Brilliant: A Resignation Letter From A Public High School Teacher Goes Viral


The education crisis in America is real, and anyone who’s willing to publicly address it should be applauded. After teaching for 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, Gerald S. Conti resigned with a letter to his school’s Superintendent and the Board of Education. The brilliantly written letter has since gone viral, as it examines and problematizes the American educational system (and it is a system) from a personal and professional perspective. Towards the end of the letter he comes to an important conclusion: After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. Click inside to read the full text of his letter.

Gerald S. Conti shared this letter a few weeks ago on his Facebook page. It is absolutely worth reading in full:

Mr. Casey Barduhn, Superintendent Westhill Central School District 400 Walberta Park Road Syracuse, New York 13219

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:

It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.

As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.

I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair.

Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children? My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven.

Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.

After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.

For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.

Sincerely and with regret,

Gerald J. Conti Social Studies Department Leader Cc: Doreen Bronchetti, Lee Roscoe

I’m so glad this letter and these ideas are going viral. The truth is, many of us feel similarly, and should probably be writing our own letters to various boards of education across the country.

Conti quotes John Dewey, and the truth is, education is not life. Not in this country, at least. Education is merely a means to an end. Which is why it was so appropriate for him to make that reference to the assembly line. And sadly, it’s been my experience that the institutions that do operate with the understand that education is life (as opposed to something you have to do or should do so you can live the life you really want to live) are ridiculously expensive, private institutions. I’m so proud of the education I got at Sarah Lawrence College. Like. So. Ridiculously. Proud. Too bad SLC is always topping Forbes’s Most Expensive Colleges list. Too bad I’m scared ish-less that a traditional public school won’t teach my son Jonovan what I really want him to learn, and he will instead experience many of the things Conti mentions (and many things I experienced in high school), because most schools teach children from the very beginning that education is somehow separate from everything else in life, that being educated is something you endure (rather than something that you navigate for yourself, with the guidance and support of teachers and parents). I love, love, love the Montessori school Jonovan goes to, and I love their specific philosophy of education… and at the same time, I don’t really love… um… how far behind I am on payments to said school! But considering the state of the educational system in this country, I’d rather start paying for him to experience education in a positive, organic way now (in preschool… because… yeah), than watch him experience the alternative. And I’m not kidding. I really am behind on those payments… lol! No, but seriously. It’s an issue.

I think it should also be noted that Conti is clearly a different kind of teacher. As in, a very good teacher. You can pick up on this just reading the comments and responses to his resignation on his Facebook page. here’s one from a former student, Mishal Kanabar:

Westhill [High School], to me, has a few outstanding memories (not in order):

1. Winning championships in football
2. Engineering classes
3. You, and the manner in which you taught your class. You prepared me for college more than anything else Westhill did. You let me teach about Hinduism in your classroom, and now I can attest some of my success to my 11th grade teacher. I would not be a lead engineer at my company if, in some part, you weren’t there because I was prepared and taught to think critically and freely.

Thank you Mr. Conti, and when I come back to Cuse I am buying you a drink.

Let’s be real. How many high school teachers are encouraging their students to ‘think critically and freely’? It’s sad, but it’s just not going down like that. The educational system fails the teachers in many ways, but many teachers also fail their students (I think). I was lucky to have a lot of great teachers during my time in high school, but even they had a ‘job’ to do and much of that ‘job’ pertained to getting their students to pass standardized tests. Oh, and then I did have lots of crappy teachers as well. And sadly, even crappy teachers have so much to deal with, it’s hard to blame them fully for whatever they might be lacking.

So yes, this whole thing is a complicated problem, but I thought Conti did a brilliant job of tackling everything in his letter.

I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. Did he hit the nail on the head, or what?

P.S. Conti makes great references to Abe Lincoln and Pearson Education. If some of them missed you (like they missed me) Rap Genius broke down much of the letter for us HERE.

[Source] [Source]

  • Hannah

    I read this earlier on in the week and loved it. My kids aren’t in school yet, but I am worried about the state the system will be in when they reach that age. I fear education in America is going in the wrong direction. Right now, I could not dream of sending the children to private school and I don’t believe home schooling would be right for my social children but a system which teaches to pass standardized tests is insane. And don’t get me started on the whole Textbook racket.

