Every once in a while, someone pops up on the blogosphere and makes a deep impression with people. For the New Jersey blogs, that person is Melissa Katz. I wrote about Melissa last month when I saw one of her articles re-tweeted all over the place. I read it and I was amazed! For someone so young to have so much insight into the reality of education today is something special. I had the opportunity to interview Melissa recently, and I welcome you to get to know an amazing young woman who has impressed not only many of her fellow citizens in New Jersey, but also America. Melissa is the voice of the future, in my opinion, for what education should be. In between her studies, activism and friends, Melissa also writes a blog called The Educational Activist: From Student To Teacher.
Exceptional Delaware: What made you decide to become a teacher?
Melissa: I always loved school. But more than that, I always loved learning, which in many cases is lost in school due to the current test-and-punish tactics. I would spend my free time playing teacher and
school. I would spend my time doing long division problems at my Grandparent’s kitchen table because I loved the feeling of successfully finishing a math problem – I also just loved math, which I was two years ahead in all the way through the beginnings of high school. I would spend my free time writing stories, plays, creative pieces, poetry, and anything else that the pencil would draft because I simply loved the feeling of being creative. I loved science because my Father and Grandfather, both scientists, would come into school and do experiments with my class and sometimes the entire grade level. I loved art and social studies and music (the clarinet managed to last two years in my hands!). I loved learning and to me, school was the place that happened. How naïve I was.
This was all until I reached high school, where I could not handle the pressure. I had suffered from minor school anxiety in middle school, but I did very well with the support of my parents and teachers. And despite suffering from minor school anxiety, I still enjoyed going to school. High school was a different story. On my first day of high school, I walked in, froze at the entrance, and found myself in the counselor’s office. I remember saying, “I just can’t handle the pressure.” This was the first day of school – we hadn’t even done anything yet. All I had running through my mind was, “Everything you do matters. How will I do on my SAT’s? What college am I going to? Do I have enough extracurriculars? What if I fail my final exams?” All through middle school I was reminded how scary, hard, and high-pressure/high-stakes high school was going to be, and it got to me.
Omitting the long, boring details, I ended up being diagnosed with severe school and separation anxiety. I was homeschooled for four months during my sophomore year, four years ago almost to the day: the very end of October, November, December, January, and February, and then slowly started attending one class a day until I was back in school fully around April/May. It was the absolute worst experience of my life and exposed me to the ugly side of “schooling.” I remember sitting in the counselor’s office and having a school administrator say to me, “I don’t get it. Why can’t you just go to school like everyone else?” I felt worthless, stupid, and I genuinely didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to school like everyone else. This experience destroyed my love of learning.
But, during my junior and senior year of high school, I had one of the most unconventional yet enlightening teachers I’ve ever had, who has acted as a mentor to me throughout this entire journey. As my politics teacher, we would exchange news articles, and we began to exchange articles regarding the common core. From there, I became intrigued, and started doing my own independent research around the topic of education reform under the guidance of my mentor teacher. I once again discovered my love of learning. It really has been an incredible learning experience up to this point, and supplements a lot of the “real world” exposure that I don’t get in the lecture hall, which will only prepare me more for the realities of being a teacher in this educational climate.
From there, I started attending my local board of education meetings, different education related events, and eventually found myself at the state board of education meetings and working with so many people that I look up to. It was really a very fluid process of just putting myself out there, taking the initiative to get involved, and of course making some waves along the way.
There are a lot of societal and educational injustices occurring in the world today, and as a teacher I want to do what I can to fight and combat these injustices in whatever way possible. Mostly, I never want a student to have to feel the way I felt. I want all of my students to love learning, and if I can be a part of fostering that love, I will feel complete.
Exceptional Delaware: Many people your age are taking the easy way out and joining Teach For America or some other controversial fast-track teaching school. What made you decide to take the longer (and more honest) ride to certification?
Melissa: TFA brings in some of the most inexperienced teachers and puts them into urban districts, where many times the most experienced and committed teachers are needed. TFA grads are even pushing out veteran teachers (does this surprise you?); with such a high turnover rate, they can keep them at the bottom of the pay scale, and continually keep costs down while teachers come in and out of schools like they are on a conveyor belt. Branching off of this, and to make matters worse, students in urban districts with TFA grads as their ‘teachers’ experience much more instability due to the turnover, again when those students are in need of the most stability. I believe Teach for America is no more than a resume-padding two-year stint (if the corps members even stay the full two-years they commit to) that, in my opinion, preserves, rather than eliminates, ‘educational inequity’ and the so-called ‘achievement gap.’
