This Land Is Your Land


Below is a letter that I recently sent to the Idaho Senate. The upper house of the legislature was considering a bill to provide vouchers for private education. My thoughts centered on the role public schools play in ensuring an American identity.

Good Morning,

My name is Gail Chumbley, and I am a retired teacher now living in Garden Valley. Those of us who spent our careers working with children know we always remain teachers, and why I write to you this morning.

Public schools were established in early America as a place where children learned the tools of literacy; reading, writing, and computing numbers. The thinking behind these first American schools was to prepare contributing members of society, insurance for the continuity of the community.  Enlightened self-interest guided public instruction, confident that the future rested in good, capable hands.

During the 19th and 20th Centuries schools spread across the growing nation to continue investing in the future, and curriculums added more courses that created citizenship. History provided a sense of belonging and common cause, while Civics added the structure of the political system, explaining the “how” of active participation. Students pledged the flag, sang patriotic songs, and shared in the remarkable story of our shared experiment in self-government.

Today this common foundation of America is crumbling. With so many choices for education, a crazy quilt of competing curriculums, home schooling, online classes, magnet schools, alternative schools, and private schools increasingly fray the fibers of our shared American experience. And this morning you have the option to approve another blow to all of us , vouchers for private schools.

HB590 has threatened not only legal problems, but ethical issues which concern not only our State but our Nation’s unity. Public schools have historically provided a vital link for students; our children find more that bind them together, than tear them apart. The growing exclusivity of “choice,” has had a dire outcome socially and economically.

As educators of America’s past have recognized, our kids deserve to learn what holds them together as a people, and in that understanding ensure Idaho’s and America’s future are left in steady hands.

Please vote no on HB590


Gail Chumbley

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january, and at

The Working End of Tomorrow



“A politician looks forward to the next election cycle, while a statesman looks forward to the next generation.” This admirable sentiment has been attributed to a number of speakers including Thomas Jefferson and the 19th Century Reverend James Freeman Clarke. But I heard the quote attached to President Gerald Ford. Whoever uttered these words has my full endorsement.

This morning began well. I awoke from a dream-filled sleep of taking roll, presenting lessons, and interacting with my students. They were all mixed up, hailing from a multitude of graduating classes, but still they were all my kids. I knew them well. In point of fact, most of my nights pass in a flowing narrative of teacher dreams, and I’ve gotten fairly used to this regular occurrence. The joke since retiring is, “I work so hard at night I should still be on the payroll.”

At any rate, after waking up, my mood remained jovial, still dialed in to happy. Tapping on my iPhone a picture appeared of a former student, now in a military uniform singing with three other soldiers. He and his brothers-in-arms were performing a rendition of the National Anthem at a public event. In another post a young lady, newly attending college revealed her fears about losing interest in reading for pleasure—a concern she happily resolved by opening a new book. Scrolling down the wall a bit, a wonderful family picture appeared of one of the kindest student’s I’ve had the pleasure to know. She posed before a Christmas tree with her three little boys, the youngest only two months old. Her husband’s caption clearly revealed his love for her and his boys. These posts are just, well, just so cool!

Not all teaching reminders and memories are as bright as those that I experienced this morning. Still, I wouldn’t have missed my time with these young people for a king’s ransom. Magic occurred in those classrooms; pure joy a guaranteed bi-product of the learning process.

I discovered over the years, that basic to the art of teaching and learning, is a faith in the future, a tangible something waiting ahead for every individual—a realized dream. All the hours of classroom preparation devoted to listening and thinking skills, observation, and problem-solving, were simply a training ground for young people to eventually find their place in the larger world.

While grappling with today’s incessant demands, it is far too easy to gloss over thoughts of the future. Caught up in the crowded moments that make up the present, many lose sight of the certainty of tomorrow. Teachers, however, are not permitted the luxury of settling in the moment. We must skip ahead of the “now,” planning and adjusting, then planning further. Intrinsic to our professional calling is the absolute assurance of a looming future, and we have to get our kids ready.

Perhaps stake holders could gain some perspective by casting aside trivial, momentary agendas—the noisy culture wars taking place across media battlegrounds, jousting in never ending finger pointing. Those distractions impede the progress available to our students, who are rapidly passing through the system. These kids are here today and gone tomorrow, quite literally.

When I assessed my students in class, I often envisioned them as adults, figuring out their individual niche. With that objective as my guide, I tried to design the best methods available to reach practical benchmarks. Even so, in the end, I had to let each class move on, a natural continuation forward to meet their futures, hopefully carrying my small contribution. An act of faith.

