Archive Page 3

Our Schools are Underfunded Because Our Cities are Voluntarily Impoverished

download (50).jpgBy Nick McDaniels – Teachers and teacher salaries are often the scapegoat for school systems not having any money.  To be sure, staff salaries and benefits are a major expense in big urban school districts. And big urban school districts struggle with funding because the cities in which they are situated struggle to generate revenue for schools, which are often based on property taxes.  When teachers want a raise, more resources, or better working conditions, school systems and their defenders can cry poverty and blame the teachers for trying to break an already broke system.  How convenient!

The story that is not told is that many of our cities, which could be giving more money to their school districts to provide better wages, more resources, and better working conditions, squander millions and millions of dollars in annual tax revenue every year to tax breaks for developers.  These developers, armed with the promises of jobs and redevelopment and dreams of conquering America’s urban frontier, enjoy years and years of tax-incentives, but often never deliver on the promises of jobs but rather on the hidden promise of gentrification. In the meantime, schools that could have used the revenue continue to struggle.

It’s hard to blame the developers for taking the hand out.  But, in my mind, it’s even harder to blame the teachers, many of whom do pay property taxes in the jurisdictions where they teach (as I do), for asking for increase wages, more resources, and better working conditions.  So who do we blame?

The corrupt city officials continue to underfund schools so as to provide financial incentives to the developers who donated heavily to their campaigns.  Voluntary impoverishment is never an adequate defense for not paying the bills.  So why do we continue to let cities who do not appropriately fund schools defend themselves; or worse, why do we defend them for passing the blame?

A Modern Day Loaves and Fishes Story

DSCF1340.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – I wrote a few months back about a project we have begun in our small rural elementary school called The In-Out Pantry. We recognized that students who receive breakfast and lunch daily at school may face an empty table at home on the weekend. The working families among us cannot always visit the food pantry in town, which is only open during weekday daytime hours. We are privileged to work with students and families who have a true desire to help others. The leadership curriculum includes public service. Add these components together and the In-Out Pantry was born.

We started by piggybacking with our annual fundraiser for the local food pantry called Super Arts Night. The former food service director of our school district and his family provide delicious all-you-can eat soups and the kids provide the entertainment in performing and visual arts. This year we added a collection to stock our own school-based pantry with items to provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches on the weekend. The pantry has taken up residence under the main staircase in our building’s entrance where it is on clear view for all visitors and residents of our building. The guidance program created a lovely piece of artwork that now hangs above the table. Its chrysanthemum-like bloom is created with the tracings of our students’ “helping hands.”

Since its beginnings, there has never been a time when the table is empty. When I notice something is in short supply and add it to my shopping list, it invariably turns up on the table, and in great abundance. Donations are not a single can of soup, but a case. There is not a single box of cereal, but a half-dozen there in the morning. Our building secretary has informed me that when substitute teachers report for work in the morning, some of them have begun bringing items for the pantry. Kindness and generosity appear to be contagious. No donor ever leaves a name, but some do leave a note. Coffee for moms and dads has appeared with a smiley face sticker. Birthday cake mix, frosting and festive decorations surfaced the other day. People regularly check to see what is in short supply and as soon as a need is noted, it is filled.

One other thing that has grown is the pride that the participating kids have in dropping off the empty backpacks early in the week and taking them home filled to their families on Fridays. They get the sense that they are helping their families by their conscientious participation. Some have even started to ask for the specific things they see on the table because a family member really enjoys them. I keep a supply of items in my classroom for reading students to earn as incentives rather than stickers or other trinkets. This puts students who would normally be pantry participants in a position to be pantry donors and they are proud to do so.

In addition to food items, we include books at appropriate reading levels for participant families’ children. We received a very generous donation of books from a retired teacher who lives in our community.  She offered us a wealth of great reads for 3rd   through 5th grade students. This left a dearth of materials for our younger students. Again, the loaves and fishes miracle occurred. The Whitewater LEADS organization offered the leftover donations from our community Literacy Night to be donated in these weekly care packages. The majority of those books are for early readers.

It is always reported that the meal that is shared tastes much better than the one eaten alone.  Stone soup, pot lucks, and community meals are successful not just because of what we give, but because of what we get as well. Our food pantry allows us to share in meals that we will taste only through the smiles of those who benefit from our community’s care for others.

