TNNOTReady

Sometimes you just have to laugh, I guess. I mean, in order to keep from wanting to punch something.

I just took the teacher survey about the TNReady testing process for the 2017-2018 school year. I was honest. I wrote about how it was an extremely frustrating experience and gave specific information that I observed during my time proctoring the online exam.

I had to laugh at the end of the survey when I got this message:

tnready

Am I supposed to actually believe that my voice will make a difference somehow? That the TN Department of Education will make a better choice next year?

I don’t have that faith at all. I, like many others, have had enough. I already know it will be yet another big mess, as it has been for several years now. And while lawmakers aren’t too happy either, our only hope is that they will take meaningful action to make it stop.

I thank our state lawmakers for “holding harmless” all schools, teachers, and students from this year’s test results. That is a good thing. I mean, everyone knew this testing season was a total disaster – especially the students.

Let me see if I can sum up this year’s TNReady experience:

  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their login information was incorrect.
  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their laptops were offline and we had to find the IT person to help. Or get another laptop and hope it worked.
  • Some students logged on, started their tests, and then got booted off the testing site in the middle of testing. Then they had trouble logging back on.
  • Some students logged back in after being booted off the site and their progress hadn’t been saved so they had to start all over again.
  • Some students completed their whole test, clicked on the “Submit test” button, and then got booted off the site. Then they couldn’t log back on. Then maybe, hours later, when they were called back, they logged back on the site and then, hopefully, their progress had been saved and they were finally able to submit their test.
  • Some students needed an extra password – a proctor password – to log back in, so we had to find the person who had that.

Through all this frustration and stress with the online testing platform and connectivity issues, students were told to do their best because this test was going to count for 20 percent of their class grade. They were stressed. They were angry. They felt they were being jerked around by the state of Tennessee. And they weren’t wrong. In the middle of the testing window, we learned that scores would not count. And they still had to continue testing! It was unreal.

And that is only what I personally experienced as a test proctor.

Statewide, we had even more ridiculous things happening – the testing platform was hacked (a “deliberate attack” was made on the site)(ummmm…. should we be more worried about this?), the testing site was down, a dump truck may or may not have been involved in a severed cable line – a line that just happened to be responsible for the testing site (for real?), and some students took the wrong test – and I could go on and on and on.

All this happened while our State Commissioner of Education stood by and basically said There’s nothing to look at here, folks! Our students are all successfully taking their tests and smiling all the way through! No problems at all! It was surreal.

But it really did happen. It really was a big mess that occurred at the expense of students actually learning and teachers actually teaching.

And for that, we should all be angry. Parents, you should know after hearing from your own children that everything about our state test – from the amount of time it takes away from learning to the frustrations of actually taking the test – this is not what education should be about.

It’s been like this for too long. Looking back to the 2016 test – the year that I decided I’d had it with the testing nonsense and actually quit teaching until recently – students took the tests in April and May, and scores weren’t released until December. We have to ask what is the purpose of it all? My friend and blogger at Dad Gone Wild TC Weber said it best back then:

“In looking at the tests, it isn’t clear at all exactly what these tests are really testing. Is it a student’s knowledge of the state standards? Is it their ability to decipher the test? Is it their ability to use technology? Who knows what the results even mean. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat Tennessee does as a good job as anyone explaining it, but the bottom line remains: If less than 50% of students can be proficient, you are setting the bar wrong, and you open yourself to the question of whose benefit is this for? Is it administrators and lawmakers trying to build a resume or is it kid’s who are trying to attain skills in order to build a better life? If it’s for the kids, then it is imperative that we create accurate assesments of what teachers teach and what students learn not some hypothetical pipedreams of  those who never enter our classrooms or interact with our kids.

“Don’t think for a second that kids aren’t asking that question of who this is for. They can smell hustle a mile away. Talk to teachers, and they will tell you how hard it is to get kids to take the tests seriously. They’ll tell you of their frustrations at trying to get kids to understand the ramifications of these tests. But can you blame them? If I demanded you take a test that I couldn’t administer properly, and the odds were that you would fail it, would you take it seriously? Furthermore, as your teacher, would you take me seriously?”

