In December 2013, Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss asked local teachers to respond to her simple question, “How hard is teaching?” She received many responses, and then published a lengthy email from a Frederick County teacher on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2014.
Urbana teachers and friends quickly recognized the writing style, and, within two months, many people learned that the letter was written by Urbana Middle School seventh grade language arts teacher, Katie Ware.
“It is with a heavy, frustrated heart that I announce the end of my personal career in education, disappointed and resigned because I believe in learning. I worked hard to earn the title of ‘classroom teacher,’ but I became quickly disillusioned when my title of teacher did not in any way reflect my actual job,” Ware wrote in her letter. “I realized that I am not permitted to really teach students anything. I was called to drag them through shallow activities that measured meaningless but ‘measurable’ objectives.”
A 2006 graduate of Catoctin High School, Ware said she grew up loving education and positive she would become a teacher. After three years in the trenches at Urbana Middle School, however, Ware has decided to leave, frustrated by what she calls a broken educational system. Ware made clear she is not picking on Frederick County Public Schools, but expressing a common frustration among teachers on the demands on both teachers and students and the ineffective and unrealistic expectations of the school bureaucracy.
Ware joins a national movement of teachers protesting an educational system they say is increasingly over-dependent on standardized testing (and the for-profit companies that produce the tests), and resistant to more creative paths to deeper learning. While school reformers insist on increased accountability through testing – putting the responsibility for a child’s learning entirely on the teacher and even tying a teacher’s evaluations to student performance – teachers themselves point out that factors outside the classroom, such a learning disabilities, immigrant status, crowded classrooms, underfunded public schools and unstable home lives also influence student performance.
Ware’s letter quotes another teacher, Kris Nielson, who resigned from a North Carolina school district in 2012: “I will not spend another day under the expectations that I prepare every student for the increasing numbers of meaningless tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit…. It is counter-productive to watch my students slouch under the weight of a system that expects them to perform well on tests that do not measure their true abilities, only memorization and application, and therefore do not measure their readiness for the next grade level — much less life, career, or college.”
Ware is so frustrated she has given up the fight: she said she will miss her students terribly but is not made for being in the line of fire. “I was ready at a moment’s notice to throw myself in front of a gun for my students — a sad reality these days — but it was increasingly hard to take the barrage of misplaced bullets, metaphorically speaking, that shot me down every day.”
One of Ware’s most bitter complaints, detailed in her letter, is about grade inflation: Parents and administrators refused to accept the Ds and Fs she assigned to students who she felt were not earning higher grades. “I ended up assigning stupid assignments for large amounts of credit, ones I knew I could get students to do,” she wrote. “I am paid to give out gold stars to everyone so that no one feels left out, to give everyone an A because they feel sad if they don’t have one.”
Ware said her letter spread like wildfire to other educators across the country, and she has received mostly support and encouragement, plus appreciation for speaking up for teachers.
Urbana Middle School Principal Michelle Concepcion declined comment after a number of attempts to speak with her. FCPS Superintendant Theresa Alban briefly commented on Ware’s letter: “It would also be inappropriate for Mrs.Concepcion or I to make any comment about a teacher’s performance since personnel records are confidential,” Alban said, referring readers to FCPS Web site for educational guidelines.
Many parents of Ware’s students have been very supportive. Local resident Beth Harbison said her son, Jack, took Ware’s class more than a year ago; he considers Ware his favorite teacher. “I am sorry and very sad, that this great teacher is leaving our system,” Harbison said, adding that she could have positively influenced many lives.
“The future of our community and our world depends on who this generation grows up to be,” Harbison said. “Do the parents who are stamping their feet and crying, ‘I want an A for my child now,’ know that they are encouraging a generation of entitled non-thinkers who will eventually be in charge of their social security?”
“Teaching is a calling, something people are willing to devote their lives to, but a calling may only last a few years, given the current conditions,” Ware said. “As much as you’d like a teacher to serve you up an A, and they will do their damnedest, the majority should really be up to the student.”
The entire letter can be read on the Washington Post website, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet under a search for, “I would love to teach, but.”