News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 9, 2010

Stephanie Salter: You’ve heard from me — now, listen to the teachers

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As e-mail from Indiana teachers and principals continues to pour into my box, the portrait of this beleaguered group grows more poignant each day. After writing a mere two columns defending the state’s education system from a wall of attacks by the governor, his schools superintendent and other “reformers,” I feel as though I’ve stumbled onto a locked institution that is crammed with decent and sane women and men who have grown accustomed to being kicked, starved, beaten and told they deserve nothing better.

Because I know many Hoosier public school teachers, I always thought I appreciated what they’re up against; I had no idea until I looked deeper into their world. Today’s column belongs to them, real teachers who are undergoing state-sanctioned character assassination, and who are regularly reminded that the floggings will continue until morale improves.

I’ve chosen not to identify the teachers quoted below. (Not all superintendents support and protect them the way Vigo County’s Dan Tanoos does.)

• I teach in [an Indianapolis suburb] and have taught high school math for 38 years … I just wanted you to know how nice it is to hear a voice out there that just even CONSIDERS that there might be another side to the “Public Schools Suck” story. Each year it gets harder to carry the load of fragmented families and disengaged students. To that load doesn’t need to be added public derision.

• I am a retired elementary school teacher with 26 years experience … I recognize that there are teachers who should not be in the classroom, but it hurts when we are all lumped together and told we aren’t doing our jobs. I have seen and experienced the long hours put in before and after school plus weekends, the supplies bought from a teacher’s own paycheck, clothes purchased for students who didn’t have proper clothing for school (usually anonymously), evenings spent at sporting events, concerts, recitals and many other activities, which our students wanted us to attend. You are so right when you state that we grow to love our students. I certainly did mine and thought of them as “mine” for the hours I had them at school. Teaching done right is a very difficult job.

• [A northwest Indiana K-6 teacher] I almost feel I must apologize whenever I tell someone how long I have taught [more than 30 years]. Experience used to be a good thing, but now it has become a dirty word in education … The problems that we face might come from all of the changes that the government wants us to make, and then changes to those changes, etc. In the last 10 years we have been through Indiana based standards, Fall ISTEP, Spring ISTEP, ISTEP plus, No Child Left Behind, and now curriculum mapping and federal standards. … I cringe every time I hear the ad on television for the new online university that our governor has set up. All of the things that he says they are offering to help their students are things that we are being denied because of budget cuts. I also wonder what this does to our current system of colleges and universities.

• Do Bennett or Daniels ever mention that a classroom teacher can’t help it if a child was up all night because Mommy and Daddy were fighting or because Mommy or Daddy got busted for drugs?

A teacher can’t help it if parents do not enforce bedtimes and allow kids to stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. watching TV or playing video games. A teacher can’t help it when a child says, “I don’t want to do a test. I’m not going to try no matter what you tell me.” (No matter how important we have told them it is.) I am not trying to cast all the blame for “failures” on others — as your article said, educators understand that the system isn’t perfect — but the one-sided blame on educators for such a complex issue is over-simplistic and frightening. I see it as a form of bullying at the adult level. Our governor plays that game very well.

• I find it interesting that we teachers in public schools and higher education suddenly do not know how to teach and everything is our fault.

• As a teacher, I find more and more that I struggle every day to find meaning in my job. I become very attached to my students and want nothing but the best for each of them. In order to help them find their strengths and become contributing members of society, I pour my heart into this career — one that was chosen for my desire to make a difference in this big ol’ world, not for money or personal gain.

When I hear the growing attacks from the very entity that should be my life preserver, I am disheartened and feel very discouraged that I can never make that difference. The light of passion that has glowed so brightly in me keeps getting dimmer, and sometimes I just want to walk away from the career in which I have invested so much of myself.  But then, I remember the kids… I believe the care and nurturing I give to these kids must make a difference or this world is in a lot of trouble. Therefore, I am not giving up on them … Maybe someday, one of our students will become governor or the Superintendent of Public Instruction and do what is right for us!

• [A principal, whose spouse is a teacher] It is hard for me to stomach the negative things being said about educators by our Governor and Tony Bennett. I try to explain their comments to our boys [both teachers], but it is tough to explain that it appears to be more politically motivated rather than trying to better the educational system. We just plug away every day and continue to remain positive in a growing negative environment. We don’t pretend to be perfect in our line of work, but are always striving to become better educators.

• It is worrisome when the governor and the president, so diametrically opposed on most things, are in lock stop on this. It makes for an interesting political arena!

