CPS Elects Award-Winning Teacher as New President

New CPS President Ann O'Halloran

Citizens for Public Schools has chosen an award-winning, retired teacher from Waltham to be its next president. Ann B. O’Halloran, 2007 Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year, was the unanimous choice of the group’s board of directors at its March meeting. 

O’Halloran taught special and elementary education for 30 years, mostly in Boston and Newton, and served as a mentor for new teachers. She was honored as the Newton Teachers Association Friend of Education in 2009.

By way of introduction, here are Ann’s comments to the board upon her election.

Good evening everyone. It’s strange to think that I didn’t know most of you three years ago.

At CPS I’ve met people who have worked in so many different fields but believe as passionately as do I that the state and the country are taking education down a desperate path.

I want to thank particularly those of you who have worked on our issues for literally decades! While I watched the testing terrors developing from the inside, you were already fighting them. And I had no idea.

Thank you to those who have more recently joined CPS. Walking along the path that began 30 years ago is a tremendous honor and challenge.

I’m so pleased for this opportunity to become President of the organization. CPS means more to me than anyone could imagine.

I loved teaching for 32 years for many reasons, and much of my classroom time was very positive…until the last ten years, the MCAS years. Need I say more?  In those early days of MCAS, our students would ask us if we would get fired if they didn’t do a good job on the test. “Of course not,” we’d reply, “it’s just to show whether our curriculum meets the state standards.” Little did we know that eventually Massachusetts teachers could be fired if the students didn’t do well on the test.

When MCAS came along I was the special educator in a co-taught fourth/fifth grade class. Those early days are marked on my soul.

Meanwhile – CPS was at work! Had I only known. . .

In the early days we teachers were given various practice activities to do with our classes. Since our class was one-third students with special needs and two-thirds “typical” students, we worked hard with them so they could understand how the test worked, and could develop some strategies for dealing with just the format of questions and answers.

We must have been getting too zealous, because one of our top students refused to come to school one day. As the canary in the coal mine, she told her mom that school was “all about MCAS” now.

That night I couldn’t sleep, wrestling with MCAS — the first of many nightmare-filled evenings.  Finally, I decided on a plan. During the afternoons when the tests were finished, we would use Sharpie markers to print a wonderful poem written by one of the students on the worn steps and risers of the stairs outside our room. It focused on Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Smarts,” as we called them. Centered right in front of our classroom door was a circular representation of the Smarts. It became a very special welcome to our world. That creation emphasized to our students what was really important about them as learners. It was a break from the testing, an act of resistance, and kept all the kids happily coming to school while we celebrated the different ways in which we learn.

As time went on “the Smarts” educated the whole school. For years after, we could hear the younger students sounding out the words as they climbed the stairs. It became a symbol used in most classrooms and around the building.

As time went on, MCAS gobbled up weeks of the spring, with the number of tests growing. Over the years our students created backdrops for our play, prepared for the Living History Museum, and other activities that told them “Life is not all about MCAS.”

The pressures from “above” became year-long, and our ability to distract from the test became impossible. For weeks the school was deafeningly quiet. The hallways were shushed. The library was used for testing. Recess was “adjusted” according to the test schedules. Every year some students asked if the teachers would lose their jobs if the students didn’t do well. “No, of course not,” we replied with a laugh.  There’s no laughing now in that regard.

Then came the year of the greatest embarrassment of my life. Jonathan Kozol — my educational hero — visited our class and asked my students what we were working on. They all loudly shouted out — “MCAS prep!” while I slowly dissolved in embarrassment.

Then, came the years of “teacher prep” for how “to handle MCAS.” One of the lowest days of my life was sitting in a classroom in another school whose walls were basically papered with “rubrics” and various lists and directives about how to do just about everything in school — and, of course, on tests.  I kept surreptitiously looking around the room — because I couldn’t believe this was possible.

My ears began to close down when I heard, “focus on the students who are the bubble kids, very close to being in the next higher category.” It felt like suffocation.

In self-defense, I joined the “report card” committee, hoping to protect our students from the next level of horror. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, many screws were being tightened on schools. “Standards-based” report cards became the system objective. Despite long meetings and heated discussions, the “standards-based” report cards came to life. When I fully realized the extent of suffering of our students with special needs under this system, where they could be graded over and over as “Does Not Meet the Standard,” I was almost destroyed.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  CPS has made my retirement years worthwhile. CPS has opened so many doors for me, to do so many things I never imagined. It’s such joy to be able to fight back in ways that are not typical for classroom teachers.

Even though I was born to be part of CPS, our relationship began in a totally random way. I had never heard of any group that was really opposed to the testing and ramifications, except the teacher unions.

By pure serendipity in 2007 I noticed a blue-and-white flyer on a chair at the MTA Annual meeting. Picking it up has made all the difference. That flyer described the “Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child.” All I had to see was “whole child” and I was captivated.

As I was getting mentally prepared for retirement, I decided to follow up on the “Whole Child Campaign.” I sloshed through a rainy, cold day –  into CPS.

Executive Director Marilyn Segal greeted me and we had a kind of interview/conversation about my interests and CPS activities. I never even noticed when she slipped the leg irons around my ankle!

Then, I started getting these emails: would I like to go to the Milton Town Hall evening with Gov. Patrick?  Would I like to go speak on 21st Century skills? Would I like to write a letter to the editor? Would I like to be on a committee? Would I like to go to this event or that? And my answer was always yes — and it will always be yes — because I believe in this organization. I believe in expanding and making sure that every teacher and every parent and every elected official knows and learns from CPS.

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