Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Letter to Oprah I Wish I Had Written

Note: This letter was written by Britton Gildersleeve of Oklahoma State University. I published it a few hours ago and it has already received quite a few comments--which makes me wish even more that I had written it. I have tried to give you a link to the article, but in the short time since I copied and pasted it into my blog, all the links have been blocked. I will give you a link to Ms. Gildersleeve's website that should work.  Moriah Untamed

Dear Oprah,

I teach. Given, I teach at university level, but I’ve been teaching for several years — about 20, to be exact. And I’ve seen the changes that No Child Left Behind — and your beloved testing — have made in my students. None of the changes are good: students want to be spoon-fed (they are in testing environments); students want to do only what will get them high grades. The list is long and sad.

I also direct a non-profit federally funded professional development grant for teachers, pre-k to university, the Oklahoma State University Writing Project. It’s the local site of the National Writing Project, an amazing partnership among research universities, classroom teachers, and schools. Not to mention the inclusion of parents and students. All of these voices are absent in the current national conversation.

Oprah, let me tell you about Oklahoma teachers and their classrooms. Many of my friends and colleagues at the high school level have more than 170-200 students in their classrooms. Do you think a student is worth 10 minutes a week from his/ her teacher? Outside of the classroom? Do you think a “good” teacher should spend that much time on weekly grading — 10 minutes a student? Please do the math: that would mean another 83+ hours weekly, Oprah — outside of classroom. IF each student receives 10 minutes of attention on his or her work outside the classroom.

“Don’t they have plan periods?” I hear people ask. No, many don’t. “Plan periods” went the way of smaller classrooms — there are too many school duties: hall monitors, cafeteria duty, mandated professional development that has nothing to do with the school’s demographics. And even if they did, that’s less than five hours weekly…

And yes, good teachers work a lot of outside hours. Unfortunately, in Oklahoma (where our average teacher salary ranks 47th in the country), many teachers need to take part-time jobs. Does this impact their teaching? Certainly. It also impacts the ability for a single mother of two or three children to put food on the table and pay the rent. Do you want teachers to spend more time on students? Lower classroom size — hire more teachers. And pay them competitive salaries — competitive with other career paths requiring a minimum of a bachelor?s degree. Even nurses (another under-rated career) make more than teachers do.

You don’t want teachers to have tenure? Then figure out a way that a principal in a small town (like, say, Skiatook, Okla.) will be unable to fire teachers s/he doesn’t like. Not because the teacher is ‘bad,’ but because the teacher attends the wrong church. Or maybe doesn’t attend church at all. Small towns — and big ones, as well — have politics, Oprah. And surprise: they affect every decision in a school, even to the detriment of teachers.

Tenure doesn’t keep bad teachers in the system — there are ways, as others have noted, to fire teachers. Your guest, Michele Rhee, notes that she fired hundreds. Many had tenure. And many probably weren’t bad teachers, unfortunately. Ms. Rhee, who once thought it was okay to tape students’ mouths shut?? She’s now in charge of evaluating schools? Let me tell you, Oprah, I teach pre-service teachers, in addition to my job directing a NWP site. Not ONE of my students would think that’s okay.

You can’t fire a doctor without just cause, Oprah — there’s a system. Is that ‘tenure’? Or trying to be sure that in this ostensible democracy, we have the right to confront our ‘accuser,’ and hear what is being said about us. Each year in Tulsa, Okla., new teachers don’t make the grade. Even in the third year of teaching, we let teachers who don’t work out go. Unfortunately, we lose an enormous number of teachers — good ones — who can’t deal with the incredibly complicated paperwork, the overtime demands, the lack of time to do what they went to school for: teach.

I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum. I wish one of your guests was a real teacher. John Legend? Really? Come on, Oprah, I don’t try to tell John Legend how to make music; he’s going to tell me about teaching? Or perhaps you’re stereotyping? Instead of John Legend, why don’t you have Pedro Noguera, who wrote a stunning book discussing the problems black males face in the system (The Trouble with Black Boys)? Or Mike Rose, who’s worked for decades with working class, side-lined students and schools of America? Or Diane Ravitch, who recanted her support of NCLB because it not only doesn’t work, it harms students?? And Race to the Top is simply an Obama-ised NCLB, I’m sorry to say.

