Carroll: All the right we cannot see
Last week, NPR aired a story on a Learning Policy Institute report, which found schools in the United States lose hundreds of thousands of teachers each year, most of them before retirement age, with the “I’m outta here” rate among educators here twice that of some other countries. Reasons teachers gave for fleeing the classroom included too much emphasis on testing, uncomfortable “political environments” and not enough money.
While the list of wrongs done to those in a profession chosen by people intending to do right is shamefully long, against all odds there remain teachers who nonetheless manage to shine. The Aspen School District is privileged to have the caliber of teachers it does, especially considering Colorado’s per-pupil spending ranks close to the bottom nationwide and the average salary of educators in Pitkin County is only slightly higher than the state average — despite housing costs in Pitkin County’s being 31/2 times the national average.
The Aspen School District successfully solicits and sufficiently acknowledges generous donors, and collects and wisely spends tax dollars, even if it still falls short of adequately compensating teachers who transcend their job descriptions. Yet hopefully recognizing what Aspen’s teachers provide that no budget line item compensates for might contribute in some small way to the retention of the exceptional people charged with fostering the children in our community.
Take Aspen Elementary School second-grade teacher Becky Oliver, for example. She’s been working in the district for 15 years, and while kids in her class end up moving on to third grade prepared to tackle division, expository writing, American history and other worthy 8-year-old pursuits, they also leave her class demonstratively more compassionate than when they entered it.
For several years Oliver has tenderly welcomed students who’ve suffered the trauma of losing a parent. She invites their siblings to join in on class birthday celebrations, for which she supplies the treats. Not only does she remember the birthdays of children missing a parent, but for those children, she also commemorates their late parents’ birthdays. Reading and writing is Oliver’s specialty; however, she’s expanded her classroom curriculum to cover kindness in equal measure, which she more than exhibits to students by closely safeguarding their hearts.
Compared with elementary school where students have the benefit of their teachers’ near-full attention, some high school students can manage to slip through their days only a little more noticeably than ships passing in the night. Aspen High School’s new assistant principal, Sarah Strassburger, was most recently the school’s English department chairperson. For 10 years, students in her English classes knew her for making artful connections between literature and the human spirit, albeit the bonds she formed with some kids off the page has arguably been even more remarkable.
One of Strassburger’s former students was the picture of popularity, good looks and impressive academic and athletic achievements, although the reality was they suffered from “extreme, severe depression and anxiety.” The student’s parents confided in Strassburger, who saw to it their workload, at least in English class, wouldn’t add more strain to an already-heavy mental burden. Outside of class, Strassburger regularly initiated walks with the student, wrote them letters and checked in on their progress, all of which their parents said was critical in “pulling them through” the darkest of times.
It’s notable how that level of support isn’t even an anomaly on the Aspen School District campus. Along with Oliver and Strassburger, Aspen Middle School teacher Georgina Levey is yet another educator who sets her own lofty expectations, which are separate from any employment requirements. While some of the extra effort Aspen teachers put into professional development helps them on the district’s pay scale, there are those who seek to expand their skill set because of how it furthers their students and not their bottom line.
“Many of us really we want to understand our students on a deeper level and show them we care, and not just because the system is telling us we need to do it,” Levey said.
Like some of her peers, she makes it known to students she’ll always be their cheerleader even after they move on from her class because, she said, “That’s what we do.”
Living in a district where some of the most effective educators anywhere aren’t bolting, even in the face of a potential multimillion dollar budget deficit, is cause for celebration. Voting “yes” on ballot measures 2A and 2D in Snowmass Village and Aspen on Election Day will be a strong signal that we appreciate not only how our kids are regarded for more than just the grades on their report cards, but that those who champion them are highly qualified, eminently intelligent and empathetic people, not puppets, who do way more than teach to the test.
If we can’t pay Aspen’s educators what they deserve or eliminate administrative politics and state-testing mandates, the least we can do is prove our values extend to more than the houses we live in and the cars we drive by voting the right way Nov. 8.
Meredith Carroll is a parent of children in the Aspen School District. Follow her on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.