    Conti is right, and I am sure he was an amazing teacher, it is a shame more kids will not get his help in school.

    • Shannon

      Hannah, thanks for sharing this. I remember when my son wasn’t in school and I did not think about this stuff much, or at least not in the practical sense. The reality of it all can be pretty scary. I will say, lots of private schools offer help with tuition. But obviously, it’d make more sense for us to have a decent enough educational system where the public schools were just as good.

  • Emily

    Shannon, this is amazing. Thank you for sharing, I had not seen it. Let’s get Conti a job on the Dept of Ed, we need people like him there. It’s terrible when people who are so clearly passionate about their jobs feel constrained and unable to work.
    @hannah – ugh, the textbook debacles. I found out recently that Texas, as the biggest consumer of textbooks, dictates textbook content and ideas like Creationsim are actually listed in these textbooks. If they weren’t listed, Texas wouldn’t buy, and the textbook industry can’t have that. W.T.F.?!?!?

    • Shannon

      Emily, ‘It’s terrible when people who are so clearly passionate about their jobs feel constrained and unable to work.’ YES– that’s why I brought up the fact that he was clearly a good teacher. The good teachers start hating the system (because it sucks) and the um… other teachers. Well, they’re who the kids get stuck with, which is insane.

      I don’t know much about the textbook situation, but what you’re saying about Texas makes a lot of sense. It’s a business, and so I’m sure money will dictate content.

  • Zanne

    I just began working in public education and, as flawed as I already knew the system was, I’m now experiencing those flaws firsthand and it’s an absolute clusterf#@k. And I get to go through the whole “high stakes testing” thing next week for the first time. Hopefully I don’t have to go to the bathroom during the 3+ hours of testing, b/c that could cause me to lose my job. Seriously.

    • Shannon

      Zanne, I had a friend who started teaching at her old high school right after she graduated from SLC. She experience the same shock and shared some crazy stories with me. I’ll never forget her telling me that she actually HAD to keep her classes at at least 30+ students, otherwise the school would lose out on certain funding. It was insane.

      Good luck with testing week. Drink NO water, lol :)

  • Alecia

    I was funemployed for quite a while and many of my family members asked why I didn’t just get a teaching license since I had my degree.
    This letter essentially sums up my feelings on why I would work anywhere except the American education system. Kids these days are taught to a test. And it has been happening for several decades. When I was in school I was the type of kid who read and found other ways to learn. I also had the benefit of having parents who knew the value of an education. On breaks and summer vacay we would go to museums, sightsee, and do different things. It also helped that in elementary school I was on year-round schedule so I didn’t have such long periods of time without being in school.
    But it is a tragic situation and I understand completely why you’d rather pay for your son’s education than risk putting him in public school. It’s even worse that technically we all pay for public school with tax dollars only to see such dismal results.

    • Shannon

      Alecia, LMAO at ‘funemployed’! Thanks for that one; I’ve been there.

      Also, ‘many of my family members asked why I didn’t just get a teaching license.’ THIS is so interesting to me. The fact that you decided not to just go ahead and teach tells me that you probably would have made a great teacher. I know for a fact that there are many, many people who do just go ahead and enter the field. This is one reason why we don’t have a lot of Contis teaching school. For some people it is just a job; it’s a tough job, but it’s a job… not a calling.

  • Megan

    Where to start…I’m doing my student teaching right now. I was so excited to get started with what I want to do for the rest of my life. Now that I’ve seen whats happening…I’m just, I don’t even know. This letter is exactly right. You have to have a certain number of grades a week, you have very short time limits to teach too many huge concepts (Frederick Douglas gets a week!), tests are made by the county (who have obviously never taught because the third grade tests they make are on 7th grade reading levels), the standardized test is emphasized to the extreme. My poor 8 year olds were so stressed out about the CRCT (our state test) that it made me want to cry. It’s terrible. But I just feel hopeless. Now that everything has to be backed up with statistically sound data, how do you go back to letting teachers have freedom over their classroom. Once they see what’s happening to this generations students and see the decline in people wanting to teach, it’s going to be a slap in the face. I just wish it wouldn’t take until they see the bad result. And don’t even get me started on the war against the arts in school…..

