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Teacher Appreciation: An Open Letter to My Child’s Teacher

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Julie Collier, Executive Director of Parents Advocate League, shares her story of why she fights so hard for change in education during teacher appreciation week:

Dear Ms. M.,

As our family takes time during Teacher Appreciation Week to celebrate the teachers that have blessed our children, we are reminded how truly important the profession of teaching is to a child. We focus on the ways their teachers helped them learn and improve with mistakes over the years. We talk about my experience as a student and my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Shinn, who inspired me to become an educator. My boys love hearing that I used to hate reading and writing back in the day until Mrs. Shinn allowed me to shine in my own way. They also love hearing about my former students and how I taught them, finding inspiration in their accomplishments.

Every year at this time I use this week to focus on the positive. I remind my children how far they have come, and all the great lessons that are still in store for their future. We talk about each grade they have made it through and how their teachers helped them.

This year was different. This was the first year my older son recognized that we never really talk about his first grade year. The year he was in your class. In that moment I allowed myself to be reminded of this painful time for my son and me as a mom and educator. I remembered (like it was yesterday) the very moment you told me he was having difficulty reading, and you suggested we work with him more at home. We did. I remember when you told me he could have dyslexia, and you suggested we have him diagnosed. We took him to his doctor right away who said, “He absolutely does NOT have dyslexia. If I had a dollar for every 1st grade teacher that said a student had this disorder, I could quit my job.”

I choose to leave the profession of teaching, the profession that I love so dearly, in order to focus fully on being a mother to my children. I knew that my duty, both as an educator and mom, was to get to the bottom of why my son was not learning to read. I continued to seek your advice as a fellow educator and the teacher to my son. I believed in you and trusted that you had all the answers. After all, you were the reading specialist at the school, and you have a masters degree in teaching reading.

I knew there was a problem when my son started crying before school. This was completely uncharacteristic and a huge red flag. He said he hated school and wanted to stay home because he didn’t understand it. He said it was too noisy in class. At one point he asked me if he was “special needs” and if so, why didn’t we tell him? My child, your student, felt like a failure in your classroom. Your continued response was to “do more at home.” There was one time when you brought me all your masters’ books and asked me to go through them because you just did not know what else to do.

The moment that I didn’t see coming, finally arrived February of that year, after months of concern and trying to work with you in resolving this together. My desperate worry for my child’s lack of growth in your classroom came to a head. Exasperated I said to you, “We are doing everything at home we possibly can to help,” and asked, “what more can YOU do to help my child?” You crossed your arms and sternly said, “Julie, we have nothing to offer your son.”

My heart felt like it stopped. I knew in that very moment my son was going to have a wasted school year in your class. I also knew you had washed your hands of this “problem.” I don’t remember if I even responded to you or not. I do remember walking away from you feeling such profound disappointment and frustration, yet total resolve to not let my child fail. It was in my hands now, and mine alone.

That day I had to sit my dejected 7 year old child down and tell him, “This is not your fault. Unfortunately, you do not have a great teacher this year, but I am going to do everything I can help make this better for you. There are great teachers out there, and one day you are going to be a great student like you always wanted to be.” As I explained to your student/my son the new learning plan I had for him, I could see a slight glimmer of hope in his eyes.

I found a tutor. I told you that from this point forward, my son was going to do my homework, and not yours. Most importantly, I found my voice. I got loud. I spoke to anyone that would listen about how my son was failing in first grade. Come to find out, there were other children not doing well in your class, either. My son was not alone, and parents that were feeling the same fear for their child as I was, were also no longer alone. In fact, seven of the children in your class were going to parent-paid, after-school tutoring because you had “nothing to offer.”

Your apathy towards my child’s academic achievement ignited a flame in me that continues to burn to this day. It is why I started Parents Advocate League. It is why I continue to speak out at board meetings and education hearings at the state for students and parents. I volunteer my time to help other parents that feel lost in this system because of you and teachers like you. Your apathy is also why I value the profession of teaching more as a parent than I ever understood as a teacher in my own classroom. I get it now.

I can say with confidence and undeniable proof that one bad school year really can have a profound and negative impact on a child. Eventually, my son made progress, but it has been a constant uphill struggle for him. He started feeling more comfortable, and was open to learning new things. He had some great teachers that helped him along the way, and we celebrate them every year at this time. His greatest improvement came in 6th grade when he enrolled in a new charter school. His state test scores went up over 100 points! Most importantly, he developed a love of learning that carries him to this day. His true colors are finally shining through, like I knew they could. I feel like I can honestly say he has finally recovered, and is on the road to achieving his dream of going to the Naval Academy.

So, going back to my son’s question as why we never talk about his first grade year. I explained to him that he had a point. We should talk about that year because of all the years he has been in school, THAT was the year we all learned the most important lesson of our lives: every child deserves a great teacher every, single school year. A great teacher really does make a difference in the life and future of a child.

This Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to recognize you and thank you. Thank you for teaching us such an important life lesson. Thank you for helping me understand that I can make a difference in my children’s education beyond making copies or holding bake sales. Thank you for inspiring me to find my voice, and to encourage other parents to stand up for their own children. Thank you for the unforgettable memory of the moment you gave up on my child. Horrible though it was to hear those words, it empowers me to this day to stay strong in difficult times and reminds me to never give up, because every child deserves a great teacher.

Thank you.

I truly hope you are well and that you learned a lesson from that year too.

Sincerely,

Julie Collier
Executive Director and Founder
Parents Advocate League