Over the five years I’m spending in a specially designed Urban Elementary Education program at The College of New Jersey, I will take multiple classes on content that applies specifically to urban experiences, multiple semesters of in-classroom placement in urban settings in addition to theory classes connected to these in-placement classes, classes on childhood development, and within all of this learn about lesson plans, curriculum writing, produce my own independent research, and better myself in all aspects of education as a whole, while specifically tailoring my knowledge and understanding to teaching in an urban district. Not even a fraction of this could be accomplished within the 5 or 6 weeks of training corps members get.
There’s so much to write about TFA. It’s such a huge topic and I leave most of that to the experts writing about the organization. But in school, as a first semester sophomore, I’m already working in a classroom one day a week. This is invaluable experience that can’t be “taught” and “drilled” into someone in corps training. Teachers deserve respect for the work they do, and the rhetoric about teachers and education that comes out of TFA opposes this.
Exceptional Delaware: If you could only teach in a charter school, would you still teach?
Melissa: In reality, I don’t think (and I *hope*) this will never be the case. As we can see from the data (for example, via the newest report from Jersey Jazzman and Julia Rubin – find link below) charters serve a population that is very different demographicly than their host district, among other findings. One can look to places like New Orleans to see what happens when a district turns over to all charters. I am a strong believer in neighborhood public schools. But, I am not against all charter schools, either. If they serve the local community, with students from all economic/racial/etc. backgrounds/populations, and it works for the community, that’s fine. But charters should not come in, especially those privately-run, and replace neighborhood public schools in the way many are being executed now. The original intent of charters and how we see many charter-chains being run now are two very different stories.
Exceptional Delaware: What are your future plans in getting rid of Common Core and standardized testing?
Melissa: Future plans are to continue the road we are on now and educate more and more people at the grassroots level. Parents hold a lot of power in opt-outs/refusals (in New Jersey, there is no official opt-out law, so students technically “refuse the test.”) We must work to educate our communities. Host a tea with neighbors. Organize a showing of the film “Standardized” and host a “Take the PARCC Event” both of which are now happening in districts all across New Jersey. Share articles on social media. Educate one another. Wake people up. Shake them out of their apathy.
We must, must, must move beyond the idea that “if it doesn’t directly affect my kid, I don’t care.” This fight against common core, the abuse of high-stakes standardized testing, etc. is about the future of public education. It is crucial that we all take the responsibility to look beyond the bubble of just ourselves and our schools and look at our neighbors and the schools down the street and the urban district a few towns over and the suburban town one more over and the rural district another few towns over – this impacts all of us in different ways, so putting ourselves in others’ shoes and recognizing this is bigger than the individual is an important first step.
Exceptional Delaware: Where do you see teachers in five years if nothing changes?
Melissa: It will change. The tide is moving. Will the pendulum ever swing back? I don’t know. I think the pendulum itself has moved. But I think we need to continue what we’re doing, the path we’re on now, and continue to educate and mobilize on the ground with refusals and community, grassroots organizing. I genuinely think this is the start of an educational revolution from parents, students, teachers, and community members who will stand up and say “this is not what is in the best interest of our student, our schools, and education overall.”
Exceptional Delaware: What will it take to end all the nonsense being done to public school teachers and public school districts?
Melissa: I would hope that people in New Jersey would be more outraged over what’s about to hit us with new PARCC testing. We can look to New York and other states that have implemented common core, new state standardized testing, and new teacher evaluation systems to see what a complete disaster it has been. But many are still in the attitude of “let’s wait and see what happens.” It saddens me to say, but I think for many, it will take these reforms being implemented and *failing* (one can hope – and really one can predict) for people to wake up. It will have to hit many people personally for things to change. And this saddens me the most because at the end of the day, our students are hurt. Our students are being experimented on. And there is no accountability for those implementing these reforms if (and when) they continue to fail, as we’ve seen in cases already. Those implementing reforms at the highest levels can wash their hands of what happens and move on; all the while, our students are cheated out of the education they deserve.
Exceptional Delaware: Who would do better on a standardized test: Governor Christie or Governor Markell?
Melissa: (I know nothing about Governor Markell, so I’ll say they would both do the same.) We don’t even know what passing is for PARCC testing, so I can’t even comment on passing or not – again, we don’t know what passing is!
We need more people like Melissa Katz in Delaware. I am beginning to think a lot of the same thoughts she is, that the Smarter Balanced Assessment will be the line in the sand for parents. Until the reality of these new standardized tests hit home, not enough people will care. The opt out movement in New Jersey is growing at a rapid pace, much more than Delaware. We need that to change!
I find it interesting that many of the people I’ve talked to from New Jersey really don’t know who Governor Markell is, but ask most people in Delaware who Chris Christie is and they will tell you he is the Governor of New Jersey. We are a small state with little impact on things outside of our bubble, but our Governor has made an impact on education in this country. I didn’t say it was a good impact!
Thank you Melissa Katz for more of your keen insight. The USA looks forward to hearing much more from you in the future! To read more about Melissa’s voice, please check out: http://theeducationactivist.blogspot.com/