By Rebecca Bright
WASHINGTON — Educators and concerned citizens from across the country gathered on the White House Ellipse Saturday to urge national leaders to focus on education reform that provides a high-quality education for every student.
The culmination of a week of conferences, Saturday’s Save Our Schools March included speakers such as Jonathan Kozol, an educator and author, and actor and philanthropist Matt Damon — whose mother was a teacher — taking the stage to share their commitment to public education. Despite blazing heat, participants finished the event with a march around the White House.
NEA members bused, drove, flew, or took trains from every part of the country to show solidarity with fellow educators and declare their dedication to fully-funded, world-class education system for all students in the United States.
The youngest generation of teachers was well-represented Saturday in student leaders. NEA Student Program President Tommie Leaders exhorted the crowd of public education supporters to take concrete actions to make a difference.
“Now is the time to call, email, tweet, Facebook your member of Congress and tell them that what works in Washington does not always work in our classrooms,” said Leaders, who was introduced by NEA Vice-president Lily Eskelsen. “We cannot test, label and punish our way to a better public education. We need to work together to give all of our students the foundation and the resources they need to succeed.”
Fellow NEA Student Program major Heather Keith, an elementary education major at Indiana State University who serves as president of the Indiana Student Education Association. Keith felt that the march was a good opportunity for her, and the three other student leaders attending from ISU, to become active in their profession on a national level.
“It’s important that we stand together and unite to show everyone that public education is here to stay,” she said. “We all need to become involved as students, so that we’re informed and fired up early on, and start out being active in our profession.”
Patrick White, a Language Arts Education major at Hastings College in Hastings, Neb., and the president of the Student Education Association of Nebraska, echoed White’s passion for student involvement in the education profession. He hoped that student participation in the SOS March will make an impact on an older generation of educators.
“It sends the right message to parents and grandparents and mentors: you don’t have to worry about us so much anymore. We can handle our own futures,” he said. “If we show volunteerism and a drive to help others, then it takes a load off of the older generation.”
White believes that the most important message from the march is directed outside of the education community, however: education is important, so “stop cutting our funding.”
“It’s important that nationally, people know about what we’re doing as educators. I always try to spread the message that education doesn’t just affect students, teachers, and parents; even if you don’t have a kid in school, education affects us all,” he said. “If we don’t have students who are well educated, our economy can’t continue. Jobs that require a high level of education won’t be filled. I think people forget that sometimes.”
Although she lives across the country, Juliana Dauble, a fifth-grade teacher from Renton, Wash., didn’t hesitate to make the trip.
“It’s a rally that I don’t feel I could miss,” she said. “We have to make our voices heard because policymakers who aren’t involved in schools are making decisions that negatively impact our kids.”
Dauble is one of around twenty educators from Washington state who have come to the nation’s capital this weekend. Like Keith and White, she hopes the march will spread a message of strength and counter negative portrayals of teachers that have proliferated in the media this year. Beyond this political significance, Dauble believes the march brought a personal benefit, as well.
“Having teachers, support professionals, and other educators come together can be a type of therapeutic healing for us,” she said. “We’ve been taking so many hits in the public lately, and have been blamed for many ills, being physically present is a good way to realize that we do have the power we’ve forgotten we had.”
Many educators coming to the SOS March echoed Dauble’s concern for the way educators have been portrayed by media and politicians. Lee Dorman, a seventh-grade science teacher who has been teaching in Virginia schools for 40 years, is fed up with the way teachers have become a “big bad wolf” in the debate over education reform.
“Most of us are so unhappy about the publicity surrounding teaching profession in general, and teachers in specific. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been beaten over the head with a big bat,” she said. “I feel very strongly that the bashing educators have taken is unfair.”
The solution to pervasive negativity about teachers? Communication and solidarity within the education community, said Dorman.
“I think we need to bring publicity to the fact that schools do a wonderful job. Yes, there are problems, but we’re trying to address those,” she said. “We do wonderful work—look at all of the amazing women and men who teach, the custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, every single one is a part of the education system. We take strength from one another.”
View Leaders’ remarks:
Photo: Patrick G. Ryan/NEA