Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dear Administrator: Please Don't Ask Me...

If I could write a letter to administrators about why I'm still a teacher after 31 years in the classroom, here's what I would say:

Dear Administrator:

With all due respect, and I do have great respect for you and appreciate the hard work you do very much, please don't ask me why I don't have a Ph.D. and why I don't pursue a professorship in a university.

I know you mean this question/suggestion as a compliment and want to encourage me to self-actualize. But I'm a high school teacher and have never desired to become an administrator or a professor. I believe high school students deserve the smartest, most learned, most inquisitive teachers and would like to see some of the fabulous college professors I've had use their talents to teach high school students.

Thank you for noticing and acknowledging my efforts to continue learning. However, I assure you that I'm not nearly as smart as you give me credit for being. I know my limitations and can name many teachers from around the country who make me look like the village idiot in terms of intellect and accomplishments. Just a few I've had the pleasure of meeting include Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Tim Gillespie, Penny Kittle, Meenoo Rami, Gary Anderson, Donnalyn Miller, to name a few.

Some others I know only online but have come to respect and admire: Michael Umphrey, Mardi, Mark Smith, and many others. Others I've had the good fortune to work closely with via my ties with the Folger Shakespeare Library and via the Ning my students share with a school in California: Julie Bowerman, Ami Szerence, Dana M. Huff, Mark Miazga, Scott O'Neal, Joe Scotese, and a whole host of other teachers whom I don't have space to name.

I've also had the good fortune to work side-by-side with excellent teachers who challenge me to be better than I ever thought I could be, including Shirley Saraf, a former colleague who encouraged me to pursue National Board Certification.

The news media and corporate education reformers tell us that American schools should be more like those in Finland. Yet Finland actively recruits the top students from their universities to be teachers. Conversely, in the United States, we often tell those teachers who push themselves academically, whom we see as "too smart to be teachers" to go do something else. This paradigm seems counter to the rhetoric, I think.

To my profession's credit, we have many teachers who ignore the "you're too smart to be a teacher" good intentions and remain in the classroom anyway. That's where I plan to stay until my retirement.

I'll need you to support and encourage me in my work. I'll need you to continue diminishing the importance of the scary laws that punish hard-working teachers. I'll need you to help me see how to improve my practice rather than telling me you "have nothing" to offer me in terms of planning and lesson execution. I need you to value my expertise and experience and work to encourage other teachers to continue learning and achieving in their academic areas.

As an undergrad I spent a summer working in a church in West Palm Beach, Florida. One Sunday the minister proclaimed from the pulpit: "You can't lead where you haven't been." That admonishment has stuck with me and has guided my teaching. I believe it's the kind of leadership students need in the classroom and beyond.

So please don't ask me why I'm still a teacher thirty-one years in; I've heard this question too often. Instead, ask why we aren't doing more in our state and nation to encourage the best among us to be teachers, and not just for a brief two-year stint as TFA requires. 

Ask me to help make that happen; then it'll be time for me to step aside and make room for the next generation of teachers, whom I hope will be far more accomplished than my limited successes have made me.

I'm a teacher because I want to make a difference in the lives of students, just the way those teacher who challenged and pushed me most have done for me. I still have a few years left to do that.


Glenda Funk, NBCT: AYA/ELA; MA English; Folger TSI Alum

What would your letter to administrators say?

Below: "What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali


  1. Aw, Glenda, you rock. My letter to my former administrator would have included far more four letter words, but then you've always had much more tact than I, haha. :)

  2. Glenda -- I'm humbled by the illustrious company you've lumped me in with. I count you among the brightest of our profession. Your insights, pluck, and common sense make me always click anything that has your name attached to it.

    I'm in the classroom for my 32nd year. I have two more to go after this one. In the first part of the present century, I took a position (department chair) that lessened my time in the classroom. Although I enjoyed some aspects of that position, I wanted to get back in the classroom full-time. I've never regretted that decision one bit.

    In the meantime, we've had a revolving door on our principal's and superintendent's offices, not to mention two other fine people have served as our department chair.

    My work in the classroom is largely independent of the machinations of those above me. They have their jobs to do, and I have mine. I regret that they rarely intersect these days, but I know I'm in the right place.

    These days I try to say Yes to anything that involves (1.) direct benefits to students; (2.) enhancing the teaching of writing; or (3.) the opportunity to develop or deliver authentic professional development. I'll do any of those things with a full head of enthusiastic steam. Knowing my parameters makes it easy to say No to everything else.

    Whenever somebody starts pestering me to do something that doesn't fit my interests, I feel a bit like Huck Finn as he signs off his book: "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."

    For me, "the Territory" is and always will be the classroom.