Why don’t you, with your great forum for change, invite real classroom teachers to talk about what it’s like to teach homeless students with no resources (students or teachers)? Why don’t you ask my son, who recently graduated with a Master’s of Arts in teaching, what it’s like to teach students living in foster homes for drug abuse, rape — both victims and perpetrators — violence, assault? Why don’t you ask him how he struggles to be a “good” teacher? And wonders — daily — what that even means in the context where he finds himself?

If you want to change education, Oprah, don’t make the mistake everyone else has. Ask teachers. Would you have a conversation about the national state of medicine and health care without asking for the input of doctors, nurses and patients? And yet we have left parents, teachers and students completely out of this critical talk.

If you want real change, invite real teachers to your show, Oprah. The irony is that the conversation seems to valourise teachers, saying that “good” teachers can change things for kids. So can smaller classrooms, food, adequate resources, the freedom to teach according to a child’s needs. But then, that’s not what the “experts” are saying, is it? Unfortunately, the “experts” have no real experience with students. Or teaching. Or classrooms. They only know how to tell the teachers in the trenches what to do?

Wondering how in the world education came to this pass,

Britton Gildersleeve


Anonymous said...

I agree with every word you had to say. I would love to see a show where the teachers really get to speak about education. But why should they allow us to talk because we don't know anything. We are being slammed in all directions with little and no respect. We give more respect to our heroes who throw a ball. I am really angry and frustrated. I have been teaching for over 20 years but it's time for me to go because I am of no use anymore so they tell us!

Moriah Untamed said...

Unfortunately it wasn't me that said it. It was a University Professor at the University of Oklahoma. I tried to write something, but it came out too sarcastic and hateful.

Hang in there if you are still in school. Experienced teachers are needed even if the deformers won't admit it.

Mr. G. said...

Thank you for saying what needs to be said. I've only been teaching for 4 years (after 18 years in the corporate world) and I love it. I am saddened at the constant blame thrown teacher's way, when our education system is built on a complex series of relationships and interactions among teachers, students, administrators, families, communities, and politicians. I work long days and last year spent $1500 out of pocket to get my students needed supplies. The disparity between rural/island/poor suburban/and inner-city schools and their higher income suburban neighbors is disquieting. In addition, the charter schools often appear promising and get good results, but their turn over rate is high and they burn out new teachers - pushing them beyond what the public sector does (which is still bad). We are at a crossroads - in our efforts to achieve equality, we've lowered the expectation of excellence and ended up with mediocrity. I want to be a part of positive change, for my students, for my peers, and for my own well being. If only Oprah could have approached this topic in a manner allowed for an honest conversation.

Barb & Luke Pederson -- Portland, Oregon said...

Agreed. When the data shows that charter schools do not out perform public schools, why are we even having this discussion? I cry that America just takes in what is fed to them in the media without researching and finding out the facts. This study funded by gov't showed that only 17% of charter schools outperformed public schools. Where is that inofrmation in this debate?

Barbara said...

Agreed. When the data shows that charter schools do not out perform public schools, why are we even having this discussion? I cry that America just takes in what is fed to them in the media without researching and finding out the facts. This study funded by gov't showed that only 17% of charter schools outperformed public schools. Where is that inofrmation in this debate?

Monique said...

I second every word. I have been teaching for 12 years in the same school and district. My passion for teaching is slowly being drained from every fiber in my body. I love my job and I have always wanted to teach but the politics of it all and the blame game are very frustrating. I keep hearing about test scores, but my district cut 5 days off of the school year because of the California budget. Our students are getting 5 less days of valuable instruction. Our janitors have had their hours cut which means we don't get our classrooms swept or mopped unless we do it ourselves. What message is that sending to our students...we don't care enough to have clean classrooms? That may sound petty but it does have an impact. Not to mention all of the other serious family issues our students deal with on a daily basis. It is so unfair to create all of these "plans" to solve the problems without getting input from ALL involved. Trying not to sound like a "whiny" teacher, but I am getting quite frustrated and annnoyed.

