Guest Commentary

Camden Hanzlick-Burton: Why teachers — like me — left Kansas

Billboards along Kansas highways have been put up by the Independence, Mo., School District encouraging discouraged Kansas teachers to apply in the Kansas City area district.
Billboards along Kansas highways have been put up by the Independence, Mo., School District encouraging discouraged Kansas teachers to apply in the Kansas City area district. Special to The Star

Earlier this year, a Missouri school district made headlines when it paid for billboards advertising open teaching positions along Interstate 70 and elsewhere in Kansas. Never mind that one of the billboards was more than 200 miles from Independence, Mo. — the district had been watching the ongoing assault on public education in Kansas and saw an opportunity.

The district thought it could capitalize on “the fact that there would be teachers and other educators from Kansas that may be willing to cross the border,” Independence Superintendent Dale Herl told a television station.

Embarrassing? No more so than years of budget cuts, the elimination of due process rights for teachers, and, more recently, attempts to criminalize the distribution of “harmful material” in schools under a state public morals statute. Under political pressure, the state Legislature also renamed the Common Core State Standards, now known as the Kansas College and Career Standards, showing that distrust of our schools runs deep throughout the state.

As a biology teacher, I wondered what parts of my teaching might be considered objectionable. Evolution? Climate change? With two awards this year and even as a nationally recognized educator, I knew I could be fired without warning — or conceivably, even jailed — for simply doing my job.

Because of these challenges, I decided to leave my Johnson County high school and take a teaching job in Seattle. I had to tell my students, those I taught and mentored, that I wasn’t able to work for them anymore. And I’m apparently not alone. Amid a national teacher shortage, Kansas had twice as many vacant teaching jobs in July than usual — and fewer people applying for them.

That’s hardly surprising, given the many ways in which state leaders have shown mistrust for educators and have sold our children short through relentless budget cuts.

Surely not all (or at least most) public officials really want subpar education for our children — if they did, they wouldn’t be public officials. But I wonder what would happen if the most vocal critics of public education spent an entire day in a classroom with a well-respected teacher. Would they see how their policies don’t punish ineffective teachers but undermine all teaching? Would they discover that budget cuts don’t just trim the fat but cut into the heart of student learning?

I think that’s how we can change the often-toxic conversation about public education in Kansas. When public leaders go into schools regularly, they can talk about how students, teachers and administrators struggle, and the successes that happen all the same. They might change their views and become true advocates for students, educators and better schools.

“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was the title of a book that became a shorthand for our state’s political struggles. But if our leaders would make the effort to step into our classrooms with open minds and hearts, I think what’s right about Kansas would help turn the tide in the Statehouse, and throughout the state.

Like our elected officials, teachers want to do the right things for their students, their schools and their communities. Here’s hoping we can work toward this common cause going forward.

Camden Hanzlick-Burton taught at Olathe Northwest High School and is the 2015 National Outstanding New Biology Teacher and the 2015 Outstanding Biology Teacher in Kansas. He now teaches in Seattle.