Educator on Betsy DeVos: I feel like I’m graduating from ‘meanest, pettiest, most critical teacher I ever had’

I received this rumination on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from a metro area public school teacher who teaches seventh grade on-level and gifted social studies at a Title I school in the Atlanta suburbs. The teacher holds a master’s degree and has taught in public, private, and charter schools at the pre-school, elementary and middle school levels.

After realizing that DeVos will leave Washington with Donald Trump, the teacher writes, “I find myself today feeling the quiet, warm joy of a shy student who knows I am about to graduate from the classroom of the meanest, pettiest, most critical teacher I have ever had.”

It’s a thoughtful piece from a teacher back in the classroom and hoping for changes in federal policy that will support her and her colleagues in a trying time. Her main point, however, is how DeVos' positions and attitudes over the last four years hurt her students and devalued public education in this country.

Here is her essay:

This morning, as I was wrangling my child away from Saturday morning cartoons and getting ready to tackle the mountain of laundry I face every weekend, I got a text from a relative that the election was over and Joseph Biden was the new President-elect. That news did not shock me since we have all been living in a strange land of limbo for days where we could see the end of President Trump’s administration coming but no state seemed to want to be the one that ended the suspense.

Let’s leave aside how I feel about the election. I work in a suburban Atlanta Title I school. I never tell my students how I vote. It isn’t relevant -- I know without being told explicitly that there are teachers who work beside me who voted for both sides of the ticket. My students know it, too.

My colleagues and I work hard to provide the students an interesting, equitable, and practical education every day. It goes without saying that it is challenging, undervalued, and increasingly difficult work. I knew how I would feel about the end of the Trump presidency -- I had days to process that outcome. What surprised me is the realization that hit me very shortly thereafter.

Betsy DeVos is going to lose her role and her power in January. If I make it to the end of this semester, there will be a new secretary of education in Washington D.C. This was the outcome and certainty that I hadn’t considered, which made me sing “Ac-cent-u-ate the Positive” under my breath as I gathered sticks leftover from last week’s hurricane in the back yard.

With Betsy DeVos gone, I have hope for improved policies in Title I funding, special education oversight, racial and gender justice, teacher training and retention, and the health of my students and colleagues in the middle of this pandemic.

There are fads in education like everything else, and along with many other professionals, I’ve weathered them. Most teachers will tell you that there are a few things that remain consistent no matter what terms or lessons we use. Namely: Today’s society keeps adding new roles to the local school’s purview.

Students need to hear three positive things before they can process one critical comment. Students who don’t feel loved don’t learn. And if you don’t build a positive relationship with a student, you will never get a positive result. I find myself today feeling the quiet, warm joy of a shy student who knows I am about to graduate from the classroom of the meanest, pettiest, most critical teacher I have ever had.

Betsy DeVos does not value public schools. She’s on the record as supporting vouchers, private charter schools, ineffective standardized testing, and cuts to U.S. Department of Education funding -- all of which have negative effects on the public-school system.

I looked -- I couldn’t find a single time when she praised the work I do every day. If I were peer-observing a teacher who spoke to her students the way Ms. DeVos talks about public school teachers, I would recommend she shift her mindset to focus on the positives -- because there are positives every day in my work. However, now that I am realizing she will be gone, here are some areas of teaching I’m excited to see improve under the new administration.

There are varying viewpoints about where to spend money in education. Some people think the money should move with students, and others that it should be allocated to the schools depending on the relative wealth and circumstances of the neighborhood. Programs that reinforce math and reading are often preferred, even at the cost of music, technology and art. Teachers can and will dive deep into the weeds of their preferences for where money should be spent.

However, it is objective fact that President Trump and Secretary DeVos have been proposing cutting money from the Department of Education every year, even, if thus far, Congress has ignored them. Their most recent budget proposal for 2021 would have been particularly devastating since it would have taken money that is usually allocated to specific programs (allowing teachers and administrators to plan ahead and support important programs including those specifically tied to Title I schools) and turned it into a “block grant” where each program would have to compete for their fair share of a pool that had shrunk by 8%.

My school system and many others have been desperately trying to balance budgets between the two forces of lower tax revenues and desperately needed investment in technology to provide lower-income students with some sort of safe education in the time of COVID-19. They didn’t plan poorly -- they were blindsided as badly as everyone else last March.

As teachers, we are resigned we will not be getting raises or cost of living adjustments this year. Everyone must tighten their belts in a famine. However, the students we serve are more frequently homeless, more frequently hungry, and more frequently desperate than ever before in my teaching career.

The mental shift that instead of starving our school budgets, a new administration may provide more federal money to balance these budgets and refill emergency funds is a meditation that lets me breathe more easily than I have so far this year.