Anonymous said...

I am not one to read articles like this...not because I don't agree, but because I feel that I'm living it every day and don't need to spend one more minute worrying about my career path. I just don't have the energy. I agree with all that was said. The media has recently (with the new movie "Waiting for Superman" hitting the theaters) seemed to embrace people who claim they understand teaching, what's wrong with our school systems, and what teachers should do differently, when sadly, they have never taught a day in a real school. Shame on the so-called experts who are so narcissistic that they can't even admit that they have no business telling the real experts (teachers in the trenches) what to do.

Moriah Untamed said...

I wish I could give you a link to the original article published by the NEA, but the google search links seem to have been blocked.


Moriah Untamed said...

Found a link that works. Hopefully it will keep on working. Shame on you, National Education Association--if it was you that blocked those links.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach said...

Moriah - I'm shocked that you think the NEA would not support a teacher talking about the harsh realities of the classroom. In fact, NEA sent out her letter to our members (2 million and counting!) this afternoon as part of a weekly email newsletter. We need more people to tell their stories - that's how we get lobbyists to understand and create laws that take our classrooms into account. NEA is at the forefront of supporting and protecting public school classrooms, and I appreciate all of our union members and others who tell their stories everyday to ilustrate the reality of public education.

Steve said...

It is a pity that Oprah has allowed herself to become so ill-advised and mislead. She has a valuable platform that could be used to really examine the issues, and shame a few people into actually doing something positive.

We have a Congress, at least half of which has a vested interest in not educating the population. Expecting them to commit a slow suicide by teaching such things as *critical thinking* is rather naive - it will not happen until more of the population are prepared to make it happen.

Here in Oklahoma we are currently facing a very well funded campaign designed for the single purpose of denying extra money for the State Schools, and we know from which side of the political spectrum that opposition is coming from. Even as I type this the ad is on TV.

Turkeys do not vote for Thanksgiving, and Republicans do not vote for better education. What they do is vote funds for more studies that they can use to blame teachers with.

A small example .... If the citizens were really taught to think, in which Universe would Christine O'Donnell be an acceptable candidate for the US Senate. How could any right minded person vote for someone who believes that *They* have created mice with fully formed human brains? We cannot even create young adults with fully formed human brains, and I believe that some of our leaders like it just that way.

If Congress is bad, then State Legislatures seem to just double down on that. I am disappointed that our President has chosen to put lipstick on the pig.

Your letter brought these issues to a sharp point, so thank you for that.

Now I go back to listening, daily, to the frustrations of my wife, when she comes home from her job as a High School Special Ed. teacher.

My wife thinks she teaches *special children*, not Special Ed. Few in the District appear to agree with her.

It's very, very sad.

Steve Bracken

Anonymous said...

As both a public school teacher,retired after 34 years, and now a college professor teaching science methods I applaud the open letter. This is exactly the problem. Politicians in order to make a name for themselves, like Chris Christy, get on a band wagon to make points with celebrities. They don't want to improve education they just want the notoriety of getting on an issue that will promote their own agendas. The only real way to improve education is to have an open forum for discussion with those of us who are directly involved in education...teachers,students, and parents.

Cynthia McCabe said...

I'm the editor of and we're currently experiencing server problems. Believe me, I'd love to have the link from Untamed Teacher working! I'll check back in and let you all know as soon as the site is available again. Thank you for your patience,
Cynthia McCabe

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Has anyone found a way to make parents accountable? The children need to come to school fed, clean, in appropriate clothing and free of electronics that might interfere with their attention to lessons. They need love from their parents, too. Some parents look at teachers and schools as day care. (If there is an emergency closing they are livid!) They need to value what they must learn.
Heaven help them.The parents and the childfren.

Anonymous said...

