Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part column.
By Jane Hayes
This article begins the sagas of valued teachers who have been exiled from Rockford Public School District 205 under painful circumstances over the past few years.
The Watchdogs for Ethics in Education (WEE)/ Rockford Educators Advocating Civil Treatment (REACT) group has been given the right by several individual teachers to tell their truths so you, the public, can understand that openness, or Glasnost (in Russian), is not a reality under Rockford District 205.
Board members, REA (Rockford Education Association) members and the central office of administrators should be accountable and transparent to concerned citizens, staff and students for losing too many dedicated and irreplaceable teachers over the past few years. Here are their stories.
Mara Stafets, English as a foreign language teacher extraordinaire, came to America 22 years ago from just outside Riga, the capital city, Latvia. She was a sociology and philosophy major at the University of Riga and then went to the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow to pursue her doctorate in philosophy. She is a published author of numerous papers on contemporary trends in philosophy and has presented her academic papers in Turkey, Boston, Riga and Moscow. Her last paper will be published soon.
Mara speaks English, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Latvian and German, which has made her an invaluable teacher for immigrant students and their families. She has helped them immensely to acclimate to foreign culture, foods and the school system. She has helped by translating in emergencies for many newcomers who become confused and disoriented by our social trends and educational responsibilities.
Dr. Stafets started as an itinerant teacher throughout District 205 for a year until the number of ESL (English as a Second Language) students was great enough at Conklin Elementary to accommodate her linguistic and social skills in one school. She taught there for the last 17 years, and would have continued, until the demands of an undemocratic and authoritarian leadership prevailed, suffocating the teaching environment, so she retired. She has also taught ESL at Rock Valley College and taught many adults to speak English. Mara also taught Russian to Rock Valley professor Dr. Tom Guensberg, making it possible for him to advance his profession by going on geological digs in Russia.
Mara has expedited the settlement, education and adaptation of numerous immigrants over her past 17 years as a district teacher. In the early 1990s, Russians, Bosnians and Croatians moved here because of strife in their own countries. Later, students from the Ukraine, Albania, Macedonia and Poland settled in our midst.
After 2001, more students from Africa, especially Rwanda and the Sudan, and the Middle East settled in Rockford. Now, there are many from Burma with absolutely no English or school-related skills. Many of them are second-generation refugees who have only known camp life. They have been consumed by developing survival skills, not educational skills. Middle Easterners, i.e., Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians who have come, seem to have had a foundation in education, so they assimilate more easily to our school system and cultural demands.
While Mara enjoys traveling, gardening and doing research, she plans to continue her interests in education on a higher level or elsewhere in the world. When asked for her comments on District 205, she said: “Communication has to begin at the bottom and flow more easily to the top so the leadership understands the essential needs of students and families served by this district. Twenty years ago, it was far different because teachers were valued for their insights and experience in education, not questioned about their teaching expertise and judgment. Also, I do not know the function of this union (REA) because now, they are mere passive observers who are not advocating for their teachers.
“All this testing is insane!” she added. “Teachers are asked to test non-readers or non-speakers of English; they merely frustrate their students with such demands. Because it is mandated, testing is supreme beyond the special needs of our students, frustrating them beyond belief. They are placed in guided reading situations when there is literally no meaning to words on a page. Haven’t they been traumatized enough? We have to teach students how to bubble in, rather than teach them how to read and think critically. This pointless manner of teaching our students creates unsound educational practices and can do more damage than good.”
Mara won the Those Who Excel teaching award in 1998 because of her exceptional teaching strategies and human connections. She was the district representative and went to Illinois for the state competition. Now, we have lost Mara’s skills because the leadership in District 205 won’t listen to an expert educator’s views on what students need and how to create beneficial pathways leading them to positive results.
This article will continue with more insights from Mara Stafets in an upcoming edition of The Rock River Times.
Jane Hayes is a member of Watchdogs for Ethics in Education and Rockford Educators Advocating Civil Treatment.
From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2013, issue