This column addresses all parents and community members of the Winnebago School District, as well as anyone who may be thinking about having or has ever had a child in the Winnebago School District. My name is Ranae Leamanczyk, and I am now officially a former high school English teacher of your school district. Let me clarify at this juncture that I have left the Winnebago School District on my own accord. No one has dismissed me, nor have I been a victim of a reduction in force. I am leaving for a myriad of reasons, which include logistical, economical and ethical aspects.
I live in the Oregon School District and have coached there for five years. It makes sense for me to teach in this district, seeing I live just a few blocks from the school in which I will teach. Though I do not pay taxes in your district, I have spent enough time in your district and with your children to realize that something needs to change for the better before it gets much worse.
When I came to this district, I was under the impression that it was economically sound, with positive economical boosts on the horizon as well as priorities that were placed in the best interest of our biggest stakeholders: the students. I was still kept under that assumption my first year at Winnebago. My first year at Winnebago was very positive. I felt welcomed and was given a sense of warmth and camaraderie between staff and administration. I made an instant connection with my students, no matter their GPA, domestic or economical situation. Teachers came out of their rooms and commiserated with one another, and I felt I could sit down in my principal’s office and discuss any plans or musings I may have had about my students, lessons or future expectations. I was given the freedom to be who I am and do what I love, which is simply creating a good rapport with my students and experimenting with new teaching methods and approaches to my discipline, to become a better teacher and mentor to my students. I was truly happy here. I will admit that in the back of my mind, I knew that eventually I would have to make a decision about either where I would live or where I would teach. Truthfully, 35 miles is a long way to drive in the middle of winter, and I had to consider the fact that my spouse works in Loves Park. I knew eventually I would have to make a decision, and I knew that fate would lead me to the right one.
Well, fate entered our school district the fall of 2008. After a blissful year at Winnebago and high hopes for my second year, my students and I were hit with the constraints of what felt like a ton of bricks. Under new administration, every move I made was scrutinized and evaluated. Both students and teachers became hostile and untrusting of their neighbors. I felt as if the plague had hit and I would soon fall to the disease if I did not conform to the tools and methods driven by test scores and data. No one knew who would be the next blood purge victim. Here I was teaching Animal Farm to my seniors and The Crucible to my juniors and living it every single day of my life. I understand that our government and No Child Left Behind place much weight on test scores. Unfortunately, somewhere we have lost sight of what is important.
What is important are the most precious stakeholders I mentioned earlier: our students. I must stress, not just the students who score a 26 or above on their ACT. I’m talking about ALL students. Somehow, those students who are not high academic achievers seem to get labeled as throwaways under our new regime. While I think it is important for all students to do their best in their studies, sometimes they are given the message that their best is not good enough. I have seen teachers ask that students be removed from their classroom and put into mine with no real reason given. After the fact, I realize those students might appear to be a bit difficult, or perhaps they have an Individualized Education Plan, or maybe they simply need some organizational skills. Some teachers simply do not want to deal with those kids. I can and do deal with those kids and take great pride in it. I thought I got into teaching to help every student succeed, not just the ones who achieve high scores. When I realized this, I really did not have a problem with it. I figured they were better off learning in my classroom anyhow, because I would give them a fair shake.
I was at peace with my resolution until this new regime and testing system was implemented at our school without input from the teachers that forces us to jam our tests into a computer program that is designed to compare our students’ scores to other students’ scores as well as other teachers’ students’ scores. I do not think I have to spell out the problem here with all of the staff reductions and cuts as a result of performance going on at the Winnebago School District. If you were an administrator and were looking for an expert teacher, what would be the first thing you would look at if you were a very data-driven administrator? You would probably look at how this teacher’s students were doing on your newly-purchased computer program that measures each and every student based on how they test. Please keep in mind that this new system does not accommodate modified tests for those with IEPs very well.
It is no secret that there has been quite a bit of turmoil in this district, and luckily, I have not been a direct victim of this turmoil as other unfortunate teachers have been. Consequently, I have been an indirect victim along with some of my students. Fortunately, fate dropped in my lap, and I was offered employment in a district that has not yet gotten to this point. Nevertheless, as parents, I want you to ask your son or daughter today what they are learning in each and every teacher’s class. Yes, it is good if they are learning grammar and how to write well or whatever applies to the subject you ask them about. However, if they answer that they have learned the following: respect, to love English (or Spanish or math, etc.), how to manage my time, not to judge others, how to not conform when it is wrong, how to strive for my dreams, THAT I MATTER, then whoever has taught them that is a good teacher, no matter what type of scores that teacher is producing. Your child is an individual, and what will help them succeed in life is learning to live and grow as a person and make good decisions, not choosing the right letter on a multiple choice question on an exam.
Please remember this, and take into account how many of your children are being cast aside along with the teachers who believe in them in your school district because they are not scoring high in the data-driven world of education. Please, please take this opportunity to support your teachers and staff who make this education truly worthwhile for your child. Soon we will have so much data to worry about that we will not have time to listen to your son when his heart is broken, or to explain to your daughter that you truly love her when she thinks you are being insensitive. Support the teacher who simply listened to your son talk his way through his own college choice without placing judgment. Thank the teacher who made your daughter feel like she can achieve when someone of higher authority told her she could not. Thank the hall monitor who was cut from the budget that, last year, may have helped your daughter make the decision to stay in school and not drop out. What type of learning will you support when the time arrives? Data-driven decisions made or life lessons learned? Which do you want your child to walk out of your front door having learned?
Ranae Leamanczyk is a resident of Mt. Morris who taught in the Winnebago School District for two years.
from the July 22-28, 2009, issue