An Opportunity for Nebraska

Note: The author is an English, humanities and world religions teacher at Omaha North High School. He gave these remarks at the 2020 Teacher of the Year luncheon at NSEA in November, where he was a finalist and where Burwell Public Schools English teacher Megan Helberg was formally inducted as 2020 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. In his opening remarks, Gudgel thanked “the 278 young people in my charge whose idealism and effort renew my hope in the future of this nation on a daily basis.”

By Mark Gudgel

Over the past 16 years I’ve worked in some capacity in four high schools, three middle schools, and two colleges in the state of Nebraska. I know that our teachers are among the best in the nation, a legion of the most dedicated, passionate, and talented professionals anywhere, and while today there are four of us being honored, there could easily be 40 or 400.  To the teachers of the state of Nebraska, I am grateful, and I am proud to call you my colleagues. Thank you.

One colleague in particular stands out today. Ironically, I think Megan Helberg and I met in Washington, D.C.  I’ve known Megan for many, many years and she is truly extraordinary. I know that Nebraska will be very well represented by her as our 2020 Teacher of the Year. Congratulations, my friend!

I mentioned that Megan and I met in Washington, D.C., — Washington isn’t where leadership comes from in this country. Leadership emanates from the states that make up the union, and from the people who make up those states – people like the teachers and students I mentioned before.

When states lead, amazing things happen. In 1980, for example, Nebraska was the first state to divest from South Africa. And when the other 49 states followed, America had played a meaningful role in helping bring an end to Apartheid.

A Human Right

Nebraska is also able to lead in education. From the onset we have rejected the Common Core for the foolishness that it is – yet another weak attempt to quantify human intellect, because Nebraska values and common sense remind us that the things that count most can rarely be counted.

Further, Nebraska leads by being one of the few states that refuses to allow charter schools to corrupt and contaminate our system. Our state motto, Equality Before the Law, reminds us in no uncertain terms that education is a human right, and that charging money for literacy, numeracy, and the knowledge of scientific principles needed to sustain life in the long term is no less evil than charging money for the oxygen needed to sustain life in the short term.

Today, as we prepare to transition into the third decade of the 21st century, Nebraska again has an opportunity to lead in education. Across our nation, hundreds of the best universities and colleges have declared themselves “test optional”, openly rejecting the ACT and SAT in favor of more meaningful application criteria. And across our nation, from Los Angeles through  Chicago to West Virginia, a shortage of teachers and resources has pushed tens of thousands of my colleagues past their collective breaking point, driving them to strike.

Imagine ...

Today, Nebraska can address the issues that are playing out on a national stage and once again lead at the statewide level.  Imagine a state in which children were assessed not with arbitrary and anxiety-causing multiple guess assessments concocted for the primary purpose of making money for a corporation, but instead by asking students what they know, who they are, who they want to become, what they believe in – and then adding to that foundation.

Imagine a state full of teachers neither overworked nor underpaid, regarded as the dedicated guides to a brighter future that they are.  And imagine our entire nation taking note of what that state was doing, and then following suit as they have in the past, paving the way for all students, regardless of race, gender, or how much money their parents have – to chart their own pathways to success. 

That’s my vision for Nebraska, and if it wasn’t already, I hope that today perhaps it can become your vision as well.  Nebraska has led, and Nebraska must continue to lead in education if our nation is to have a future worthy of the precious young people who my colleagues and I in the public schools are preparing to inherit it. Thank you.