Sheena was a New York City Teaching Fellow who taught in a very challenging school. She is now a special education teacher in my school, South Side High School. She wants Governor Cuomo to focus on the right things. She wants him to understand how teachers feel, and what good school improvement strategies are. Here is her letter:
Dear Governor Cuomo,
I feel compelled to tell you my story, as an educator, in the hope that it encourages you to reconsider your proposed changes to New York State Teacher Evaluations.
During my first years in education, as a naïve and green teaching fellow, I worked in a high-needs school in Brooklyn. Drop-out rates were high and graduation rates were low. The school had violence, drugs, homelessness, poverty, and suffering. There were also vibrant, passionate teachers and providers who fought tooth and nail for every inch of progress. Most indelibly marked forever in my mind: the challenging students who made me laugh and cry like I never had before.
Now, I am a little less naïve and green. I teach at a highly effective school in Long Island. The graduation rate is 98%. It’s basically Shangri La compared to what I left behind.
Sometimes, I lie in bed at night and imagine beaming up the population from the frightening chaos of where I left and transporting them to my current school. Curriculum and infrastructure are in place. The standards here are incredibly high (I teach special education). We are a team with the one goal of seeing our students gain a high quality education and preparing them for college. And we succeed. What if Micah, Tiffany, Shavonne, and Chauntay were sitting in the front row of an IB History class? Or Sylvie. What if Sylvie, the most resilient and yet the most learning disabled child I have ever met, had these resources made available to her? What if they were told by an entire staff, in unison, “You are categorically not allowed to fail. We won’t let you. You will learn, you will succeed, we will guide your way.” (And they had the resources and wherewithal to follow through) What if they were told that by YOU, our Governor?
Governor Cuomo, you are correct that there is a problem with education in New York. Where you are mistaken, however, are the causes and the courses of action we should take from here.
Increased emphasis on standardized test scores and outside observations will NOT make me a better teacher. Furthering my education will. Peer review will. Mostly, what will continue to make me learn and grow as an educator is the love I have for my profession. A love that you are trying your very best to chip away at and make me run for the hills and open a coffee shop in the Catskills.
Please, address the real problems that are causing schools to fail (and remember to focus only on the ones that are actually failing). These factors are poverty, gang violence, and drugs. They are the prevalence of guns and the absence of hope. Please, increase art and music- at risk kids who struggle academically need them to feel successful at school. Make mentoring programs and after-school programs widely available. Increase support and educational opportunities for administration and teachers. Ensure there are curricula and resources in place. Support your teachers; don’t attack us. Why on earth are you so determined to attack us and make us live in fear?
Micah, Tiffany, and Sylvie have since graduated; it is a bit late for them. But there are many more students like them. Give them fair funding, support, hope, and safety. Give them what many of the kids on Long Island have at their fingertips. Separate but equal is a bit of a step backwards, don’t you think? That is where our problems lie. Not in our teachers. I know a lot of teachers; we’re a pretty decent group of folks. We all could get better- but your evaluation system, which numbers and blames, is not the way.