The loaves and fishes process extends far beyond this program. Teacher requests via e-mail in the morning – for a specific book title, baking soda for a science demonstration, or saline solution for a troublesome contact lens are almost always filled by our first recess break. We cover recess duties and classrooms when family emergencies require staff to leave early to attend to matters at home. We have come to the aid of those who have experienced personal loss or disaster through weather or fire in our community. We console, support, and replace what we can, and help mourn what we cannot.  Hopefully we will never forget what a miracle this is.

As I face retirement next year, I am struggling to let go of the supplies I keep on hand to be “that person” who will have what you need. Blue tagboard for a friend of my son working on a school project, a snack for a child who has none, the materials needed to enrich a lesson. I have been reluctant to part with anything that I think someone might need to ask me for. My loaves and fishes experiences this year have taught me that there is abundance all around, that I live and work in a community that cares and will provide what is needed, and that is an everyday miracle that we can all rejoice in.

Are Teachers Real People? Life Inside and Outside the Classroom

By Claudia Felske – The age old question persists: Are teachers real people?

I remember one morning in high school when Mr. Yach’s wife stopped in to drop off his V8 during Freshman English. I was amazed that he had a wife and that he drank V8! I was dizzy with this insider info: It felt like Teacher TMZ.  

Another oft’ repeated story in my family is when one of my sisters saw our kindergarten teacher…wait for it…wait for it…smoking a cigarette!


She was not on school property, she was not at a school event, and it was years after we’d had her as a teacher, but none of that made the bite any less venomous. Mrs. Hintzman was smoking a cigarette! Our blood ran cold, our memories had just been sold. It was at least as bad as J. Geiles discovering the fate of his childhood girlfriend.

And so, becoming a teacher, I was well aware of the importance of reputation and the odd fascination that can surround teachers’ personal lives.  

Case in point: I am a resident of the small community in which I teach. So although I’ve lived here almost 20 years, I’ve never stepped foot into the legendary annual ETBT (East Troy Beer Tent) because…I’m a resident of the small town in which I teach.

Those types of decisions are no brainers.

The harder ones involve things that matter more – my beliefs, my opinions, my values.

In my younger years, this was not a problem. I grew up in a family that had dinner-table debates, intense ones which often included the use of dictionaries and encyclopedias and occasionally featured my dad’s fist hitting the table, spilling our glasses of milk.  We were raised to speak our minds and to back up our opinions.

High school and college provided similar opportunities. As an editorial writer for The Mustang Express and The Marquette Tribune, I became accustomed to using the written word to speak my peace and to challenge conventional thinking.

Public education, though, is a slightly more complicated arena.   

One of my first years teaching, our local library referendum was overwhelmingly defeated on the same day the US Congress allocated billions of additional funding for the war in Iraq (Part I, that is). My hot little fingers (mimicking my hot little temper) pounded out a letter to the editor singing the injustice of it all.

Version 1 was no holds bar. Then, I had my husband–Mike Felske a.k.a. My Filter–read it and help me tone it down, making my liberalness a tad less flaming. Then, and only then–or so I thought–did I send it off to the East Troy Times.

Not until one of my students, jubilantly quoting me, entered my classroom the next week (one who would regularly don a homemade T-shirt reading “Books Not Bombs!”) did I realize it was the pre-edited version of my letter that had somehow made it to the paper.  A deep crimson crawled down my face as I realized my untamed message was now community-wide.

Backlash included a few weeks of ugly gazes (some legit, others just my paranoia, I’m sure) at the grocery store and post office. Soon enough, though, things were back to normal but with a slightly more savvy me.

But back to our question: Are teachers real people? Or, less hyperbolically, as a public school teacher, to what extent can I be true to myself and my beliefs in and outside the classroom?


Enter another teacher story (surprise, surprise). After high school, I learned that one of my favorite teachers held political views diametrically opposed to mine. This surprised me for two reasons: 1) I never would have guessed that she held those particular views  2) Though she taught me history for two years, those views had never surfaced in her classroom.

The lesson I gleaned from all of this was the importance of keeping one’s personal views out of the classroom. I learned so effectively from Mrs. Rice because she didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. She never risked alienating her students by telling them her views. Teaching them to think for themselves is what was most important.

