Friday, October 15, 2010

Dear. Ms. Winfrey

I finally got a chance to watch the episode of Oprah where she had Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Davis Guggenheim. I have to say I was not impressed nor too happy with the negative light in which they portrayed the average American teacher.

October 15, 2010

Dear Ms. Winfrey,

I am writing to you today to express my extreme disappointment in your show that was aired a few weeks ago with the director of "Waiting For Superman" Davis Guggenheim, Bill Gates, and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Through the years since my youth, I have greatly admired you as a person, and as a powerful caring woman. I am forced to say that after finally getting a chance to watch this episode my opinion of you has fallen a great deal.

You may be asking yourself "Why is she just now writing to me? Where was this outrage when the show was aired?" The truth to be told is that I only recently had a chance to view the episode, because you see even though I knew it was coming on, and wanted to watch it, I couldn't. Why? Because I am one of those teachers that your panel of so called "experts" put down and belittled. You see the day that episode aired, I was still in my classroom working on grading papers, writing lesson plans, adjusting lesson plans, figuring out differentiation for my students, and calling parents. It is a very rare day when I leave school before 3:30, or even better yet 4:00, and I am usually at school by 7:00 in the morning.

Let me tell you a bit about myself, so you can see that I am not just your average teacher who is upset here. My husband is active duty in the United States Air Force, which means I am not your average teacher who starts in one school district and stays there until they are ready to retire.

I started teaching in 1998 in a Department of Defense Dependent School in England; there I was blessed to teach some of the top children in the country. I taught the children of Generals in the United States Air Force, as well as the children of the airmen and non-commissioned officers. I taught and worked with students who came from Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, and Panama as the ESOL instructor. I have worked with students who have since joined the military, or went to some of the top colleges in the country, and some who are now veterinarians, in medical school or just passed their bar exam. How many of your "experts can say that?

In 2005 my family moved to Florida where I taught 6th grade Language Arts in a school where the majority of the students had been effected by Hurricane Ivan, and had spent most of the year before picking up the pieces, some of which were still displaced from their homes. I taught students later in that school year who were Hurricane Katrina refugees. I taught students whose parents lost their jobs at the beginning of the recession. I taught students who went to bed without eating, and came to school in the same clothes at least twice a week. But I also taught students whose parents volunteered in the school weekly, or who had not been affected by Ivan or Katrina at all, and to them there was nothing to be worried about. How many of your "experts" can say that?

 In 2006, I moved to an alternative school, where I taught 6th-12th grade science to students who were "in the system". Most of my students there had been in a youth detention center for everything ranging from shoplifting to assault. I had the pleasure of watching a student who had never had success at school "get it", and the scary moment of staring down a 6'4" "boy" who had gotten high on crack cocaine the night before and came to school still in the throws of the effects of the drugs.(I wonder if any of your "experts can say that?). I had a young woman knock me off my feet, causing me to sprain an ankle in her rush to try to start a fight. I had students who were young parents, and I had students that did not know where their own parents were. Again I have to wonder, how many of your "experts" can say that?

For 12 months in 2006-2007 I taught a GED class at the local community college. I got to meet the adults of society, for whom the local system had failed at one point or another. I got to know these adults, and got fairly close to several as I learned their stories. I heard the stories of how a pregnancy, an illness, or legal trouble caused them to leave school without a diploma. I do not recall a single story of how a teacher let them down, or how a teacher just didn't care enough, or spend enough time with them as the reason for why they left school when they did. I did hear a few times "If my teachers in school cared like you do, I would have stayed in school." However they would also acknowledge the fact that most of the teachers tried to care, but when you are dealing with 200 students its hard to have one on one attention like it should be. How many of your "experts" can say that?

