I worked with a math teacher who would often say when things weren’t going to be easy or fun, “Well, it won’t be boring.” The past two years have been far from boring. Since 2015, the US political scene has, at times, resembled a three-ring circus, at other times a boys’ club, and at other times a oligarchy. Local politics have become a microcosm of the national and international stage. I have turned to reading to escape. And then some of my favorite books have begun to appear eerily prescient, so I’ve turned back to politics to try to escape. I’ve watched Hilary Clinton be referred to as a nasty woman. I’ve listened to Mitch McConnell explain why Elizabeth Warren was silenced at Jeff Sessions nomination hearing. I’ve watched Kamala Harris get “scolded” for not being courteous enough to a witness. And when I needed an escape from politics and reading wasn’t cutting it, I found solace in my literacy training. My degree and research has caused me to look at words and actions and examine how these things shape identity and help build agency.
I usually write about YA Lit or my pedagogy. But today, I’m sharing a piece of my story.
Being a public school teacher in NJ during Christie s tenure as governor has not been an easy one. Unfortunately, many school boards in NJ have succumbed to his rhetoric. It’s no surprise since the school board is an elected body of residents who may or may not have any experience in public education. They attend meetings held by the state school board (appointed by the governor), which touts the governor’s agenda. The leadership of the BOE in the school district where I teach clearly lost their way and followed a lot of Christie’s rhetoric.
What’s most interesting, however, is that culture of silence has been created in the school district. Just as Senators Warren and Harris refused to be silenced, suddenly, voices throughout our school district–staff, administrators, and community members–have begun to speak out. I’ve sat through board meeting after board meeting this winter and spring, watching and listening. A strict three minute time limit was placed on citizens as they addressed the board. At one meeting, when time was up, a police officer actually approached the person speaking in order to shut the person down. At other meetings the gavel banged louder and louder, and the citizens yelled more loudly over it. At still other meetings, the attorney scolded citizens, albeit mostly women, who went over their time limit or were perceived to be rude.Like Madame DeFarge, I sat knitting through the proceedings, wondering which head was going to fall next. I watched a group of very determined citizens exercise their voice, and as a result change began to take place.
As I was reading the world, as Freire discusses in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I dug into my literacy texts, and I found my voice. I realized that if I am to teach my students to use their voice, I, too, must use mine. I addressed the school board on June 26th. Below is my speech. Beyond that is a link to a video.
At the June 12th board meeting, Mr. Davis of Raritan Township spoke about the impact I had on his daughter when she was in my class as a seventh grader. He spoke of the time I spent getting to know her and finding exactly the right book for her and then making sure she had lots of books like that to read. I was thrilled to hear that she still an avid reader now that she’s in high school, and I’m deeply touched that Mr. Davis recognized the impact that my colleagues and I have had on his children. However, I stand here before you—four days before our contract is about to expire—to share with you the story of a classroom and a classroom teacher. My career spans 24 years, the past 19 in FRSD, and three degrees, a BS, MA, and EdD. During the last five years, I have had a $17,198.00 net loss. Despite this net loss, I have paid out of pocket at least $500 each year to continue to add to my classroom library—that same classroom library that helped Mr. Davis’ daughter and countless other students find their love of reading once again. I have paid out of pocket at least $500 each year, with the exception of this past school year, to attend and present at NCTE’s, that’s National Council of Teachers of English, annual conference. I have paid out of pocket for professional development during the summer, including $200 this summer for PD study groups. And of course, I’ve paid out of pocket for my doctor of education from the University of Pennsylvania in reading writing literacy. My bank account looks like there’s a steady leak as a result of my career. Luckily, my husband a) understands my passion for my job and the need for the next generation to be literate, critical thinkers and b) has continued to receive healthy raises and “bonuses” despite the fact that he works for a not-for-profit organization.
Funding a classroom is just one part of this story. Nurturing the classroom teacher is the other. As a middle school literacy teacher, I focus not just on reading and writing, but I also focus on the social-emotional growth of my students. For the last two years, this district has failed to focus on the social-emotional growth of its staff. For the last two years, I’ve been silent because I have been afraid. I have been afraid if I spoke out, I would put my job, a job I love, in jeopardy. I can’t be silent any more. In my classes, we use the framework of literature as a window or a mirror to analyze text. We talk about standing up for ourselves and finding our voice. We talk about what it means to be a bystander and how being a bystander simply perpetuates uneven power structures in this world. We see this when we read Roll of Thunder or when we study the Holocaust. I would be an absolutely terrible teacher if I remained silent and if I remained a bystander.
The emotional part of my story is that I love FRSD. I love our children. I love teaching middle school. I love English language arts, and I have been fortunate to marry my passion and my career, which not a lot of people can say. I pursued this doctorate not to move up the career ladder, but to remain a teacher. I was trained in research in the hopes that I could be a teacher researcher and add to the body of knowledge in ELA—specifically middle school literacy, which is underrepresented in the academic literature. Many thought I was crazy when I finished my degree and said I was going to remain in the middle school classroom. I thought it made sense. I could teach, which I love. And I could research, which I also love. It was a no brainer. Then late last summer, I presented a research proposal. I had everything written up: research protocol, rationale, consent forms. I just needed to know what the IRB protocol was here in FRSD since I had no university affiliation. Apparently, there was none, and there was none because I couldn’t do the research. Despite support, Dr. Caulfield would not allow me to do the research, because I could stand to profit from our students. I had a problem with this: 1) Dr. Caulfield never asked to meet with me to discuss my research or my intentions. Of course my intentions were clearly stated in my research rationale. And 2) academic journal, which are peer-reviewed journals, don’t pay for the articles. The intent was really clear in my research proposal that the information that I was hoping to gather and find out would simply become a research article in a peer-reviewed journal. At that point, I was starting to realize that my cohort members probably were right. Maybe I was crazy for wanting to stay in the classroom.
As the turmoil in the district continued to grow, I was troubled by it. However, my colleagues and I do what we do best. Teach. Day in. Day out. Regardless of what happens in this room or behind closed doors, we carry on as we always have. We do what’s best for kids. I figured things would just get straightened out. I had strong opinions about things, but I wasn’t going to speak up. If I spoke up that would call attention to myself, and then I wondered would that cause me to be next in the line of fire.
However, I guess we all have a tipping point. June 12 was the tipping point. I have spent 24 years—my entire professional career becoming the best teacher I can be. I have continued to learn and grow and do what’s best for kids. Despite the narrative that our governor has tried to create about teachers during his tenure, I’ve been proud to be a teacher. I’ve ignored the narrative coming out of Trenton because our district didn’t match the things he was saying about public education. After the June 12th meeting, I was mad, and it took me a long time to figure out exactly what was bothering me. And then I realized what it was.
With all due respect because I know this does not apply to everyone sitting before me, but there are people on this board who are a making a mockery of a profession that those of us in this room and those of us who are busy working a second or third job and are not in this room right now have spent a lifetime defending. It is time that you realize education is a profession. It has theory and practice behind it, just like law or medicine. It needs to be valued. To show that you value education, to show that you value the children in the community, you can stop making a mockery of a profession that is so incredibly important to our democracy by changing the ending to my story. You can work to keep the quality educators we have, and you can go back to the bargaining table to settle a fair contract.
You can watch me address the school board at about :49:00.
FRSD Board Meeting