    • Shannon

      Megan, the thought of 8 year olds actually experiencing stress of any sort is insane. That alone should tell us everything we need to know about this system. Thanks for sharing your perspective as a student teacher– keep hope alive! The Conti story also tells us that good teachers do make a difference, even if they have to participate in a system that’s working against them.

  • Lauren xx

    I’m a product of the US public school system (in an inner-city district to add to the ridiculousness.) I graduated from high school 7 years ago, I scored advanced on ALL of the state exams that were *required* for graduation. I was NOT prepared for college, not in the least. I had mediocre SAT scores, it was a wonder I got into my 1st choice reach school. I struggled so hard with my freshman year of college and was in tutoring for a few classes. My TUTORS were appalled at how unprepared I was for the work. But I scored advanced on the MCAS, so I was set for my education, right? I worked my fairly large behind off to learn the foundations I was supposed to have WHILE learning my college coursework. Plus, I know a large amount of people from my high school class that didn’t even finish college.

    If that story doesn’t tell you that teaching to a test is failing, I don’t know what else will.

    • Karen

      Lauren, I really feel for you. I taught undergrads, mostly first-years, at a large public university in California for 3 years and SO MANY of them were in your same situation. It is disgraceful how unprepared my students were. So many could not write a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent essay. They lacked such basic skills.

      It *infuriated* me that students who did not have what should be high school level skills were thrown into college. Some of them did what you did — worked extra hard to catch up and make it through. But they should not have had that handicap. Others just gave up. Such a waste in both cases — students deserve to start at the starting line, not miles away from it.

      A friend teaches in a public high school in CA and she’d explain all the reasons why students were ending up so unprepared: the testing, the textbooks, the administrators, and also a lot of inadequate teachers. This friend is smart and driven to educate students *well*, and she’s done a lot to make that happen. But the obstacles are monstrous and totally inexcusable. (The textbook industry alone is sickening.)

      Anyway, I’m glad you were able to do what you needed to do, even though it was a totally unfair, unreasonable, and unnecessary challenge.

  • Miss Mellie

    Thanks for posting this… I had not seen this before. Oh this breaks my heart. My daughter starts kindergarten this fall. Now we are lucky to live in a liberal little hippie town, and from talking to other parents I don’t think she’ll have it as bad as some, but I know she won’t get the education that I did. I went to public school in West Virginia, and school was a wonder and a dream. I was fortunate enough to be in the gifted program, which meant Shakespeare in the Park every Spring and The Nutcracker every winter. Besides that there would be at least one weekend away field trip to New York or Philadelphia or DC. Even for the kids who weren’t in the same program, there was a heavy emphasis on music and art and social skills. We had a ukelele choir. Everybody took art. Once a month we would have an event, our teachers took turn designing an entire day around a single theme: jazz music, Norse mythology, starting a business, insects, space exploration, Shakespeare. Everyone looked forward to becoming a sixth grader and participating in the Greek Festival (and wearing a toga to school… how lucky were we?) Our teachers didn’t just teach; they lived their expertise. By 4th – 6th grade, my teachers were artists, scientists, authors, and world travelers. I know I was fortunate. Our teachers loved their jobs. I can still recite lines of poetry my 6th grade science teacher taught me. Did I mention that this was public school? Grade school wasn’t about learning how to pass tests, we learned how to learn. What does my little girl have to look forward to?

  • Ella

    Another student teacher here. There has always been a bit of nervousness associated with my decision to teach and this letter is exactly why. I hate standardized testing and I hate how they are using high student test scores to get teachers to basically sell their souls for a better paycheck. I hope that this letter will rouse the parents and teachers of this nation to take our children’s educations back.

  • Ella

    Also Shannon, I applaud you for posting this. You always post about important, non-celeb issues, and I truly appreciate you bringing this huge issue regarding education to the listeners of PITNB.

  • Nathan

    My mother works in the school system in BC, Canada and it’s really quite pathetic. Like so many things, children are given everything but yet nothing.

    Children are rewarded for doing nothing, children are rewarded for reading for 5 minutes, children are just rewarded. It’s so very sad that these children are going to graduate from high school not understanding what it means to have to work to achieve something and not win a prize for simply participating in something.

