Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Letter to the President

Many people have asked me what has changed in public education since I originally left the classroom in 2010. The truth is nothing. Putting institutions ahead of individuals, especially in the education system, has got to stop. At the request of friends, I am re-posting the letter that I wrote to President Obama in 2010. A letter that did receive a response, but with little more than lip-service to the idea of truly giving teachers the respect and trust they deserve. I continue to say to the American public, take classrooms out of the hands of people who know nothing about teaching and learning except how to measure failure. We know that schools are failing, but we need more time, and in some cases help, with how to create innovative instruction. Those of us who love teaching and are extremely successful, have left because you did nothing to help us spread the word about what we do well, as if it needed to be kept a secret. Instead you made us sit through countless professional development sessions on metrics, instead of instruction. After the treatment referred to in this letter, I went back to a classroom and a building where the doom and gloom attitude was so pervasive that I knew I must leave or suffocate. The loneliness that teachers suffer is awful and the burden placed on them to help children, who are often suffering too, is monumental. Most of us wanted to accept this burden, then administrators and politicians started saying we weren't doing enough and added to the list of our responsibilities the notion that we alone were failing to do our jobs. Until the world and our institutions recognize the complexities of the modern teacher and her/his responsibilities by adding time, support, and money to our common goal, schools will continue to fail.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. Obama;

You are my president. I silently passed your name along like one does a magazine with important news that they want a friend to know; Hillary, I love her, but this guy is different, made from a different cloth. I agreed with your need to pass health care and to reform Wall Street. You and I rode the waves of change as I defended you against critics who time and again chastised you for your slow dance for diplomacy. And yes, I get your regular emails keeping me at the fingertips of your every move, but now I wonder if you know what is happening to me, to the thousands of superior teachers like me who are caught in the web of injustice in Chicago and around the world.

This is not a letter about politics and economy although some will use them as an excuse; this is a letter about justice, that quality I saw in you and that begged my vote in your direction.

I ask you with all sincerity, what are you doing to improve the nation’s education system? This needs your attention as much if not more than the oil spill in the gulf and the wars in the Middle East. Your own, our own country is at war. The fear and insecurity that have become hallmarks of the public school system have been knocking at my door for the past six months. I tried not to answer, but the news that my position had been cut (delivered through my boss’ boss because my supervisor was unaware that this decision had been made) came to me in its convoluted way: Chicago Public Schools’ lack of finesse, lack of clarity over my rights, and the uncertainty of my future ushered them in. Systems like this one have gotten so big that, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, one hand does not know what the other is doing.

I know, I know, many people’s positions are being cut. Trust me, I am greeted by many with the words, “What can you do given the economy?” But Mr. President, I was promoted to this position with the Chicago Public Schools after thirteen years as an English Teacher at a north side high school. I was ready to leave, it is true, but I was offered a job when people in charge had to have known there would be more deep cuts in the coming months. Despite repeated questions about this uncertainty, I was promised that because I would have coach in my title I should be secure in knowing that my Union would protect me (when I contact them they simply want the names and stories that will benefit their struggle, not my loss). As it stands now, I do not know if I have a job, any security, or income. But pursuing justice for me would be self-centered and self-serving because there is something larger at stake.

I am worried about the justice of public education. My experience is teaching me not to take risks. There are many teachers who don’t. Those who play it safe stay safely and silently in their classrooms, are the ones who are rewarded. I visited thirty-five schools in the last few months and saw this lack of risk-taking daily. Too many teachers are unwilling to do anything other than the bare minimum required of them because doing more is not valued or rewarded. Until we are willing to subject ourselves to standards of excellence this injustice will continue.

If the system and the schools cared about excellence they would look at the many teachers like me who have outstanding records (I am happy to share that record with you or anyone) and who build professional communities at the school level. These communities we build are designed to promote healthy competition instead of systematically stripping us of our creativity and excellence because we challenge the status quo and ask for betterment. Integrity and virtue would lead us to set high standards because these attributes help children grow; high standards should not be set because test scores are down. Good teachers know and dedicate their lives to teaching because student’s lives depend on us; our setting and implementing a higher standard can change even the most marginalized life. I learned that from teachers who cared about me when I didn’t care about myself or believe I was capable. Perhaps you have your own examples.

