A welcome back message from UFEA President Vickie Mahrt, delivered at the 2013 Opening Institute.
It is good to see everyone today. Some of us have been following each other on Facebook, so I know you have had a great summer reading good books, taking the kids to the pool, running and biking with friends, traveling to grandma’s, to Paris, to Disney World. And you know I had a hot time at the National Education Association convention in Atlanta, my husband and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary, and that I have achieved a stunning level 361 on Candy Crush Saga.
Here we are with 2 full days of professional development under our belts, and we are about as ready as we ever will be to welcome the students we care about to this brand spanking new school year.
We have been getting ready for them all summer, really. We have been taking classes, working on curriculum, learning new techniques and methods, collecting materials, and trolling Pinterest for ideas.
And why do we do all of this? Why do we spend our summer vacation getting ready for the next school year? Because we want to do the best we can for our students.
Because we care.
This summer I have spent a lot of time with our grandchildren. One of them is 4-year old Audrey. She is beautiful and smart, of course. She and I were talking one day, and I always try to include a little religious instruction, because I don’t think her parents take her to Sunday school enough. So I said, “You know, Audrey, God made you. He made you to have your strong arms and your fast legs and your pretty smile.”
Then she asked, “Meemaw, did God make you, too?”
“Yes,” I told her, “a long time ago. God made me, too.”
She peered at me and thought about that for a moment, like children do. And then she said, “Meemaw, I think He’s getting better.”
We’re all trying to get better, too – trying to find ways to help our students do better.
I wasn’t around when the Socratic Method was introduced in the 5th century BC, but I understand that in its time, it was considered to be the perfect way to teach. And it has certainly stood the test of time. I know people who still use it today.
But if Bob Dylan had been a teacher, his song would have been, “The methods, they are a’changin’.”
Diane Ravitch recently wrote, “American education has been littered with failed fads and foolish ideas for the past century.”
I have not been around quite 100 years, and I would not say they are all failed foolish fads, but in my time with the District, we’ve spent our energy, our hours and our dollars implementing Character Counts, 7 Habits, and TESSA, one after the other. At various times, we’ve embraced phonics, phonemic awareness, the whole word approach, or whole language. We’ve used inventive spelling, and Rebecca Sitton spelling. We’ve encouraged struggling readers to crawl, organized Literature Circles, taught Math Their Way. We’ve scheduled Sustained Silent Reading, built Learning Centers, arranged desks for Cooperative Groups. We’ve flipped our classrooms, and converted to digital. We Read Across the Curriculum, or we Write Across the Curriculum. Some years we Drop Everything and Read. We do Workshop.
Some years we believe firmly in grouping by ability. Some years we consider that undemocratic.
One year we struggle to assemble classroom sets of novels because the best way to teach literary concepts is for everyone to read the same story at the same time. The next year we allow each teacher only a handful of each title, because we want to make sure that students read texts that are carefully matched to interest and ability.
About the time we get the grade-appropriate high frequency spelling word lists laminated on every student’s desk, we are so over that … because the way to teach spelling is to use words from this week’s story in the basal reader.
For a while, we are to use nothing BUT the basal readers to teach language arts. By the time we learn our way around the massive teacher manual and sort through the crates of supplemental resource materials, someone decides that we must avoid using those basal readers altogether.
These days, in accordance with the latest thinking, we are aligning our curriculum with Common Core Standards. We are writing Type 2 and Type 3 assessments. We teach mini-lessons, group flexibly, confer with each student, take running records, post anchor charts and update data walls. We plan comprehension focus groups. We identify curriculum targets. We develop proficiency scales.
Some of us are more enthusiastic about one new method or technique, some of us prefer others. All of us try to stay open to getting better at what we do and how we do it – even though our experience has been that about the time we master a new way of teaching, we will be moving on to something else.
And after all of this, here’s what we know:
Some techniques are probably better than others. Some work better for some students than others. Techniques evolve and methods change. But good teaching is not about a specific technique or a particular method. Good teaching, and good teachers, transcend technique, method and fad.
