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Shackled as a Teacher…A TFA Alum Speaks the Truth

August 15, 2013

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of “alternative” teacher-prep programs, nor do I see the rationale behind the existence of them. Offering a fresh-faced college grad or a mid-life person who’s bored with his/her career looking for a new challenge all sorts of financial and professional incentives does not provide schools with “la creme de la creme” of an educator. I’m not sure how or why anyone ever thought it would. What it does do is create an unbreakable sense of entitlement and a falsely-stroked ego for the alumni of those programs…at least for most of them.

There is a small handful of teachers coming out of programs like Teach for America and, in Boston, the Boston Teacher Residency program, who would have become one regardless of any incentive(s) offered. They are the teachers who have stayed in the classroom well beyond their mandated “service years”, furthering their education and dedicating their lives to the betterment of children. They are the teachers who, after years of witnessing the reality of the very teacher preparation programs they once were part of, speak out against them.

A veteran Kentucky teacher recently wrote a letter to Bill Gates. She is one of those teachers. While she doesn’t specifically state which program she was a part of, the fact that it was a “five-week training program” only equals one thing – TFA. Her letter was one of the best I’ve yet to read on Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates. It deserves to be shared:

Dear Mr. Gates,

You have shackled me as a teacher.  My shackles consist of pre-, post, diagnostic, proficiency, state, and district assessments.  These shackles are held together by ‘review for The Test’, ‘prep for The Test’, ‘administer The Test’ and ‘analyzing The Test results’. All this testing has been put in place because of you and your allies.

You want to help.  I get it, I really do.  By stepping into a profession without any experience or education you have caused monumental problems.  As teachers we are seeing these problems between ourselves and the students we attempt to teach everyday.
This is what you have accomplished.  You have turned my school building into an assessment center.

Grade Level (Assessment Schedule follows – This note by Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates added.)

District Diagnostic and Proficiency Assessment Window Open Dates

Social Studies, Science, Language Arts, Math

(Duplicate dates will occur if more than one content area assessment window is opened on that day)


Sept. 3, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov. 4, Nov. 12, Nov. 25, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 16, Jan. 6, Jan. 13, Jan. 27, Jan. 31, Feb. 14, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Mar. 3, Mar. 17, Apr. 7, Apr. 11, Apr. 21, Apr. 25, Apr. 28, Apr. 28


Sept. 3, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov. 4, Nov. 12, Nov. 25, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 16, Jan. 6, Jan. 13, Jan. 27, Jan. 31, Feb. 14, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Mar. 3, Mar. 17, Apr. 7, Apr. 11, Apr. 21, Apr. 25, Apr. 28, Apr. 28


Sept. 3, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov. 4, Nov. 12, Nov. 25, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 9, Dec. 16, Jan. 6, Jan. 13, Jan. 27, Jan. 31, Feb. 14, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Feb. 17, Mar. 3, Mar. 17, Apr. 7, Apr. 11, Apr. 21, Apr. 25, Apr. 28, Apr. 28

*The assessment dates given DO NOT include EOY state assessment dates.
*The assessment dates given DO NOT include teacher made classroom assessments.

We both know that you stepped out of your field of expertise into our world of education and didn’t listen to the experts, the teacher and parents.  When you admitted that you should have invited teachers to your education round-tables, policy talks etc., you demonstrated your ignorance for the whole world to see.  I believe that you have a genuine desire to help.  So let’s try working together.  Here is my proposal:

First, let’s agree that our educational system is NOT broken. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed.  We already know this.  Your foundation, the Broad’s and the Walton’s need to stop perpetuating this “The Sky Is Falling” fallacy.

Next, what issues need to be addressed and remedied?  This is the hard part because the #1 deciding factor to a student’s success comes from their home.  Does the family support education?  No?  Strike one.  Did the parent(s) graduate high school?  No?  Strike two.  Does the family have the financial resources to put toward preschool?  No?  Strike three.

What can we do?  Open neighborhood learning centers.  These should be promoted to every adult in the community.  They should teach trade skills as well as college prep classes.  These centers should be a place for parents/guardians, any extended family members, and all the children in the household.  Parenting classes need to be offered. Adults should be offered at no cost the resources to earn a GED.  The effects of these centers will be seen immediately (within a school year) and will continue on as long as the resources are offered.