If the people who created the "Waiting for Superman" movie were truly interested in the state of education, they would keep no profits of the reality based movie. They should offer every dime of the profits to an educational foundation or scholarship funds. It's a shame they will make millions, Oprah has ensured it by hosting it on her show. I'm a huge Oprah fan, but she's got it all wrong.

Moriah Untamed said...

I am very glad and find it very reassuring that NEA did not have second thoughts about publishing this letter on line.

I have had too much experience with people diving for cover as soon as things got a little too hot for comfort. It has made me a tad bit suspicious. But I wasn't the only one who was wondering what had happened. Thanks for clarifying.

Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful and thought provoking letter. As a school nurse who is considered a teacher here in NJ, I see and agree with many of the situations described in this letter. Part of my job as a school nurse is to bridge the gap between home, school and community to help students be successful in the classroom with the whole person; mind body and soul. I deal with children that come from fractured families where parents are too busy blaming each other than working together to help their student, children coming to school hungry and worried what will they eat when they go home ? Children that have no home to go to. Children with complex medical concerns that need adaptations to be successful in the class, to feel accepted. You get the picture. Nj is fortunate that schools have Certified School Nurses. But we too are considered teachers, and on the same pay scale. How in the world are we to be judged if merit pay comes to being ? I too say Oprah, wake up, get teachers that work in the schools, see everyday what works.

Unknown said...

I've been a teacher for almost thirty years. Oprah looked at a terrible situation which is being exploited by our beloved governor and she bought the fiction... hook, line, and sinker. The stories told in that video are indeed heartbreaking, but they are not the entire story. Of course we need to address the abject poverty and formidable educational obstacles which exist in our inner cities. However, scapegoating the educators is not the way to address those problems. Corey Booker was right when he said that we all need to come together to help our students succeed. But to see Oprah hug Governor Christie, thus giving him the Oprah seal of approval, was beyond disheartening. He compared my children s mother and father to drug dealers. He refers to us as thugs. Oprah gave him credibility while not asking for input from the people who actually work with students. As has often been said, you wouldn't ask a plumber to diagnose your illness, you wouldn't ask a doctor to represent you when accused of a crime, and you wouldn't ask a lawyer to fix your leaky pipes. Yet everyone knows what is wrong with eduction and has an expert opinion on how to fix those problems. I'd say that I'd love to see Oprah do a show where teachers were given the opportunity to discuss reality but in all honesty I am so disappointed in her that I will probably never watch the show again. If it does happen, it would be nice to see actual classroom teachers talk, not whine, about the challenges they face and offer suggestions. But that isn't as sexy as Waiting for Superman so it isn't very likely to happen.

Chaz said...

She could have added, nepotism, cronyism,ageism, and salary as conditions of employment if tenure was eliminated.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher I am enraged and disenchanted with the state of education in out country. We are being attacked unfairly by people who don't have a clue as to what we go through on a daily basis. As a special needs teacher in Newark NJ, I am frustrated and insulted by certain events that have occured. This Oprah show that everyone keeps discussing is/was nothing more than a political move on the behalf of Booker, Chrisie, Rhee and even Oprah. For Zuckerman it was a way to save face. He got slammed in that movie and he needed to up his popularity before his true colors came out. Oprah is a huge backer for Booker (Newark's current mayor) his popularity dropped drastically and then he lost the demcratic nominee for NJ governorship....Oprah's golden boy needed a lift and this was just the way to do it. She believes he could be the next Obama and she wasn't going to allow someone she so openly supported fail so horribly. How would that make her look? Then this Booker Christie relationship is all for gain. Chrisie gets Booker to help him take down our union and Booker gets political support from Christie. Heck, Christie almost made him the superintendent, since Janey isn't anything more than a figure head at this point, but it's completely unethical and in not allowed by state law. Christie wants Rhee for Newark and Rhee thinks she can come and "fix" Newark. Imagine how that would look on a resume. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix in Newark. As my fellow teachers know IT TAKES A VILLAGE AND A VILLAGE INCLUDES FUNCTIONING PARENTS! Don't get me wrong, I have met and worked with some amazing parents but they are few and far between. Even if they are good parents they always have the resources to support their kids the way they need to.

