On May 6th, President Obama sent an email that told the story of his favorite teacher. He wrote,
"I credit my education to Ms. Mabel Hefty just as much as I would any institution of higher learning.
When I entered Ms. Hefty's fifth-grade class at Punahou School in the fall of 1971, I was just a kid with a funny name in a new school, feeling a little out of place, hoping to fit in like anyone else. The first time she called on me, I wished she hadn't. In fact, I wished I were just about anywhere else but at that desk, in that room of children staring at me.
But over the course of that year, Ms. Hefty taught me that I had something to say -- not in spite of my differences, but because of them. She made every single student in that class feel special. And she reinforced that essential value of empathy that my mother and my grandparents had taught me. That is something that I carry with me every day as President.
This is the simple and undeniable power of a good teacher. This is a story that every single kid in this country, regardless of background or station in life, should be able to tell."
In that email, he also encouraged citizens to write back with their own stories. Since I had just made the decision to leave my teaching job, I decided to write him back. I haven't heard from him and I didn't really expect to, but it felt good to have a context to share my thoughts about teaching and learning. This is what I wrote:
Dear Mr. President,
I really enjoyed your story about Ms. Mabel Hefty. I have so many teachers that taught me important lessons that changed my life and they have my eternal gratitude and admiration. My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Betty Zapp, taught me about a big, exciting world that I wanted to see firsthand and ignited my passion for travel and adventure. My eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Tomm Evans, taught me to believe in myself and my abilities and inspired me to pursue teaching as a career. My favorite college professor, Dr. Agnes Cardoni, fostered my passion for helping others and encouraged me to make a difference for students. All of my teachers gave me invaluable gifts and supported me in all ways and, without their guidance; I would not be who I am today.
Thanks to these remarkable individuals, I became a teacher. However, I recently made one of the most difficult decisions of my entire life - I have decided to leave a profession and employer that I love dearly. I am a public school teacher in a great district full of brilliant professionals and the most amazing students and, after eleven years, I made the choice to leave.
The entire public school system in this state and throughout the United States is very broken because it is based on an antiquated, industrial model and managed by people who are too far removed from the realities of the classroom. Consequently, I can no longer support mandated programs and illogical initiatives that I don't believe in because I want to be part of the solution instead of supporting the problem.
Unlike many others who are leaving their teaching jobs way before they reach retirement age, I don't plan on finding a new line of work and I am actually leaving before I burn out and fall victim to helplessness and cynicism. I intend to help make things better and, for that, I will need my passion intact. I will create more ways and find new opportunities to teach the fundamentals that have been marginalized in schools across the country and I will also help find, support, and create programs and initiatives that educate individuals intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
Although this is clearly a professional journey, it is also very personal. I am a public education success story and it breaks my heart to know that my story would probably have a very different ending if I was a product of this current educational system.
In your book, you talk about "reclaiming the American Dream" and, in many ways, I am the American Dream. From very humble beginnings in a small backwoods town, I fell in love with learning at a young age, achieved things that often seemed impossible, and had opportunities I could barely fathom as a child.
School was always my favorite place to be and with some inspiration and encouragement from the stellar teachers that I referenced earlier, I became the first person in my family to graduate (with honors) and go on to higher education.
College was just as amazing as I hoped it would be and, as much as I enjoyed learning about anything and everything, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be a teacher.
My goal had nothing to do with summers off, benefits, contract details, politics, or even my affinity for books and office supplies - I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to empower other young people to love learning and believe in themselves the way that my teachers empowered me.
I have found that it is nearly impossible to explain the feelings of pride and accomplishment that came the day that I stood in front of my first class knowing how far I had come to make my dream a reality. Consequently, I did everything I could think of to convey that message to my students because I knew what was possible for each and every one of them if they focused, worked hard, and believed in themselves.
I always ended up learning way more from my students than I could ever teach them, but together we accomplished a lot and I will never forget the lessons, projects and conversations that changed how we all saw the world. My identity as a teacher is one I am most proud of because I believe that when someone is doing something that they are passionate about in a context that is meaningful, supportive, and encouraging, anything is possible.
This was my 11th year as a public school employee and unfortunately the possibilities appear to be much more limited. Globalization is a major force that does not mesh well with increasing education mandates, teacher accountability measures, and the emphasis on standardized testing. This epic mashup has created a new context that is not very meaningful, supportive, or encouraging.
I am only 33 years old and I have decided to leave the dream job that I worked so hard to obtain. This decision was not easy - I really did work for the most amazing district, I had the most talented and dedicated colleagues and the students are the best.
