Dear School District, School Board & Community,
It is with mixed emotions that I write to you today. In some ways, this letter has been a long time coming; while in other ways, it was recently finalized. Today I am writing to tell you the main reasons that I have decided to resign from being a teacher. I wrestled with the decision to share these reasons because (1) I feel like teachers have been stating the problems for years now and it feels (as a teacher) that no one is listening, (2) it feels as though the people who make decisions are not listening with open ears to then create change and (3) after years in the field, it feels like honesty about the problems is not well received. Nevertheless, in the end, I decided to write this letter. Why? Because I cannot stand strong without being real about the situations that are happening each day. I cannot look my former students’ in the eyes unless I continue to be a voice for them. That being said, these are the reasons I have chosen to say goodbye:
- We are ignoring the social challenges. Society has changed over the years, and chances are, it will continue to change. Teachers, and other staff members, are faced with a variety of intense social challenges that do not simply remain outside of the school walls. Family dynamics and society’s view of what is “acceptable” behavior is greatly impacting the learning environment. The latest materials and fanciest technology is not going to replace the fact that we must address students’ social needs. Too often I was told, “We can only focus on things that we can change inside these walls.” I tried for years, but I cannot accept that. If we truly care about what is happening with behaviors that ultimately mold children into adults, then we need to speak up and speak out. Teaching is no longer about providing instruction in English and mathematics. It has become a place where we are teaching manners, hygiene, self-control, forgiveness, how to apologize, respect, acceptance and so many other social behaviors. Dealing with social behaviors inside of a classroom limits one’s time to focus on academics. Additionally, if we only deal with these challenges within the classroom, they will continue to be present because the root of the problem is in our society. Until we (society) improve things outside of the walls, the challenges will continue to impact the quality of education within the school’s walls.
- Inconsistent expectations and follow-through. Schools have rules. There are various reasons why. Some reasons are to keep people safe, another reason is to create smooth transitions in the day, and so forth. However, if staff members do not uphold the rules and expectations, then they are pretty much pointless. I’ve often been teased about how strict I maintain my classroom. I have rules established before the first day of school and we follow them the entire year until the final time the students walk out of the building for summer break. I never let breaks, holidays, testing or any other factors change the expectations that were present. Some teachers have a different style of teaching and that is fine, but I think there is a very fine line between having expectations and making exceptions. Yes, life does have exceptions, but there’s a problem when exceptions become the norm. Then, by definition, they are no longer exceptions. Often I watched problems stem from something that seemed so simple. For example, hoodies are not to be worn in the classrooms and they are not considered part of the uniform. Simple, right? Then people start making exceptions. “He has a bad hair day,” “Her uniform shirt is stained,” “It feels chilly inside,” the list goes on and on. So, exceptions were made and in a few months, wearing hoodies has become a common practice. The expectation was weakened. By the end of the school year, staff members are trying to figure out why students are no longer wearing the required parts of the uniforms. It all began with changing the expectations. The authority was weakened because we no longer were adhering to that which we stated was a requirement at the start of the year. That may seem like a minor situation, but I have witnessed this grow into more significant scenarios. Problems begin to shift into cafeteria behaviors, language used towards teachers, fighting, and the list goes on. Once we begin to weaken expectations, where do we draw the line? How can we say, “Well, we didn’t really mean that rule, but we do mean this rule?” It is a well-known fact that children thrive on consistency. When expectations are fluctuating throughout the school year, you have decreased the quality of the much needed consistency. This is a trait which is very applicable and valued in adults. If we are trying to best prepare students for life after school, then should this not be taken more sincerely? Consistent expectations and follow-through should also be conducted in the overseeing of employees. If there is an expectation that specific documents be provided by a deadline, then that expectation should be upheld. If staff members do not adhere to that request, there should be follow-through that leads towards ensuring the problem will not continue. Likewise, if our primary goal is to provide the highest quality of instruction to our students, then this should be monitored throughout all buildings across a school district. Perhaps employees are stretched too thin to follow-up on everything, and yes, one should be able to trust that expectations will be met and upheld, but there should be a balance where follow-up does occur to maintain a standard of accountability. With the pressure that everyone is facing, individuals are sure to start cutting corners here and there. I believe it is our role as a district to hold each other accountable and provide honest and genuine feedback. Without honest feedback, one will not be able to improve on a professional level. We should address the problems and create action plans towards improvement before the challenge grows even bigger. In the same regard, if workers do not improve in their effectiveness and professionalism, then administration should be able to take prompt steps to replace that individual before more students/co-workers are negatively impacted. As is in any other profession, some people will enter the field who may not possess the traits needed to be effective in that specific role, but without consistent expectations and follow-through, how can they ever discover the path they were meant to take?