We must do better.

But now, as we move forward, there is no clear path. The state’s testing task force did slightly lessen the testing requirements for next year, and that is a start. But ask teachers, and most would say we need to get rid of this stupid test entirely! Or at the very least, we need to completely remove all the legislative and legal requirements that are tied to it – school letter grades, teacher and administrative evaluations, student grades – and just give the test for the sole purpose it was created, which is to give us a snapshot of how students are doing.

I am hopeful for the end of TVAAS. I am hopeful we will get rid of letter grades being assigned to schools based on these scores. I am hopeful we will get rid of having to threaten students to do their best because their scores will factor into their grades (because it just doesn’t work like that anyway! We don’t get the scores back in time. And when we do, what do they even mean?!). I am hopeful we can return to actually teaching our students and not having to narrow our curriculum to what’s being tested.

But for now, these things only remain a hope.

All these problems I’ve mentioned occurred with the online administration of the test. And yet many of our lawmakers seem convinced we need to stick with giving the test online. Our State Commissioner may have been “devastated” with the problems that happened with the test, but her devastation is misplaced. The problem is with the test itself –  both the online and paper tests – and the woefully misguided emphasis that is placed on the test that takes away from the education of our children. She has lost site of the purpose of public education – it is not to be based on a single test! – and that is the real devastation here.

Our current governor is considering changing testing companies as a start to fixing this problem. That sounds great… until you realize that the other company being considered, ETS, owns the current company, Questar. So then it makes no sense. As Andy Spears writes in Tennessee Education Report:

“Let’s get this straight: Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen think no one in Tennessee understands Google? They are “firing” the company that messed up this year’s testing and hiring a new company that owns the old one and that also has a reputation for messing up statewide testing.”

calvin

So…. there’s that. I guess I’ll try to have faith that we can elect some representatives who truly care about supporting our public schools and truly understand how much damage our laws on state testing and accountability have harmed our schools, teachers, and students.

For starters, I fully support Rep. Craig Fitzhugh for governor. He is a champion of our public schools and teachers. We also need fellow educators Larry Proffitt and Gloria Johnson to be in the State House, helping to write and pass legislation that gets rid of these problems and instead supports public education. And locally, here in Nashville, we need TC Weber on the MNPS School Board, helping to make decisions that help students and teachers.

Statewide, we have a big opportunity this year to make some positive changes. Let’s not waste it! Public education shouldn’t be a red or blue issue; it should be about what’s best for our children. They are our number one priority!

Come on, Tennessee!

 

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Communication Breakdown

do better

Today was an interesting day.

For the past month, I’ve been back to teaching high school again after my departure from the classroom back in May 2016. It’s been a (mostly) good month. It’s challenging to start teaching in February, after my students’ original, very-well-liked teacher moved to another town. But I’d like to think I’m making it work. I’m teaching 10th grade English and Critical Thinking. Anyhow, back to what happened today.

It’s a Monday. Two weeks before spring break begins. That means, as every teacher knows, it’s getting difficult to get everyone to focus. Here in Nashville, we were expecting some significant weather later today – heavy rain, thunderstorms, possible tornadoes, and hail… serious stuff.

And according to the weather reports, all this bad weather was supposed to hit around 1-5 PM this afternoon. Which would have been school dismissal time, followed by the typically hellish evening commute all over Nashville. It would have been a mess.

Now, as it turns out, that terrible weather didn’t actually hit at that time. As I’m typing this, it’s 6:31 PM, and we’re still waiting…

But hey, you can’t always count on the weather doing what it was predicted to do. And so, that’s why earlier today, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) made the decision to dismiss school early.

I think this was a good idea. I mean, the weather reports were serious enough to warrant concern for our students on their way home. So I totally understand the decision to dismiss early.

However, how the situation was handled is the problem. The BIG problem.

ANATOMY OF A COMMUNICATION MISHAP

Let me begin with last night’s callout and email. At 7:40 PM, I – along with all MNPS parents and employees who have their correct phone number on file with the district – received a call stating that the district was paying close attention to the weather on Monday, but at this time, the district was planning on operating on normal hours.

