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Ferial Pearson is a college instructor in Omaha and a former teacher in the public schools who has embarked on a mission of kindness. In this newspaper article, she wrote a letter to the teachers of Omaha to thank them for their hard work and their many successes. The letter got a lot of buzz in Nebraska and on social media because some politicians have been bad-mouthing the public schools, as part of their cpaign for vouchers.
Change the name of the city and state and the letter would sound right in every district.
Dear Omaha Public School teachers,
I see you. I see your work. I know you are doing innovative, creative, pedagogically sound things. I know how much you care about your students and how hard you love them. I know this because I’ve been in dozens and dozens of your schools in the past three years and have been blown away by your talents, skills and resilience. I know because I taught at Omaha South High School for 10 years and Ralston High for two, and I lived it. I know because I have now taught more than a hundred of you in my classes at the College of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha over the past six years.
We have laughed and cried together about our work and our students. You have been brave and vulnerable in sharing your struggles and insecurities, and we have grown, so much, together. I know because I go to IncluCity Camp with your students and hear about how much they are learning and how much they look up to you. Are there some bad eggs? Absolutely. But the good ones outshine the bad. By far.
On Monday, I read about an Omaha South High student from Mexico who was accepted to Harvard. Two years ago, while observing a practicum student at Omaha North High, I met an African American student who was trying to decide between two Ivy League schools that he had been accepted to, one of which his brother was already attending. I have seen my own students go to Yale, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Creighton, University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and many, many other schools.
Some have doctorates, others are Licensed Mental Health Care Professionals, teachers with graduate degrees, social workers, social justice advocates, rock star chefs, phenomenal mechanics, welders, professional artists, utility line workers, day care providers, professors, lawyers, medical doctors, writers, business owners, professional musicians, fashion designers, funeral directors, athletes, mentors, and the list goes on. I could tag them all here, but you’d be reading until next year.
These are students of different races, abilities, backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders, and nationalities. Last week, I met a young man who now works Centris Credit Union, thanks to the innovative work of staff at Omaha South High who collaborated with Wells Fargo to open a branch in the school so that kids could do actual banking and that provided him with a direct line to his career today. I remember the Packasso Project, the brainchild of Fairouz Bishara and the Art Department at Omaha South High School getting talented artists off the streets and giving them legitimate canvasses and artist mentors from across the community. There are stories like this in almost every school in this city.
So, dear OPS teachers, when the education reformers tell you that you are failing at your job based on test scores, or that your schools are “bad” or “failing” please tell them the stories of your students. Never stop bragging about your students. Tell them that the ones don’t make it aren’t suffering from an achievement gap; they are suffering from an opportunity gap and that is something that the community needs to help us with.
We do what we can with what we’ve got, and when the soil is fertile and the sun shines and there is enough water, our seeds thrive and bloom into gorgeous blossoms. Sometimes, we plant a seed in a child, but that child is in dry and barren soil, is traumatized, and doesn’t know when it will rain next, and so we nurture them as best we can. They may get that sunshine and rain and food years after we let them go and we’ll never see the fruits of our labor, but they come back, sometimes, and they show us their flowers. Some never do, and that’s sad, and we do our best anyway.
Tell the education reformers that rather than taking our resources away to try and do better than us in a different place with our kids, whom we love, that there are already great things happening here, and we could use those resources to become even better. We are not perfect, but we are doing great things and willing to improve. Tell them to work with us to care about the whole child. To help us get those children their sunshine and soil and food and water. We’ll take care of their brains and hearts if the community will help us take care of their bodies as well.
Thank you for doing what you do and being who you are. You are my heroes.
(Note: This goes for ALL my public school teacher friends, not just in Omaha, and to the paraprofessionals and custodians and administrators and media specialists and cafeteria workers and office assistants and..and…)