However, the reality of the situation is that I can’t see myself engaging with the increasing standardization and “accountability” for much longer before it completely breaks my spirit as it has done for so many of the best teachers across the country. I wholeheartedly believe that we can combat the ill effects standardization if we can emphasize and foster compassion, creativity, and confidence in students and in teachers, but the sad truth is that those key elements of teaching and learning are no longer the focus for public education.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t understand politics as much as I probably should and I doubt you really have the time to understand education from a pedagogical perspective, but we are both parents. As a parent, I do not want my son to be subjected to a battery of tests so his abilities can be quantified into a bunch of charts and graphs that compare him to his peers while placing way more emphasis on his weaknesses than on his strengths. I also don’t want him to have to learn from teachers who are obligated to see him as data because their livelihood is contingent on their ability to move his little dot to a new place on the graph.
As a teacher, I obviously do not want those things for any student. I want my son and all children to be looked at as unique and multi-faceted beings that can’t be quantified or plotted on a graph. I want them to celebrate their strengths and use them to improve upon their weaknesses, I want them to learn about kindness, compassion, and respect, and I want them to have the freedom to imagine new possibilities and explore new innovations. More than anything, I want them to have the meaningful connections with others that you and I experienced with our teachers because those connections changed my life in all the ways that truly matter.
Basically, I want them to have an experience similar to the one that your daughters have at their school. I know your daughters attend a private school and I don’t blame you for that because their safety and security are important and, quite frankly, most people I know would send their kids to school like that if they could afford it. Since that is not possible for the vast majority of the people in the United States, I’m sure you see the inequity and feel that burden as our leader. We both know that the differences really don’t have to be that extreme, but it is going to take a lot to change things at this point.
For a long time, I naively believed that I could “be the change” and encourage other teachers to focus on their important work with hope and optimism while we weather this storm together, but the more I experience, the more impossible and hypocritical that plan starts to seem.
Even just a few years ago it seemed to be a lot easier to view standardized testing and other illogical mandates as a minor inconvenience that was necessary to secure important funding. I vividly remember encouraging my high school students to sleep well, eat a good breakfast, and take the test seriously so they wouldn’t need to take any unnecessary remediation courses.
I don’t remember the hyper-vigilance or the tangible fear and anxiety that is present now for both students and teachers. Clearly, a lot has changed and those changes have fostered an educational environment that fails to properly educate our children while forcing teachers to choose between best practices and their sanity.
Consequently, I no longer want to watch as dedicated and passionate teachers burn out trying to jump through impossible and invisible hoops to prove their worth while students experience everything from boredom to defeat as they constantly try to fit themselves into a one-size-fits-all mold that fails to address their spirits, their interests, their abilities, or their potential.
I want to help shift the conversation back to all of the good things that happen every day under the most challenging conditions and, more than anything, I want to advocate for change. I want to encourage respect and autonomy for the well-educated professionals who wake up every morning aware of the hoops and molds because they are the Ms. Heftys, the Ms. Zapps, and the Mr. Evans that everyone needs in order to grow as scholars and as people.
I believe in teachers and I love and admire the ones who will continue to make a difference and fight the good fight, but my purpose in this life is to empower others to love learning and to believe in themselves and I no longer feel that I am able to do that as well on a consistent basis as a public school employee.
I will always be a teacher and I will always work with young people, but it is time for me to practice what I preach. I don’t feel right telling kids to follow their bliss and blaze trails while I choose to play small and remain stuck in a broken system because I’m afraid to leave comfort and security in order to accomplish bigger, better, and more meaningful ways of educating young people.
One part of the American Dream is overcoming obstacles and improving our lot in life, but another, more significant portion is the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For me, happiness comes from serving others and educating them in ways that lead to their happiness and highest good. So, now that I have found the courage, faith, and determination to take this leap, I intend to leverage my many strengths and passions to find more new ways to help others subvert or recover from the educational experiences that are leading to an epidemic of negativity, apathy, anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, addiction and disconnection.
The beauty and obligation of the American Dream is that it is always evolving and can mean a million different things to a million different people based on each unique identity and I know I’m not alone in my desire to bring that back as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy.
One day, when education reform actually becomes an education revolution, I hope to return to a classroom full of eager young minds that understand a bigger picture and dream bigger dreams – a classroom like you had at Punahou School. For now, I will continue as a vocal advocate for compassion, creativity, and confidence - the heart of learning.
Would you like to join me?
Patty McLain :o)