The following is the text of a speech given by Amanda Koonlaba at the It All Starts with Education Forum , which was held in July in Jackson, MS. The event was organized by MS Representative Jay Hughes. Several teachers were invited to give TedX-style power speeches to the audience of several hundred educators and public education supporters. These are Amanda’s words.
A few weeks ago, I attended a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the Save Our Schools Rally, and we marched from the memorial to the White House. Many education activists made speeches at the rally that were incredibly inspiring. The week before that, I was able to attend the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly where I heard the NEA president give an opening speech. I am not a dynamic speaker like those great activists. I do have a similar passion, though, and am willing to stand here and make an attempt at inspiring you with that passion the way they each inspired me.
You see, I am not magically smart and tough and brave to be here speaking today. In fact, standing here makes me uncomfortable. But, I’ve come to the realization that this is what it is going to take to fix the problems we are all complaining about behind closed doors.
We are going to have to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable.
We may fear attention, and conflict, and even reprisal when we make our voices heard. But, we must remember that some of America’s greatest leaders were also reluctant. Just think about the people throughout history who mustered up the strength to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Where would we be without them?
It is in that spirit that I speak to you today.
Teachers, we cannot keep waiting for positive change. We are witnessing an attack on public education in this country and in this state. This means to me that we are witnessing an attack on our values, our integrity, our livelihoods, our students, our communities, and even our democracy. For instance, just in case you haven’t been following the news, school choice encourages re-segregation and funnels valuable resources from students in traditional public schools. Harsh accountability measures erode the public’s faith in our ability to teach our youth and narrows the curriculum to the point where our students become professional test takers rather than thinkers and artists and poets and scientists.
We cannot keep waiting for things to get better on their own. Things are not going to get better on their own. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. It is up to us!
The toughest part of teaching for me has been filtering away from my students the negativity in the culture surrounding the public educational system in this country and state. I am talking about the negativity you hear from certain policymakers and in the media.
Sometimes it feels like all you ever hear about public schools in the media is how lazy the teachers are, how much money it costs to educate students, how low the test scores are, etc.
It is hurtful on a personal level. I am a teacher deep down to my very marrow. I teach from the very deepest part of who I am as a human being.
However, this personal hurt is nothing compared to how I feel about what I see it do to students. Our students are internalizing this negativity. I know it, and you know it.
On the one hand, they get the message that they shouldn’t respect their schools or teachers because the people in power don’t respect them. On the other hand, the message is that their teachers and schools are abysmal failures. So, they must be abysmal failures themselves. How do you think they feel when they’ve tried their hardest to learn and perform on a test and their school gets a low accountability rating? I can’t imagine that they feel much better than we do when that happens.
I am a teacher, and I have to look into the faces of students every single day, just like you do. The people putting this negativity out into the culture do not. So, for me, trying to remain positive while working with my students in the midst of such negativity is tough.
I deal with this by being an activist. At some point, I just started seeking out opportunities to make my voice heard. I guess I just got fed up. So, I started showing up. I started writing, and I started speaking out.
I started allowing my reluctant self to be uncomfortable.
Now, I do not think I know everything, but I want to be part of the discussions taking place. I want to model for my students what it looks like to stand up for others and what it looks like to participate in a democracy.
Before I began using my voice, which is my right as a citizen of this country, I felt very much like it was hopeless to try to change the narrative surrounding public education. However, now, I feel like I am doing something worthwhile. It feels really good to know that I am modeling what I expect out of my students. I expect good citizenship from them. I expect them to stand up for themselves and others. So, by being an activist, I am able to have hope for the future of our schools. This is how I deal with what I’ve described as the toughest part of teaching, and it gives me great strength to move forward in this profession.
So, today, I stand here with my own frustrations and fear, and in a completely uncomfortable state. I’m standing here with my own internal reluctance to being outspoken, to being an activist.
But, I stand here with great hope because of what I want for my students and the future of the human beings living in this country and state.
I stand here in hopes of inspiring you all to get involved. To be active. To participate in this democracy. You don’t have to see yourself as a leader or think you are particularly brave and courageous. You just have to participate.
We can have a large-scale positive impact if we do it together. We cannot, however, continue to wait. We are the greatest force of good in this world.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.