in public schools, value public education, and teachers’ unions. Your job has been criticized, blamed, used to make money, and made less professional.

Early this year, Suzi Sluyter quit her job as a kindergarten teacher after more than 25 years. She typed: “I have seen how the requirements for my job have changed from focusing on the children, their learning styles, emotional needs, families, interests, and strengths to focusing on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, which puts more academic demands and pressures on them… I didn’t feel like I was quitting. I felt like my job had left me, and I still feel that way.”
Ms. Sluyter taught in Cambridge, MA, but her letter summed up the worries of teachers from small towns to big cities all over the country. There are more standardized tests, layoffs, and charter schools, but tenure protections have been taken away, and public schools are going hungry.

Under the state-appointed superintendent’s One Newark plan, several schools in the city of Newark, New Jersey, will be closed, turned over to charters, or “renewed.” All the teachers have to reapply for their jobs at a “renewed” school. (That’s a fancy way of saying it.) Black teachers would be hurt the most by the plan because they are more likely to work in schools that One Newark wants to improve. Students who are black and/or poor are also more likely to go to these schools.

 

Residents of Newark are against plans to privatize, close, or “renew” their schools. This includes everyone from students to PTO presidents. This month, a lot of students walked out of school to protest One Newark and the fact that their public schools aren’t getting enough money. Nydiqua Johnson, 16, a junior at West Side High School in Newark, said, “I’m sick and scared about what’s going to happen to our school.” “My school is being closed, and I really don’t like it. And we’re firing most of our teachers.”

 

The school reform plan has reached the small town of Highland Park, which is off of Exit 9 on the turnpike. Last fall, the district cut almost a dozen important jobs, like literacy coaches and a counselor who helped students with drug problems. Two of the jobs that were cut were held by the President and Vice President of the local union. At the same time, the district hired a data analyst, which was a new job, and two administrators. Each of them was paid in the six-figure range. In response, the teachers and staff union backed a letter that said, in part, “We are currently working in a climate of fear and uncertainty due to the lack of good judgment, foresight, communication, and humanity shown by our Board of Education as well as the sweeping changes that are being made by our administrative leadership.”

 

As uniformity and data-driven instruction replace teachers’ freedom and creativity, no detail is too small to be managed, scripted, and graded. This year, Highland Park school administrators told teachers in pre-K through first grade at the primary school how to make their bulletin boards. How and what was put on the bulletin boards had to follow specific rules. The bulletin boards were to be a part of the teachers’ evaluations. In New Jersey, a teacher’s job is in danger if they get two bad evaluations in a row. More than 200 parents, residents, and alumni, including this writer, signed a letter to the Board of Education saying they didn’t like the idea of using bulletin boards to evaluate teachers.

So, we want to say sorry to the teachers in Highland Park, Newark, Cambridge, and everywhere else in the country. We’re sorry to teachers who put a high value on a play, critical thinking, and creativity. We’re sorry to those teachers who are forced to leave their jobs. We’re sorry to the teachers who don’t think that all kids learn at the same speed or in the same way. We’re sorry to the teachers who have seen public education become a business that helps the rich get even richer.

We know, though, that words are not enough. We all learned in our public schools how important it is to “show, don’t tell.”

We won’t let the public school system be privatized, changed for profit, and turned into endless hours of test prep. We don’t want our schools to be judged, opened, closed, or given money based on how well they do on tests. We won’t let the teaching profession be told what to do and put in danger.

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