This past June, Eric Zentner, an 18-year veteran English teacher with a reputation of classroom excellence, sent an open resignation letter to the West Allis / West Milwaukee (WAWM) School District explaining why he was leaving the profession he loved and detailing disreputable practices and untenable conditions in the WAWM school district:
Zentner Letter (reprinted with permission)
He was the one. He was the one who finally said it all, and said it all out loud. But he was far from alone.
The speed at which his letter spread teacher-to-teacher, across social media and into mainstream media; the slew of corroborating letters from other WAWM staff that followed, the untimely “retirement” of the superintendent of WAWM schools; the emergency listening sessions hosted by the WAWM school board—all evidence that he was far from alone.
Warning: the following comparison is a stretch, a big one, but one I want to make. I do not intend on deifying Zentner here, but a parallel can be drawn with Martin Luther’s 95 theses. With a nail and a list of violations, Luther voiced the corruptions of an institution he loved, a voice which echoed far and wide.
He said it all, and he said it out loud.
His ideas quickly traveled through intellectual circles and across Europe, igniting the Protestant Reformation and changing the course of Christianity. It’s clear by the speed at which his ideas spread that many in church ranks shared his sentiments, but dared not voice them prior to his declaration. Papal history bears witness to what happens to dissenters after all. Retribution, ex-communication, burning at the stake.
Luther’s courageous letter allowed them to speak out without speaking out.
I imagine multitudes of teachers in Eric Zentner’s district and beyond reading his letter, nodding our heads all the while and then forwarding his sentiments as echoes of our own.
Zentner’s letter allowed us all to speak out without speaking out.
So How many Zentners are out there? Copies of his letters converged in three places in my life. An email forward from a West Allis teacher, a Tweeted online editorial, anarticle in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It travelled far and quick because it speaks the silent truth so many educators face but rarely voice for fear of retribution: a building reassignment, a schedule change, a non-renewal.
One can hope that Zentner’s letter, like Luther’s theses, will have some lasting impact. That it will crack open a larger and more authentic debate about education. That it will it inspire a serious conversation about what is truly good for kids, and how to stop the exodus of talented teachers from the field they love.
One can hope.