Dear Editor:

This fall will mark the 20th year I have walked into a school building with a smile on my face, ready to greet anyone I run into whether it be a student, colleague, administrator, parent or grandparent. 

It’s a time when my family knows that for a little bit they will be put on hold because it is important for me to get everything set up just right so I can create the perfect environment needed for the students that are about to enter the building. Granted, my position changed five years ago as I moved into an instructional coaching role, which makes that set up look a little different, but the passion and commitment remain the same. And thankfully, I’m not alone. I can’t name a single colleague that doesn’t do the same each fall. 

However, there is something that feels a lot different now. I used to know exactly what to do to prepare so everyone that walked in was just as happy as I am to be there. I’m not so confident in what that looks like anymore. I have had Winterset teachers share the following situations with me:

• Classes where 32.5 percent of the students walking in qualify for free or reduced lunches. To qualify for that, a family of 4 can’t make more than $25,100.

• Being handed a marijuana pipe by a student who reported they “didn’t like it because it made them feel funny” and hid it under their bed to try to avoid it. They later begged the teacher not to keep it because they were going to be in so much trouble once mom realized it was gone. They are six.

• A student barely staying awake in class because their family was living in a tent and it had rained the night before and it was hard to stay warm.

• A student living in their 17th foster home in their short six years of life. Seventeenth.

• A student really struggling because they were told they would be going to see their mom tomorrow, as she had just gotten out of jail. The last time they saw her she said and did horrible things to them, but they were told they had no choice about the visit. 

And another, and another, and another ... I could continue on for quite some time about the situations our students are bringing to school. 

These don’t even count the ones that comment that their parents said the school is a bad place and everyone there should be fired. Or “my parents said I have a horrible teacher, and they will be in to give her a piece of their mind”. Or “my parents said that a certain student should be kicked out of school, and I shouldn’t be his friend”. Or most recently, watching the news or reading social media or newspaper that says there are people at school that don’t care about them. 

I recently ran into an acquaintance that no longer has ties with the school and was told, “Boy, it sounds like that place is a mess.” 

These kids think this behavior is normal because that is what they see at home every day. They’ve never seen a home like mine, that is still far from perfect, but much different than what they are experiencing. And if we teach them they are just going to be rejected for doing what they’ve been taught is normal ... what will ever change for them? So send them to these so-called detention centers we hear about. They are full, with long waiting lists. 

I hear that it’s the parents’ responsibility. Maybe ... but if they don’t take responsibility, then what? For those parents that are taking responsibility, they are being told the only way they can get help is if their child makes a legitimate suicide threat/attempt. Can you imagine? “I will only help your son if he says he is going to kill himself.”

I’ve also heard over and over about the $200,000 the school is spending on six kids. The school has created the place to give these kids help. There is nowhere to send them to get the help, so they’ve created their own to try to help our local area. I applaud the district for thinking outside of the box and finding a solution when no other is being offered. Other schools are begging for a spot because their districts are facing the same issues.

I’m sitting and watching people that I have respected and admired since I was a little girl and am left wondering why they are saying and doing things just to tear someone else down. How do I handle all of that? 

My teacher prep classes taught me about the rules of reading and different ways to solve a math problem. I am one of the fortunate ones that haven’t even come close to facing situations these students are facing, so who am I to determine how those students are supposed to act? Every teacher and administrator I’ve sat with is begging for answers as to how do we help. The ideas that are being given by the researchers are being implemented, and frankly, with some students, they aren’t working. To hear that the school isn’t doing anything is heartbreaking to hear when so many have worked wholeheartedly to make a difference. 

The best analogy I can come up with is a scene from the movie “The Notebook”. Allie is suffering from dementia and for just a moment she remembers everything and is dancing peacefully with her husband, Noah. Suddenly, she forgets again and begins screaming and shouting she doesn’t know him. He responds with, “Allie, please … please don’t go. Stay with me …” That’s how the teachers are feeling every time one of our students begins to escalate. And unfortunately, much like Noah … . There is nothing that can be done except to try to calm her down, which in the movie is a tranquilizer shot. To the outside eye… in a school system, this attempt to get the student to calm down looks like a reward. Unfortunately, this is the only thing we know to do to try to calm someone that is at this irrational breaking point. 

When we put braces on my kids’ teeth, we didn’t expect them to be straight the next day. We knew it would take time. And when they gave us a date for when they would be taken off, it was approximate, because there may be things that don’t work along the way. I’ve never heard anyone at the school say they have it under control. I’ve never heard anyone say that they are glad they are dealing with these behavior issues. What I have heard, is “these are all our kids, and we have to keep working until we find something that works for everybody.” We haven’t found it yet, at least not for everyone …most isn’t good enough. Schools across the nation haven’t found it yet. It has turned into an epidemic.

I’ve heard Winterset has such a high turnover rate. Last year we hired 13 new staff. All 13 are returning. That’s a 100 percent retention rate. Winterset, being so close to the metro, is bound to lose some teachers due to the ability for bigger districts to pay more. Some are worn out by the demands of the job that is dictated by the state. Many come to Winterset to gain experience to have a better-looking resume to get hired at the bigger schools. Obviously not the case with all. I’m not sure we can say that every establishment that has folks resign or that are asked to resign is a sign of trouble. 

I’ve been hearing teachers aren’t allowed to speak up, and I’ve been asked if the teacher contract states that teachers can’t speak. We all have the right to free speech. However, teachers must respect ethics and confidentiality. Professionals must be cautious, especially those that are exposed to public scrutiny. If I’m afraid of retaliation, it would be from the community. I’ve walked into Dr. Meade’s office multiple times both about professional and personal concerns and have never had a concern about my job. I also am sensible enough to know that speaking up doesn’t mean getting my way. Just because the outcome isn’t what I would like for it to be, doesn’t mean my thoughts weren’t heard and considered. There is a team of teachers from the Winterset Community Education Association (WCEA) that meets with Dr. Meade and Mrs. Leners monthly as a labor-management team to try to alleviate problems before they get out of hand. This is something the administration is not required to do, especially with the new collective bargaining laws, but they do it because they know it is important. I believe this is why there have been no grievances filed by classified teachers since I became employed here in 2012. The behavior of students has been number one on that discussion list for months. Unfortunately, the solutions that have been implemented are working for some but not all students. There is still work to be done. 

NO ONE ... not the administration or parents or teachers, are saying that the problem is fixed. I’ve read and heard so many disappointing comments about the school and about people. But, I guess good things don’t come without hard times. My heart is broken for our superintendent and school board members. I cannot imagine having to sit for two and a half hours unable to correct any incorrect information being given and being inappropriately addressed on so many levels. Solutions. Action plans. Kindness. 

This is a REALLY complex and challenging problem. And I know we keep incorrectly hearing it’s a Winterset problem. It’s not. It is an epidemic. 

When you hear things, trust but verify. This hasn’t done me wrong yet but has gotten me in plenty of trouble when I haven’t. We have to work together to figure it out. And figuring it out isn’t going to happen overnight and without mistakes along the way. And we aren’t working together if we aren’t being kind. And we aren’t teaching our children to be kind when we aren’t being kind ourselves.

I encourage you: if a teacher or administrator or a school board member has made a difference for you, let them know. They are going to need help strapping on their boots before heading back to school this fall.

Be well.