With our eyes vigilantly fixed on the countless tomorrows yet to come, would teachers be considered President Ford’s definition of statesmen? I’d like to think so.

Gail Chumbley is a retired educator and author of River of January. Also available on Kindle. Watch for “River of January: Figure Eight” this Fall.

You Will Use It Every Day


My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. We are lucky to have such a friend because this guy is an IT guru as well as a great neighbor. While waiting for some data to load we got to talking about all the world’s problems, and the discussion moved to kids and education. He had just left a math position at an alternative high school, and I had just retired after a long career in the classroom. We found we agreed on many, many points.

In particular he became exasperated by the constant line, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it? Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the complaining ranks, because math was not, and has never been my thing. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about the age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about the subject matter. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and replied, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to problem solve.”

And that is the purpose of educating young people. To nurture cognitive growth, skills and insights in order to progress into purposeful adulthood. If we as teachers and parents don’t expect anything from our kids beyond showing up to class, staying awake, and complying with instructions, how can a young person stretch themselves and mature. If we expect nothing from our kids, that is what we’ll get. Nothing.

I spent half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. My teaching assignment began to change my philosophy of education almost at once. It no longer meant a chronology of facts, not that those aren’t vital. The facts were something like bricks, or lego, or whatever, and students were required to line those up and draw conclusions. Let me illustrate. In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Jefferson and James K. Polk.

First of all they pre-wrote every fact about both presidents in a T-square. Next they looked at those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France, Lewis and Clark Expedition, War with Mexico, land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession, opening of California, etc . . . With all that unloading the kids should have been able to make some assumptions from the historic record. After some analysis they could make some observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated real estate deal, versus Polk’s blatant military aggression. Also they should have added a personal opinion in there somehow for analytic flair– both presidents wanted the same thing, land, but Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful or principled (or something like that).

Now that process takes discipline and tons of practice. And some kids simply wouldn’t push themselves, and their grades reflected that lack of  effort. Some parents balked, believing we teachers shouldn’t ask that much of their young ones. But most students truly grew after getting the hang of connecting these dots.

I was, in reality teaching the same thing as my friend, the Algebra teacher. We were both trying to show the kids how to process information and formulate conclusions. In a sense there are no “A’s” in this approach to education. How can one grade intellectual depth? Instead the aim was to foster a sense of self-agency and autonomy, skills useful in a democratic society and a purposeful life. If our young people can think, and teach their kids to think, the Republic is secure.

Talent On Paper

The last time that I job searched Ronald Reagan was in the White House.  At that time, long long ago, assembling a coherent resume, wracking my brain to identify personal strengths, and figuring out what to wear was a self-flagellating ordeal.  The first district that called me led to a chatty, comfortable interview which after a few days landed me a position I soon loved.  In the meantime, while waiting,  I interviewed with a neighboring district who essentially informed me that I was so lucky to have even secured an interview with them, I needn’t expect anything else to materialize.  The two interviews left me confused–I certainly was the same person sitting before each interviewer, so what subtleties created such contrasting experiences?

Flash forward to now.  The young people in my family have all finished their educations and have entered the job market in various occupations.  They’ve described to me today’s method of the hunt.  All had to monitor various websites for employment openings, apply on-line for each posting, a telephone interview hopefully followed, an initial personal interview and, if lucky a second interview.  Even in my field, education, the process has come to involve an empirical, impersonal, but fair, aptitude test for job fitness.

And seeking employment does appear more fair.  But the process has certainly eliminated the immeasurable.  And I do understand that past abuses concerning skin color, ethnic affinity, and gender, skewed employment which explains the complexity of finding a position.  But it seems job hunting has evolved where blind equity has trumped human potential and trust.

How much of us transcends a resume?

Could Helen or Chum have excelled in their fields under today’s rules?  How spiffy would their talents look on paper?  Was it better for them that the ink was still wet writing down the qualifications for dancing or flying?  Could you or I achieve the same heights waiting for that second interview?

For both of these ambitious people, the differences came from their persistence, crossing paths with pivotal figures and providential situations.  Neither Helen, nor Chum were held back by corporate rules limiting their goals.  They took each opportunity life offered up, and by pluck, or by intuition seized the chance.

She danced in the New York Subway!  He babysat officer’s children on base in Norfolk!

Has the remedy of a faceless, genderless driven employment process improved the workforce?  Could Helen or Chum have done today what they did in the 1930’s?

Is fair really all that fair?