And so, it has always been my position to keep my political views out of my classroom. Yes, we talk about controversial issues in debate and persuasive writing, in our discussions of nonfiction and fiction alike, but I don’t state my opinions; rather I ask questions, I nudge, I play both pro and con. My mission is to get my students to think, to weigh, to investigate, to support.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but we still haven’t answered the question: Can teachers be authentic and “real” people, true to themselves? I am a teacher, but I am also a citizen, a voter, a human being. Just because I don’t express my opinions in my classroom doesn’t mean they’re not important to me. The 10 year old at my parents’ dinner table still dwells within. The editorial writer in me still has a row of sharpened pencils on her desk.   

As a public school teacher and an opinionated human being, here’s my imperfect solution:


  • Tell students who I’m voting for
  • Keep one shred of political affiliation on my body or in my classroom
  • Take sides on political issues in class


  • Write a monthly blog expressing my views on educational issues
  • Put bumper stickers on my car when I feel the urge
  • Attend protests when I am so inclined
  • Speak when interviewed (as a private citizen, not as a public school teacher)

Though these do’s and don’ts delineate between my public and private spheres, they don’t come without soul searching. Not being 100% myself in the classroom means not being fully authentic while (here comes the hypocrisy) trying todownload help my students become their fully authentic selves.

Like anything that matters, it’s cloudy, imperfect, and complicated.

A year ago, my do and don’t lists were further tested when I wrote an Open Letter to Governor Walker.  What I thought was a routine blogpost on educational issues turned into a public declaration of my political views to the nation. My blogpost went viral (I’m used to a readership of about 30, not 300,000). This was, to say the least, new territory for me.

I don’t regret the letter; I’m proud of the attention it received and the conversations it engendered.  

There were SO many lessons it taught me as a writer and as a teacher of writing: the power of words, the intricacies and speed of social media, the “new” layered world the internet, social media, politics and news, the interconnected web of bloggers, vloggers, and online newsmakers. There were so many practical and ethical facets to that experience. When I stop to think about it, my mind is still reeling.

But here’s the weirdest part: All of those lessons—authentic, real-life, unscripted, powerful lessons about the written word—will never make it into my classroom.

Bringing those “lessons” into my classroom would be crossing the “don’t” line: it would be bringing my politics into my classroom; it would be taking a side; teaching the “what” instead of the “how.” It would be violating the Mrs. Rice Rule.

And so, the whole ordeal will remain The Best Lesson I Can Never Teach.

Meanwhile, both sides of me–the conscientious teacher and the opinionated citizen, though not in complete unity–will coexist imperfectly.

Not Fooled by the Chicago Teachers Union

By Bill Waychunas – It’s not that I’m anti-Union, I’m just against unreasonable people that take advantage of political situations. Trying to fool people into thinking that you’re fighting on behalf of kids when it’s really your own interests at the forefront, frankly, makes me sick.

On April Fool’s Day, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) held a one-day strike, or walk-out as they’re calling it, to protest “unfair labor practices” at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). What I find unfair about CTU’s protest is their lack of consideration for CPS’s current situation and their actions’ negative impact on the teaching profession’s public perception.

The Chicago Public School district is so short of money that they have taken out massive loans and laid-off thousands of teachers and staff already this year. They’ve even announced that teachers will have to take unpaid furlough days to help make ends meet. This isn’t a new thing either; CPS hasn’t been able to make a payment to the teachers’ pension program in years.

This is all amid a state budget holdout that’s been going on for almost a year and extraordinary pension related debt in Chicago which led to a doubling of property taxes last year and general financial problems in the city.

Don’t get me wrong, the importance of education should cause people to rise up and demand better from their legislators and local leaders. Kids deserve to go to well-funded schools. And if this is what CTU is actually protesting about, then I’m all for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t really their end-goal.

The CTU and their leader, Karen Lewis, have had some very public battles with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stemming from the teacher’s strike over the summer of 2012, where teachers and the mayor duked it out over teacher evaluations, salary, insurance benefits, and extending the school day and year. Both sides came out of the strike claiming some victories, but the real result was the creation of a political rivalry which is getting in the way of the city and state from finding real solutions to the very real financial problems.

Fast forwarding to the mayor’s race of 2015, and the only thing which prevented Karen Lewis from running against Rahm Emanuel was a bout with brain cancer. Instead, the CTU did the next best thing and anointed a hand-picked candidate for mayor, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and pumped in record amounts of cash into local elections for alderman and state representatives.

With the election of anti-Union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in 2014, who is generally a moderate, the CTU have continuously criticized and demanded more from a state and city that are in financial ruin.