By the way, I don’t disagree with the budget cuts being made in Chicago – we had a blotted and ineffective system. But the inhumanity by which these cuts have been made is insane. As a second career teacher, I left another career and chose the field of education. I truly believed, then and now, that communication and trust are at the heart of effective teaching, and yet I work in buildings and in a system that repeatedly violates these two principles. What students need to see modeled is important because they are more often products of what they see, not what they hear. How can we blame anyone but ourselves when children do not turn out the way we hope they will? Look at the examples we are setting.

So, today as I await my fate, let me say this: I have dedicated the past thirteen years of my life to teaching students in a neighborhood high school on Chicago’s north side. My teaching has earned me the respect and admiration of thousands of students and has brought me great joy. My expertise is featured on a film, my teaching has been honored with a number of awards, and many people in the education arena around the country seek my knowledge out. But in my own town, in my own school system, I seem to be invisible. And, ironically, I have always received a Superior rating – something I think has little value, but Chicago Public Schools continues to use a meaningless method to review its teachers.

There is no word other than unjust. Daily, I teach kids to take risks, reach beyond the known and discover the unknown. I honestly sought this new job because I thought that what I had learned at my little high school could help a whole city. Perhaps you know what I mean, Mr. President; I have read your books, and I have overcome obstacles, just like you. I have long known that integrity is a lonely place, but the silence here is almost deafening.

So, thirteen years into what I had hoped was the career of my calling, I must find yet another position when there is a hiring freeze. Scarily, telling people I meet that I have been working for the Board of Education seems to leave them with a bitter aftertaste. Worse, if I could have found it in me to truly believe what has happened was the result of budget cuts and political machinations, I would have found some comfort. But I leave my office with the knowledge that majorities of the people working with me have never taught in a classroom. What’s more, the people I worked directly with were not producing any work that could justify their sizable salaries. The situation I experienced makes me wonder about the ethical implications of a system riddled with bureaucracy, one that rewards the status quo, nepotism, and business over education.
Thank you for listening Mr. President, and Happy Birthday. Michelle asked me to sign your card but I decided to write instead. You, as I said, are my president. When you were inaugurated I wrote and sent you a poem and one stanza stands out now:

Dear America,
Like Whitman I want to sing again
The joyful songs of workers working
I want to sing, like Hughes
The unequal record,
So we remember, always remember:
Hope did, and does, inspire us;
As we reweave your democratic dress
With clean threads,
Not those soaked in blood
Or bloated victory.

Unfortunately, I do not see a reweaving of the democratic dress with regard to your position on education. Frankly, I am concerned that what has been created in Chicago and across the country is a gigantic mess on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the tragedy in the gulf. If we don’t get our act together what will happen to our children? I plead with you today to restore justice and integrity to an important and vital part of our democratic institution. I know there are casualties of economic and political war, but some of them are truly unnecessary. I certainly never thought, given my skill and reputation that I, too, would become a casualty. I did not spend excessively, or play political jeopardy with friends in high places; I simply taught students and tried to take that work to the next level. Blaming me, or any other capable teacher, for the problems in the education system is like blaming a pelican for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Please, bring together a group of ethical, focused, and committed people and begin to reweave the educational system with clean threads so that those who follow in our path may have the same opportunities that you and I, and many Americans have had. Let at least half of these people be teachers, those in the trenches who know the whole child, who know what to do and will not simply put a band aid on people and programs in need of deeper triage. Please stop allowing our work to be outsourced to consultants and high priced vendors. We need communities built from within and experts who will begin to develop solutions through mutual trust and communication.


Andy Flaherty
Teacher and Writer

Footnote: As I am writing this letter to you, I received an email saying that my resume may not be submitted to my own employer -- Chicago Public Schools -- because the deadline was last Wednesday. It said, ironically, “In fairness to the other candidates, we cannot consider you at this time.” Because I am a second-career educator, I must work for twenty more years before I can retire. What I am left with is an employer that won’t protect me, and a Union that wants to use me. What we all are left with is a mess that will take years to clean up.

1 comment:

  1. My heart breaks for the children who will miss out on the privilege of having you teach are an amazing, beautiful soul!