I feel like my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stomped on. I’m trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. Being stuck in my head hasn’t worked, so I decided to join the movement and attempt to express this gut-wrenching devastation by writing and sharing, something I’ve always run screaming away from, but of which I’ve learned the power from some amazing teachers.
It all started for me eight years ago, March 24, 2003, to be exact. I started working for a 37-year old organization called the National Writing Project, a network of teachers that come together all around the nation in pursuit of a common goal: to become more effective teachers in order to improve student achievement. There’s no curriculum, no scripted program, no outside expert telling teachers what to do.
Teachers teaching teachers
The premise is simple: teachers are in the classroom everyday with students, therefore they are the people who hold the expertise and knowledge. If you bring teachers together to open their practice to other teachers, inquire into those practices, push outside their comfort zone, research, write, learn, try out new strategies, ask more questions…well, you get amazing results.
No matter what industry you work in, professional development is important in order to improve, as is a community of like-minded professionals to learn from and with. Imagine coming together with a group of your peers to inquire into the relevant issues that tie your profession up in knots. How far do you think you could push your profession?
The landscape of education shifts rapidly alongside the rapidly evolving social, economic and political landscape. Immigration brings higher numbers of English language learners to an area, or an economic downturn shuts down the major employer of a small community, causing massive increases in unemployment and poverty. All of these factors have a major impact on schools, students, and teachers. If teachers can come together to explore these issues of diversity, poverty, and access, social change and education can be impacted tremendously.
This country, along with the rest of the world, is suffering a major economic downturn. Education funding is being slashed over and over again. It’s to be expected. Everyone has to bear some of the burden. However, I can’t help but feel that education has been impacted hardest. How do we expect to pull ourselves out of this if we aren’t properly preparing our youth to be active and engaged participants in society? We should be investing more in our youth and in effective education, rather than cutting it to the bare bones minimum.
What I especially do not understand is the vilification of teachers in this day and age. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions that exist. I often think about becoming a math teacher, but honestly, it scares the hell out of me. My dad was a teacher, and I have worked closely with teachers for the past 8 years. I know what the climate is like in schools. I know how under-supported teachers are. I know what issues poverty adds to an already difficult educational landscape filled with assessment and standardized testing. People blame teachers for falling test scores without stopping to think what the test even represents and whether it’s a worthwhile indicator in the first place. Why would anyone want to become a teacher when this is what you’re facing?
Teachers are amazing
They are paid not nearly enough, to spend their days with hundreds of children, spend their evenings and weekends planning lessons, grading papers, and pushing themselves to figure out how to reach that one student who isn’t getting it, to keep that other gifted student immersed in learning, while not alienating the others. They work to sculpt their classrooms into a place where learning and exploration are the driving force, where children can engage in meaningful discussions about relevant topics in order to forge their place in this democratic society. They aren’t there to force feed facts and give out tests to assess how much ‘knowledge’ has been shoved into children’s brains.
When education policy is drafted, teachers are not at the center. They are on the fringes. Who better to reflect on policy, reform, and effective teaching than teachers themselves?
That’s what the National Writing Project provides: a cherished place for teachers, at the center.
Yet, after over 20 years of federal investment in building a national infrastructure of writing project sites in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the federal government has signed a bill that eliminates all federal funding for the National Writing Project. The federal government is literally sweeping literacy under the carpet, choosing to place all their attention on more sexy focuses like STEM. How do you expect to succeed in science, technology, engineering or math if you don’t have the writing and reading skills to back it up?
NWP Works. National Writing Project teachers provide more than 7,000 professional development activities annually, reaching 130,000 educators, and through them, 1.4 million students. With the stroke of a pen, this network and its impact on children is in grave jeopardy.
Yesterday, 60% of staff working at the national office in support of this network was informed that they would be laid off. Today, 200 sites learned that the funding for their year-round work is being reduced, and future funding is uncertain, at best.
This has been intensely difficult, to say the least. Each night I go to bed and wish that when I wake up, this nightmare will disappear. Nausea over the implications this has on education hits me in big waves.
It’s not about my job. I could get another job. If it came down to it, I’d do my best to squelch my fear and join the ranks of the teachers that I hold in such high esteem.
But what it comes down to is a group of the most amazing teachers I have ever met, working night and day to reach students. I’ve poured myself into this organization for the past 8 years of my life because I truly believe in the transformative power of the National Writing Project on thousands of teachers across the country, and their resulting impact on students. I feel the power of their stories every time I speak with them on the phone and at meetings. It’s indescribable. I want for them what they deserve: respect as professionals and leaders. Respect.
I’m tempted to hide myself away and cry and kick and scream. Instead, I’m doing what I’ve learned from this impressive network of teachers: I’m writing. I’m making my voice heard, among the many teachers and supporters of the NWP who #blog4nwp.
I’m fighting back. Those who know me, know that I’m generally very laid back, but you really don’t want to piss me off. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…step back. Well, I’m angry. So, no, this isn’t the end. Not even close. I’m ready for the challenge. Are you?
Barbara Ann Hasselbach, Assistant Director of Grants and Contracts, National Writing Project.