Lori Rice is a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary in Wamego, Kansas, who has taught K-2 reading as well as kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade for the past 19 years. Her students read books that are held together by tape, and because of budget cuts her school does not have a full-time librarian, art teacher, technology teacher or music teacher. As a result, she says, “our schedules are limited and cannot be arranged for what is best for students.”
Rice has made it a habit to write to her elected representatives about the problems teachers face in the classroom, especially when they are dealing with legislation that might help the situation. The following post is a letter she is sending to legislators about what her day looks like as a result of their funding decisions, and what could happen if funding levels were raised. She also gives teachers advice on how they can reach out to their own legislators. I am running this post, which first appeared on The Educator’s Room website, with permission from the author and the website’s founder.
By Lori Rice
Teachers have an untapped resource we have not been using. We have knowledge and experience and it is our responsibility to voice our concerns with leaders in our community, state and nation. What would happen if every teacher wrote to someone in power? What if you stopped what you were doing right now and wrote a letter or sent an email to someone who can make a change? I have written to representatives when important issues have come up in our legislative branch. It is relatively simple to find your local and state leaders. You can go online to your government web site and find a mailing address or email. If we are truly tired of letting others make decisions, we have to provide them with the information they need to know.
Below is my letter I will be sending to my government leaders as they start planning funding and making laws about this world I live in every day. As you write your letter, give a short background about yourself, tell about your school or classroom and tell what should be done. Be specific if you know of a bill or funding that is being considered in education. Share your voice and stand up for education.
I teach fourth grade at West Elementary in Wamego, KS. I have taught K-2 reading as well as kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade for the past 19 years. This experience, along with my continued professional development and schooling, has made me an expert in education. During this time, however, education has gone through great changes. The classrooms of today are active communities of exploration, collaboration and learning. In light of the economic situation and public viewpoint of education, I want to invite you into our classroom. I invite you to see what your decisions are doing to the children in our schools.
Resources and staff are limited. At 8:00 a.m., I have 24 bodies burst through the door. Along with 140 other bodies in the hallway, they shove their backpacks and coats into lockers that are double stacked measuring 30 inches by 24 inches. (In this confined space coats and bags intermingle, sometimes with locker spaces needing to be shared. This is not a good idea for health concerns such as lice and germs during cold and flu season.) Students select their name on the Smartboard to take attendance and then start working on number sense and math review with the calendar activity of the day. I have students who can complete this independently in three minutes and students who need adult assistance along with 15 minutes to complete it successfully. Twenty-four students mean different needs. Making learning relevant for every student is a challenge.
At 8:14, after we say the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the students gather their supplies and go to one of six rooms for math instruction. I usually have 35 students in my classroom. This tiered approach allows us to have small groups in the rooms that need hands on direct instruction. But to do that I must take a large group who are ready to extend their learning. Since we do not have funding for math assistance, we cannot have smaller groups that would best meet student’s needs. That means I work to challenge 35 9- and 10-year olds who are working on standards above fourth grade level.
At 9:15, students go back to their classrooms to continue math and move onto other subjects. Schedules are not designed for today’s teaching. Due to budget cuts, again, we are not able to have a full-time librarian, art teacher, technology teacher or music teacher. This means our schedules are limited and cannot be arranged for what is best for students. At 10:40, after I teach hand-on science often with supplies I bring from home or request from families, I spend time on writing and then I get a 35-minute break. The students get 35 minutes of music or gym. This is not enough time to develop physical growth or the arts, but funding is limited.
10:40 is the first break I have had in the day and the only one I will get except for lunch. This time is provided for me to grade papers and provide feedback, input scores in the grade book, correspond with parents, reply to e-mail, take care of paperwork, attend IEP meetings, communicate with teachers about other students we share, update our classroom blog, gather or put away supplies, make copies and prepare lessons. It is an impossible challenge and the list has continued to grow as demands for paperwork and “accountability” have increased from the state and national level. There is never enough time in my contract and I balance this by taking time away from my family. Having more staff in the building would alleviate some of that time stress and allow me the professional respect of being given adequate time to complete the demands of my job.
My lunch period, beginning at 12:00, consists of 40 minutes and is usually spent collaborating with the other fourth grade teacher. I am also usually getting supplies ready for the afternoon. The students get a short 25 minutes to eat lunch and 15 minutes outside for recess. Again, this is not enough time to exercise and practice important social skills. It is, however, what the state allows.
The bell rings at 12:40 and we spend the afternoon in language arts instruction. I have four reading groups. The time in our schedule provides for three groups, but again, we do not have enough staff to allow all students a reading group daily. This also adds to my preparation and plan time as I must read and provide lessons on four novels. The students are reading books that are falling apart and have been taped and re-taped. The supplies for creativity are provided, again, often from requests from classroom families or from my own household. You should come see the creative minds and ideas of fourth graders. They have the creativity to solve problems we don’t even know exist yet.
While being asked to do more with less, our students continue to thrive. I am always proud at the end of the year when our students are reading at and above grade level, writing with clarity and meeting the standards in front of them. Teachers are in the trenches daily watching the impact of our society. We stay there, encouraging and empowering the creative minds of tomorrow. We do this with such little support.
A great teacher told me once he begins every class period with, “Are there any questions?” I have a few.
What would happen if we gave students the supplies they need to explore their natural curiosities and create the ideas they have in their minds?
What would happen if we met with every student in small groups daily?
What would happen if every school had art, physical education, music, technology?
What would happen if every school had a counselor and psychologist in-house for support with the increase of student needs in the area of emotional wellbeing?
What would happen if YOU stepped up and supported our future?
What would happen if education became the top priority in Kansas?
I believe these things would create a future beyond our dreams. We would have thoughtful involved citizens. We would have problem solvers and inventors. We would be able to do what we have never done before. I see our future every single day. I know the powers we are stifling.
You can help. We need to continue to have extended learning (gifted education) funded through special education. With the discussion of a new House bill turning this responsibility over to schools, it would end many programs throughout our state that are pushing our students who excel. Schools are already struggling because of underfunding so adding more fiscal responsibility will only further cut programs. You need to find ways to provide monetary support. Schools need to be able to have staff and resources to teach our students in ways that work integrating technology, science, mathematics, arts, music, and allowing students to have physical education and access to support staff. If we truly want to compete in the global economy we are defining our own future. How are you going to help?