Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’


By Cynthia McCabe

After Oprah Winfrey aired a special Monday on education, many educators were angry at what they believed was the media mogul jumping on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. Immediately after the show, upset commenters filled more than 200 pages on Winfrey’s message boards. But one took her disappointment right to Winfrey, writing a heartfelt letter directly to the television star.

Britton Gildersleeve, a college writing teacher in Oklahoma who also helms the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, said she wrote the letter “in a white heat, I was so angry,” following the show’s airing. In her 20 years, she’s never seen the public and self-appointed education “reformers” so willing to bash educators, Gildersleeve said.

“I think it’s convenient,” Gildersleeve said, pointing out that even those willing to bash teachers they don’t know can easily remember a favorite teacher from their own past.

Her letter to Oprah wasn’t a personal attack, Gildersleeve said.

“I don’t dislike Oprah,” she said. “I understand she has a good heart. But why didn’t she have anyone on the show,” who could speak to the challenges of public school teachers? The show featured Microsoft founder Bill Gates, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Davis Guggenheim, the director of the forthcoming education documentary Waiting For Superman.

A highlight from her letter: “If you want to change education, Oprah, don’t make the mistake everyone else has. Ask teachers. Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients? And yet we have left parents, teachers and students completely out of this critical talk.”

Following is the full text of the letter:

Dear Oprah,

I teach. Given, I teach at university level, but I’ve been teaching for several years — about 20, to be exact. And I’ve seen the changes that No Child Left Behind — and your beloved testing — have made in my students. None of the changes are good: students want to be spoon-fed (they are in testing environments); students want to do only what will get them high grades. The list is long and sad.

I also direct a non-profit federally funded professional development grant for teachers, pre-k to university, the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. It’s the local site of the National Writing Project, an amazing partnership among research universities, classroom teachers, and schools. Not to mention the inclusion of parents and students. All of these voices are absent in the current national conversation.

Oprah, let me tell you about Oklahoma teachers and their classrooms. Many of my friends and colleagues at the high school level have more than 170-200 students in their classrooms. Do you think a student is worth 10 minutes a week from his/ her teacher? Outside of the classroom? Do you think a “good” teacher should spend that much time on weekly grading — 10 minutes a student? Please do the math: that would mean another 83+ hours weekly, Oprah — outside of classroom. IF each student receives 10 minutes of attention on his or her work outside the classroom.

“Don’t they have plan periods?” I hear people ask. No, many don’t. “Plan periods” went the way of smaller classrooms — there are too many school duties: hall monitors, cafeteria duty, mandated professional development that has nothing to do with the school’s demographics. And even if they did, that’s less than five hours weekly…

And yes, good teachers work a lot of outside hours. Unfortunately, in Oklahoma (where our average teacher salary ranks 47th in the country), many teachers need to take part-time jobs. Does this impact their teaching? Certainly. It also impacts the ability for a single mother of two or three children to put food on the table and pay the rent. Do you want teachers to spend more time on students? Lower classroom size — hire more teachers. And pay them competitive salaries — competitive with other career paths requiring a minimum of a bachelor?s degree. Even nurses (another under-rated career) make more than teachers do.

You don’t want teachers to have tenure? Then figure out a way that a principal in a small town (like, say, Skiatook, Okla.) will be unable to fire teachers s/he doesn’t like. Not because the teacher is ‘bad,’ but because the teacher attends the wrong church. Or maybe doesn’t attend church at all. Small towns — and big ones, as well — have politics, Oprah. And surprise: they affect every decision in a school, even to the detriment of teachers.

Tenure doesn’t keep bad teachers in the system — there are ways, as others have noted, to fire teachers. Your guest, Michele Rhee, notes that she fired hundreds. Many had tenure. And many probably weren’t bad teachers, unfortunately. Ms. Rhee, who once thought it was okay to tape students’ mouths shut?? She’s now in charge of evaluating schools? Let me tell you, Oprah, I teach pre-service teachers, in addition to my job directing a NWP site. Not ONE of my students would think that’s okay.

You can’t fire a doctor without just cause, Oprah — there’s a system. Is that ‘tenure’? Or trying to be sure that in this ostensible democracy, we have the right to confront our ‘accuser,’ and hear what is being said about us. Each year in Tulsa, Okla., new teachers don’t make the grade. Even in the third year of teaching, we let teachers who don’t work out go. Unfortunately, we lose an enormous number of teachers — good ones — who can’t deal with the incredibly complicated paperwork, the overtime demands, the lack of time to do what they went to school for: teach.