This brings us back to the walk-out or strike on April Fool’s Day. What were CTU members really striking about? Money? I’m not sure how their strike could make money appear out of nowhere from a state and city that are frighteningly broke, leaving the CTU looking like a bunch of childish whiners. Their continuous demands are even hurting the teaching professions image, by making CPS teachers seem unrealistic, greedy, and ignorant. Far from acting like the respectable and reasonable professionals which teachers constantly profess to become, they’re acting immaturely by making a thinly-veiled political move for their own personal benefits.

Knowing that there is actually no money currently available that is going to change the situation faced by the district, city, and state, the CTU concocted this event to further crystalize their political image as the anti-Rahm and anti-Rauner brand. This is a move to entrench their political strength with hopes to leverage it in future elections and their on-going contract negotiations with the city. This was not about children or education. It is about adults taking advantage of a political situation, at the expense of children, while offering no real solution or willingness to face financial realities like grown-ups or professionals.

The irony will be if the CTU does win this political battle, then is forced to see their own unreasonableness and deal with the financial woes in ways which they would have previously howled and complained about. With the current politics of the CTU, I hope that day never comes.

Maybe their plan will work and they fooled everybody with their April Fool’s Day strike, but Karen Lewis, you’re not fooling me.

I Applied to TFA…and Got Rejected

Teach-For-America-Logo.pngBy Amanda Szramiak – I know what you’re thinking. I’m writing for the Marquette University Educator Blog, and I applied for Teach for America. I’m a disgrace. A teacher failure. Before you make your judgments, let me explain my thought process.

I too, struggle with Teach for America as an organization. A program that allows anyone to be the teacher in a classroom? I don’t think so. I’ve spent the past five years preparing to be an effective educator. My coursework coupled with over two hundred hours in an actual classroom have prepared me to successfully teach…or so I thought.

During my inquiry in contemporary issues course last semester, we had to research a topic in education and write an op-ed about our opinion of the topic. I decided I would research Teach for America because I felt so passionately about it being an insult to teachers. I thought this would be an easy topic to research and discuss because I knew I was against it. Well, my research and a few conversations with a fellow MU education student made me rethink my adamant opinions.

A dear friend and colleague of mine (who attends Marquette and is currently student teaching) applied and received a Teach for America position last semester. We were having a conversation about our research topics, and I told her all about my woes with Teach for America. Ironically, she told me she just accepted a position with them. Embarrassed of voicing my opinions thinking hers, as a fellow educator, would be the same, I asked her why she decided to join TFA when she could more than likely get any job teaching without the organization. She explained the struggles she faced when applying for TFA, which resembled mine. We discussed her TFA plans, and once I heard them, I knew it was going to be hard to be so against the program like I once was.

Like all research, you learn a lot. Once my research was done and I had to write my op-ed about the program, I was stuck. While I don’t agree with the fact that a TFA teacher receives six weeks of training, there were some aspects that were appealing to me. I could teach full time while simultaneously getting my master’s degree. Their core values of closing the achievement gap by providing educational equality completely align with my opinions on education. Not all those applying to TFA have the background I do, so I really would “Be the Difference” in the program. I decided the pros in applying outweighed the cons so I started my application.

I became so immensely excited about all the things TFA could bring to me. I know I want to teach in an urban setting, but I want to get out of the Midwest. With TFA, that could easily happen. TFA and their relationships with master programs could help me narrow down what I want to specialize in. When you apply for something, you become invested in it, and I became excited about being a Teach for America teacher.

Once the application part was over, I was invited to a phone interview. It seemed to go well despite the awkward interruptions of being on the phone and not seeing the other person. I had to wait a week to see if I was invited to a final interview, which I unfortunately was not.

Getting an email saying that I was not cut out to be a TFA teacher was definitely hard to swallow. I began to question myself not only as an applicant but also as a teacher. Even though I used to be strongly against TFA as an educator, it was difficult to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be one. I eventually realized the competiveness of the program, and I decided to not let it affect my ability to teach. I still want to be a teacher and provide excellent education for all, and my rejection from TFA only strengthened my desire to do so.

Rejection: Sign of Failure or Brilliant Inspiration?

J._K._Rowling_2010.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – Looking back on my life, there are several authors that have created stories which have had a significant impact on me. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks taught me about the power of true love. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch taught me the importance of living every day to the fullest. The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo showed me the power of faith and destiny; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen stressed independence as a young woman. I could go on for pages and pages about wonderful books I’ve read, but one particular author not only inspired me with the novels she wrote, but on a personal note as well. That person is J.K. Rowling.