Because there is one thing that is non-negotiable:
When we think about our favorite teachers, some of us recall a teacher who usually lectured, or one who mostly facilitated small group discussions. Some of us remember a quiet thinker. Others, an engaging performer.
But when we think about the teachers who made a difference in our lives, they are all teachers who cared – about their subject matter and about their students.
Good teachers are good teachers because they care. They care about what they teach. They care about how they teach. But, mostly, they care about who they teach.
Each one of you sitting here today is here because you care. We do what we do because we care. It is part of who we are.
A lot of us know Jan Meadows, a 35 year veteran of Unit 5, who taught special education and first grade her whole career. She didn’t win awards. She isn’t nationally board certified. But she is a good teacher. It was my privilege to work with her for several years at Hoose, and then again at Glenn. Over the years, she adopted new texts, new methods and new techniques regularly, as the district moved from one approach to another. Whatever materials and methods she used, her students succeeded, and some made amazing gains. And here is why: I watched her worry about, love, care for her students, particularly the ones who were hard to teach and hard to like – often because they came from struggling families. She bought them school supplies and Christmas presents and costumes for the Halloween parade. She taught them to tell jokes. She played chess with them at lunchtime. She wrote them letters when they moved away. Jan retired from our district in 2012, but she did not retire from caring about kids. She spent a big part of this past year working with the Back 2 School Alliance, making sure our neediest students come to school tomorrow with spiffy new backpacks and a complete set of new school supplies. Not only that, but the last few weeks she has been organizing her retired teacher friends to show up at KJHS tomorrow morning and be part of “100 Caring Adults” who will line the hallways and the gym in a show of support for students. She is a teacher. Jan always cared. She still does. She can’t stop.
And at the other end of the career spectrum, what about our own Derrick Schonauer, who last year, on his 12th day of teaching ever, found a way to protect a classroom full of students when one of them opened a backpack full of weapons, fired several shots into the ceiling, and threatened to do worse. How was he able to do that?
Here’s what fellow teacher Lynette Bixby said: “Mr. Schonauer showed this student that he really cared about him, right down to the minute he was disarmed.”
She continued, “As a teacher I know that there is way more to what we do than just showing up and teaching a good lesson. We care about them, we think about them, night and day.”
And we agree with Lynette about this: “I am thankful that Mr. Schonauer was there with my son on that day.”
In a recorded interview, Derrick said, “I’d rather be known as a great teacher instead of a hero.” Well, Derrick, you are both a hero and a great teacher.
What mattered most on that day, and what matters every day, is not so much the particular methods and techniques we include in our lesson plans, but that we are motivated and compelled by care and concern to do the best we can for our students. That is non-negotiable.
While Derrick’s story is uniquely dramatic, we are in the company of hundreds of great teachers here who are heroes to students and families all over McLean County.
There are thousands of us in Illinois. Millions across the US. We go to work every morning, thinking “How can I help my students succeed?” It is so common that it seems ordinary.
Every once in a while, something extraordinary happens that unmasks the hero teacher. This spring, Oklahoma teachers shielded students with their own bodies to protect them from a deadly tornado. In December, a teacher in Newtown spent her last moments finding hiding places for her students so they would be safe. In September, our own Derrick had the heart, the wits and the strength to prevent an unthinkable tragedy right here in Normal.
Most of us will never be called upon to put our lives on the line, but you demonstrate every day that a hero, a teacher, is a person who will do whatever it takes to help our students. You do it with dedication, courage and compassion.
You care. That is non-negotiable.
Because we care so much, in recent years, in addition to all we do in our schools and classrooms, we have had to get involved in politics. None of us decided to be teachers because we were interested in politics, but we’ve learned that if we don’t talk to our politicians about what really matters to students and teachers and schools, no one will.
So, because we care about our students and our profession, as a union, we speak up when there’s a movement that seems bent on destroying public schools, demonizing teachers and demanding that our children’s value be reduced to a standardized test score.
We push back against efforts to take away our pensions because we understand the value of a promise.
We fight for adequate and equitable funding for schools because we understand the value of a high quality public education for every child.
