April 10, 2014 Updated: April 10, 2014 at 10:10 am
A poignant resignation letter that Colorado Springs teacher Pauline Hawkins wrote and posted on her blog Monday talks about her love of teaching and the pride she has in her students, colleagues, school and district.
And yet, she writes that she is resigning her post after 11 years as an English teacher at Liberty High School at the end of the school year for reasons that reflect a flashpoint for many frustrated educators here and nationwide.
The letter has gone viral, and her blog, paulinehawkins.com, has received more than 9,000 online hits in less than two days.
Her letter is a sad farewell to her administration and her students, laying bare her feelings about what she sees as the federal and state government overstepping local control of schools. At the heart of her distress are the new Common Core standards, low teacher pay in Colorado and endless testing and teaching to the test, which she and many others believe is making students fail rather than succeed.
Hawkins' letter says in part: "I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher - I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis is on Common Core Standards and high stakes testing that is creating a teach to the test mentality for our teachers, and stress and anxiety for our students."
She added, "Students have increasingly become hesitant to think for themselves, because they have been programmed to believe that there is one right answer."
Farewells go public
These types of public resignation letters are showing up more often in social media as teachers vent their frustrations with a system they believe is failing them and their students. Recently, a letter from a 20-year teaching veteran of Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts expressed similar pain that went viral on social media.
"I feel my spirit, my passion as a teacher slip away," the teacher wrote. She, too, pointed to mandated assessment tests.
Another teacher in eastern Colorado penned a similar farewell, noting she was going to teach inmates in a prison school for more money so she could support her family.
Hawkins has taught in Academy School District 20 for her entire career. In an interview Wednesday, she was tearful about her students' reactions.
"I start crying every day because my students tell me they are sad I'm leaving and that I have helped them."
She emphasized that she was not upset with her district administrators.
"The problem in education today is a government problem," she said. "It is way overstepping boundaries."
Many Colorado administrators and school boards in recent months have expressed similar sentiments, saying they're fed up with many of the new state-mandated education requirements that come without funding to implement them.
Numerous school boards in El Paso County have passed resolutions that they sent to the governor and legislators, criticizing the one-size-fits-all regulations and other new requirements piling up without state funding.
An example is Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument, which sent a resolution saying it does "not support changing curriculum or standards to align with the new Common Core standards."
Hawkins' resignation letter underscores issues surrounding the Common Core standards, which were created in 2009 by the National Governors Association for Best Practices as an antidote to U.S. student test scores that lag behind those in other nations. The carrot: substantial federal education grants. The standards were adopted by 44 states, including Colorado, which received $18 million from the federal government.
The standards outline math and English language arts and literacy goals for kindergarten through 12th grade. The theory behind Common Core is that students all over the country should have the same education and standards. But some parents and teachers nationwide have criticized the one-size-fits-all approach to education and testing.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an email that she understands the criticism and the need for some teachers to make their complaints public, as Hawkins did.
"It is heartbreaking that public education has become so toxic that everything is reduced to a test score. Kids are not test scores and teachers are not algorithms. Getting lost in all the hyper-testing is the joy of learning and the need to provide teachers with the tools, resources and time to teach a rich curriculum so they are well prepared. We've got to end the hyper-fixation on testing and data and focus on teaching and learning and giving teachers a real voice in the education of their students."
Tests are taking more time
A poll of 1,500 Colorado Education Association teachers found they had to spend more than 30 percent of their instruction time preparing students for assessment tests or giving the tests to students.
"We believe it should be only 5 percent. It is driving people out of the profession," CEA spokesman Mike Wetzel said. "It's taking the soul and joy out of education for them, and the stress on kids is making some of them physically ill."
He said the association is supporting two legislative bills to address some of its concerns. House Bill 1202 would create a task force of education stakeholders to study the impact of teaching and assessment. Senate Bill 165 would delay basing teacher evaluations on the new tests until they see how the data shakes out.
On Hawkins' blog, well-wishers are praising her. One man wrote: "It takes courage to step up and publicly expose the pain and suffering which students and teachers alike are suffering from the industrialization of education. There is a growing movement to establish an effective alternative and I hope you can find it."
Hawkins said she can be more outspoken now that she is resigning and went public to give voice to the feelings of a lot of teachers who fear consequences for speaking out.
Hawkins said she plans to move to New Hampshire with her 9-year-old son.
"I have opted him out of all testing," she said. "He doesn't need the labels that come with it, or to feel the stress. Those tests don't tell us anything about him or other students."
She will live near her two adult daughters and hopes to find a tutoring job.
"I knew I wanted to be a teacher from age 16. When I was in college, I was a tutor. I really fell in love with helping students."
She said she will fight to improve education.
"I will use my writing to become an advocate for the changes needed."