Tales from the Front Lines - Blog by Paul Gamboa

There’s something important I need to share that’s been bothering me for the last few months.

The IEA first approached me about writing a blog for the website at the Summer Leadership Academy in 2014. We decided that we wanted to focus on things that educators are facing in the classroom. I figured it would be a snap. As anyone who has spent a day in a classroom knows, there are infinite things that we see each day that a teacher can write about.

This year, I thought I had hit writers block. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find topics to write about, far from it actually. Yet, I’ve scrapped somewhere between six and 10 pieces this year after reading the first revision. My thought behind putting them to pasture was that I felt as if I was becoming far more myopic than I was comfortable with.

I intended to talk about issues facing educators. Inevitably, I veered off into politics.  I was struggling with the fact that the vast majority of my writing has been around the political fog that engulfs public education.

The gubernatorial election, the impending budget cuts, Common Core, PARCC, technology, class sizes, staff development, student growth, SPED, etc. — all ended up in the same place.

It was incredibly frustrating and I was worried that I was losing touch with what was happening in the classroom after only six short months in my new role (as president of a local).

Luckily, that is far from the case.

At a recent meeting in Springfield, I voiced my frustration with this to IEA Pres. Cinda Klickna as well as a table full of other members of the committee I was on. As the words left my mouth, I glanced around the table. The incredulous stares indicated that I clearly was missing the obvious. The issues we face in the classroom can’t be separated from the political realm. It isn’t possible.

I now wish I had saved those other columns.

While I don’t intend to turn my blog into a poor man’s McLaughlin Group, I have become comfortable with the fact that education and politics cannot be separated. I embrace that many of the topics we face, and that I react to, cannot be detached from the political element that plagues our schools.

It’s also more essential than ever that all teachers realize the role that politics takes in our daily lives and the impact that it has on our students. It is with this in mind that I talk about the issue that everyone is facing right now:  PARCC.

My grandmother is 93 years old.  Every Saturday, my wife, sister and mother go out to lunch with her. She remains far more tuned in to the news than anyone realizes, so I shouldn’t have been surprised about how she started the conversation on Saturday. It gave me a ton to think about.

After she sat down, took her coat off, and got settled, we bypassed the traditional chatter of the weather. Wasting no time, she immediately inquired, “How’s the testing going?”

This wasn’t what I expected the conversation starter to be. Don’t get me wrong, she has always enjoyed hearing stories about my life in the classroom and is now very fascinated about what my new job entails. Additionally, she loves hearing my wife’s stories about her fifth grade class. While we talk about school a lot, it probably won’t come as a shock that I don’t spend a lot of time talking about all the zany testing stories I have from my years in the classroom. There are usually far more interesting things to chat about.

For her to start the conversation this way, it became pretty clear how much the topic is in the news.

At first glance, the initial words from her lips were a surprise. But after I thought about it for a bit, it shouldn’t have been. It’s a clear indicator of how pervasive the culture of testing has become. It’s so prominent in our schools that even people who don’t have a vested interest in education are aware of how much work, money and time this entails.

She asked about how PARCC works, the technology involved, why some districts were not using computers and others were, and how much time the actual test taking took. After mulling this over for a bit, she asked how much time it took to prepare for. Her next statement very eloquently summed up the whole situation.

“Sheesh, it seems like you could do a lot better things with this time.”

Throughout the conversation, I mentioned how prepared my district was. Our administration made absolutely sure that our staff was as prepared as possible. We had tons of test runs with network infrastructure. Kids were given sample tests to give Pearson feedback on the login and testing process. Our professional development time on Wednesday mornings was liberally used to train staff. We also used a January institute day to help proctors. I don’t know how many total hours were spent preparing.

Sadly, I know there are many teachers out there who weren’t as adequately prepared. That’s a topic for another day, though.

After explaining to her everything we had done to get our teachers ready, I started to think. We recently had our February institute day. Our topic for the day consisted of PARCC training in the morning and SLO/student growth data training in the afternoon.

When I first started teaching, institute days were times when we could focus on strategies and procedures that would improve my teaching. Some of the more valuable training sessions I’ve ever had were on these days. We had sessions on differentiation, literacy strategies, innovated mathematics instruction, social-emotional learning, and countless tools that I could take into my classroom and literally start using the next day, or at least after ISATs were over.

Now, though, it’s a totally different ballgame. Before this year, our last three institute day topics were: changes in our teacher evaluation plan due to SB7, and two sessions on Common Core standards introduction.

At one time, our district was able to focus on things that would help me in the classroom. Now, it is forced to use this time to deal with the wave of mandates that continue to pollute public education.

We talk about the need to improve schools and improve our craft. Yet our districts can’t really do this anymore. There are only so many minutes during the year.  There is a hole and it’s gaping every wider.

That’s why it’s very encouraging that IEA is plunging head first into the realm of professional development. This is the right direction to head and will provide something we all need.

It’s truly telling that our districts, the ones who should be providing staff development to our teachers, are so busy juggling a seemingly infinite number of mandates that it’s our association that is filling the void.

We have reached the point where decisions made in Washington and Springfield have forced our schools to use our increasingly precious, and sparse, time just to manage newly-enacted laws. They can’t focus on improving teaching and learning, and instead must handle the impact of the decisions imposed on our schools and students to make sure it’s in compliance.

Whenever we hear people badmouthing teacher unions, continuing to paint us as villains, we need to steer the conversation. We need to deliver that message that IEA is trying to move our profession forward. We care about improving our craft. We care about kids. We care about our schools.

Don’t listen to endless background noise trying to silence us and portray us as resistant to improving the quality of our public schools. This, sadly, will only grow louder as our new governor continues to try to impose his belief system on the state.

Realize that IEA is trying to help our members adapt to the times.  Sadly, we are one of the few groups out there actively moving our profession forward.

While our districts drown under wave after wave of mandates, it’s IEA that is picking up the baton and trying to help our organization move forward. Someone has to stand up for what’s best for kids and what’s best for public education.

As always thanks for reading.  I would love to hear your feedback in the comment section below.  Additionally, please follow me on twitter: @paulgamboa.

Thanks for reading!

Paul Gamboa is a teacher who is currently serving as president of the Indian Prairie Education Association.