Barack Obama's sister speaks to Pinellas County Teachers Union

07/18/08 Arielle Stevenson
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Today in Largo, Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng spoke to the Pinellas County Teachers union about education. Soetoro-Ng has been a teacher since the 1990’s and was warmly welcomed by fellow educators when she talked about the struggles she faced in the first few years as an educator.

“I’ve got tell you, my first year as a teacher and this will be familiar to you folks. I was thinking to myself you know I have a sound education, I have a willing body, it was fairly spritely then, less so now. I have a good mind and I have a whole lot of heart, I’m going to be good at this. Right? That’s what I thought to myself; well I ended up crying every week the first year. I teach teachers in Hawaii at the college of education sometimes as a lecturer and that’s one thing I tell them, don’t quit the first few years, you’ve got to keep on. Soetoro-Ng was raised by Ann Durham, Obama’s mother and her father, Durham’s second husband, Lolo Soetoro. She was raised primarily in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa for her PHD in education. She now teaches world cultures and U.S. history at La Pietra, a private high school for girls in Honolulu. Up until recently she was teaching in the public school system and spoke about how many of the problems her and other public school educator’s face stem from teaching in impoverished communities.

“There were so many problems, I was teaching in a title one district and over 80 percent of the community lived below the poverty line. And poverty does impact education. It was an alternative middle school and we did amazing things. It has since been closed because of no child left behind.” That middle school was combined with many other surrounding schools due to the no child left behind act and the school Soetoro-Ng had began at effectively dissolved due to overfilled classrooms and overwhelmed teachers.

“The school that I helped to start and the school I loved so much had to take in students from nearby schools. Suddenly the class sizes grew larger and teachers had more to do. I understand that recently it was decided that you here would not get any new teachers. Which means that you are being asked to do more with less, and I know that you know how that feels. And you should be commended for your resourcefulness but you should be given vastly more support.” Soetoro-Ng’s obvious pride in her brother’s candidacy was reflected in how she describes his eduction plan. “Barack, I want you to know, before he rolled out his education plan talked to so many teachers and principals. Barack was so tenacious that he sat there and said ‘keep bringing them on’,m and he spoke to dozens and really I want to say that this is the first time that teachers have been consultued in creating and proposing educational policy. One of the parts of Obama’s education plan that excited those in the room was transitioning away from pay based on high-stakes standardized testing for teachers and more pay for the additional challenges so many educators in public schools encounter.

“Then you look at baracks ideas, if you are working in areas that are low income, you should be rewarded for the additional challenges you face. If you are working in areas that don’t have enough teachers and you know you will be pulled in nine directions simultaneously, you should be compensated for that. “

In her curriculum back home in Honolulu there is a strong focus on facing adversities in cultural differences peacefully and studying the practice of handling conflict without violence. Something she says she and her brother hope to see integrated into all schools nationwide.

“Its one of those things where very immediately you see the effects. I said to my brother imagine if we the public schools had the opportunity to create a curriculum like this and he agrees things like speech and debate and theatre help our students so much. These are all vital things that should be supported by our government and they will be.”

During a question and answer sessions with Pinellas County teachers, those in the audience were greeted not with a nod or a handshake but with hug from Soetoro-Ng. She told teachers that America needs to consider carefully what will be left for future generations. 

So I think we are all challenging ourselves the way we challenge our students to try to find new vision. There is a old Indonesian expression “chuchimata” which means to wash the eyes, and that’s what we are doing. We are washing our eyes and getting a new vista. What we can do and how we want to present our legacy to our children.
Maya Soetoro-Ng also lectures at the University of Hawaii’s College of Education, where she focuses on multi-cultural education and education history.

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