An unseen pressure in education is the need to provide equitable teaching to students. Over time, we develop tricks and shortcuts that help us reinforce students who need extra support to attain the curriculum. As teachers, we are supposed to reinforce students who have disabilities ranging from blindness to ADHD to emotional deficits; indeed, we are legally obligated to give each child whatever he or she needs to attain knowledge. Teachers regard this as a challenge and joy of our job, but under Secretary DeVos, the measurement of success has been reinforced repeatedly as scoring well on standardized tests that make a mockery of the individualization and adjustment we regularly make in our classrooms.

While as a parent of a child with special needs, I was grateful that Secretary DeVos refused to reduce services during the pandemic by denying a request for school waivers, I will tell you that as both a parent and a teacher I have seen a marked decline in the quality of the interventions we make for students in the past four years. I have cried over students being set up to fail by the ever-shrinking bag of arrows we are being offered for our students to hit targets set for children with better physical, emotional, and mental reserves. My hope is for more flexibility, more resources, and more grace as we all try to give students what they need.

More visible but equally challenging for teachers of conscience is the need to support minority students. At a Title I school such as mine, racial minorities are often majorities. Black, Asian, and Latinx students bring their cultures and concepts about the world to their classroom (and, often, delicious snacks as well).

Several years ago, when I first began working in a Title I school under the Obama administration, we made a concerted effort to slow the school-to-prison pipeline, seeking alternatives to punishment, suspension, and expulsion since they disproportionally affect minorities. I have been trained in restorative justice practices and try to provide trauma-informed classroom expectations.

Under Secretary DeVos, I have seen a decided difference in the support provided to teachers who follow this pathway, and although my school still reinforces this practice, it comes from independent conviction rather than federal support.

Even more distressing is how the federal policy toward LGBTQ+ students has shifted recently. Middle school students are often exploring their feelings toward others as they undergo puberty. The recent shifts in school policy towards these youth, especially the transgendered, are damaging, bullying, and counterproductive.

Students who do not feel safe and supported are more likely to commit suicide. In this time of heightened mental health challenges, adding extra barriers is unconscionable. I know from experience that allowing students to be themselves, even as they shift their understanding of their identities, creates a platform for them to succeed. I hope the federal government will provide the training to teachers and counselors to give these students the support they desperately need.

All these pressures on teaching professionals have long led to declining retention rates. Under Ms. DeVos, I have seen no improvement in teacher turnover. We are human, and we get tired as we are pulled in a thousand directions.

When I was first teaching, I lucked into a situation where I co-taught with a strong, compassionate teacher who reinforced my instincts, valued my input, and quietly taught me how to improve my craft. Along my journey, I have leaned on my mentors heavily. Their constant faith in the value of my work has kept me sane and productive for many years.

But fish rot from the head. Society has long undervalued my work, but the vitriol and anger sent my way has greatly increased recently. Secretary DeVos' disparaging remarks about teachers and public education affect the atmosphere. Parents are less forgiving than in the past; they often blame us for the shortfalls of society that are not technically within our control and it leads to frustration.

Young teachers, who don’t have a reserve of professionalism, are left bewildered and alone. It is expensive, frustrating, and terrible for student outcomes to continually churn through teaching professionals. We need to make the profession more attractive by balancing work and life, reducing the blame attached to poor outcomes, and improving parent attitudes toward teachers. This can only happen through modeling better behavior.

Finally, Secretary DeVos has not approached the pandemic as a teacher. She cannot; she isn’t one. Indeed, I don’t think that any teacher who has not been teaching since January of 2020 can truly understand the tumult of the last 10 months.

At first, we were fearful. The universal terror was a psychic weight that made every online meeting and lesson feel inconsequential and useless. Teachers are still struggling with the feelings of failure that were created by shifting overnight from what we knew to a method of teaching that had demonstrably awful outcomes.

Now, I teach students in the classroom and virtually simultaneously. In some ways, I am grateful for this experience. It has reinforced my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses I have so that I can continue to improve and has given me such gratitude for the spontaneous interactions I have with students in the hallways and classroom.

However, there is no denying that we come to school fearful of getting ill. By any objective measure, the pandemic is worse than it was when we shut down in March. As educators, we want consistent policy. Under Ms. DeVos, we have gotten that, but her message is that we need to be prepared to sacrifice our lives and families for the “greater good.”

I give much every day, but I am not ready to die for my students, even if I typed “kids” first when I went to write that. I want the incoming administration’s departments to talk to one another, to coordinate and create a comprehensive plan that protects students and teachers. If that requires me to be in a classroom, so be it. I have already done that for the last three months. I will be there. But I will be relieved to learn that there is a cohesive strategy, a plan that balances the needs of all the players.

I don’t know how my co-workers and students feel about the outcome of the presidential race. But I know that as a public servant, a teacher, a parent, and a citizen, I feel buoyant to realize that I will hopefully soon be under leadership that values the input I make into the classroom, just as my students know I love hearing their opinions in the same sphere.

Hopefully, going forward, Secretary DeVos will realize that her scorn and anger were misplaced. The strength of the United States is, in part, the strength of her public schools.

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