I'm sorry I rambled but I needed to vent. I am so tired of the political nonsense. In the end these are children, they have no control or say so. They are also our future, we need to be given the opportunity to teach them at their level and to their learning style. We went to school, we learned a craft and have spent years developing it. Give us the ability to use our knowledge and our talent. If we are given that ability along with ALL of the resourses and support we need, we will not only have students who can pass a test but we will be molding WELL rounded, WELL educated individuals.

N. Coyle said...

I am in complete agreement with Ms. Gildersleeve's letter. As a retired teacher of more that 25 years, it would thrill me to hear teachers discuss the sad issues embroiled in the country's education system. I do not feel as though my career was useless! I loved my job and worked hard at it for the success of my students as they are the future of this nation. A forum like the Oprah Show, with TEACHERS holding the discussion and presenting facts, not political lies by those who are not informed, would be a very honest and informative show from which progress could be made!

Vanessa said...

Bravo! What a wonderful letter! Thank you for reminding me why I teach. Oprah wouldn't last a day in my classroom. Shame on her!!!!

Anonymous said...

Teaching is the easist job in the world until you actually do it. These people have no clue how hard teachers in all walks of classrooms work.

Cynthia McCabe said...

We appear to be up and running again. You can find the story at
Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

We need to concentrate on educating the public about the need for more funding to decrease class size, vastly increase teacher's salaries, provide more support staff, and allow time for teachers to improve their skills. All very expensive, but the public needs to know that unless we want to stay the 11 or 12th nation in the world in our students achievement we must give educating all children a higher priority.

I wonder if some of the responders even had time to see the film Waiting for Superman. They protest what the movie is fostering. Higher teacher pay, time to improve skills, small class size, and I would add much more support staff so teachers aren't spending their time monitoring lunch, playground, and halls, duplicating materials, and dealing with out
of control children that make teaching impossible.

My daughter teaches in a Texas school where she
spends 10 to 12 hours a day, then plans, writes reports, and grades papers at night and week ends.
She makes $45,000 a year with a Mt Holyoke degree
and a year at Oxford. She has 2 sons on scholarship in college, and a "special" child at home. She is a widow so she has no help and fights exhaustion.

I understand why teachers are threatened by being judged by the learning outcome of their students.
So many of them are trapped in terrible situations
in which it's impossible to do what they are capable of achieving with students.

Moriah Untamed said...

No, Anon 5:29 we teachers are not protesting "higher teacher pay, time to improve skills, small class size, and more support staff". We are protesting the fact that no one has asked us, well educated experts that we are, about how we think education in this country can be improved. We are protesting because we are being blamed for things over which we have no control --what goes on in the child's life when he is not in school. We are protesting because people who have no experience at all as teachers are treating us like incalcitrant children who need to be taught to teach "the right way". We are protesting because we are beginning to understand that this is not about children, but about money. Billions of dollars taken out of our paychecks will be funneled into charter schools that we will not be able to control through our elected officials. We are protesting the end of a proud, democratic, American public education system.

marv sherrill said...

Britton - how about your college and the local schools sponsor a letter write in campaign to get you on the oprah show for a rebuttle - I saw that show and was apalled- educators across the nation will support you - I'll volunteer togo with you - I taught High School Science for 35 years and have a few things to say about "no child left behind which caused the dumbing down of all schoolsthat were exemplary.

SLPLanguageMusic said...

I appreciate this letter so much – and I’m not even a classroom teacher… Well – not anymore.

Back in 2000, I was in the corporate world, until I decided I wanted to have a career that was more “meaningful” and “soulful” than the daily 9-5:30 grind. At the time, the New York City Board of Education (now referred to as the “Department” of Education) was hiring those who were not uncertified and inexperienced (which included myself), as long as we committed to fulfilling a master’s program toward a teaching degree. The requirements were determined by an evaluation of our undergraduate transcript; those areas in which we were deficient had to be compensated for during our graduate coursework. I had always wanted to work with language (English and/or foreign) and do something of the “nurturing” and “helpful” nature, so I opted to teach an ESL summer program (which was designed to prepare immigrant children with English for the upcoming school-year), after which I taught high school Spanish, and then Spanish in an alternative elementary school Pre-K through 7th grade.


