Monday, August 12, 2019

The Welcome Back Letter I’d Love to Give My Students – But Can’t by Steven Singer

originally published at: https://gadflyonthewallblog.com/2019/08/05/the-welcome-back-letter-id-love-to-give-my-students-but-cant/?fbclid=IwAR2ReWTVMbcm-SqMFQn_Bubun0GGB7IgXNDafh63ouOMkZ_vESfpyszSHUw

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I’m a very lucky guy.


I have reasonable autonomy, opportunities to collaborate with my co-workers and strong union protections.


Yet even after counting all my blessings, I still can’t do whatever I want. I can’t even do everything that my years of academic training and experience tells me would be best for my students.

 
Every year I have to watch out for this data metric and do that much more work because my district has lost even more funding to the vampire charter school in our neighborhood. Or lawmakers have compromised away another several hours of my time to do meaningless paperwork – time that I either have to take away from my students or my family.

I see all this and I just want to scream.

I want to tell everyone what’s happening so that they can help stop the madness.

And I do scream into the whirl of cyberspace on my blog.

But I can’t do the same in my district. I can’t tell those right in front of me – my school board, my administrators, the parents or students.


I know this because it already has.

Every year on the first day of school, I give my students a welcome letter.
 
This is the kind of letter I’d love to give them – but don’t dare:


Dear Students,

In a matter of weeks you will be invited back to school and I wanted to let you in on a little secret.

We missed you.

That’s right. Your teachers missed the heck out of you over the summer.

Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed our time at home with our own children, time on vacation, time spent continuing to refine our craft, and/or time spent working another job. (Hey! Those extra pencils, papers, books and supplies aren’t going to buy themselves! Right?)

Here’s another little secret – your teachers come to school every day not because we have to, but because we want to.

We literally could do anything else with our lives but we’ve devoted our time to you.

Why? Because we love you.

I know that’s mushy talk, but it’s true.

Another secret: We know you’re nervous about your first day back. But – heck – so are we!

Don’t forget you’re young. We’re old!

We know you’re wondering who your teachers will be this year, what they’ll require you to do, which friends will be in your classes, who will sit with you at lunch…

We wonder if we’re still going to be able to do all the things we need to do to help you learn? Are we going to be able to provide a safe, secure environment for you? Will we be able to keep you engaged, and excited to learn? Will we be able to actually teach everything you want and need to know?

This is going to be a challenging year for all of us.

But that’s a good thing.

We’re in this together.

That’s kind of an important point.

You see, we know you’ll probably be asked to take high stakes standardized tests. Just know that it’s not us who’s asking. It’s the state and federal government. Lawmakers seem to think that your answers on multiple choice tests are very, very important.

Another secret: they aren’t.

We don’t care how you score on these tests. Not really. We don’t even care if you take them at all – and if your parents decide not to have you sit through this garbage, we will honor their wishes, because they are the ultimate authority on you – their children.

We know that standardized tests don’t assess how much you learn. The tests your teachers make do that – the work that you do in class every day shows it better than any canned corporate exam.

We know those scores don’t define who you are. We see you every day. We see your creativity, your intelligence, your fire, your verve, your passion.

We want to stoke that fire and help you become the people you always wanted to be.

And none of that can be shown on a standardized test.

THAT’S our job – not to turn you into great test takers but into the kind of people you most want to be.

Oh. By the way, please thank your parents for us.

Thank them for ignoring the hype about the flashy charter school that hedge fund managers opened on the hill – the school sucking up our funding, cutting services for students and making its investors very rich.

Thank them for declining the shiny school voucher to Pastor Dan’s Creationism, Anti-vaxxor, Climate Denial Academy. Thank them for passing up the tax rebate to Ivy Laurel Prep – where the rich white kids go.
 
Thank them for trusting us with the most precious things in their lives – you.

You really mean a lot to all of us.

So rest up and try to have fun for the remainder of your summer. We’ll do the same.

