Can you imagine? The governor of your state is just elected and the following month he proposes legislation spelling out disturbing changes for school funding, dissolution of unions, and a dissolving of contracts.
That’s a lot of "dis’es"—including disrespectful and disastrous.
This bill was drafted and up for a vote with little or no dialogue. School administrators were not included in any kind of conversation about impacts and consequences. Teachers, students, families, and community members were stunned with uncertainty.
This is what happened in Wisconsin last February.
On Friday, February 12, 2011, thousands of teachers across the state called in sick and marched on Madison to protest Governor Walker’s bill.
It was pandemonium.
It was pandemonium.
In my close-knit community of Edgar, Wisconsin we were in shock as things unfolded. Edgar is a small rural community with a population of 1,300. The village is a mere four streets wide and two miles long. It’s surrounded by farmland and home to three city parks, fishing ponds, and a beautiful 70-acre wooded preserve. Our school is the focal point of community life.
I admit that Edgar is a unique school district. All 750 K-12 students are housed beneath one roof. We just completed a $7 million building addition—even in the midst of these economically difficult times. Of our 240 high school students, academic achievement is high and 95 percent are involved in co-curricular activities. Our school motto is ‘Edgar Excellence,’ and we’ve created a climate that not only supports students, but also supports the staff in achieving our very best.
Our secret to success is this: strong adult leadership and nurturing relationships with the entire school community. The benefit of being in one K-12 school boils down to this—it is unbelievably refreshing to be a high school teacher in a place where elementary and middle schoolers regularly visit the biology room during their lunch to hold the class rat and check out the fish!
On that ominous Friday in February, all Edgar teachers reported to work. Our decision to stay put stemmed from the realization that our administration was just as shocked, surprised, and upset because this legislation impacted every facet of our school district’s operation. For our small district, teachers calling in sick would have created a very difficult situation for our community at a crucial moment when it was important for us to be standing united with our community.
Fortunately, our school leadership had the foresight to draft a new contract before the governor’s bill was approved. The contract met new financial mandates while making sure no teachers were laid off. We were working together as a community to protect what we had worked so hard to create.
Governor Walker’s law eventually passed, and the state is reeling with uncertainty. Our future in Edgar—and every school in Wisconsin—is now very uncertain. Truth be told, it feels like we’ve stepped back into the 1880s when workers had no voice and lived under the complete mercy of those in charge.
I realize there’s been negative press and conversation concerning education in the past few years. I also realize there are serious issues within our educational system as a whole. I struggle with spending my own precious energy focusing on the negative when my school district is modeling what a healthy and productive educational structure can look like.
I’m also part of a profession that invests in relationships and process—a profession that thinks about the ‘we,’ not just the ‘me.’ While my district may be fine for now, under this political climate it feels like the beginning of the end of an outstanding public school system, and it brings to me a numbing sadness.
So what can we do to keep our spirits up? To give our students the best education possible? To live healthy lives?
Our school community is what keeps my spirits up. I work with exceptionally passionate and positive people, and I work for an administration that supports and encourages our passion.
Despite my deep concerns about the future of education as a profession, there are some bright spots, including the new generation of young teachers who are joining the Edgar staff.
There are nine particularly bright spots—I now work with nine of my former students who have returned to the district as teachers and administrators. What an honor to know that some of our best and stellar students not only went into the field of education, but also wanted to return home and work side by side with their former teachers.
On Tuesday, November 15, a “Recall Walker” rally is planned for Madison. Being politically involved and paying attention to the issues has become crucial in Wisconsin. Paying attention to school board candidates and pressing them on issues is critical. Even if our school board has solid pro-education plans, its hands may be tied by the political climate and decision-making in Madison. In June, our contract or “rule book” expires. We will have no protection, despite the good will and support of our administration.
Though I won’t be able to join my fellow teachers—and citizens—for the rally, I will be there in solidarity and in spirit. Education is not the only ‘quality of life’ issue experiencing crippling financial cuts.
On that day, I’ll dedicate my biology lesson to those marching in Madison. After school, I’ll go for a walk in the woods, then have tea with my dearest friend Carol so that on Wednesday I will be whole, positive, and present for my students.
How to Navigate a Positive Life
How many times have you been told, "I don't know how you do it"? I love my students—and for most of us, they are at the root of our passion for teaching—but it takes more than love to keep me going.
Here are some tools I use to keep a positive outlook while dealing with the wake of budget cuts and public scrutiny.
- Focus on our young people. By working with them and being present to them, other frustrations lose their intensity—at least that day!
- Promote community support of our schools. A veteran teacher once told me that the best proactive tool is to write articles about the good things happening in the classroom—like our field trip to Aldo Leopold’s ‘shack,’ or the environmentally-focused puppet show my students create and perform for all the elementary students. I’ve been writing articles for our district newsletter ever since.
- Make time for quiet, make time for you. Each morning I set aside two hours to meditate, practice yoga, or sit quietly. This distraction-free silence gives me the grounding I need to trust a deeper intuition that has never led me astray.
- Get outside. Let nature do its peaceful work on your spirit.
- Surround yourself with positive, healthy people. I treasure the strong, healthy relationships I have with a few close friends. Why engage with negative people or situations that you can't control?
- Be selective about where your precious and limited energy goes. Choose carefully where you’re willing to invest, and focus on things that speak to your heart. Outside of work, I pour energy into family, a rich and diversified faith community, and have begun stepping into healthy community participation focusing on food security issues and services for those in need.
It is the rich and balanced participation of developing relationships within the community that reminds me that we are all in this together—in spite of the difficult times that lie ahead.
Jean Abreu wrote this story for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jean is a high school biology teacher in Edgar, Wisconsin. She’s also an artist, community activist, pretty good cook, and loves the out of doors.