Fortunately, I channeled my passions toward a master’s in speech and hearing currently I have a thriving career as a speech-language pathologist. I work as an independent contractor, practicing speech-language therapy in different schools and houses. I wish them the best of luck…

SLPLanguageMusic said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Moriah Untamed said...

Thank you for your comment and good wishes, SLP, if you don't see your comment immediately it is because I must approve comments before they are posted, and sometimes I am not around to approve them.

I started doing this when I found pornographic spam sneaking into ancient posts.

Mr. G. said...

SLP - thank you for your response. Like you, I, too, left the corporate world for education. I don't regret the choice at all, but I agree that until you do the job, you have no clue what it really takes. The emotional, intellectual, physical, and monetary investment are really unknown to the public at large.

Charter schools are getting a great deal of attention lately as the life savers. Many do reflect some missing components in public education, but they are rife with their own problems, including overworking and burning out teachers. They paint themselves as one thing, but the reality is often something else. They do maintain a certain structure and expectation for student behavior and outcomes - which is positive, but often at the cost of the teacher's well being (exhaustion, lack of family/partner time, etc.). Simply put, there are no quick fixes to our system without addressing numerous social issues.

anneke marvin said...

I, like many on this blog, just finished my Master's of Education in California, where the education system is poised at the top of a precipice. We are at the threshold of a gubanatorial race with two less-than-great candidates to choose from. We are under-funded, over-regulated, and victims of federal mandates that have no idea how quickly the demographic changes from town to town. We just let hundreds of thousands of teachers go last year, and had a teacher in the LA Unified school district commit suicide, caused in part because of an LA Times "Rating" system that rated him as "not effective." In a word, it's a MESS!

This professor managed to summarize in a fairly succint way what is wrong with education in this country. I would like to add that Oprah's noble, yet misguided statement that all children should go to college needs to be addressed. Almost every other developed nation in this world has a system where students may choose an academic route or a technical route when they reach a certain age. Yet in this country, we force children to conform to the academic route, no matter where their gifts or talents may lie. We pay lip service to Gardener's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, while we doggedly pursue a college education for all. What Oprah, and many others don't realize is that we need to value ALL students' unique skills and contributions and give them the tools to develop those skills. After all, where would we be without plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, etc.? We would never force an individual who is gifted in chemistry to wire a house, yet we force students who are "wired" for more kinesthetic jobs to be good in a purely academic context.

I too apologize for rambling a bit, but as a future educator, I am not hopeful that I will be able to make a difference, not because of the children, but because the beauracracy has made it nearly impossible.

Anonymous said...

None of those people care about education at all! This whole assault on education is purely about political gain and money! The number one offenders being the hedge fund crowd who unfortunately have been able to buy off even democratic politicians with their campaign donations. How pathetic!! Even our own friends and neighbors who complain about education are really talking about taxes. Even when I wasn't an educator, I always said, "Who could be more important than a teacher?" A lawyer, doctor, or even the President could not be where they are today without teachers having taught them!! We shape all children's futures!! We accept them however they come to us, we nurture them, help them grow educationally and socially and never give up on them no matter how difficult the situation is! How about a little respect for a change America?
The real problem is that the politicians have been trying desperately to make it look like public education is failing with all of their tests and underhanded scoring methods instead of figuring out the real problems and addressing them. WHY??? Money and political gain! Unfortunately for them, they never counted on the fact that they can't make teachers fail because we are the ones who actually do care!! We will never give up on children and we will always fight to preserve and better our public education system because it is for all students not just the ones the charter schools select for their own purposes!! I seriously doubt that there is anyone out there that can honestly say that they can't think of at least one if not many teachers that had a positive influence on them so lets get real about this situation and stop the game playing?