With fire in their eyes and conviction in their voices, educators turned out in full force for regional "Tell It Like It Is" town hall events with NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and Vice President Maria Neira in the North Country, Southern Tier and central New York.
Over and over, teachers thanked union leaders for listening and respecting their concerns, a sharp contrast to the State Education Department, which continues to defend high-stakes, standardized tests during its rocky rollout of new Common Core standards.
In Owego, eighth-grade teacher Nancy Simons of the Horseheads Teachers Association asked Neira to relay her question directly to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who defended moving forward with the new state tests by saying, "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?"
"ZERO!" Neira said. "Our percentage is zero! Zero percent of our kids should be allowed to sink!"
"It only took one kid who cried as I realized I am the last defense," said Copenhagen TA's Adam Staab, at the North Country meeting. "We are in charge of educating our kids for the 21st century, yet we're working with 20th-century thinking by the state."
"We torture our students with assessments that do not take into account learning styles," said Malone FT's Angela Spahr. "It's a free, appropriate public education we're supposed to be providing. This isn't appropriate."
The town-hall-style meetings in Owego and Syracuse took place during the week of grades 3-8 English language arts state assessments, so many comments centered around the unfairness of the tests and the toll they took on students.
The auditorium was silent during the account of a gifted student, described as an incredible thinker, who burst into tears at the words "pencils down" because she didn't have time to finish the last essay. Minutes later, she was still "walking down the hallway with tears streaming down her face. And she's 8."
Melissa Spierling, president of Maine-Endwell TA, who teaches sixth grade ELA, spoke for many who said the tests were too long and set students up for failure.
"I witnessed focused students, working hard, using reading and writing strategies they had been taught," she said. "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, the strongest students 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?"
Heather Hunter, Phoenix Central Schools TA, noted Common Core standards have potential, but the rush to test is unfair. She said her middle school students tried their hardest, and when it was all said and done they offered insightful comments.
"They said they feel like they are living a real life example of The Hunger Games," Hunter said, noting students told her they needed more time to read the passages, time to demonstrate their critical thinking. "They would willingly do cannonballs into the deep end ... but we can't be tying rocks to their feet."
A counselor and school psychologist shared concerns from parents about their children's anxiety. Pre-school teachers talked about the state's flawed emphasis on replacing developmentally appropriate play with testing and scripts; one teacher said that's why she retired this year from the profession she loves.
Many teachers spoke in voices laced with concern and outrage over state policies that disrespect teachers. Teachers are being directed not to talk about the tests and not to score their own grade levels. Several spoke of a lost opportunity to learn 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, slated to grade a third-grade test asked, "How am I supposed to be improving as a teacher? We give these tests and they (SED) rush them away ... It's a system that seems to be in place for us to fail."
"We are not and cannot become data-driven machines with quantitative results," said Chazy TA's Kathryn Brown. "We must maintain our ability to laugh, to play, to work, to challenge."
"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."
Neira said she believes parents are willing to join the effort. "It's impacting home life. The parents are saying, 'What's going on? My child doesn't want to go to school.'"
Rod Driscoll, Ausable Valley TA, said more public outreach to build community support is needed.
"When the average person hears about a third-grade kid sitting through nine hours of testing, they'll say this is crazy," Driscoll said. "They'll agree putting testing in the hands of private companies does not make sense for our kids. Their motivation is not kids, it's profit."
Angie Hargreaves, president of Port Byron TA, said excellent teachers are leaving the profession.
"Please don't leave this profession," Iannuzzi said. "We need all of you. If you want to scream and shout, come to Albany June 8!"
"June 8 is the beginning of our groundswell of action," said John Kuryla, president of the North Syracuse EA. "Our kids cannot continue to function in the environment State Ed is requiring."
Kevin Ahern, president of the Syracuse TA, pointed to a button on his lapel proclaiming that he would be in Albany June 8 to fight for the future of public education. "We are really looking for a tremendous turnout for this," Ahern said. "It's really time - I think you can all feel it - to turn up the heat."
Homer TA's Savanna Kucerak, pictured above, offered a poem called "I am a teacher, and I am tired." Here's an excerpt:
"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."
To read Kucerak's entire poem, go to http://blogs.nysut.org/blog/2013/04/17/i-am-a-teacher-and-i-am-tired/.
DO IT YOURSELF
Let Commissioner King and the Regents hear from you. Tell them how the state's obsession with standardized testing is narrowing the curriculum and shortchanging students! Tell them what's happening in your classroom .- and offer them solutions to get it right.
Go to www.nysut.org/tellit to fill out the online letter. Write as much or as little as you like and hit send. Your letter will be delivered to the commissioner and the Regents.
SAVE THE DATES
The next stops on NYSUT's Tell It Like It Is Listening Tour with President Dick Iannuzzi and Vice President Maria Neira are April 30 in Watertown and May 29 in Rochester.
Reserve your seat now! Contact the NYSUT regional office in your area if you would like to attend.