One teacher to others: Our voices can shape Connecticut education

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Recently, I had a parent schedule a meeting to discuss her daughter’s progress over the year. The week of the meeting, the nervous student beckoned me into the hallway.

“Miss, what are you going to say?” she whispered.

At first, I didn’t grasp what she was asking. We were in the middle of morning homeroom and the upcoming parent conference didn’t come to mind.

“Miss, what are you going to say?” she asked, more urgently this time.

Finally, catching on, I tried to do that teacher thing we all do, and turn it around on her. “Well, what do YOU think I should say?” I replied back.

“MISS, what are you going to say?” She was having none of my noncommittal response.

In that moment, I realized the power my words could have over that student. Whatever I was going to say could determine if she got her phone taken away, if she got grounded, or if she got rewarded for great behavior and improving grades. My words could dictate her future, if even for just a few weeks.

In some ways, it can be easy as teachers of young children to understand the power our voices have in our students’ lives, and in their self-esteem. Our words can urge a child to struggle through a difficult problem, or shape the way they see themselves. Despite this, we often forget the power we can wield outside the four walls of our classroom.

But our words do have power. As an Educators for Excellence (E4E) teacher for over six years, I have had many opportunities to share my perspective. As a member of a teacher action team on teacher evaluation, I’ve seen the impact my voice has had at the state level. Our E4E teacher policy team introduced and helped implement recommendations for improving professional development in Bridgeport schools.

More recently, my work with E4E has led me to use my voice to engage with legislators about budget cuts, funding inequity, and how inadequate fiscal resources impact my classroom.

We’ve all heard the stories about how funding inequities affect students and teachers — my story is no different. My first introduction to this injustice came when I was preparing to give an end-of-year test, but was told that I couldn’t because the school was out of paper. I work in a classroom where I am expected to run science lab experiments, yet have no safety equipment or chemicals, and I need to buy most of the materials we use.

I always knew my district had very little money, especially compared to Fairfield, Westport, and Southport districts just down the road. However, I did not understand the systemic nature of the problem until I started working on the School Finance Advocacy team at E4E. I learned that what I saw in my classroom was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to funding inequity; students throughout the state have very different access to resources, due to a complex and convoluted funding system that does not meet the needs of our schoolchildren.

This is why we must remember that our voices have power.

Recently, the voice of one judge ruled this inadequate funding system unconstitutional. Several legislators have raised their voices and proposed new ways to fund schools in our state. Advocacy groups and educational organizations are hosting events, panels, and rallies to further this discussion.

As teachers, we need to add our voices to the conversation.

My students are capable, bright kids who have their entire lives ahead of them. They meet me at school every day and work toward the bright futures they can’t yet imagine. Just like students in wealthier districts, they study, take exams, panic about adolescent worries and navigate the hallways they best they know how. But unlike their wealthier counterparts, my students’ education is an uphill battle mired by funding inequities and block grants that don’t meet their needs.

Teachers like me across this state know what resources can do for a student. The insight we bring from our classroom experiences must be shared to inform the decisions at the state level — especially those pertaining to our students.

When it comes to teacher voice, we know how we can impact our classrooms alone. But now is the time to harness the power of our voices to change the systems that impact those classrooms and our students’ lives.

Our students deserve equitable funding and a system that works for all students.

So, what are YOU going to say?

Christine Kasten is a teacher in the Bridgeport Public Schools.

What do you think?

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