- The continued focus on testing and data collection. The benefit of assessing students and analyzing data makes complete sense; however, it feels like we have jumped over the healthy boundaries a long time ago. In teaching special education, the standardized assessments that are required give me very little, if any, useful data to discuss and plan from. Thankfully, I had an administration who valued the assessments I produced and presented to my students. This data was useful and did allow my students to become reflective and develop goal-setting skills. At the same time, there were still way too many hours spent on data collection and analysis. I once calculated the amount of time I spent each week on assessments. This calculation ended up equaling the same number of minutes that I spent on reading instruction. In my professional opinion, that is not healthy nor wise. Our students need to be given more opportunities to read and to practice the literacy skills we teach. In addition, teachers need time to implement the new strategies and approaches that were discussed during data meetings and professional developments. All of the discussions are meaningless when there is no time to implement and monitor changes in the delivery of instruction due to constantly giving yet another assessment, and then changing things up again. Observing changes takes time. We are given new materials and requirements throughout the months. This is not enough time to see if the old materials and strategies were efficient. Along those same lines, these situations are leading to more and more stress upon the staff and students. I believe some stress is good because it keeps us pushing forward, reflecting and seeking ways to improve as a professional. However, if the amount of stress piles up too high and for too long, you end up with either: burnt out teachers, frustrated teachers adding to the growing negativity, ones who give up while going through the actions of each day without their hearts being invested, or teachers who no longer maintain effective teaching practices. At the same time, the continued focus on testing impacts students. There are numerous published articles on the effects of testing on students, so I will not include those in this letter. Truth be told, we are investing a lot of money, resources and time in an area that is not resulting in developing well-rounded future contributors to society. Teachers have been seeing these effects for years, and yet we still run in the same circles – especially now with test scores being tied to our evaluations. When will we focus on what is best for learners, instead of focusing on the tests (including the indirect methods where we focus on the test, without saying that we are, as if that changes the fact that it is still the primary focus driving teaching decisions)?
- Providing hand-outs instead of hand-ups. Perhaps this challenge is a problem in our country’s system; regardless, adding to the problem in schools only adds to the problem in society as a whole. We are developing a school culture where students are expecting that we provide them with everything. I support helping others and I am a strong supporter of a community school culture, but that is different than simply providing everything. It is important that children have dental care, medical care, winter seasonal accessories, healthy food and other influential factors in developing a healthy child. Typically, a guardian would provide access to these services and these types of items. There are cases when families need help and I believe in helping members of our community. It becomes a problem when community members begin to expect, and then demand, that you provide things for them. One or two pairs of gloves seems acceptable, but having a student say, “My mom said you need to give me gloves” for the fifth time is not acceptable. If the majority of the weight of caring for children falls on the schools, how are we bettering families? Yes, we are generously supplying for them, but we are not assisting the families in establishing behaviors that will lead to them bettering themselves and their futures. Going week through week supplying hand-outs is not the same as equipping families with tools that serve as hand-ups to improve their individual situations. The community would see longer-lasting improvements by investing in teaching families how to better themselves and their children’s futures.
- A disconnect between decision-makers and decision-subordinates. This is not an issue that is only in the field of education; it plays out across numerous fields. As a decision-subordinate (teacher), I have seen the direct effects of the decision-makers (administration, government leaders, etc.) on many colleagues. There’s an unmentioned trust that employers will make decisions that are best for the employees. Likewise, in school districts, it is believed that decisions will be made that create the best learning environment and opportunities for the students. Somewhere over the years, it appears that a disconnect has taken place between the two parties. Although most, if not all, administrators have been a teacher at some point, the impression is given that they seem to have forgotten what it is like to be in the teacher role. Sometimes this is due to being out of the classroom for many years, while many social changes have shifted the classroom experience. Other times, it feels like perhaps they have somehow forgotten what it was like to once be the teacher. Regardless of the reason why, the disconnect leads to a lack of trust between the two sides. Decisions are made that do not seem to be in the best interest of the students, even when we allege that this is the reason why we are all here. The solution to this problem may be complex; however, a step in the right direction would be to have the decision-makers actively (not simply a walkthrough, or short visit) in each type of classroom environments where authentic and realistic situations are occurring on a regular basis. This would include: building administration, district leadership, schoolboard members and political figures. The more the decision-makers participate in the daily challenges teachers face, the more likely they will genuinely understand the current state of education, create changes that are effective (as opposed to looking nice on paperwork) and re-establish the disconnect that has advanced over the years. Additionally, the more that leadership makes random visits of substance, the more at ease teachers will feel with their presence (as opposed to the “got cha” feeling) and then trusted paths can be build towards developing transparent feedback that can lead towards effective change for the benefit of all participants. It is also important that higher administration creates an atmosphere where building leadership can manage their responsibilities. If they continue to add to the building level administration’s workload, then how will those employees have time to invest in working with their staff members and helping them to grow professionally? Personally, I feel that my administrators have the skills to help their team members to improve, but I do not feel confident that the district supports them in permitting the scheduling time (i.e. time spend with staff vs. at meetings) and professional flexibility (i.e. not all staff need the same supports/trainings across the district; building populations are unique) to implement this type of leadership where they can invest time that directly impacts the effectiveness and accountability of the staff members throughout their building.
