Centered: The Arizona K12 Center’s Executive Director, Dr. Kathy Wiebke, offers her education insights in this monthly column.
Dear Arizona Education Professional,
As I type this, it’s Nov. 6, Election Day across Arizona and the United States. The polls are open and if you believe the pundits and reports, this election cycle will see a record number of voters. The polls won’t close for hours. We probably won’t know the final results for a couple of days. I write this now, in advance, because I don’t want my thoughts to be clouded by the results.
For the past year, the state’s education professionals have used their voices to talk about the condition of Arizona’s schools because working conditions are learning conditions. In the process, you have articulated that it is not a single teacher who makes the difference. Rather it is the community of professionals: the bus driver, food service worker, teacher, social worker, principal, custodian, superintendent, curriculum specialist, and many others who make our schools robust places of learning. A single person can strike a match, but it takes the entire system to fan the flame and keep the fire burning. All too often, all we hear about are the teachers. Don’t get me wrong, they are critical. However, without the countless professionals around that teacher, the system does not work. It is when all these people work together, in tandem, that magic happens. And, when they are all well-trained and well-supported, watch out! That is when miracles can happen.
For too long, we have not supported our schools to the levels that Arizona’s children deserve. This was no more apparent than during a recent meeting hosted by Expect More Arizona. At the meeting the student panel, all in their first year at Arizona State University (ASU), spoke about their education experience in our state’s K-12 schools. Two of the students spent their entire K-12 time in Arizona and the third moved here in ninth grade. One student was in an engineering program, another wants to be a criminal defense attorney, and the third was in an arts program. They all appeared to be hard-working students with great ambition and hope for their own futures. As I listened, I couldn’t help but feel we let them down, especially the ones who spent their entire K-12 career in the Arizona system.
They talked about English teachers coming from the Philippines, a steady stream of substitute teachers, and broken-down buses. One explained a perpetual struggle with math because of the constant onslaught of substitutes. I thought he was talking about what I envision as being “basic math.” But no, he was talking about algebra and geometry. All of them said they entered the university system woefully underprepared because of the constant churn of educators in and out of the school system.
Arguably, the saddest was when one student spoke about all the dual-credit classes he took (and, paid for), only to discover they would only count as electives at the university. As a result, he is taking 18 hours comprised of everything but electives at ASU. We have disheartened our kids by underfunding a system that does not provide for working buses, social workers, guidance counselors, and well-trained teachers, to name a few.
This past year, you raised your voices and shared your personal stories. You matched your words with your actions. Many of you decided to take matters into your own hands and started ballot initiatives. You walked strong to the state capitol and talked to neighbors, as you gathered signatures for candidates and initiatives. And, many of you, took that ultimate step and became candidates for public office. As candidates, you canvassed neighborhoods through dust, wind, and rain. New hashtags emerged. Your friends joined you on the campaign trail. Evenings and weekends were spent speaking to virtual strangers about why you chose to run and your commitment to Arizona’s public education system. You shared your stories and shone a bright spotlight on Arizona’s PK-12 public education system, warts and all. Through this, people began to understand that it wasn’t just the teacher that made the difference. It was, and is everyone in the system all committed to one goal — the education of Arizona’s children.
Speaking truth to power is one of the hardest things to do and you did it. Your message nor commitment waivered. I have no idea what the election results will bring but what I do know is that through your actions, the education community will never be the same, as you have seen first-hand the power in your voice.
So, on Election Day, as I write this and during American Education Week, as you read this, I’m writing to say “thank you.” You did more to change the landscape and discourse of public education in one year than has happened in my lifetime. As a native Arizonan and career educator, I marvel at all you have accomplished. Your enthusiasm and energy have inspired me. No matter the outcome, you have set a new standard for us all. Never will we return to a life of complacency. Running for office, going door to door, raising your voice, and sharing your stories — these have all been herculean tasks. In reality, I should not be surprised. It is what you do every day. You advocate for kids and, in the process, you are advocating for Arizona’s future.
Thank you for this amazing ride. Thank you for all you do for Arizona’s children. Thank you for showing us all what is possible.
With my appreciation,