I didn’t think anything of it other than Monday would be a regular school day.

Then, this morning, I’m in the 2nd period of the day, which is Critical Thinking, where we are finishing up a presentation and discussion on fake news and how to spot it. We’ve been learning all about media literacy in that class. Around 9:50 AM or so, our campus assistant comes in my room to quietly let me know we would be letting school out early at 10:30 AM. He knew this for a fact because he coordinates all the school bus arrivals and departures each day – and apparently we have about 29 different bus routes at my school!

I had not received any official communication from the district at this point. And our campus assistant wasn’t that quiet; my students heard his announcement and quickly got excited about it. So I turned it into a mini lesson on how news stories are created.

I told my students that here we have a news source – the campus assistant – telling us some important news. If we were going to write a news report about this, would this one source be enough? Is he a credible source? Where could we get another credible source to back up what he told us? After all, we had just been discussing what fake news is and how to debunk it, so here was an opportunity to put what we learned into action by verifying the truth.

My students said we could check the district website, Twitter, Facebook, etc., so we started checking it out. I told them to get their phones out and see if they could find some credible information to back up what we had just been told.

On Twitter, we found a Tweet from 9:55 AM about the schools closing from the district’s official Twitter account. Yay! We found another credible source! We determined this was really happening for real, and my students were now excited that they’d be going home in about 30 minutes.

To be honest, once we confirmed that, it was hard – make that impossible – to get my room full of 26 teenagers to focus on anything else. So I didn’t really try. Many of them were trying to contact parents and making plans. So instead, I went back online to check for more information. That’s when I noticed that the Tweet we had just looked at had been deleted by the district.

By the way, I should point out that I don’t usually have my phone out during the school day (other than at lunch time). And I’m not on social media during work hours (though today was an exception). So the fact that I even saw the district’s Tweets were out of the norm for me on a work day.

Then I went to check my email. Surely the district had sent out an official email detailing the early dismissal for us all. You know, so we could all have accurate information to share with our students. Because that’s important in a situation like this where student safety is the number one concern. RIGHT?

Sounds like a logical thing that should happen in a case like this, right?

But no! There was no email. Nothing at all from the district on what was happening at that moment that affected every single employee and student in the entire district.

It was only the beginning of a total communications disaster.

I detailed the events on Twitter here.

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Here’s the timeline of events from my point of view as a high school teacher and a parent of an elementary school student:

Around 9:50 AM: We hear from the campus assistant that school will be dismissed early at 10:30 AM

9:55 AM: MNPS tweets about the early dismissal. Then the tweet is deleted. I wonder why.

Around 10:00 AM: Our principal announces we will be dismissed at 10:30 AM

10:03 AM: MNPS tweets again announcing the dismissal. It’s the same tweet from 9:55 AM. Go figure.

And by the way, their tweet wasn’t specific as they may have thought it was. It said schools would be dismissing 3.5 hours from their start time. That would have been 10:35 AM for high school, not 10:30 AM. I know, it’s a tiny detail. But really? For the communications department, IT’S THEIR JOB TO COMMUNICATE. And why say 3.5 hours instead of saying the actual dismissal time? Why the extra time calculation for parents to have to figure out? Come on now!

10:10 AM: I start thinking of my own daughter and whether or not she would be able to get her normal ride to her after care program. They have a bus of their own that drops off and picks up approximately 10-15 students. So I try calling the after care program, but the number is busy. They must have been scrambling to make plans. Thankfully, I did reach them later and it all worked out.

10:11 AM: I text my neighborhood mom friends to see if they had heard that all our children would soon be out of school! Surprise! They hadn’t. They start trying to change their afternoon schedules so they can pick up their kids.

At this point, THERE STILL HAS BEEN NO OFFICIAL DISTRICT COMMUNICATION ABOUT THIS ISSUE OTHER THAN THE TWEET. It’s possible they put it on Facebook at this time as well, but I didn’t have time to check. I mean, I could be snarky here and say something like who do they think they are, the President? but I’ll keep going…

10:13 AM: I receive a text message from my daughter’s elementary school stating they would be dismissed at 11:30 AM. They even sent a follow up text at 10:36 AM, clarifying that Fun Co, the school’s after care program, would also be closed and apologizing for the “abrupt timing” of it all. I am so grateful to hear some official news, and think, YES! THIS IS HOW THINGS SHOULD BE DONE!!

