By Tim Parker, NEA-Alaska President
Like most of you, my heart drops when I see headlines about massive cuts to education funding. I think of the classrooms across Alaska that would suffer. Larger class sizes, cuts to needed programs, and less time for students to learn.
It would be easy to feel defeated, but here’s why you should remain hopeful.
The students in your schools and classrooms look up to you. They look to you for strength, as well as learning. Our students must have hope of a better future, or what we do won’t matter. As an educator who cares about public schools and desires to build something better for Alaska, you are an activist for positive change.
Put simply: What we do matters. And we need to keep pushing for improvements to public education even if we don’t know precisely when, how, or why the positive changes will happen.
Hope comes from the margins and shadows—around the edges. Or, in the dark!
Goals matter when it comes to hope, and there isn’t a better goal than the one that we as educators collectively share. Our goal is a great public school for every student.
I have seen first-hand the passion that educators across Alaska bring to their schools. They don’t look at their school and see failure. They know that even with the flaws both in the education system and our communities, that the efforts of educators are important. They don’t think, “I can’t reach every student, therefore it’s futile; therefore, my efforts are flawed and worthless.” No, they say, “I can teach someone, and that’s so meaningful and important, that I will risk everything to get that done.”
Hope is generated by accurate recollections of the past. But this isn’t easy. Too often we think of the past as filled with injustice and cruel defeats, or we go to the opposite extreme and see the past through rose-colored, nostalgic glasses. The truth lies somewhere between the extremes. As educators, we must remember that our power has been a positive force for good—for hope—in Alaska.
It’s been fewer than 50 years since educators in Alaska began collective bargaining. Before this change, it was common for female teachers to lose their jobs if they got married or pregnant. Working in schools was almost like volunteer work and pay was abysmal. Together, we have crafted a profession out of teaching, and together we are bringing the best out of each other.
Professionalism has been a slow climb and because we haven’t achieved status alongside doctors and lawyers. We still have a long way to go, but let’s not forget where we started this journey.
For the past eight months as president, I have been listening. And I have heard so much.
I’ve heard about—and in many cases witnessed—the amazing things that are going on in schools across Alaska.
At Colony High School, I saw Bob Williams leap into the air with joy at an answer given by a calculus student at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. I heard students in art teacher Ann Luetkemeyer’s classroom learn how their work improved public spaces in Wrangell. I saw first-year Ketchikan auto shop teacher Clint McClennan teaching students how to tear apart a small engine. I listened to elementary students in Mark Fraad’s physical education class explain how to be great leaders. And I heard Valerie Brooks in Ketchikan get students to pronounce difficult words.
And in listening to one of our tremendous young leaders, elementary teacher Adrianne Shultz from Ketchikan, I heard one of the most important pieces of advice: “We need to remember we’re teaching kids. There is joy in learning.”
I have also heard over and over about the many pressures making it more difficult for students to learn.
What I’ve heard from educators more than anything else was that they lack the time to do everything they can to help students learn. Budgets have increased class sizes, specialized programs for struggling learners have disappeared, and the support systems designed to help new teachers have been cut to the bone. Our ESPs have also seen the numbers of things they are asked to do in a day multiply. ESPs take great pride in getting the job done, and getting the job done right.
All educators are being stretched in so many ways that they simply don’t have the time to improve their practice or to spend time with their own families.
I’ve heard over and over about trauma. This topic has resonated across the state. In every community, teachers are dealing with more and more students who come to school hungry, not well rested, and from home lives that are far from ideal. Before students can learn, educators—both ESPs and teachers—work very hard to address this trauma. From the bus stop to the cafeteria and in every hallway and classroom, our members are there to offer a helping hand, support, and compassion to struggling students. This work is all essential to student learning, but most of the time you won’t find it in the job descriptions of our ESP’s and teachers. They do it because they care for their students.
Just this month we have seen an attempt by the school district in Mat-Su to outsource groups of classified employees. They want to remove these valuable employees as members of the district and contract with private service providers. We’ve been down this road before in the Mat-Su and it resulted in subpar working and learning conditions in our schools, that eventually led to a reversal of this decision. Now we’re at a crossroads again and we must remember that every member of NEA-Alaska contributes to the success of our students and we must remain committed to standing up for one another when confronted with these challenges.
Now, in the face of proposed $69 million in devastating budget cuts, Mat-Su is pursuing this misguided policy once again. I was talking to a Mat-Su classified member, and they told me that they felt defeated. Although I understand this feeling, I know that the antidote is action. Falling into despair isn’t what will help the students of Alaska, and it won’t put us on a course for our next victory.
To get there, we need hope. Optimists believe everything will be fine without our involvement, and pessimists believe the world will fall apart without our involvement. Hope is the alternative. It lies between optimism and pessimism. It’s uncertain, but emerges from our efforts to influence outcomes.
We can’t stop the bad headlines, but we can point the way to a better future. As educators, our students are counting on us to point them in the right direction. Together, we can push through the despair and find the strength to fight for a better tomorrow. Hope is the springboard to make this happen.