Exclusive interview with Westhill teacher after his retirement letter went viral
Tue, 21 May 2013 21:34:37 GMT —
As Jerry Conti sits on his sofa inside his Nedrow home, he has time to reflect on his years as a history teacher and the countless students' lives he has touched. After 40 years teaching, including 27 years at Westhill, he has decided to make this year his last.
"I can't do my job the way I want to do it. I can't be constantly proving my worth. I don't need to," says Conti.
He took his final farewell to students in a retirement letter posted online. In it, he takes aim at what the profession he loves has become. In an instant, this 62-year-old history instructor became the face of the common core controversy.
"I really did struggle with this whole thing because of the kids and because I love my job. But it's not my job anymore. It's changed too much," says Conti.
After posting his letter on facebook, Jerry Conti became a household name. The letter has been shared more than 2,800 times and was featured in the Huffington Post. Parents and fellow teachers cheered him on, but amid all the publicity, Conti shyed away from the public eye. He would ignore phone calls and turned down a national television interview with C-N-N.
After a few months of coaxing he agreed with sit down with CNYCentral's Dora Scheidell and discuss the letter. One of the first questions she asked was why he decided to post the letter on facebook considering he was a private person.
"I had a lot of kids asking me why I was retiring. So I said ok I'll put it on facebook and these 70 or 60 people would read it. I didn't know it was going to appear in the paper and it appeared in papers in England," says Conti.
Overnight, he became a reluctant champion in the fight against the common core curriculum and high stakes testing. Does he regret speaking out?
"Sometimes. Sometimes I say I should have kept my big mouth shut, but other times it seems like the thing to do because it sparked conversation," says Conti.
Just like his unexpected fame, the changes to the education system that led him to retirement, happened overnight.
"This has all happened like an avalanche. It's only been in the last couple of years lately that these changes have come in. They've happened very rapidly," says Conti.
A never ending schedule of standardized tests which the state uses as a barometer to measure student achievment and ensure teachers are doing their job.
"Standardized testing has been around forever, but now they are trying to standardize instruction," says Conti.
Conti says the common core curriculum dictates teacher's days and leaves no room for spontaneous creativity and dialogue.
"Education is a conversation. This is education. It's making kids curious. It's making kids want to learn. It's teaching them to learn for themselves. That's what it's really about and you can't measure that with a test," says Conti.
One of the most thought provoking moments of his letter is when he wrote, "I'm not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me." Does he think it will come back?
"I hope it does. Most things in education are cyclical so something will be very popular for a time and then it will change 10 years or 5 years down the road. So I hope this mania with standardized testing will pass away," says Conti.
Parents like Heather Ryder are also joining the movement which has termed the name "opt-out."
"First they didn't listen to the teachers when they said this testing is a bad idea, now they're not listening to the parents. So if they're so data driven, what are we going to deny them? The data," says Ryder.
While his classmates sharpened their pencils for days of standardized testing required by the state, Nikolas Ryder, 13, sat silently, reading a book.
"I pushed it aside and said I was done. And he didn't give me any trouble or anything and I just started reading," says Ryder.
"When he was reading during the testing I thought well at least he's getting an education while everyone else is filling in bubbles," says his mother, Heather Ryder.
Ryder was inspired by Conti who unintentionally became the face of the opt-out movement.
We asked Conti if he thinks there will be a revolution in education and whether he plans to be a part of it.
"I hope we do because I think what's happening is so bad. And I think if we do I will be a part of it," says Conti.
Parents like Heather Ryder will be too.
"I don't want my son's education being narrowed to just learning what is on these tests. I don't think it's fair to him, I don't think it's fair to his education and now that high stakes are attached I don't think it's fair to his teachers," says Ryder.
High stakes Jerry Conti knows all too well.
onti says he was told his job depended on his students' test scores
which he wasn't even allowed to grade.
"We're not supposed to grade our student's exams anymore? It's absurd. I've been grading student work for 40 years and now suddenly I'm not trusted?" says Conti.
Conti is not sure what role he will play in the education revolution. But when it comes to changes in the classroom,
he will watch from a distance, as he closes the book on his teaching career and begins a new chapter in life.
"I want to do some woodworking, play with my dogs. I started playing the mandolin a year ago. I'm an old man but a young mandolin player," says Conti.