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An educator responds to John Barge's teacher tribute: Appreciate the effort but disagree on the message

State School Superintendent John Barge

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Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn is an assistant professor of education at Georgia State University and a former English teacher in DeKalb County. Her teaching and research interests are urban schools, teacher morale and educational policy.  

She wrote this essay – “An Open Letter to State School Superintendent, Dr. John Barge, on the Occasion of Teacher Appreciation Week” -- in response to Barge’s long ode to teachers published here Monday.

Dear Dr. Barge:

I am a former English teacher in Georgia, and I appreciated your acknowledgement of Teacher Appreciation Week in the form of a “Here’s to the Teacher” letter that all public school teachers in Georgia received earlier this week. In this era of budget cuts, high-stakes testing, and mandated curricula, teachers more than ever deserve acknowledgement that they are valuable, intelligent, creative, hardworking, and respected professionals. This recognition comes too rarely.

Despite this acknowledgement, I find many of your examples of the reasons that teachers should be appreciated to be highly problematic. To be sure, many teachers — myself included — are awake before sunrise and work long hours for little pay, as you mention.

Yes, as you note, we’ve broken up fights; and yes, we see first-hand how our students’ in-school lives are affected by a diverse array of out-of-school experiences. However, many of your examples appear to blame families or even the children themselves for the challenges that teachers face every day.

In fact, I find that your examples illuminate more about the troubling, overwhelming, and disempowering contexts in which our state’s schools exist rather than the daily efforts that teachers make.

Though I do not claim to speak for all teachers in Georgia, I would like to share with you what I believe and what research shows is actually the type of “appreciation” that current educators want and need. I have chosen to highlight these suggestions as a contrast to your own words, summarized below and included in full in this AJC column.

Here’s to a Superintendent Who…

INSTEAD OF: positioning parents and families as enemies who, according to your letter, do all of the following: don’t provide meals for their children; verbally abuse teachers if their children failed or if they didn’t receive a 100 on a test; will “disown” a pregnant teenager; can’t afford eyeglasses; are “the intoxicated parent” of a child with “bloodshot, vacant eyes… of his student who is strung out on drugs”; threaten the life of an administrator because he “won't let a child get into a car with an intoxicated parent who came to school to pick up his child”; are engaged in “a custody dispute… over who has the right to information”; refuse to pick up their child after a basketball game; may have both been killed in an accident; or keep their child “at home locked in a room with boarded up windows and no food.”

HOW ABOUT: Here’s to the superintendent who structures parents and teachers as co-constructors in students’ education and does not position them as enemies. Here’s to the superintendent who recognizes the impact of historical structures of privilege and poverty in society and schools and does not maliciously attack families in the process. Here’s to the superintendent who provides state support for bringing guidance counselors and social workers to all schools so that teachers have additional supports for their students’ personal challenges.

INSTEAD OF: highlighting isolated incidents of school violence, including fights between “two boys twice [the] size” of a teacher; a bomb threat that causes a school evaluation; and a child with a loaded handgun” versus a child with “a six-inch hunting knife…who threatened the one with the gun.”

HOW ABOUT: Here’s to the superintendent who understands the importance of safe schools and advocates with the state Legislature—even if this may be unpopular with constituents—to keep weapons out of schools of ALL levels and supports anti-bullying initiatives.

INSTEAD OF: labeling children, as by describing a classroom of “five gifted children, five children with individualized education plans, five students who speak little to no English, and 10 average students all in the same class period.” And instead of describing special educators as those who are “slapped and spit on every day,” who “changes the diapers,” and who “catheterizes her profoundly disabled student every day.”

HOW ABOUT: Here’s to the superintendent who understands differentiation and provides teachers with the professional development and resources to enable all students to succeed in their classes… and who never calls some children “average” while labeling others. Here’s to the superintendent who recognizes the value in the life of all children, who does not reduce some children’s lives to their medical needs, and who views their teachers as more than medical technicians.

INSTEAD OF: discussing all that teachers do despite budget cuts, including teach kindergarten without paraprofessionals and spend “hundreds of dollars of her own money supplying her classroom.”

HOW ABOUT: Here’s to the superintendent who recognizes that paraprofessionals are vital contributors to a school community and refuses to approve budget cuts that eliminate their positions. Here’s to the superintendent who reinstitutes funding for classroom supplies. Here’s a superintendent who acknowledges the difficulty of budget cuts and finds creative ways to offer more than a mere 1 percent raise to teachers who have gone six years without a raise, like those in DeKalb County.

INSTEAD OF: commenting that you know teachers are criticized in the public “for not being successful with every child in his class,” but then ending your letter with a list of the very test scores and rankings that are used to attack teachers.

HOW ABOUT: Here’s to a superintendent who supports teachers who stand up for their rights, their respect, and their students, through collective organization. Here’s to a superintendent who recognizes the variety of ways that achievement is measured (and the ways it cannot be measured) and highlights these excellent examples of creativity, innovation, and collaboration with as much fervor as rising test scores.

HOW ABOUT: Here’s a superintendent who acknowledges all the efforts that teachers make for more than one week a year?

HOW ABOUT: Here’s a superintendent who moves beyond mere acknowledgement to actual systemic and systematic change, changes made from listening to teachers, school staff, and — dare I say — children themselves about what contexts, resources, and policies would help to make learning a positive and transformative experience?

Next year, Dr. Barge, I hope that teachers in Georgia will be able to write you or your successor a letter of appreciation for making these very critical changes.

Sincerely,

Alyssa Hadley Dunn

(*The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author.)

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