Last week was a memorable one for Indiana politics, and that may go double for six Culver Community Schools teachers, who (using personal days on their own time) spent the day at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis last Tuesday, in the midst of heated protests and attention surrounding two controversial pieces of legislation.
Most of the statewide and even national attention last week focused on so-called "right-to-work" legislation advocated by the Republican-led House of Representatives. Much of the controversy pertained to union-related matters. Culver's teachers were at the Statehouse, in fact, when it was announced that Democrat lawmakers had fled that day to Illinois as a means of blocking the legislation.
Besides that bill, Democrats also objected to House bill 1003, which would give state-funded vouchers to low-and-middle income Hoosiers towards sending their children to private schools.
The day before, February 21, Culver Community School Superintendent Brad Schuldt sent a letter to Culver parents urging them to contact legislators to fight the bill, which he said would cut just under $1 million from the corporation's budget, forcing the closure of Monterey Elementary School, pushing more than 30 students into classrooms, and costing 10 to 15 jobs corporation-wide (his letter may be read on the school’s website at www.culver.k12.in.us ).
Culver Elementary kindergarten teacher Janna VanDePutte, sixth grade teacher Missy Trent, and music teacher Kim Morrison joined Monterey Elementary sixth grade teacher Todd Shaffer, fifth grade teacher Pam Craft, and second grade teacher Lisa Moise in the journey, where they were some of the approximately 1,100 protesters at the statehouse that day.
Morrison describes the visit as "such a good experience," and she, VanDePutte, and Trent say they generally felt supported by others there, as they carried signs made by CES art teacher Joyce Lyman.
"All day long we were thanked," recalls VanDePutte of the mood of protesters, including union members from various other professions.
The three CES faculty members expressed concern over the impact on students of various aspects of the proposed legislation, such as private schools’ ability to retain choices as to which students they accept and don't, likely leaving students facing greatest physical and intellectual challenges to public schools.
"It would slowly turn public schools into schools for the disabled," says Trent.
Other concerns include the complexities of public funds going to private religious schools (though supporters of HB1003 point out public funds already support tuition to private Christian universities in Indiana), and the low performance of many of Indiana's existing charter schools.
It's likely, however, that Culver's teachers share a sense of demoralization with teachers around the country less from specific legislation – in spite of all the concern it gives them for students' well being and their own jobs -- as from a widespread sense they feel of teachers becoming scapegoats for problems in public education, as demonstrated in recent forums such as the documentary film, "Waiting for Superman."
Morrison, Trent, and VanDePutte say they're disheartened at what they read and hear in the media and via negative comments in online discussions, and the like.
"There are big misconceptions about teachers out there," says VanDePutte. "(For example), we can choose to be in the union or not; we're not forced. And people don't know we have to do continuing education on an ongoing basis, to have our teaching licenses renewed."
The three add that most teachers arrive at work before 7:30 a.m. and still have two to three hours of work each evening following the 3:15 end of the school day, in addition to what amounts to a full workday on the weekends grading papers, answering emails, and posting grades to the computer. Lunch breaks are usually spent assisting students, and "prep time" allotted each teacher daily is almost always spent in working with students, notes Trent.
Another misconception, says Trent, is that teachers "can do anything and not be fired. I'm nervous whenever I get an evaluation!"
She also says many teach summer school, redo their classrooms, or take continuing ed classes through teachers’ official “off” months in the summer.
Morrison adds that many teachers take part in extra committees and activities to assist at the school, from keeping score at ballgames, to service-oriented projects (such as Soup for the Soul, a charity fundraiser Trent spearheads, the READ reading enhancement program chaired by VanDePutte, or the Morrison-led Cultural Enrichment Committee -- which seeks private donations to fund music and lectures for the students at the school).
"People have come to expect this," says VanDePutte. "We do it because we all enjoy working with the kids, or else you'd never make it."
"No teacher says, 'I'm going to be a teacher for the money'!" agrees Trent, adding, "I can tell you there's not one person in that school (CES) I wouldn't have as a teacher for my kids."
The teachers agree being in a small school like Culver, students and faculty are "lucky." Where some larger schools experience communication problems, VanDePutte notes, "It's nothing for us to see our Superintendent in the building, or get an email directly from him."
"I love Culver," Morrison affirms. "It's so nice to be in a little school like this."
The three are quick to note administration at Culver is very supportive. Instead, their concern is with the impact of legislation on a state and even federal level, in addition to the general atmosphere of animosity towards teachers of late.
Trent says the situation has led to one in which "kids' hunger, empathy, (and the like are neglected), but we’re supposed to just care about how to take a test."
Morrison echoes the other teachers' worries that character development and civic awareness take a back seat to a frenetic emphasis on skills specific to passing tests.
"We have no time to teach the things that kids need to know to be good citizens," she explains.
"Within our classrooms," adds VanDePutte, "we're expected to teach many different abilities which were not there before."
The three say they plan to return to the statehouse March 5 for a rally there. They're glad they went last week, where they feel they saw democracy in action, regardless of one's position on the issues.
And they hope people remember, as VanDePutte puts it, “We do all this for the kids.”