Voices of the Peninsula: An open letter to the Legislature on school funding

  • By Shannon Dwyer
  • Thursday, April 9, 2015 3:27pm
  • Opinion

I attended a school board meeting Monday. The first 80 minutes were about the looming cuts to education. There were teachers’ testimonies that were balanced and provocative. There were school presentations given by administration, staff and students that were inspiring. And the school board, itself, wanted to talk directly to the teachers and their message was one of solidarity with the teachers and frustration that the governing body was a stone wall in its position of cutting education deeply. Cuts that will cost us 100 teachers.

As a teacher of 22 years with this school district and as a product of this school district myself, I have a few thoughts to share.

It is true that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. For many years I have had the discussion with my students that they are here because they want to be. That is a surprise to many of them because they always figured that they were at school because their parents forced them to be or because the law dictated to them that they had to be.

But, “No,” I’d argue, “you’re here because you want to be. You love the excitement of learning. You enjoy discussions in class with the teacher.

“You have sports and clubs you join for the fun,” I’d say.

“I’m here because this is where I want to be, too.” They nod. Of course. You’re the teacher, why wouldn’t you?

Then I tell them, “I could be in South Florida. Enjoying the beaches and the sunsets after school. Or I could be in Hawaii surfing on the weekends. I could be in Southern California eating my lunches in the sun nearly every day. But I want to be here. I CHOOSE to be HERE. With YOU.”

I think establishing that choice is elemental. They need to know that I want to be here. They need to be aware that they are choosing to be here, as well.

It’s very important. It’s not something that you know innately. You have to notice it and understand it.

That we are choosing to be together is huge. One of the presentations to the school board was from one of our alternative schools.

Three senior students spoke on behalf of the positive, life-affirming effect their school had on them. One admitted that when he enrolled in the alternative school as a junior he’d amassed only 4 credits toward graduation. Presently, he was looking at graduating “on time.” And he is holding down a full-time job. Amazing.

These seniors were great. They loved the breakfasts served each day at school by a host of volunteer groups — that got an understanding laugh from us all.

They loved their teachers and their community joining them for breakfast and they loved their morning meetings. They acknowledged that their community elders and retired population possessed wisdom and they were grateful that the wisdom was being shared with them. This was a poignant statement. Rarely do you hear students — while they are yet students — admiring and appreciating the elder community among them. This, I think, ties closely into the feeling of choice.

You see, because their community chose them, they chose their community, as well. And by choosing their community, they chose to re-engage and to make a commitment to graduate. Of the three seniors one was going on to start college in June, one was going to start college and major in cinematography and one was going to look for employment in the petroleum industry.

They were proud of their prospective futures. I myself wanted to stand up and cheer! What more could we want? This is everything we want if a student is succeeding! WE ARE WINNING.

To make one final point: one of the school board members asked teachers to, like him, remember the students are worth fighting for.

I will. I have. I have stayed late to help students make deadlines. I have come early to help students get work turned in. I have missed most of my lunches many years to allow students a chance to sacrifice to make great change for themselves.

I’m not special. I miss most of my colleagues at lunch when I do get there because that’s what they are doing as well. They come early and stay late.

They spend hours on the phone and writing emails to keep lines of communication open to parents who are frustrated and struggling and worried and full of love for their children who are trying to make the right choices at school and not always succeeding but trying again the next day.

Our legislature needs to consider the following:

Education is the profession that informs all others.

If we carve away at our children and their hopes, dreams and aspirations when they are fully committed to working and sweating and going the extra mile — to finishing the race — how can we take away their running shoes?

If the Kenai Peninsula, a flagship school district for the State of Alaska, a winning team, loses 100 teachers, how can you resolve to yourselves that anything else matters? What is left of the profession that informs all others?

We love our children. A tremendous amount. But beyond that deeply personal sentiment, where will our doctors, engineers, scientists, and leaders for the next 30 to 40 years come from? How are our children going to excel in science, technology, engineering and math when they are in overburdened, bloated classes? Where will our certified nurse’s assistants who help us in the rest home come from?

Be warned, this is not a one-time, doesn’t-really-matter-in-the-long-run draw that will be corrected by other politicians in the future. This is a desiccating drought that will parch the next generation. This will lay waste to the future.

In the final analysis, we choose to be Alaskans. We choose this community.

You, the legislature need to realize that you choose us, too. That by choosing to be here, with us, you are committed to us. To our collective future. To what we can be if we foster growth and not fear.

Let our students show you the way.

Every teacher I know will work the extra hours for each of their students to accomplish whatever task is before them. But if there are no teachers, what’s the point?

Longtime educator Shannon Dwyer lives in Soldotna.

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