    The education systems are different from province to province as I’m sure they’re different from state to state, but all in all, the mentality in North America is very much the same in my opinion and it’s very unfortunate.

  • Karen

    This is totally heartbreaking. I wish he weren’t right, but I’m glad he so eloquently stated the truth and that people are reading what he wrote.

  • Requiring Change

    As the parent of a senior in a Vermont high school, I agree 100% with what Mr. Conti has stated in his letter. I’ve been personally trying to get the word out that our nation’s public school educational system is a giant broken mess. My son had a great love of learning and reading earlier in life. Now he and several of his classmates are in danger of not graduating with their friends and other classmates. Yes, there are several activities outside of school that have sucked their time away from studies. However, in the past three and a half years my son has had to repeat several required classes and I feel this is due to the lack of time teachers can devote to individualizing their teaching efforts. I’ve observed that self-motivated students will excel and those that need extra help are left in the dust to try and develop their own morale and press forward the best they can. I certainly don’t fault the teachers, as the problem is so much bigger than that. The problem is huge and must be corrected yesterday. I fear we’ve already lost a generation of our nation’s citizens to a mediocre life and it’s imperative that we don’t let this continue!

  • Havalah

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. For more than ten years, I’ve fought against the calling to teach for all the reasons Conti lists. I’ve been a DJ, a barista, a newspaper reporter, a web content manager, a marketing director, and a copy editor, but I’m now in the final stages of pre-certification, getting ready to begin student teaching. I’m terrified but determined. I was always taught that the things that scare you and at which you might fail are the most valuable in life. This is why I am finally going into K-8 education – because I know I will be good at it, because I know there aren’t enough teachers who have been spiritually and intellectually called to teach, because our children need us, because I know I can fight the system from within. As broken and corrupt as it is, our children are still required to be there (unless they can pay up). I have no illusions about the system, but I still believe I will make a difference, even if it’s only one child. Sigh. Funny that on a gossip site, the first post that gets me to comment isn’t gossip at all! :)

    • Emily

      @Havalah – love your intensity and passion! Keep it up!
      To all the teachers who have commented here and beyond – thank you for working such a difficult job. Your work is so utterly important and you do it with limited resources and in the face of great obstacles. I’m not a parent yet, but when I do have kids and they are in school I hope they get teachers as wonderful and dedicated as you.

  • Jen

    I have been teaching in FL for almost 10 years. I have taught in expulsion programs, as well as regular ed. Standardized testing here is a way to justify flipping schools charter so the state can unload their benefit/retirement obligations. Here, there are very few charters who perform well. They also don’t have to serve ESE or “bad” kids. This creates an additional burden on regular schools,which absorb that population.
    My evaluation is 10+ pages long, and I am unsuccessful if they don’t see everything on the rubric every visit. I was given a negative one when my class was observed while they werewatching the inauguration (I teach Govt.) because they weren’t working in pairs. My class doesn’t have an exam yet, so my evaluation is based on the 10th grade average. I only teach 12th graders. If kids I have never seen do badly 2years in a row, I can lose my license.
    I teach critical thinking. I want them to question everything. Especially me. I wish they could jam cell phones in class, because that is a huge issue too. I can’t tell youhow many times a kid has had the balls to answer the phone and hold a conversation WHILE I AM TEACHING. I wish parents would care more. I don’t know why people think I can undo 18 years worth of bad parenting in 90 minutes every other day.
    One of my former students told me she changed her major to education. I am sad to say, I discouraged her from teaching. I don’t want her to experience the heartbreak and frustration of this job.

  • Brittany

    It’s sad what our public education system has become and has only gotten worse over the last decade since I’ve been out. I went to a large school in upstate South Carolina and I was fortunate to have some really wonderful teachers that prepared me for college. I was in all honor or upper level classes, if not I would have been royally screwed. It terrifies me to think what the school system will be like by the time and if I have children. It really makes me think more and more about homeschooling.

  • Paul

    I am sorry he took a potshot at STEM, but I can’t say that is too surprising from a history teacher. My children’s education is quite superior to the one I got, but I will agree with him about the Common Core. The common core of courses required for graduation has gotten so large, there is little room for taking advantage of electives. I had a lot more choices than my kids have.