The next big issue is preschool.  Too many students from low socioeconomic households don’t attend preschool.  When they begin kindergarten they’re already lacking the skills their peers have already mastered.  This deficit snowballs and grows larger and larger as they progress through school.  To even out the playing field, we need to offer free full day preschool.  This should be where public education starts, not kindergarten.

Next, class size.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to conduct a science lab with 31+ 13 year olds?  Impossible?  No.  Not best practice by any means.  How can every student receive any individual attention when they are in class for 55 minutes with 30 other students?  We’ve made a version of this work and we’re saying no more.  Class sizes have crept up as budgets and positions were cut.  Increasing class sizes was a Band-Aid for budget cuts.  No more Band-Aids.  No more class sizes over 20.  Let’s be more specific. Classes for students with special needs should have no more than 6 students per teacher. Comprehensive classes should have no more than 12 students per teacher.  For student success, honors, advanced placement and Gifted/Talented classrooms should have no more than 20 students per teacher.  This will allow for more individualized learning for all students as well as offering honors, AP and GT students the benefit of rich, deep, student led class discussions.  That is best practice!

An alternative to smaller class sizes would be to lower the overall number of students a teacher is expected to teach in a day.  One 50 minute planning period each day is not sufficient for teachers who teach 5 classes of 31 students a day.  What happens during this planning time?  Lesson planning, grading student work, analyzing student progress, contacting parents, departmental meetings, meet with their administrators, meet with the building testing coordinator etc.  It has become an ‘understanding’ that teachers WILL work outside of the school day.  One option to alleviate this is to cut the number of classes a teacher is expected to teach per day.  Four classes of 24 students is 96 students taught per day.  This will free up another 50 minute block for teachers to use for all those planning period tasks.  We still won’t have enough time to get everything accomplished, but this will free up almost 5 hours a week that we steal away from our families.  Yes, I snuck in a reduction in class size by 7 students.  Sorry, but 31 is just too many.

Alternative and Emergency Certification Programs need to be phased out over the next 4 years.  I was an alternative certified teacher 10 years ago when I began my career.  I now hold my BS, MAT and National Board Certification.  Nevertheless, I should not have been charged with shaping my students futures with only 5 weeks of one education course.  New teachers have enough on their plate without also having to earn their master’s degree, learn pedagogical practices, learn how and why children learn best at different stages of development, how to set up a grade book that is equitable and just and I could go on and on.  It’s just not what is best for anyone, the new teacher or their students.

On the note of new teachers.  All new teachers need to be assigned a retired teacher as a mentor.  This will give the new teacher the one-on-one assistance that is required to constructively hone their craft.  Mentors can also help in retaining more effective teachers in the profession.

We now need to consider counselors and nurses.  Middle and high schools should have at least 1 counselor per grade level.   Elementary schools should have at least 2, preK-2 and 3-5.   We would then be better equipped to see, address and reduce home/life issues that affect our student and their success.   All schools should have at least one nurse to help keep students healthy and in school.

Here’s one that everyone will agree with (will except those who care more about their personal wealth than society as a whole.)  All students should have a computer/tablet and free internet service.  This is the 21st century and it is a disgrace that this hasn’t happened in the United States.

We also need to prepare our high school students with the skills necessary to be successful adults.  Not every student should go to college, but it should be an option for them. It is a disservice to students when we push everyone to college.  We need to offer trade certificates to those who don’t want to pursue higher education when they graduate high school.  Society still need mechanics, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, machinists and cosmetologists.

Lastly, this testing insanity needs to end. NOW.  Testing students 2-3 times a grading period, just to prove the teacher is ‘working effectively’ is disgusting and abusive to students.  One standardized test, given at the end of the school year is appropriate.  This test should take no longer than 12 total hours.  Students who have ongoing and documented accommodations throughout the school year should receive those accommodations during the test.  Students with severe disabilities should be allowed to take an alternative assessment at the parents request.

Well, there you go.  Simple steps that will make real improvements to our educational system.  When we reduce class sizes, we will need more school buildings.  Your neighborhood learning centers will train people for job openings that will arise.  Look at that, you’re helping to ease the unemployment problem eventually leading to a decrease in the number of families living in poverty.   That’s one helluva fix there.

Thank you for taking the time to read, now let’s act on these!



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