- The burden from expectations is seeping into our homes. Aside from the internal struggle I felt from seeing the district’s focus on testing, the next greatest concern I faced was watching the emotional toll the job takes on my co-workers. In the past 2-3 years, I have seen more tears shed than I can count. Dedicated teachers who are truly invested in bringing out the best in the students are feeling hopeless and defeated. This is creating quarrels between colleagues because of the ever-present stress that is overshadowing people’s hard work. Teachers are feeling attacked and alone. Staff members are often seeking an escape through social activities, increased exercise routines, or prescription medication. The frustration is resulting in decreased efforts towards preparation and socially distant staff morale. The teachers are taking these emotions home and the troubles are impacting families. Spouses are getting into more arguments due to coming home with such burdens; parents are feeling like failures in their homes because they have to take time away from their children due to the many (continuously added) requirements from the job, and all of this is leading to an unhealthy lack of balance between work and home. There comes a breaking point where staff members will decide, is this really worth it? Am I making a big enough difference? Do I sacrifice my family for this career? Is there any hope that things will improve? Can I keep pushing forward amidst so much negativity? How much longer can I go on? Sadly, these questions are being repeated more and more throughout the hallways. People may smile and say everything is “ok,” but when they are with their inner circle, they share their genuine feelings and reach out for unpromised hopes.
My bulleted points will end here, but there is more that could be expressed. I want to make a few points clear before ending this letter. One, I know that many of these factors are problems that exist throughout society. Schools cannot fix everything, nor should they be expected to. Nevertheless, I am a strong advocate in standing up for what you believe in. I entered education to make a difference in the lives of children. I wanted to give hope, encouragement, love and tons of smiles. And over the years I have done just that. I have the statistical data that proves educational gaps were greatly tightened within the instructional practices that I delivered day-in and day-out. I worked tirelessly to teach my students how to become productive members of society. I watched angry and hurt children turn into confident and happy youngsters. I placed my love for my students above my own well-being. Rarely did I even call them “my students;” to me, they were “my kids” because I was completely invested in helping them to create bright futures. Yet the state of education has gotten to a point where I no longer feel I am able to make the impact that God designed me to be able to create. I have stayed and fought – fought so hard – for my students. As I watched the environment darken, I held out hope that at least I was making a difference for the children who walked through our classroom door. In truth, I do believe I did that. However, at the same time, I felt that I was being a part of the problem by not taking a stand against that which I full-heartedly disagreed with (bulleted points). It has gotten to the point where I feel like I am a part of the problem, because I am not standing up for the students by speaking against that which is not in their best interest. Judgements were imposed that made me struggle with sleeping at night because I do not believe they were what was best for the students. And that bothers me; each and every day. Our students deserve the very best.
Second, I want to directly state that the challenges I have seen have been across the district and in various settings. This is not an “us” versus “them.” It is not a direct reflection of events within my building. I can strongly announce that I worked with some dedicated teachers who have strong work ethics. My professional career was blessed through having administrators who were proactive and supportive during my development as a teacher. I appreciate and value the years that I had in my building. The thoughts throughout this letter are meant to express what I have witnessed in an effort to create dialogue that can lead to meaningful changes for the betterment of the district and system of education.
Lastly, events in 2015 ultimately lead to my decision after much prayer and many tears. There was an unmentioned situation, and by the end of the year, I also became a mother. I have realized that it is now time for me to invest in my child and my family, as I deeply invested in the children and families whom I encountered over the past 10 years. As much as I have loved being a teacher, I love the blessing of motherhood even more. I know deep in my heart this is where I am meant to be at this point in life.
So, with a heavy heart and yet peace in my decision, I submit my resignation. Hopefully this letter is an encouragement to seek new productive strategies and approaches to improving the quality of education that we are providing at both the local level, and the national level. Even though I am stepping out of the classroom, I will continue to serve as an advocate for children everywhere.
Ahmeli…that this letter creates a positive change for the students (and staff) who deserve so much better.
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