• With the growing poverty rate in [a western county], one-parent families and the meth rate increasing, teachers are faced with a very difficult job to help every child reach an arbitrary score on tests mandated by the state … The teachers are being ridiculed for the mess education is in but society and parents are not being blamed. I would like to see the legislators being held to unrealistic goals and told they failed and their pay being based on the performance of meeting those goals. Education is to be run like a factory, but many of our “materials” (students) come with defects and problems. Factories can throw their defective materials out, we cannot, we work extra hard to help each individual meet their potential and become productive members of society.

• [A two-teacher family, central Indiana] As teachers, we get what we get, every August.

Some students come well prepared from loving supportive families. Some students come in the morning after having been molested the night before. Some students’ parents have lost jobs, lost homes or lost custody due to alcohol and or drug use. Some of our students were born addicted to five different drugs and tested positive for alcohol as infants. Some students’ parents have taught them how to shoplift at Walmart. Some students’ parents are divorcing, were never married or are unknown. Some of our students come hungry. Some students have such attention deficits that they have to be medicated every day. Some students are autistic or mentally or emotionally handicapped. Some students stutter so badly, that it is difficult for them to communicate. Some students are being raised in foster homes or by elderly grandparents. Some students are so physically handicapped that they need a feeding tube or a wheelchair. Some children were born with very serious illnesses or other medical conditions which prevent them from learning. Some students tell us that they wish they could come home and live with us. Some of these same students do not perform well on tests. Imagine that!

And this is all the fault of the teacher? The student’s inability to read, do math or score well on the ISTEP+ is due to poor teaching practices? And teachers get to look forward to being paid for high test scores??????

• I have taught for 35 years, and I can count my successes in the doctors, lawyers and even Republican politicians who have come through my door.  They seem pleased with what I/we did.

Maybe Tony Bennett will get it right when he is the U.S. Secretary of Education during the Mitch Daniels presidency, but I doubt it … Tony can keep on bashing the system; in the meantime, I will do my best to teach Indiana kids.

• I cried as I read [the columns] because I felt such relief that somebody out there who is not in education was speaking out against the tyranny of Bennett and Daniels. I teach in [a southwest county], and I cannot express how deeply the attacks from our state leaders have affected the teacher morale in our corporation. Our teachers work extremely hard and are trying to keep abreast of all the latest research in education in order to do our best for our kids. And this is in spite of all the funding cuts the last two years.

We have not had raises yet insurance costs have almost doubled for our teachers. Many of our teachers work late and come in on weekends to prepare lessons as there is so little time during the school day for planning. Indiana teachers are doing our best with the students who come through our doors. In my school the number of free-reduced lunch students has gone from 28 percent to 52 percent in just six years. I have taught for 30 years, and I feel that if the quality of education is declining, it is due, in part, to too much micromanaging at the state level. Teachers need to be given the educational freedom to teach students more than just a “state standard.” Life requires much more than this in order to be a fully actualized citizen.

• I work with children with special needs (those who have a combined vision and hearing loss as well as having additional disabilities). Unfortunately, these students have become the most maligned children by many general educators because they truly pull those “scores” down.  In fact, who can blame them? Yet, at the same time, these truly are children who can progress and be contributors to society in many ways. Quality of life is indeed achievable. Instead, we are heading back to the days of the ’50s and ’60s when children with special needs were educated in church basements without the promise of IDEA and individualized supports. What a shame!

• I have taught for 44 years [in southeastern Indiana] and have never felt like I was under attack any more than now from the Governor and State Superintendent. Their next big thing will be in two years when they depart and pick and choose the stats they want that will show Indiana has improved during their tenure.

• I’m in [a middle school] in Southern Indiana. We have closed a school, had over a million dollars in cuts and are facing another $400,000 shortfall for next year. The teachers have not had a raise for three years and voted for a 5 percent decrease for the next contract.

I have a student teacher at the moment. One day she was working with students, I was working with students and my high school cadet teacher was working with students in one 8th-grade classroom. They can keep squeezing, but without people — all kinds of people physically in the schools — the task of education becomes a lesson in frustration for all involved … Education is about so much more than test scores. Yes, accountability is important, but so are social skills, communication skills, creativity — things that can’t be measured on a test.

• I look forward to going to school every day to work with my students. We learn together, laugh together, and even cry … OK, in all honesty, the tears belong to the teacher … My students amaze me every day. I am inspired by their enthusiasm, and despite Mr. Bennett, I will continue to do my best on their behalf.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or