the blog of Carol Burris

Friends of NY public schools, meet Zephyr Teachout

As many of you know, Fordham law professor, Zephyr Teachout, ran for the nomination for governor on the Working Families Party ticket.  Cuomo put on the pressure, and won the nomination. But Zephyr Teachout won the night….

She is not done. She is a passionate woman who deeply believes in a democracy independent of  big money interests. She also deeply believes in public schools. With our support, she will challenge the Governor in the primary.  Email her at info@zephyrteachout and commit your time. Make a donation if you can here. I did.  If you want to know where she stands on the issue you care about the most continue reading.

In her words, what education means to Zephyr Teachout….

My first real job out of college was as a third-grade Special Education classroom assistant in a small rural public school outside the town my grandparents had lived. It was like a lot of small Vermont schools where the kids came from two different worlds, even if they made the same amount of money–the children of college educated hippies and the children of working class families that had lived there for a long time.

One of the kids I was working with was from neither of those worlds; he had been in a string of foster homes, and was new to the area. He was a wonderful kid who was testing two years behind and had some emotional challenges. Controlling anger wasn’t easy for him. I worked with him on writing and math and science.

For the first two months he just refused to write. He told me he was stupid and didn’t have an imagination so he couldn’t write anything. During writing hour, he’d sit in his desk and stab at pieces of paper and draw angry lines all over them. “That’s all I can say,” he’d shout at me, or refuse to speak. It was hard, but he was helped by having a patient classroom teacher who didn’t ruffle easily. She was warm but firm, and I learned from her.

Then one day we figured out a solution. I started reading his angry scribbles out loud, as if he’d written a story. He was on to me though.  He said, “I didn’t write that, you wrote that!” but I kept doing it and he laughed a little. Then I made a bunch of angry scribbles on my page and asked him to read what I’d written out loud. He thought it was funny to see a teacher like that and started reading a story about trolls. After a few weeks, we got into a pattern, where he’d “read” in my scribbles a long story about trolls, and getting shipwrecked with his brother.  It was a really beautiful adventure story.  Then he wrote down what he’d read into his own book, as if transcribing. He still insisted that I had written it, but he started to glow a little.

After that, he did better in math too—the confidence seemed to flow from the writing. According to him, he didn’t understand math but trolls who lived in his knuckles would tell him the answer. When he cracked his knuckles the trolls would wake up and run up to his ear to tell him the answers.

That student never ended up at the top of the class, and he’d still have tantrums, but he was really proud of one of the troll stories that we stapled into a book, and he started doing better on the loose tests the school used. The book—which I still have a copy of—is one of my proudest creative moments, too.

I think of him all the time when I think about high stakes testing, or the cuts to special education, or the cuts to the arts. He’d have failed, repeatedly, if he was following some lockstep program. He would have been an angry kindergartner instead of a frustrated 3rd grader. If his teacher thought that his failure would lead to her failure, that awareness might have put more pressure on him than he was capable of managing. He was so sensitive to anxiety in other people, I don’t think he could have handled the stress of knowing—intuitively—that his success or failure on a math test would have an impact on his teacher’s evaluations. I think he would have kicked more, and kept scrawling. I don’t know that the trolls could have found their way into his knuckles, or into my heart.

In the break room at the small elementary school the teachers didn’t talk about testing. They talked about the kids. They followed them as they grew up. They knew how to be patient with his tantrums because they knew him.

I don’t think any semester with a kid on its own makes a difference. But I do think 12 years of education where teachers were allowed to care for him, and see him for who he was–I hope that did make a difference. I hope that made it possible for him to continue to learn that he did have an imagination, and patience, and things worth saying.

I also think about that student because I feel that our society as a whole has decided, like he did, that we don’t have an imagination. We’re just stupid. We’re stuck. We have no new stories to tell. We fight for scraps of history.

When a kid says he has no imagination, everyone knows that that reflects something else–not who he is, but who someone told him he is.

But when politicians say it, sometimes we accept it. I think maybe we should think about who is telling us that we can’t dream big, and why.  Why can’t we have arts and music and special ed and phys ed fully funded? Why can’t we have the best public schools in the country? Why can’t we see that our children are not just cogs to be hammered and shaped, but small people with great challenges and great possibilities?

Andrew Cuomo has visited a public school only once in his time as a Governor. He spends more time with big donors every week than he has ever spent in a school. It seems to have obscured his vision.

If I run for Governor, and if I become Governor, I promise you that I will visit schools regularly, and when I’m thinking about education policy, I’ll be visiting schools in my mind. They are the foundation of all of us—they are strong when they are funded and teachers are trusted, and they are weak when they are financially starved and when teachers are treated like suspects. They are strong when children are seen for who they are, and they are weak when children are seen for how they test. To ignore our schools and use them to fund tax breaks is to ignore our state.

Meet Zephyr Teachout.

She can teach us all…..

9 Responses to “Friends of NY public schools, meet Zephyr Teachout”

  1. bmarshall

    I will work to see that you are elected the Governor of NY


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