The following interview with a Cleveland teacher was conducted on Oct. 31. The teacher’s name was changed at her request.

“Oh, I see you have no life either!” With that grim joke, Cleveland teachers greet each other when they come in to work on Saturdays without pay.

“It’s the only way I can get my room organized and collect my classroom materials for the coming week,” explained Virginia Little, an art teacher at an elementary school. “It’s all about money,” Little added. The words just kept tumbling out of her mouth as she described the catastrophe that has hit her city’s schools.

“Cleveland schools have no money. The referendum for more school funding failed because homeowners can’t afford higher taxes. Charter schools have made it worse. They are run for profit by people who are not educators. When they don’t make a profit they close, right in the middle of the school year. Then we get those students back in the public schools, but they come without money. The state school allotment has already been spent by the charter school that closed.”

“I work all the time,” Little said. “I come home from school exhausted. But I have to do my records at home. It’s the only way I can find time to do the work I really love, interact with the students. By the time I finish my records, I fall asleep. Then it is time to go to work again.”

When Little listed her workload, I exclaimed, “That’s got to be illegal.” She is the art teacher for grades K-8 (kindergarten through 8th grade). That, by itself, means nine different teacher preparations. “And sometimes I have to teach preschool, too,” she added.

“How many students do you teach?” I asked.

“About 500,” Little replied. “It wasn’t always like this. There used to be two art teachers here before the budget cuts. We used to have grades 3 to 5 before the cuts. Then they closed a school for grades 6 to 8 and sent them here. Then we got the K to 3 and preschool when another school closed. That adds to about 500 students I have to teach and grade.

“We still give letter grades, A through F,” Little continued. “Then we have to fill out eight to nine more columns for each student. That includes four columns for academic standards or benchmark levels. Four more columns are for attendance and behavior plus a comments column. We fill out these reports every nine weeks and every four weeks for failing students. The standards are good but I can’t stand the overload. Too many students! Guess I’ll have to look for another job.”

Little is one of the most creative and dedicated teachers I have ever met. To interest her students in a particular artist, she makes slide shows for her classes. The slide shows introduce the artist’s life and times and show examples of his or her work. Then students create their own art in the style of the artist.

To add interest, this talented teacher created a school-wide campaign. She printed campaign buttons with the artist’s portrait and name. The pin was awarded to any student or teacher who answered one of three basic questions about the artist. Soon the whole school was wearing pins and parents wanted them too. On the artist’s birthday, a big party took place. Two huge cakes with icing that traced the artist’s face were displayed. Anyone with a button could get a piece of cake. Parents came too to get their piece of cake. Everyone had a wonderful time.

It is the students and community who will lose if good teachers like Little are forced to quit. But parents and labor-community actions have saved Cleveland schools before. They can do it again.

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