By this time, I’m wondering what I am supposed to do once students are dismissed. Am I supposed to stay at work? Do I get to leave? Since I hadn’t confirmed that my daughter’s after care program would be picking her up, I didn’t know if I needed to pick her up by 11:30 AM. I was pretty stressed out about it, to be honest. I can only imagine how other parents across town were feeling.

10:23 AM: I get the official district callout about the early dismissal. It sounds like it is the exact same information contained in the tweet. In other words, they said schools would be dismissed 3.5 hours from their start time.

LET ME PUT THIS A DIFFERENT WAY: If you have a son or daughter in high school, you received a call from the district exactly SEVEN MINUTES before dismissal informing you school was ending early.

What?!?

If you have a son or daughter in pre-K or elementary school, you had about an hour and 7 minutes to completely rearrange your schedule to be there for your children.

School buses were running on their normal routes, just 3.5 hours earlier than usual. I wonder how many little children got on their bus only to find there was no one home?? With only one hour’s notice, what were parents supposed to do if they couldn’t make it in time??

10:30 AM: High schools dismiss students. The buses leave. The school became real quiet real fast. There is an announcement over the PA system for teachers – we are told it is a work day. Our grades need to be finalized in the grading system. Blah blah blah. I don’t know if all teachers stayed or not.

10:35 AM: I get confirmation from my daughter’s after care program that they will be picking up students as usual, though they would be closing early at 3 PM. Whew. I relax a little at my desk, where I am sitting and trying to finish up my grades. I start tweeting.

10:59 AM: My daughter calls me from her classroom to ask what is happening. She sounds a little stressed out. I know she gets a bit scared when I talk about bad weather like tornadoes… she’s only 9, you know. I wonder how many other kids are making phone calls to their parents, trying to figure out what will happen when school is out.

I am so grateful for our teachers and school leaders who handled today’s situation with grace, compassion, empathy, and calm. Clearly, the message we got from the district was not sufficient, but we made the best of it.

Because that’s what teachers do. ❤️

11:09 AM: We get an email – FINALLY!!! – from the district. Only all it says is staff “should treat today’s dismissal the same as an early dismissal for snow” and to check with our site supervisor if we have any questions. I don’t even understand what that means, but thankfully, our principal announces that we can leave if we are done with our work for the day.

11:41 AM: I finish my grades. I am trying to relax from this stressful 90 minutes I’ve just gone through. I’m done tweeting. And I’m getting ready to head home.

12:45 PM: I’m home, in sweatpants, with my daughter. I can finally relax.

As I said from the first tweet, I understand why MNPS decided on an early dismissal. But how they handled it really, really sucked. It was bad. Really bad. I mean, this is the main job of the communications department – to communicate to the public about district news and events. And in an emergency situation, we have got to be able to trust them to communicate in a clear and organized manner that reaches as many people as possible.

But they failed us today.

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A PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR

Communication has long been an issue for MNPS. Perhaps they don’t have the right people in charge? I mean, the district’s public information officer – the public face of the district – was recently on the news discussing how we don’t have enough money for water filters in some of our schools where there is lead in the water. LEAD IN THE WATER. And we can’t pay for filters?! She came across as callous and tone deaf.

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is frustrating. I’m left with a bunch of questions…

Are there not communication protocols in place for this kind of event? Shouldn’t there be at least one official district email for all employees in a situation like this to prevent the spread of misinformation? As soon as a decision is made like today’s early dismissal, shouldn’t there be an immediate callout AND email to parents and teachers with all the necessary and specific information needed? Shouldn’t every avenue of communication be pursued at the moment the decision is made – instead of just one tweet??

I mean, seriously, are we supposed to rely solely on Twitter for official district announcements now? I don’t think so.

These questions I’ve raised are basic common sense. But maybe these communication problems are indicative of the bigger problems within MNPS. Who knows?