I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum. I wish one of your guests was a real teacher. John Legend? Really? Come on, Oprah, I don’t try to tell John Legend how to make music; he’s going to tell me about teaching? Or perhaps you’re stereotyping? Instead of John Legend, why don’t you have Pedro Noguera, who wrote a stunning book discussing the problems black males face in the system (The Trouble with Black Boys)? Or Mike Rose, who’s worked for decades with working class, side-lined students and schools of America? Or Diane Ravitch, who recanted her support of NCLB because it not only doesn’t work, it harms students?? And Race to the Top is simply an Obama-ised NCLB, I’m sorry to say.

Why don’t you, with your great forum for change, invite real classroom teachers to talk about what it’s like to teach homeless students with no resources (students or teachers)? Why don’t you ask my son, who recently graduated with a Master’s of Arts in teaching, what it’s like to teach students living in foster homes for drug abuse, rape — both victims and perpetrators — violence, assault? Why don’t you ask him how he struggles to be a “good” teacher? And wonders — daily — what that even means in the context where he finds himself?

If you want to change education, Oprah, don’t make the mistake everyone else has. Ask teachers. Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients? And yet we have left parents, teachers and students completely out of this critical talk.

If you want real change, invite real teachers to your show, Oprah. The irony is that the conversation seems to valourise teachers, saying that “good” teachers can change things for kids. So can smaller classrooms, food, adequate resources, the freedom to teach according to a child’s needs. But then, that’s not what the “experts” are saying, is it? Unfortunately, the “experts” have no real experience with students. Or teaching. Or classrooms. They only know how to tell the teachers in the trenches what to do?

Wondering how in the world education came to this pass,

Britton Gildersleeve


274 Responses to “An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’”
  1. A. Gabriel says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 51

  2. Cynthia McCabe says:

    Just a quick note that we don’t delete comments that have been posted. WordPress uses a like or dislike feature that collapses some comments if a majority of voters click that they dislike it. It’s an automatic function and not one that we’re operating subjectively.
    Thanks, staff

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  3. Robert Fitzgerald says:

    Let’s be honest here. Oprah is an opportunist. That is how she made all her money. She addresses controversial topics for the ratings she gets. So I believe her comments and guest comments are not necessarily valid, just controversial. As Britton Gildersleeve suggests, teachers need a national forum that can reveal what teachers think about the state of education. This may be the only way education can truly be improved in the long run.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 50 Thumb down 1

  4. Joan says:

    Should physical education and health teachers be fired for our obese children and an obese society? Teachers are only part of the equation in educating our children and society. Parents and the student need to be held responsible for education, education does not end when the student walks out the school door.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 91 Thumb down 0

  5. kathy albert says:

    Ms. Gildersleeve is dead on. I have been in public education for 33 years. I have seen many changes ( good and bad) in education. There are so many factors involved in teaching that do not include “teaching”. We have to be accountable for every aspect of a child – education, mental health/psychology, discipline, parenting, nutrition, test scores – we do all this on minimum salary (it is a joke what we pay our teachers), minimum help from government and a love of education and children. I teach in a very small district. I can only imagine what it must be like in an inner city or larger district.
    yes, teachers should be involved in decisions regarding education! we are the professionals who have devoted our lives to children.

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  6. vernon says:

    One of the best and ost heartfelt written. Articles I have redad in. A very long time, totally on point

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0

  7. vernon says:

    One of the best and most heartfelt written articles I have read in a very long time, totally on point

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  8. Karyn says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When I think about my previous week of teaching it included, not only teaching the required subjects, but two staff development meetings, three team meetings, one parent meeting, two calls to different child services agencies, one entire day of hunting down and locating a missing student who had run away from home, and countless other acts of love that I gave to my students because they are worth it. However if you look at my test scores I would be considered a “bad” teacher. I suppose it is because I feel the safety and security of my students is more vital then increasing a test score.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 48 Thumb down 0

  9. Melissa says:

    I am a mother of four in a small city in Oklahoma. My parents, (and grandparents), brother and husband are all teachers. I have incredibly high standards for what my children will learn. I personally hold their teachers accountable, through frequent communication, for their part in what I think my kids should be learning.