 I currently teach 4th grade in a small 100% free lunch district (less than 1100 students pre-k to 12th grades), just outside of Macon, Ga. I have been with this district for 3 school years now. Due to the fact that our school has a departmentalized fourth grade I teach 62 students on a daily basis. Which is not bad compared to high school, but asking a lot if you ask me to spend an additional 10 minutes on each child each day, or week? Here I have students who have never lived with their biological parents, for the drug use, or abuse in the home. I have students whose families have been on welfare for generations, and yet they can afford to take cruises and vacations, but can not afford to send in pencils and paper for their students to use in class on a daily basis, and just expect me to provide it for them out of my pocket. I have students for whom the only meals they eat regularly are the ones provided by the school. I have students for whom the only person that tells them that they love them is me. How many of your "experts" can say that?

I work on average in the school 70 hours a week, according to our time clock that we punch in and punch out on every day. That is not taking into account the three to four hours every weekend that I spend working on papers, or writing lesson plans, nor the average of 30-60 minutes I spend at night after leaving the school. You might say, "Yes, well you get summers and vacations off." However, I would have to correct you. Over the last 10 summers I have spent an average of 10 days in professional development trainings, unpaid trainings mind you. School year vacations are often spent planning for the days after we return, and more often than not, worrying about what is happening to my students, especially the ones that I know have a rough home life. How many of your "experts" can say that?

I spend on average over $500 a year on things for my classroom, out of my own pocket. From paper and pencils, to trade books, to teacher education materials, if it goes into my classroom, chances are I have provided it out of my pocket. I tried to make a pact this school year that I wasn't going to spend my money on my classroom, because with the furlough days quite frankly I can't afford it. I can't justify to myself spending money on paper for my students when I have three students of my own at home that I provide paper to whenever they need it. However, the sad truth is, I have already spent about $250 on my classroom this year, and we are only into October. How many of your "experts" can say that?

The "experts" talk about teachers having planning periods, and other times to work on improving our teaching. I would like to invite them to come in a sit for a week in my school. I have students in my classroom from 7:20 until 3:05 most days. I eat lunch with my students. My only "down time" during the school day is when my class goes to connections (specials), and that is filled with meetings, and/or conferences on average of 3 days a week, the other two days are usually filled with grading papers or meeting with my teammates.

            Did you ever stop to ask those of us in the trenches of teaching, from Middle Georgia rural schools, to inner city New York, to inner city Los Angles to the teacher on the reservation in Arizona, what we thought could be done, should be done to fix education in this country?

Do you want to know what as an educator I think the real problem is here? My answer is two fold.

1.       A lack of community caring.

The parents of today's children, the ones who are failing school, overwhelmingly are not involved in their children's education. These parents are the ones who are happy to sit back and join you in the crusade to blame educators everywhere without lifting a finger to help and fix the problem. These are the parents who do not read with their children at night. These are the parents who do not attend conferences with the teachers. These are the parents who do not teach their children general manners, and expect us to do it for them. I know that this is not the case for every parent or for every child, but for quite a few of them it is.

Then there are the "experts like those on your show. They say that they care, and they preach at us that are in the trenches, but what are they doing, what are you doing to help us fix the problem? Throwing money at private schools and magnet schools is not helping the general population of children. Preaching at the general educator without walking a day in our shoes is not helping the children.

2.       Lack in education funding, or education funding being funneled to schools that already have "it all".

Race to the Top is not going to "fix" anything, least of all since the schools that need the funding the most are the ones that are not getting the funding. States across America have cut their funding over and over again, and the teachers are paying the price. We have supposed "experts" that belittle everything we do. Is it any wonder that so many people decide that teaching just isn't for them?

History shows that we need educated people to have a successful nation. I am a firm believer in part of the reasons for our economic troubles right now is because of a lack of education, a lack of funding, a lack of caring in the past. What we don't need is supposed "experts" going around talking and not doing. Or doing, but only for a select few, that they think deserve it.

Ms. Winfrey, I am asking that you give those of us "in the trenches" a chance to speak about this disservice that has been done to us. I ask that you get a panel of every day teachers together and get our opinions on what is wrong with education today and how it can be fixed.

Thank you for your time.



Patty Cleveland

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