Cheryl Arnett: Romney in small-town America: Coal vs. Kids |

Cheryl Arnett: Romney in small-town America: Coal vs. Kids

Cheryl Arnett, First-grade teacher, Sunset Elementary School
Cheryl Arnett, First-grade teacher, Sunset Elementary School
Courtesy Photo

Tuesday was a historic day in the rural Northwestern community of Craig, Colo.

With a population of fewer than 10,000 people, it was an unlikely campaign stop for Mitt Romney. But thanks to the hard work and passion of some local residents, to Craig he came, ready to discuss coal and energy concerns.

The event was everything a small town could ask for. I could not begin to sum it up better than local newspaper columnist Janet Sheridan in her beautiful post, “Americana in Craig.”

I was honored to be asked to participate in a small roundtable discussion with Governor Romney before the community event.

The small gathering included local businessmen and representatives from the local energy industry. I represented education concerns. The opportunity was an honor to me and I put a great deal of effort into researching Romney’s education position before attending.

I also spent a great deal of time carefully selecting the words I would use in the few moments I would have to actually speak to someone who may become the leader of our country. I wanted to make the words count and to reflect what I considered to be the most important issue standing in the way of education in the U.S.

I should have realized when his first question was asking which of us was the teacher that I may not be seen as an ally equal to the energy people in the room, but that did not occur to me until I began my turn to speak. My message was simple:

Our community has the obvious concerns about funding needs in education. That goes without saying.

Class size does matter, especially in the primary grades. But, more important to me is the need for our country to change from an emphasis on creating a nation of successful test-takers to building an educational system that inspires problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.

An overemphasis on standardized testing performance is crippling education and stifling innovation. I have teacher friends in countries around the world. Our educational system is seen as the test-and-punish system.

Educators, parents, and community groups are working hard in Craig to transform our district from the industrial age model to meet the 21st century learning needs of our young people. Perhaps less top-down government regulation and more support for grassroots efforts are worth a try.

I did not actually get to state all of that before he began to respond negatively, telling me that without standardized testing there would be no way to know which were the bad schools. He told me we need to teach the basics of reading, writing and math and that teaching to the test was not a bad thing because it represented teaching the basics.

As I tried to continue to make my points, he offered charter schools as a solution and put down the teacher’s union. His exact words at the community rally: “I love great teachers, I love great parents, and I love great kids. I’m going to put our kids first. I want to make sure we have a president that cares more about kids than he does about the teacher’s union.”

I am not a member of the teacher’s union.

That’s not because I don’t value and support its work, but because I have not received a cost of living raise for several years, have had my insurance costs increased and cannot afford the high monthly union dues.

I teach reading, writing and math in my first-grade classroom. Those are the very basis of all 21st century skills. In fact, my students’ work has been recognized by both the Smithsonian and Microsoft in the past few years. I consider myself to be a great teacher and children are my life.

Anyone who knows me, knows I go above and beyond to advocate for my students and their needs.

In the end, I was left speechless, resentful and plan to cast my vote for anyone other than Mitt Romney.

By the way, just before he boarded the bus in downtown Craig, he stopped and shook my hand again and asked which grade I taught. I told him first and second and he said his second-grade teacher was the one he remembered most.

I took a walk one morning this week, when I do my best thinking. I reflected on the experience and the role point of view played in the day. I listened to other people at the roundtable tell of hardships created by too much government regulation.

They told of lost jobs and lost income. He sympathized and asked clarifying questions. They put down President Barack Obama and cast him as the cause of all the misery.

Romney agreed and said he would be different. When it was my turn, I expected the same respect for my cause, but it did not happen because my cause did not provide an opportunity to sway votes or attack the existing president. No Child Left Behind was created by President George W. Bush. Governor Romney’s plan, A Chance For Every Child, is not a new plan. It is more of the same.

We live in a country where we are blessed to be able to choose our leader and state our opinions freely. I was blessed to have the opportunity to state mine to a powerful person Tuesday.

I will always be grateful. I can only hope that perhaps Governor Romney has moments of solitude to reflect on the things people say to him. I hope that in one of those moments he realizes that my words were, in fact, in support of great teachers and great kids.

Just the fact that I am a teacher does not make me the enemy. Our educational system is burdened by too much government regulation and, as a result, people are losing their jobs, just as they are in the energy industry.

The issues of coal and schools are very much the same. It’s time for politicians to advocate for what is right and what they believe in, not just what will get them elected.

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