And before you know it, we’ll be back together in class expanding minds, expressing hearts and having a great time!

Love you all!

Your Teachers

 
That’s the kind of welcome back letter I would love to give my students – but can’t.


It was partially inspired by a REAL welcome back letter given by a New York Superintendent.
 
Around this time last year, he gave it to 11 principals and about 600 teachers in the
Patchogue-Medford School District before someone posted it online and it went viral.

His audience was teachers, but his message was the same:

Aug. 14, 2018

Dear….

Once again… this letter is too let you know I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is. Let me be clear… I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. You are more than a score. I’m hoping you know by now that the children and parents you serve appreciate your talents and the ability to make a difference in their lives. Keep your head up and your eye on what is most important… your students and your teaching craft.

The Patchogue-Medford School District fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states. You have my permission to throw it out, or use it for any creative ways you may think of. I have a feeling divergent thinking will be at an all-time high at Pat-Med. Let me know if you need anything and it is my sincere hope you have an outstanding year.

With Warmest Regards,

Michael J. Hynes, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools

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Cheers to Superintendent Hynes!

If only every teacher, administrator and school board member could be that brave and honest!
 
Here’s another letter given to year six students at Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, England, along with their results from a recent standardized exam:

“Please find enclosed your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your very best during this tricky week.

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do.

They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day.

They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school.

They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends.

They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

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Here’s another one to parents from a principal in Singapore:

“The exams of your child are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well.

But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there is an artist, who doesn’t need to understand Math… There is an entrepreneur, who doesn’t care about History or English literature…There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won’t matter…There’s an athlete…whose physical fitness is more important than Physics… If your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn’t…please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, its just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score…you love them and will not judge them.

Please do this, and when you do… watch your children conquer the world. One exam or low mark won’t take away…their dreams and talent. And please, do not think that doctors and engineers…are the only happy people in the world.”
PrincipalsLetterToParents
 
If teachers and principals were allowed to speak freely, I bet there’d be a lot more of these kinds of letters.

School should not be centered on testing and test scores. It should be centered on students.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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Pennsylvania Law Meant to Forbid Arming Teachers May Have Done Just the Opposite by Steven Singer

Originally published at: https://gadflyonthewallblog.com/2019/08/08/pennsylvania-law-meant-to-forbid-arming-teachers-may-have-done-just-the-opposite/?fbclid=IwAR06MDx4FFUpZMWQhi1U4PLk-I5oKWpjHgwT0SuAyaPVicD49mwykJgNB5o

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Pennsylvania teachers, don’t forget to pack your Glock when returning to school this year.


Despite warnings from gun safety activists, the bill, SB 621, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this summer.

The legislation explicitly allows security guards – independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement – to carry guns in schools if they go through special training.

And that’s bad enough.

Why you’d want glorified rent-a-cops with guns strapped to their hips running around schools full of children is beyond me.

That’s not going to make anyone safer. It’s going to do just the opposite.

But that’s not even the worst of it.

Commonwealth law already allowed for armed police and school resource officers in school buildings.

The new bill just adds security guards to the accepted list – so long as they go through special training.

So some observers are asking what happens if teachers and administrators go through the same training? Wouldn’t they then qualify as “security personnel” and thus be eligible to be armed as part of their jobs?

Some say yes.


The bill only says who may be armed in schools. It doesn’t say anything about who may not be armed.

So if a district were to arm teachers – even without that special security guard training – it wouldn’t be specifically breaking the law. It would be operating in a huge loophole left open by the legislature and Gov. Wolf.

In fact, the original version of the bill would have covered just such an ambiguity. It included language saying that ONLY the people specifically mentioned in the law (police, resource officers and security guards) were allowed to be armed. However, Wolf could not get legislators to agree on it, so this language was stripped from the bill that was eventually passed.

This isn’t just theoretical.

A handful of superintendents in rural parts of the state have already gotten permission from country law enforcement officials and are now carrying guns to school, according to a lawyer representing 50 Commonwealth districts.