So come on, MNPS Communication Department, DO BETTER. PLEASE.

Now I’m going to make pancakes for dinner. Because it’s been that kind of day.

pancakes

Oh.

One more thing.

I may have talked about all this with News Channel 5… here’s the link.

I’M BAAAACK!

HEADING BACK INTO THE FIRE

Well, that didn’t take long.

Less than two years.

I’m a teacher again.

Honestly, I really did think I was done when I quit in May of 2016. Really.

I didn’t keep my teaching supplies, my folders full of files, my copies of great assignments and student work, my cool posters, or my extraordinary assortment of white board markers. I was done. I was never coming back.

But….

I missed teaching. I missed being intricately involved in public education.

Sure, I have been involved as a public school parent and as a former teacher. I have spoken at board meetings and met with legislators and attended rallies. I haven’t given up.

But it’s different when you’re actually a teacher.

So now, as a current public school teacher, I am once again involved in the fight to support public education in the strongest way possible, by putting my so-called money where my mouth is. I’m walking the walk again. I’m a dues-paying, card-carrying union member again, not just someone who is supportive of unions. I’m a high school English teacher in an urban setting at a school that is struggling to raise achievement. I’m a public school parent who sends my child to the schools in the district where I also teach because I believe in Metro Nashville Public Schools. I am proud of MNPS. I AM MNPS.

I’m in this, once again.

EYES WIDE OPEN

There is a growing teacher shortage in this country. I wonder how many other former teachers like me are actually going back to teaching after some time off. Teaching is a profession that many feel a calling for, and it is especially hard to give it up – I can say this with certainty.

So I wonder if there are others who are daring to reenter this strange and remarkable world of public education. I mean, it’s not like things have gotten better for teachers and public education. Especially under the current administration.

I know what to expect. MNPS is struggling, as usual. We have some frustrating leadership issues, in my opinion. We have some scripted curriculum we are being directed to teach. We are being told there isn’t time to teach whole novels in English classes. We are being reminded frequently of the importance of the tests. We still have a culture of fear, where many teachers are afraid to speak out about issues. We still have an unhealthy obsession with data, data, data. We still have a HUGE over-reliance on tests and test data that is supposed to be used to inform our instruction.

I am not a fan of these things. I will have to figure out the best way to keep my sanity. And my integrity. All while still keeping my job.

I expect it to be a challenge.

But I know I’m a good teacher.

And despite all the negative things I just listed, I am still very excited to be back in MNPS. Great work is being done in MNPS every single day, thanks to dedicated teachers and staff members.

And now, I’m a part of that, too.MNPS success

CHEERS TO THE FUTURE

I don’t know what the future holds. No one does, I know. There are some days I think we are *winning* in public education, and other days where I feel totally set back.

I will try to remain optimistic, like Diane Ravitch has suggested:

The fight continues. I have a strong sense that the tide is turning. I am not giving up, and neither should you. There is much good news to share. Books reflect the world and books can change the world. All of us acting together are changing it right now. I have never been more hopeful about the future. I want to gather the hope and inspiration that you have generated and use it to inspire even greater activism to defeat the stale and dying status quo.

Help me write this important next book. Share your stories. Help me stop the privatization train, which ran off the rails long ago. I recall being told repeatedly a few years ago that it was useless to resist because the train had left the station. When they said that, they never said  where the train was heading. Not a good place. Maybe to a steep cliff. Trump and DeVos know. They tell us. The Koch brothers tell us. They want to destroy public schools. They are the “low hanging fruit.” They are driving the train to nowhere, and the “low hanging fruit” are our children.

Friends, together we are telling them that their plan to destroy our public schools is not going to happen.

It. Is. NOT. Going. To. Happen. We will show them what democracy looks like.

Keep me informed about your community, your state. They have money. We have numbers. Together, we will save our schools, our children, and our democracy.

There are, after all, millions of public school supporters out there in the form of teachers, parents, and students. We just need to make our voices heard.

