Obama’s Education Secretary: Why I Care So Much

I didn’t expect to be pleased with every Cabinet appointment made by Barack Obama, but his choice of Secretary of Education hits close to home. Years ago, I had a very successful career as an editor, but after volunteering as a tutor for quite a while, I decided that I wanted to teach. So I quit my L Street job in Washington DC, and moved to Maryland to go to graduate school.  For 2 years I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, scraped together rent money, and eventually earned a Master of Teaching degree and became certified to teach Special Education.

I had 2 glorious years of teaching, working with 6th grade students at a middle school in Baltimore County. I was lucky to find an opening at that school, as teachers never left. They loved it too much. It was not perfect — it was located in an area with a mix of demographics, and more than its fair share of unemployment, substance abuse, and domestic violence. But the teachers were dedicated, and the students knew it. And the principal had the freedom to develop schedules and strategies that would meet the needs of the student body at this school. As an Inclusion Teacher, I worked with subject area teachers to adapt their lessons and I supported the students with learning disabilities who were in those classes.

I also taugh two small English classes every day. Because although my certification was in Special Education, I had coursework and career experience with the English language.  Plus, you may have noticed, I love to read and to write. I loved creating lessons to engage the students. One of my proudest days of teaching was when the principal entered the room unannounced — which he often did, simply walking through the classroom to be visible to the students. Except this time, the students didn’t notice him, because they were all up at the blackboard diagramming sentences.

Yeah, that’s what  I said. Diagramming sentences.

You see, students with ADHD and a reading disability do much better when learning is accompanied by physical movement. It’s well documented; it’s not my original idea. So instead of just trying to remember why every sentence must have a subject, they could see it. They could feel it.

The principal smiled at me and walked out the back door of the classroom.

Then along came No Child Left Behind. I gave it a good try — I really did. I taught for 4 more years and I just couldn’t take it any more.  The principal left. Teachers left. All we did any more was get the students ready for tests. And needless to say, small English classes full of only students with learning disabilities was no longer allowed. It didn’t matter that some of those students would not be successful in a class of 35, even if there were now 2 teachers.

In the end, I burnt out. I didn’t get to do anything creative anymore. I felt like a robot at the front of the classroom, and the behavior of the students at this school went downhill so fast it made my head spin.  So every day became a case of survival, and I had to decide: do I want to do this for the next 20 years?

I couldn’t imagine it. So I left. I’m still in the education field, but teaching adults and college students is much less stressful.

I apologize for this long post, and thank you if you’re still reading. You get an “A” for effort! But perhaps you can see now why I care so much about the state of education in our country, even though I do not have children myself. I’ve been there. I have seen a child’s face light up when he or she “gets it.” And I have also seen them give up when the lesson moved too fast or was presented in a way they could not understand due to their disability.  It doesn’t have to be that way, and to see Barack Obama name someone who (A) has no teaching experience, and (B) is a part of this corporatization of education, makes me wonder where the “Change” is.



  1. excellent

    this is disappointing – as is a lot of what obama has done so far – some change, it seems like more of the same, only with a lot better package

    but that is for another day

    the state of education in this country – you know better, but it is not a good state- and that means NOT a good future

  2. Thank you all for reading the entire post — that took some perseverance on your part!

    DistributorCap, when I was teaching, we used to look out at our students and think “These are the people who are going to be taking care of us in our old age! Yikes!”

  3. Sue –

    My sister *used* to teach ESL – which is highly needed in California — and had the same career trajectory (or tragedy more likely). She now teaches it on the side for adult learning and is an administrator in her old school district as her regular job.

    I have a lot of admiration for those who teach, inspite of the old saw.



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