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Teachers head to D.C. to say, ‘Enough trashing of public schools’

St. Paul Central High School English language-arts teacher Kaye Thompson Peters talks about this week’s  Save Our Schools rally and march — and the movement she hopes it will inspire.

As a rule, schoolteachers aren’t a rowdy lot — even when they’re mad as H-E-double-hockey sticks. And so the caravan of educators making its way from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C., this week has done so mostly under the radar.

A number of local teachers are headed to the capital to take part this week in Save Our Schools, a march and series of associated events where they will ask the nation’s politicians to pretty please take their feet off of public education’s neck before they succeed once and for all in choking it to death.

It’s about time. I visit a lot of schools in service to this blog but I never encounter a teacher who starts ranting and throwing pencils around the room about the tests they administer, the various plots to tie their pay and job security to said tests and about politicians’ practice of cheerfully balancing budgets by cramming more kids into their already overstuffed classrooms.

Mostly they just mutter something about wishing they could make a bigger difference for more of their kids and then disappear back behind the stacks of papers and homework from whence they were summoned.

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St. Paul Central High School English language arts teacher Kaye Thompson Peters will not be marching on Saturday, which is bittersweet. Bitter because she has spent quite a lot of time spreading the word among her colleagues about SOS. Her activism even came to the attention of Education Week, where a story about the effort was graced with her photo.

Kaye Thompson Peters
Kaye Thompson Peters

But sweet because Thompson Peters’ daughter is making a rare visit from Switzerland and, well, isn’t it enough she’s helping connect others with the aforementioned caravan?

We’re grateful, then, that Thompson Peters took a few minutes out of her family reunion to talk to MinnPost about the rally and the movement she hopes it will inspire. What follows is a condensed version of that interview.

MinnPost: I’ve been curious that educators have not been quicker to be up in arms about the things that have been coming down the pike at them.

Kaye Thompson Peters: I think, frankly, we’re somewhat skeptical that anybody will listen to us. I’ve only been teaching 14 years. I became very active three to four years ago when I felt that it had gotten to a point where it was now impinging upon my ability to do my job in the classroom.

With the testing and with all of the stuff that has happened since No Child Left Behind occurred, they’ve increasingly tried to find ways to control how teachers teach, thinking that that’s the answer, to somehow systematize things. It has gotten to the point where they frankly are now figuring out how to interfere.

People can say things about you, but it’s when they begin to interfere with my ability to teach children and to engage children in learning — that’s when we really got angry. That’s a lot of what teachers are really aggravated about now. They feel that their ability to do their job has now been affected, where previously, they could still go in their classroom and do what they felt was the best thing to do with their students.

No one has challenged the system, and that’s what the real problem is: A system that doesn’t fully fund their schools, that has a new fad every few years. They’ve changed the state’s standards for what I’m supposed to teach three times in 14 years. So it’s like, why should I bother learning all this stuff and working hard when they’re going to change it anyway?

That is, I think, what some people mistake as just apathy. Instead, teachers have become very cynical about whether anybody is going to listen to them and whether they can change the system, because it’s a big, bureaucratic system. But people are getting angry enough now that I’ve seen a real growth in activism within the union in the last few years. Now this thing in Wisconsin has only fueled that. 

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MP: So tell us what Save Our Schools is and how it was born.

KTP: Because I’m involved in a lot of education activism stuff, I received an e-mail from them … about the march and the movement. It’s a combination of parents, academicians and public school educators all with the common purpose of saying, “Enough trashing of public schools. Their resources have been stripped. There’s so much money going to consultants and to paying testing services that could be going into actually engaging in rewarding programs for our students.” 

Diane Ravitch [A No Child Left Behind architect turned critic whose book “The Life and Death of the Great American School System is a powerful indictment of high-stakes testing, among other things] is doing a teach-in that is [tied into] a fundraiser; they found a way to do this through a webcast. Then there are a number of teach-ins and movie screenings and stuff happening throughout D.C. this week. Then the march is on Saturday.

They’ve lined up special airfares, special hotel rates and coaches and shuttles and stuff to try to make it easier and less expensive for teachers and parents to get to D.C. So I’m really hoping that it’s a huge turnout.

MP: Do you expect it to have ripples here at home after everybody comes back?

KTP: I hope so. I hope that what it does is build momentum. Because the more we feel like people are with us, the more people will be energized to fight this fight. And we do have to fight it. This corporate approach to education that ignores that we’re supposed to be teaching all children.

[Consider] the whole organizational structure, like Race to the Top. Ravitch spoke at our convention last year. She said a race implies winners and losers. In public education, we shouldn’t be planning any system that allows for losers. 

That’s I think a critical piece. We’ve allowed this corporate mentality to intercede with what the mission is with public schools. In fact, we’ve jettisoned ourselves back to the 19th century factory model. We’re not training kids to go into factories and work anymore; that’s not part of the mission of public schools. 

We’re trying to foster critical thinkers who can be prepared, as our union’s narrative says, to take their place in a world that we can’t even envision. Because it’s the future, and our world and our country are changing so quickly now, we need people who are adaptable and critical thinkers who stop and ask why or how.

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All of this regimenting education in the name of trying to make everything the same is actually restricting kids and preventing them from being the kind of students that I think everybody would agree they need to be.

MP: What else do you want people to know about Save Our Schools?

KTP: I think it’s just so important that people understand that this is all part of a piece. What’s happening to public education is also what has happened in all other aspects of our society. There was just a report on Minnesota Public Radio this morning about the financial disparity right now between the average white family and the average black family in this country.

There is an increasing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Public education has always been seen as a place where people who maybe haven’t had the entitlements and the privileges that the upper-class white, well-educated, Ivy League-type classes had can get their footing. It’s the heart of meritocracy that people can rise above the limitations of class and economics.

There’s a real attack on that, and an attack on unions as well.  A big part of this, I can’t help but think, is that teachers are one of the last strong unions in this country. I didn’t join the fight with the union. I was a union member, but I didn’t become an activist because someone was attacking my pay. I became an activist because someone was attacking my ability to do my job and to advocate on behalf of my students.

There’s a lot of power in that. I think there are people who recognize that and would prefer that that power not lay in the hands of teachers.