Two days into the first week of state testing, teachers from 10 counties turned out in full force for a NYSUT "Tell It Like It Is" town hall event that brought NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and Vice President Maria Neira to Owego in the Southern Tier.
Over and over, teachers with fire in their voices and tears in their eyes thanked union leaders for listening and respecting their concerns — in contrast to the state, which continues to defend high-stakes, standardized tests despite its rocky roll out of new Common Core standards.
Eighth-grade teacher Nancy Simons of the Horseheads Teachers Association had a question that she asked Neira to relay directly to Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who earlier this week said of the state tests that "We just need to jump in the deep end."
"As far as I'm concerned, what she was saying is that some of our kids won't make it," Simons said. "So, tell me (Chancellor Tisch), how many of our kids can sink?"
Neira jumped in with an answer on behalf of teachers: "ZERO!" she said forcefully. "OUR percentage is zero! Zero percentage of our kids should be allowed to sink!"
She promised to hand deliver Simons' question and concerns to the chancellor.
Simons praised Common Core standards, saying they had the potential to advance student learning, but that the state's rush to test "pushes kids in the deep end."
One teacher was so upset about what her students had been through during this week of tests that she skipped her anniversary dinner with her husband to speak up at the "Tell It" event. Others spoke of the erosion of art and music and the creativity that makes learning a joy. Neira told members that their comments would be fully relayed to Tisch and SED Commissioner John King.
"Your voice matters to us," Neira assured them, noting that this is "a defining moment" for educators as NYSUT builds on its "Tell It" letter campaign with a parent petition and - on June 8 - a rally in Albany that will let educators, parents, students and community members say: "Enough is enough."
Judith Hawkins, Owego-Apalachin seventh-grade social studies and AIS teacher, said of the students' experience with the state tests: "The desolation I saw on some of their faces, it cut me like a knife."
She said she heard King at the NYSUT RA and felt he wasn't answering questions or acknowledging the "human" element so important to teaching. To the NYSUT leaders, she said: "I know that you are listening. That was crystal clear at the RA. "
Iannuzzi said those concerns are repeated a hundred-fold around the state, and urged members to keep "educating the public."
Melissa Spierling, president of Maine-Endwell TA, who teaches 6th grade ELA, spoke for many who said the ELA tests were too long and setting students up for failure. Initially, she said, "I witnessed focused students, working hard, using reading and writing strategies they had been taught. But, in the last half hour, panic set in. It was clear that many would not finish the exam."
Several teachers agreed that, in many cases, it was the strongest students who were running out of time. "With 15 minutes left," Spierling said, "many had not started the most important part. They did everything right but they felt like failures."
"I'm sad for my students and I'm very angry with the state," she said. "How dare the state of New York make my students an experiment? How dare they do this to us and our profession?"
Iannuzzi called it "ironic" that the state dealt with criticisms that last year's test was too long by doubling down, making this year's test "more rigorous and shrinking the time."
Many teachers spoke in voices laced with pain and outrage of state policies that disrespect teachers. Teachers are directed not to talk about the tests, keep copies of any questions or score their grade-level tests. Several spoke of this as a lost opportunity to learn from the tests about student strengths and weaknesses and how those can be addressed going forward.
As a result of these state policies, fifth-grade teacher Bob Amirian, Chenango Valley TA, is slated to grade a third-grade test in a few weeks. "How am I supposed to be improving as a teacher?" he asked. "We give these tests and they (SED) rush them away... Where will this gap be made up? It's a system that seems to be in place for us to fail."
Amber Dennis, Hancock TA, said of the state's onerous "evidence-based" binder requirements: "My professionalism is being judged and my academic freedom is being taken away."
"Moving education into the realm of billionaires and corporations has got to stop," Iannuzzi noted. "We have to move it back into the hands of the parents and the practitioners."
Denise Lacey-Corcoran, Vestal Middle School instrument teacher, said: "I could go on and on about how ridiculous it is that my performance-based class has to take a paper-and -pencil test."
Speaking as a parent, she added that the state's obsession with testing means "parents are losing their rights. I hear so many concerns from parents that aren't being heard and they are scared."
Two BOCES educators spoke of their students with special needs and how devastating these grade level tests are and how inappropriate the tests are for measuring their students' progress.
Educational audiologist Bonnie Hulslander of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES said it was "devastating to watch the stress some of our kids were under." She spoke of children with hearing disabilities who are cognitively normal but language impaired. The state is testing them, she said,"with materials that makes this almost like a second language for them."
Laura Coleman, Broome-Tioga BOCES TA, an 8-1-1 specialed teacher, said "so much of my students' growth is their ability to function in the school, control anger, and demonstrate appropriate social skills.That has been totally lost in this (state testing) process."
Savanna Kucerak (pictured above) teaches English in the Homer schools. Because she loves literature as much as she loves teaching, she offered a poem to the "Tell It Like it Is" listening tour. Titled "I am a teacher, and I am tired," Kucerak articulated what has become every teacher's nightmare:
"Tired of grappling with the notion that I now have a job instead of a life or even a career.
Tired of disillusionment poisoning even the best of days.
Tired of telling my students that they will be heard if they support their arguments with evidence, yet knowing in my heart that that is a lie.
Tired of worrying about my own future children, who will either be numbers under this developing"educational" system or dealing with the wreckage of a failed, expensive national tragedy in which all the best teachers have either abandoned this sinking ship or remain on board as empty shells, whispered voices, gasping for air.
I am tired, but I am still here and there are many of me.
Join us. Say something. Do something.
Our collective future depends on it."
You can read the entire poem at http://blogs.nysut.org/blog/2013/04/17/i-am-a-teacher-and-i-am-tired/.
"To all of you, please don't leave this profession," Iannuzzi said. "We need all of you. If you want to scream and shout, come to Albany on June 8!"