This fall, as a union, we are joining in the campaign for A Better Illinois – because we need a more accountable state government with the right priorities — cutting waste and mismanagement while protecting education and public services. You’ll be hearing more information about A Better Illinois campaign in the next few weeks.
Later this year, it will be time for us to bargain another contract, and we take that very seriously, because we know that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.
We have an experienced team of UFEA leaders who will help us stay informed about issues, and find ways to communicate our positions and concerns. There are Association Reps in every building – and many of them have already been in touch with you. We have our officers: Treasurer Dean Brown, Secretary Tracy Freeman, and Karl Goeke, our Vice President, as well as our executive committee, and our UniServ Director, Ben Matthews.
We hope you will take a moment to like the UFEA Facebook page so we can share information and updates with you there. You’ll want to check out our website (ufea.org) for all kinds of information like our contract, evaluation documents, and insurance plan. And I hope you will read my email messages and attend the 10-minute meetings in your building to stay informed and to give us feedback on the things that are important to you. As always, please do not hesitate to call or email me for help or information.
Because of my role, I have a unique opportunity to see the amazing work you do at every level, in every building, in every classroom across our district. I also know from very personal experience, what you have done for Abby and Betsy and Will Mahrt. They had wonderful teachers who cared about them enough to nurture their minds and their souls.
This is likely the last opportunity I will have to address all of you together, so I want to say this now, even though my retirement is 177 school days away (who’s counting?).
Because of who you are, because of the work you do, because of the way you care about students and education, it has been my joy and pleasure to hold this office. Since 1990 when I was first hired here, I have been proud to be a part of Unit 5, and to be a UFEA member. I loved all my years working along with you as a speech/language pathologist. But nothing has given me more satisfaction than serving as president of the Unit 5 Education Association, supporting your work and representing you at the district office, in Springfield, and even in Washington.
Thank you for giving me that opportunity.
Thank you for caring. About our profession. About your students. About my children.
Have a wonderful school year.
Book Drive Coming Soon!
Teachers, have you been doing some spring cleaning? Retiring? Need a place for all those books? The UFEA Book Bank is ready for your donations. The Unit Five Education Association has developed a resource for teachers to build their classroom libraries. The Book Bank will be opening its doors again this coming fall and we are collecting books now!
We need any and all gently loved books. Simply box them and label them UFEA Book Bank and put them where your UFEA building rep suggests. We will take care of getting the books over to the collection point. This is an on-going project, so feel free to donate books at any time – as long as they are designated to go to the book-drive.
Thank you for helping our Unit Five teachers put great literature into the hands of our students!
After some media confusion late last night, the winners in the Unit 5 School Board race are confirmed:
- Meta Mickens-Baker
- Todd Ferguson
- John Puzauskas
It is clear from the outcome, and from the vote totals, that UFEA members made a big difference in this election, even though we didn’t get all 3 of our recommended candidates elected. Here is what we know:
- The two candidates with the most votes were our candidates: Mickens-Baker (an incumbent) and Ferguson (a newcomer).
- The incumbent at the top of the ballot did not get the most votes. A lot of voters mark the first name on the ballot. A lot of voters vote for the incumbent. We convinced a lot of voters to skip the first 2 names and vote for our candidates.
- The difference between the number of votes for the incumbents is 961. Even though Puzauskas was first on the ballot, Mickens-Baker got 3886 votes and Puzauskas got 2925. UFEA membership is about 950. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
So if you wore your blue UFEA shirt, “Liked” UFEA on Facebook, liked and shared the Facebook posts, passed out postcards, made phone calls, talked to your neighbors – you made a big difference in this election.
People noticed our level of involvement, and that makes a difference, too. It shows we pay attention, and it shows we care.
And it shows we can work together. We will need to work together on other issues in the near future – and we can capitalize on the connections we have made during this campaign.
Again, than you for all you did to make this a successful campaign. The future of Unit 5 and the students we serve will be better for it. So will our organization.
Some of us are old enough to remember the Bat Out Of Hell album from 1977. I can’t get this song out of my mind today: