Diane\'s Blog

Melissa Merwin

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

Hello. My name is Melissa and I teach Language Arts at an alternative high school in central Minnesota.  I work “part time” (all that our financially strapped district can afford), but put in well over 50 hours a week and I’m paid about $24,000 a year, but I don’t do this for the money.  I am writing this letter to say thank you. I read a lot of your nationally published pieces about education and education reform. Thank you for your voice and for injecting some common sense into this debate.

Our students come to us after years of struggles with school.  Most of our kids are from single-parent family homes, living around or under the poverty line, and our job is to do everything in our power to try and convince our students to stay in school.  Many have “failed” so many courses and “failed” the required standardized tests, that earning their high school diploma seems impossible to them.  I feel so muzzled as a teacher, but when it’s necessary, I sometimes have to explain to my students that actually, the system has really failed them.

My students struggle with homelessness, parents who are disabled or losing their farms and jobs, addiction in families, parents that are deployed in the military. Very, very few of my students come from comfortable homes with two parents and a supportive network of family and friends that help encourage them to develop their strengths.  Sometimes, I am the ONLY person in my students’ lives who is telling them not to give up, and is encouraging them to take their education seriously, as a way to escape the struggles that they deal with every day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with a student and pleaded with them: “Please don’t give up, please don’t drop out…”

The word “competition” is heard so often in the public school discussion: “Our students need to be competitive in the world market…”  “In order to compete, students need to drastically improve their math skills, so we can produce more engineers.”  At what point have schools changed from places that develop our young people’s growth, personal interests, critical thinking, and citizenship into places where they feel constant pressure to perform and compete?  In this advanced culture of ours, why we are constantly setting up “winners” and “losers” before our kids even become adults?  My students internalize these “bad” scores.  I can’t tell you how many students have told me “I’m just stupid.”  The number is in the hundreds.

So, I just want to say thank you again, so much, for bringing a reality check into this whole national debate about our public schools.  Your willingness to speak the truth about what we are doing to our students, and how our stupid policies are going to lead to more failure, is something really admire and gives me hope.  Keep speaking up for the kids who need and deserve extra help, but are NOT STUPID!  We can’t give up on these kids. We’ve got to keep them learning and believing in themselves and out of learned helplessness, giving up, and never realizing their unique talents.

Keep talking about our atrocious levels of illiterate prison population.  Keep insisting that public education can do better, will do better, if we are given the support we need to help our struggling students and not public scorn.  If the “higher ups” who have so much control in the current debate could just walk a week in my shoes, or a week in one of my struggling student’s shoes, if they could only acknowledge the work it takes to win back a teenager who has given up on school, maybe there would be more interest and respect for what we do and what our students continue accomplish in the face of adversity.

Thanks for listening, thanks for believing in us.

Melissa Merwin