April 2018

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dear Editor

Today’s editorial page focused on Educational Reform. In this focus, The Seattle Times acknowledges that our public education system is an important topic any time and especially now in the time of “draconian” budget cuts. Thank you for that.

I’d like to voice a perspective not represented in the editorials: the notion that if we neglect to fund a reasonable work culture for our teachers, our students’ educations suffer. This conclusion reveals a truth hinted at in your two top-of-the-fold headlines today. The first headline reads, “Class size matters—but some things matter more” and the second reads, “Every student deserves an excellent teacher.” I would argue that unless teachers have a manageable workload, too many excellent teachers will either leave or never enter the teaching profession, and too few students will have an excellent teacher.

Schools are built for students, not for teachers. I’ve said it myself. As a person who was both a student and a teacher in both public and private schools, I have often argued with teachers and leaders in both systems that we must make decisions in schools based on the students’ needs rather than the teachers’ convenience. This prioritizing of student needs, I still argue, is fundamental for good decision-making in schools.

The larger society and our representative government, however, need to take a larger view. We need to fund public schools that foster the professionalism and educational environment where our children and our teachers can thrive.

Statistics of teachers leaving the profession make it clear: something is wrong. Throughout the prosperous eighties and nineties, and still today, thirty percent of teachers leave the profession in their first three years, and fifty percent of teachers leave urban schools in those first three years.

Why do so many leave? Teachers entering the profession know that pay and social prestige are comparatively low. As a classroom teacher for seventeen years, I have witnessed new teachers, novices fresh out of college and novices from other fields, enter with great ideals and soon look too weary. Many leave before they start.

The job is just harder than those outside the profession imagine. The job in public schools is harder than the job in private schools (though in each city’s elite private schools, contrary to popular myth, pay can be as high or higher than in public schools). Likewise, the job in urban schools is harder than the job in suburban schools.

What makes the job so hard? The generational divide between our most experienced and newest teachers can be frustrating for young, idealistic teachers, and the teachers’ union’s leadership tends towards more experienced, and therefore older, teachers. The difficulty of making a difference in the larger system frustrates a common ideal of changing the world for the better. Little support for professional development and few opportunities for advancement for teachers in their second decade make the horizon seem flat and long.

Most significant, I would argue, is a system where the moment-to-moment emotional and work intensity is so high that the reflection and creativity essential for good teaching require teachers to compromise their ideals for excellent teaching or to sacrifice their personal lives.

Why is this profession so intense? If you have children of your own, you know that their lives and their learning are intense, and your life with them is, too. If you have facilitated groups of twenty-five to forty adults, you know that facilitation requires tremendous focus, knowledge, and sensitivity. If you have ever edited writing or otherwise given someone feedback on work, you know that providing meaningful feedback requires energy, time, and the ability to communicate respectfully. Have you ever presented research and ideas to others seeking to learn from you or to determine whether they want to purchase your product or expertise? Teachers do that multiple times every day.

Teachers do all of the jobs every day. If we commit to the idea that every student deserves an excellent teacher, we must commit funding to help create an environment where creativity, reflection and care thrive.

We should therefore not be deciding between reducing public school class sizes by a couple of students or providing the essential courses in the arts and physical education. We should be talking about reducing class sizes a more meaningful seventeen AND increasing the arts and physical education. But, you argue, this is not the time. The economy is so weak. Somehow, when our economy crested was not the time either. We say this is not the time because we lack the political will to care for our children. We need to make major decisions about funding, not minor ones.

It’s time—it’s past time—for those of us who can afford it to tax ourselves so that every child can have an excellent teacher, and it’s time for more of us to recognize that we can afford it.  

This must be the time. We are late already.


Mary Edwards was a high school classroom teacher for seventeen years. She began her career in a private school in Dallas, Texas, taught in suburban Issaquah high schools and has worked as a consultant and classroom teacher in Seattle, Portland, and Highline Public Schools. Currently, she is a Literacy Specialist in the Highline School District. Mary blogs regularly about teaching, poetry, and brain tumors at

P.S. I sent a much shorter version of this letter to the paper.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely put, Mary! Not really a surprise, but I agree completely. I seems to me that much of the public discussion (in the media and face-to-face) is about an abstract and idealized notion of education, schools,students, and teachers. Everyone who has experienced a school at some point in the distant past feels that their point-of-view is somehow accurate and realistic. Looking forward to more discussion this weekend!


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