Letters to Diane

Steven Lin

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I wrote to you in 2010 about my immediate thoughts after reading your book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System. I won’t repeat them here, but suffice it to say that your book is the only book I have ever read, where upon finishing, I was compelled to capture my reflections immediately on the inside cover.

Over the last three years, I have returned to those handwritten reflections to remind me of the impact your books has had on my own work. Today, I proudly remain a 5th grade teacher in Chesapeake, Virginia. I am also an aspiring school administrator and doctoral student at the George Washington University.

My purpose for writing to you is two-folds. First, I noticed your new website (gorgeous) and how many of your old letters did not transfer over. Thus, I wanted to publicly lend my support for your passion and work by having my testimony reappear on your site. Second, and more importantly, I felt that it was time for me to reflect on the impact of your work in my profession. To that end, I can unequivocally say that your work remains the most significant book in helping me understand the death AND life of the teaching profession.

This year, I accepted a city-wide honor as Elementary School Teacher of the Year. When I was first nominated, I was reluctant to submit requests for subsequent essays. I had assumed that the process of being selected as Teacher of the Year would mean that I would have to regurgitate reformers’ jargon about data-driven instruction (which in itself isn’t a bad thing, unless it’s the only thing). However, the guilty feeling of appearing ungrateful to those who nominated me eventually spurred me to write. And boy did I write. I chose to honor my nomination by writing with purpose, but to also use the essays as a platform to buck the trend of restating reformers’ jargon and endorsing uninformed policy.

To each of the five generic questions that were posed to me, I channeled my “inner Ravitch” by answering them earnestly, honestly, and with an eye on the bigger vision of the American school system. On my desk was my laptop, a cup of coffee, and a copy of your book. At every opportunity, I clamored for teachers to be treated as professionals, to engage in active professional development, to never stop of improving their work and the works of others, and for them to have a greater voice in the discourse of education reform (whatever that means today).

At times, my essays appeared militant, but mostly I stuck to a firm platform founded on the belief that progress in the American school system would have to be grassroots, from the foundational core of teachers on up. I was pretty sure that my unconventional thoughts would ruin any chance I might have at being selected for Teacher of the Tear. That was fine with me, as I was proud to have expressed opinions on behalf of all the great teachers who have molded me, and in honor of all of the amazing colleagues who both inspire and humble me on a daily basis.

That I wound up being selected as the Teacher of the Year, by a committee with heavy administrative influences no less, struck a chord. In the heart of a non-union state, I was selected, partly due to a platform that rejected most of corporate reform trends. To me, that was a mandate by an entire school division to keep talking – and to keep writing. There are hundreds of letters posted to your website, but I can tell you that, from my vantage point on the ground level in Hampton Roads, you have many more supporters. Many of them are stakeholders in the community who haven’t even heard of you.

Still, your ideas clearly resonate with what so many of us have thought about. The difference is that you have done a remarkable job at making those thoughts so eloquently and so clearly. These stakeholders range across race and economic levels. They include liberals and conservatives (this is clearly a non-partisan issue). They include teaching peers, custodians, administrators, parents, grandparents, etc.

And in my 8th year of as an educator, more and more former students (and sometimes the occasional well-informed current student) will return with an awakened sense of reflection, pondering about the age-old riddle: What is a true education? Why am I taking so many tests? What do these test even mean?

And while the teaching profession continues to take a beating in the media, not only is the resistance against the educational-industrial-billionaire-club complex strong among educators’ and community members, but the movement to strengthen our own profession has continued to grow.

We are not just complainers. We are also doers and fixers. I am a product of that admirable profession of teachers, many of whom have already and publicly lent their support. For instance, I noticed that Donnan Stoicovy wrote to you on behalf of her school in State College, PA. I am a product of that excellent school system. She also wrote glowingly about the Penn State Professional Development School (PDS) for pre-service teachers.

Again, I am a product of that system as well. And while my masters program at the George Washington University was a mere brainwashing in the “science” of managing schools as if they were businesses, its doctoral program finally introduced me to your work. It put into words my own self-reflective criticism of a profession that was once so noble and now so downtrodden due to the efforts of outside agents and their agendas.

My growth from K-12, along with my professional training, has made me what I am today. And the good and passionate teachers with whom I work in Chesapeake continue to fire me up in ways that could only bring excitement into the hearts of true educators, educational activists, community members, and students. In short, and for whatever it means, I accept my small honor and dedicate it to the amazing teachers out there who fight the good fight (with love and passion no less) and to you too for having inspired and helped me express my defense for the good profession of schoolteachers.

Steven Lin (Chesapeake, VA)