An Open Letter To America From A Teacher

Dear America:

The release of a recent movie about education has inspired me to write you a letter.

First, know that I am a teacher, like my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were before me. Education is imprinted in my genes. Teaching is not what I do; it is who I am. I have taught for 12 years at the same Columbus, Ohio high school—Brookhaven. I have only taught there, and cannot imagine ever teaching at another school.

According to the latest state report card, each class of 30 students at Brookhaven has 25 that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Seven of the 30 have transferred in from another school, district or state this year. Five students have an identified learning disability. Three students were learning how to read, write and speak English as they were being instructed in that language. Roughly one student in each class of 30 was homeless.

America, do you know what I have? I have 50 minutes each day with 150 students to find a way around those learning obstacles. I have the hardest job in the world and I love it.

Before we go any further, America, I need to come clean. I’m an active member of my national, state and local teacher’s union. I know, I know, you’ve probably heard that movie says teacher’s unions are evil, that they protect bad teachers. My union always stands up for my rights. Does that mean I’m a bad teacher?

America, that movie probably has you thinking that my local teachers union, the Columbus Education Association (CEA), is standing in the way of change, blocking reforms that could improve teaching and learning for my students. They’re not.

CEA speaks with the strength of my voice, and the more than 4,500 voices of my colleagues. We elect our leaders democratically and vote to approve the contract that has made many education reforms possible in our school district.

My union signed on to Race to the Top, applied for and received federal School Improvement Grants, negotiated a voluntary enhanced performance compensation system and has agreed to a stipend for teachers that work in a designated high-needs school. CEA is just one of a handful of unions in Ohio that successfully operate a Peer Assistance and Review evaluation program (PAR) for new and struggling veteran teachers. In operation for nearly a quarter-century, I am a graduate of PAR.

My Superintendent is a graduate of my school district. She joined my union while she taught at her alma mater, became an administrator and later, Superintendent. She has outlasted every other big urban district Superintendent in my state, several times over. To be honest, I don’t agree with everything she does.

Despite this, I know she would never be featured in that movie saying “The system is broken.” She and her administration willingly participate in a Joint Labor-Management Committee with my union to resolve our shared challenges.

I am sure she would never tell business and community leaders in my city that “Collaboration and consensus-building are…overrated…” She and I know that collaboration and consensus-building are at the heart of education at every level. Of course, my Superintendent still has a job.

America, you need to know that just because a school is a charter, that doesn’t make it a silver bullet. Nationally, less than one in five charter schools outperform traditional public schools. Just because a charter requires its students to wear uniforms or includes the word “Academy” in its name doesn’t make it any better than a traditional public school. Moreover, many charter schools in my state are run by for-profit management companies, some of which take more than 90 percent of the money they receive from the state and aren’t held accountable for how they spend it.

I have a simple request for you, America. Instead of spending your hard-earned money on popcorn, soda and a ticket to that movie, I have a better idea. Call the nearest non-charter school and set up a day where you can shadow a teacher. Take the money you would have spent on that movie, put a gallon or two of gas in your tank, buy a microwaveable meal and eat lunch in the teachers’ lounge. Then, when the students have left, before the endless meetings start, ask that teacher “How can we make a difference together?”

America, please don’t point your finger at my brothers, sisters and I and blame us for society’s ills. We’re doing everything we can. We have a heck of a job to do, and America, we can’t do it without your help.

Sincerely,

Philip Hayes
Master Teacher of Social Studies
Brookhaven High School
, Columbus, OH

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