Let me start by saying that I LOVE the Harry Potter novels. I was 11 when the books first came out, and essentially grew up with the main characters. At first, I saw the books as great stories about a kid learning about himself and going through a lot of similar things I went through (while I did not get to go to a magical school, I do remember being very angsty, just like Harry was in book 5.) Now that I’m older, and still reread the books, I see the important lessons I learned: the dangers of prejudice, the importance of family, the strength of friendship, and the power of forgiveness. Not to mention that J.K. Rowling’s personal life was an inspiration in itself; she wrote Harry Potter as a struggling single mom who thought she had fallen to the lowest of lows.

Recently, J.K. Rowling confessed that she kept her first rejection letters from Harry Potter and put it on her kitchen wall. She then shared it on Twitter to help inspire others. She said that keeping that rejection letter reminded her that she “had nothing to lose and sometimes, that makes you brave enough to try.” For me, seeing a rejection letter would be a constant taunt that I was not good enough. J.K. Rowling used it as motivation to keep pushing, keep trying, and keep working harder. She persevered through it all and came out with a story that will be told by generations to come.

I find this so inspirational for many reasons, but a big one involves the students I work with. Now that they are getting closer to high school, they are finding that their coursework is getting more and more challenging. Some of my students have never truly struggled before to understand a concept; now, they find themselves somewhat lost in higher level math, reading, and writing. And while some of my kids listen to my “this gives you an opportunity to grow” speech, some are so frustrated with themselves that they shut down.

One student in particular was in tears when she was unable to solve an equation. She told me she was dumb, and that she would clearly never understand algebra. As I tried to help her, she repeated that she would never understand it, gave up, and walked out of my office.

I hope my students are able to look at J.K. Rowling’s courage, and perseverance, and take heart in it. Just because they fell the first time, does not mean that they have to give up. They can succeed, so long as they pick themselves back up and keep trying. I have faith in each and every one of my students to do well, succeed, and live a wonderful life, just like J.K. Rowling had faith in her story and her characters. Had she given up when she received that first letter, I would’ve never been able to read Harry Potter or any of the wonderful novels she has penned since.

So now that break is over, I’m going to making a poster for my office with one of my favorite quotes on it: “The greatest joy is not in never falling, but in rising each time you fall.” – Confucius. I don’t have too many rejection letters to hang up, since I trashed all of mine. But maybe the quote and the story of J.K. Rowling will be enough to inspire my students!

Grad Cat: A Boone to Your Health & Productivity

So_happy_smiling_cat.jpgBy Kay Howell – A year ago, my life changed: My boyfriend adopted a cat from the Humane Society. Patrick, as he was soon christened, is 17 pounds of fluffy, purring feline. And surprisingly, Patrick has actually been able to assist me in my grad school career. Now, I know those doubters and dog-lovers out there probably don’t think that a cat can be a real help to a graduate student. Well, after a year of extensive research, I have identified three key areas in which having a cat can dramatically improve any graduate student’s life. Don’t believe me? Read on!

  1. Editing
    Patrick is a useful writing partner. No matter where I type, he always comes over to scamper across my keyboard and edit my papers. He is so eager that sometimes he tries to edit my work before I am even finished. Even now, he is patiently sitting on the kitchen table, knowing full well that he is not supposed to be on the kitchen table. That’s dedication! I know I can count on him to give my writing a certain flair and mmmmmmmmmmxzzzz. Well said, grad cat!
  1. Hydration
    Patrick lives by the motto “hydrate to stay great.” His philosophy extends beyond his water dish, because he is a very principled cat. With laser-like focus, Patrick makes it his mission in life to hydrate from any water glass, on any table, in any room. Now, hydration is a race against the clock: can I chug this glass of water before Patrick beats me to it? If you’re looking to lead a healthier lifestyle by drinking more water, a grad cat is an excellent accountability partner!
  1. Fashion
    Being in graduate school means surviving on a very small budget. But Patrick has helped me develop my very own unique sense of style, at no additional cost. Before he came into my life, my clothes were merely plain and clean. But now, everything I wear sports a very chic layer of cat hair. It adds a mesmerizing textured effect to my otherwise boring wardrobe

These are only a few of the benefits my grad cat has brought into my life. If you feel like your grad school life is just lacking that certain something, I would highly recommend looking into acquiring a grad cat of your own—or grad dog, hamster, bird, iguana—whatever suits your fancy!

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