When the first bell of the school year rings

Schools in Alaska start up slowly. Summer repairs blend with boxes of classroom supplies. Posters go up, desks are shuffled around, and educators huddle to plan for the arrival of students.

The first day is magical, exciting, and scary – for both the students and adults.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it is suddenly time for learning.

I have visited dozens of schools across the state already this year, and there is much to celebrate and plenty to worry about. The Legislature didn’t cut funding as deeply as they had threatened. However, that has left many teaching positions unfilled as the year starts. Nothing hurts student learning as much as not having a teacher.

Class sizes in some places have grown quite large. Teachers across the state showed me class lists with more than 40 students. Special education caseloads are growing, and the number of classified support professionals has diminished. The failure of the Legislature to find a long-term fiscal solution has left our schools teetering on the brink.

But, the storm clouds that continue to swirl around our public schools haven’t stopped us from throwing ourselves into the professions we love. We care deeply about our students. We want them to learn as much as possible.

The bell rings, and the students show up. We greet each student with a smile, and we get to know them as individuals. We find out how ready they are to learn – are they hungry, did they get a good night’s sleep, have they experienced trauma? We figure out what they already know and what interests and excites them.

We match their interests with the curriculum and standards, and we adjust our lesson plans to fit the students who are in front of us. We assess what they know, so that we can better plan how to help them grow and achieve everything they want. We know that at the end of the term, we will assess them again to discover what they have learned.

We love the internal challenge of educating each student. As professionals, we have dedicated our working lives to helping other people’s children learn. But, the external challenges continue to weigh on all of us.

In the October issue of Atlantic Magazine, an article titled, “Americans Have Given up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake,” summarizes the political quandary in which we find ourselves. More than a decade of attacks has severely diminished the support for public education. Fewer teachers are entering the profession, and budget cuts are coming at us from all sides. The author, Erika Christakis, writes that this has led to, “the denigration of our public schools, and a growing neglect of their role as an incubator of citizens.”

In Alaska, a sign of this discontent came in the release of scores from the PEAK tests. The temptation to chase test scores is what pulled America into No Child Left Behind back in 2000. This lead to 15 years of a “test and punish” regimen that did not improve student learning. Did we learn from this? In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, and this should have ended the toxic pursuit of test scores. It did not.

Once again, critics of public education are pointing to the scores and using them as an excuse to show their contempt for public education. There’s no question, this public bashing hurts. As educators, we know exactly what the scores mean, AND what they don’t mean. But it sounds like we’re making excuses when we explain the shortcomings of these tests.

Remaining silent is not an option. Our silence signals that we accept these test results. We do not. However, our goal is not to focus exclusively on standardized tests. They are a weak measure of our system and our effectiveness in helping each student achieve everything they want. We know that focusing on the scores exclusively actually harms students, as it did under NCLB. We must stay focused on creativity and ingenuity. We must teach students to work cooperatively to solve problems that will never appear on these tests.

We reject the idea of narrowing the curriculum to what is on these simplified tests, and we will continue to work to educate the whole child. The type of learning that we are aiming for is incredibly difficult to measure, but we cannot let that stop us.

As we stay focused on that task, we need political allies, parents, and supportive members of the public to defend schools and to lift us – the educators – up. Many in the public want to support us, and we need to speak up and invite their assistance. We take that role seriously at NEA-Alaska. We engage with parents and community organizations to increase their support for public education. We work with politicians who support public education to increase the resources and improve the regulatory structures that underpin our schools.

We do all of this because we are incredibly focused on NEA-Alaska’s mission, which is to advocate for an excellent public education for each child in Alaska, and to work to advance the interests of public school employees. We do this in every classroom, every day, across Alaska.

So, as you throw yourself into your classroom work this Fall, I want you to know that NEA-Alaska will remain vigilant and continue to take up the fight to protect each of Alaska’s nearly 500 public schools. None of us can do this work alone, but together we are a force to be reckoned with.

So, as we celebrate student learning and throw ourselves into the incredibly challenging task of educating each student, please take a small portion of your valuable time and engage with your union. NEA-Alaska wants to hear from you. We are reaching out in new and creative ways to re-shape our union to fit the challenging times in which we live.

In a blink of the eye, this school year will come to an end. We know that we not only want our students to learn as much as they possibly can, but we also want to do our best to calm the political storms that continue to shake the foundations of public education. Let’s do all of this work, together.

Thank you,
Tim Parker