    What education needs is not a new fad or another law. Education needs leadership, and the freedom to utilize what is taught in every teacher-prep program across the country — students learn differently. Of my four children, two will not test well. Regardless of the hours I and their teachers put into preparation, these two simply do not test well on a standardized test. Despite their intelligence, willingness, and effort to learn the coursework, they would cause a negative impact for their school and their teacher’s “ranking.” Is that fair? To them? To their teachers? I say leave my kids alone. Let their teachers, who are knowledgeable in their abilities, teach them as best they can using different methodologies. That’s what I expect, what I want, and guess what? I’m the taxpayer.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 47 Thumb down 6

  10. Glenn Poler says:

    30 plus years in education of adults and not one person has ever asked me what it’s like teaching in an adult male correctional institution. To be fair I have never advertised to the general public that I hold a position where I teach a 50 year old man that “a” has 2 sounds, not just one, where I teach a 47 year old how to manipulate the English language to hand write a letter to his 15 year old daughter (he has never written a letter in his life). I don’t advertise my duties because when stated the typical response is negative and often disrepectful to me. It makes it difficult to rise in the morning to get ready for “work”.

    But, yesterday, after 6 weeks of working on writing skills, the 47 year old man wrote a complete sentence! Now we’re getting somewhere.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 0

  11. Jeanne Garwood says:

    Had I seen this show I too would have been outraged.I will probably never watch Oprah again. I agree entirely with what Ms. Gildersleeve wrote, It is amazing to me that every one who went through the education system think they know what it is like to teach.
    Perhaps the public teacher’s should all just quit and open up private academies.
    aka Oprah’s school in Africa. OH! of course with our vast experience we wouldn’t be embarrassed by allegations of abuse.I do believe taping a child’s mouth shut is considered abuse. Maybe that’s why there were problems with Oprah’s school,she thinks Ms Rhee is top notch!

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  12. Chris says:

    Thank you for your letter to Oprah. It is not only annoying that someone who claims to be such an eduction advocate would be so short-sighted in her support of Rhee and her destructive policies. I think that Oprah just simply doesn’t know. She does not have children of her own, nor has she ever taught a classroom full of kids. She has no intimate knowledge of schooling in that sense, and has no idea how things have turned for the worse since her own experience as a student. Letters like yours will help inform her, and I hope move her to seek more information and reflect on changing her stance on education reform. Here is a facebook page that may help.

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  13. English Newbie says:

    I am a first year teacher and had a tough time teaching in an inner city middle school in Pueblo Co. What I learned this year will hopefully help me be a better teacher. I believe that this letter to Oprah holds merit. I also believe that the testing and the teacher observation piece has it’s usefulness in today’s classrooms. I worked with the CORE and Global companies and all of the people I worked with were all former teacher’s themselves before becoming national coaches. I think it is just a really tough time in the history of education. What we need are teacher’s who are positive and willing to create relevant and meaningful lessons which align to the standards and utilize classroom strategies. It doesn’t have to take hours upon hours to make this the first priority. When it comes to administration, that is the real deal breaker in my opinion. Strong leadership and respect for teachers and students! I believe change is approaching. I prefer to focus on that rather than pay or tenure. I want to believe that teacher’s will soon be in the shining light! Thank you for all you do!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  14. Science Teacher says:

    Thank you for writing about all of the stresses of teaching, including the No Child Left Behind disaster of creating students who do not learn critical thinking skills, but can memorize answers to get a particular grade on a test.

    Second, since the budget cuts, each of the science teacher’s I work with have spent in excess of $1,000/each for lab materials. That is $14,000 total that is being given directly to schools out of teacher’s pockets to run education. Without such generous, caring and self-sacrificing teachers, science would not be able to run labs at all.

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  15. AL says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 8

  16. Lisa says:

    After 20 years of teaching, I am suffering from burn out and frustration. I don’t teach language arts but I think I have a grasp of basic grammar. How is it possible that English teachers are posting on this site who apparently do not know the correct usage of an apostrophe s to signify possession and and a plural s. I am embarrassed for you!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1


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  3. [...] of anger, but I doubt if I could have been an eloquent as Britton Gildersleeve, who responded with this letter to Oprah.  Her closing sums it all [...]

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  4. [...] of anger, but I doubt if I could have been as eloquent as Britton Gildersleeve, who responded with this letter to Oprah.  Her closing sums it all [...]

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  5. [...] An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’ | NEA Today Posted on September 30, 2010 by uglicoyote An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah — ‘Ask teachers.’ | NEA Today. [...]

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