Attorney Ronald Repak, of Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference saying that his firm had secured permission from local district attorneys for administrators to carry firearms as part of their jobs. They cited ambiguity in the law that allowed for different interpretations.

Repak said that fewer than six superintendents had been approved, but he would not say which ones or which districts employed them.

Meanwhile, a district in the eastern part of the state between Hershey and Allentown has already passed a policy to arm teachers and staff.

Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County, approved the policy last year but suspended it following litigation from the teachers association and a parent group.

Since Harrisburg passed this new measure, school board members and administration have been going back and forth about how it pertains to their policy and whether they can legally reinstate it even with pending litigation.
 
SB 621 was supposed to fix the ambiguity of previous statutes on the matter.

Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code says that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”

But again that leaves a huge loophole.

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in 2016 that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.”

That’s what originally prompted Tamaqua school directors to pass their policy to arm teachers – the first of its kind in the state.

The Republican majority in the legislature has been trying to pass a law explicitly allowing teachers to be armed for years.

In June of 2017, the state Senate even passed just such a bill but it got nowhere in the House. Moreover, Gov. Wolf threatened to veto it.

And that has been the pattern in Harrisburg on most matters – a gerrymandered GOP-controlled legislature narrowly passing far right legislation checked by a popularly elected Democratic governor.

However, Republicans may have gotten one passed the goal with SB 621.

Wolf had hoped the bill would end the matter once and for all. When he signed it into law, he released a statement saying:

“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel.”

Ceasefire Pennsylvania, a statewide gun safety organization, saw the danger and warned against it. The organization urged the legislature not to pass the bill and the governor not to sign it.

In a letter sent to lawmakers, the group wrote:

“…adding security personnel who do not have the same law enforcement background, training and experience of those personnel already authorized to serve as school security in the School Code is misguided.
[In addition] …although we understand that the legislation initially was intended only to address security personnel, we believe SB 621 could be manipulated by school districts intent on arming teachers as a ‘security’ measure… We hope you will Vote No on SB 621.”
 
The matter is bound to wind up in the courts where it will ultimately be decided.
 
Concerned citizens should probably go to their local school board and let directors know they don’t want school personnel – security guards or others – packing heat.

To be clear, the new bill doesn’t require security guards to be armed, but it does allow districts to arm them if they go through the necessary training.

The instruction outlined in the law required before guards can be armed costs less than $500 per person.

It includes lessons on developing relationships with diverse students, understanding special needs students, how to deal with violence, victimization, threat response and the prevention of violence in schools. It also includes Act 235 lethal weapons training on specifically how to carry and use lethal weapons.

Some legislators wanted security guards to have to go through the same training as police officers – a 900-hour municipal course. However, since this would include instruction school security officers would not need such as lessons on traffic laws and the vehicle code – not to mention its hefty cost of $9,000 per person – it was scrapped.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against security guards. There are several good ones at my district.

However, putting guns in their hands doesn’t make me feel any safer.


The child in question was certainly difficult and could be defiant. But he was a middle school age child. He didn’t deserve to have his head slammed into a table – nor would I want someone with so little impulse control to have to police his trigger finger during tense confrontations with students.

Arming security guards is just plain dumb. Heck! So is arming teachers and administrators!

This isn’t the wild west. It’s a classroom.

In real-world shootings, police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied school shootings. Do you really expect rent-a-cops and teachers to be more accurate?

Even armed police don’t do much to stop school shootings.

The four high-profile school shootings in 2018 — including the one in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen.


What we need are sensible gun regulations to limit the number of people who have access to firearms. We need mandatory background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the murder instrument of choice for mass shooters. We need buy back programs to reduce the ridiculous numbers of guns available.

This new law does none of that. It was a Faustian bargain at best – and like always happens when you try to best the Devil, you end up losing.

Only this time, the losers are our teachers and school children.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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