I will also gain some hope and inspiration from The Progressive’s public education outlook for 2018, written by their education fellows. One outlook, by Peter Greene, is one I’ll now be doing on a daily basis:

The story that should be covered in 2018, but won’t be: Despite all the attacks on education, systemic underfunding, and a host of unaddressed social issues, millions of teachers will show up for work and do the very best they can. This, like the sun rising in the morning, is not news—but it is important.

And so, I’m a teacher again.

Today was my first day back.

I’m feeling good.

 

 

 

 

In a haze

I grew up in south San Diego along the coastline – I mean, I could literally see Mexico from my house – and other than our mostly perfect weather, we also had a common occurrence in the mornings: the marine layer. From the ground, the marine layer looks similar to fog or a cloud cover, but it’s not actually the same thing. It causes the sky to look dull and gray before it burns off with the arrival of warmer temperatures in the afternoon. In San Diego, it is fairly common to have a marine layer through the morning into the early afternoon. And I hated it because it hurt my eyes and gave me a headache.

THE YEAR THAT WAS 2017

2017 was like one super long, hazy, marine-layered morning in San Diego, where the sun and warmer temperatures never came. I couldn’t look up. It hurt my eyes. And I had a headache for most of it – metaphorically, anyway. I kept waiting for it to burn off so I could feel the warmth and happiness of the sun, but it never came. It was one, long 365-day marine layer.

I’m so glad it’s over. There were some good moments in 2017, some happy family memories made, but mostly, the year just sucked. I tried to avoid the headlines, but news of Trump’s behavior or his Tweets or his bad decisions were everywhere I looked. It was a hard year to get through.

It was a hard year to feel hopeful.

After January 20, 2017, there was that one glorious day where women (and some men) came together all over the world to stand up for equality and justice and be heard. The Women’s March was great! But after that, I pretty much felt deflated the rest of the year, and I’m not proud of that. It was just so hard to slog through it all, and I found my energy as an activist just wane away as the year went on.

I was depressed for most of 2017. There were so many times during the year I was frustrated or angry or wound up about an issue, and when I sat down at my computer to blog about it I felt absolutely overwhelmed by it all and couldn’t get any words out. I’ve got a dozen unfinished blog posts from last year that I just couldn’t get done. Blogging is challenging for me anyhow, but man! 2017 was just the pits.

A NEW YEAR, A NEW HOPE?

And yet, here we are, finally, in a new year. It’s 2018, at last.

That marine layer is starting to burn off. We made it.

Every time a new year begins, I usually feel hopeful. This year, there is only a teeny-tiny feeling, but it is there. Maybe a positive change is coming. That hope may have started when Doug Jones was elected as Alabama’s new senator, and I hope it keeps growing. Though, unfortunately, things may get worse before they get better.

Fingers crossed, 2018, fingers crossed.

LESSONS LEARNED & A NEW COURSE

Professionally, 2017 was a bit of a downer for me. I quit my job as a teacher in May 2016, and I really thought I was done with it all.

After graduating from massage therapy school in May 2017, I became a licensed massage therapist and slowly began working in that field.

Along the way, I learned a few things about myself:

  1. I feel good about my decision to quit teaching in 2016. I was reaching my burnout point, and my frustrations about testing were at an all-time high. It was definitely time for me to get out before I started letting it show in the classroom.
  2. I’m also really happy about my decision to become a massage therapist. Though it may have seemed like a decision completely out of left field – and in some ways, it totally was – it makes sense to me now. See, I like to help people, but I wanted a much less stressful job than teaching. And that’s basically massage: it’s a very non-stressful job for the most part, and it definitely helps people. And plus, I really enjoy it! Who knew? So now, I have a whole other skill set I can use! Pretty cool decision overall.
  3. But… guess what I figured out the longer I was away from teaching? I miss working in public education. I didn’t think I would. But I can’t deny the pull it has on me, the desire to make a positive change. I feel led to work in public education in some way, to be a leader, to effect change, and I realize that now.
  4. And lastly, after over a year where my husband and I have had to pay for our own health insurance out of pocket, we decided we need to make some changes. The state of our health insurance system is obviously broken, and I am tired of paying a fortune each month ($1032.66 to be exact)(plus $88.30 for dental!) for really, really crappy insurance. In short, I realized I need to have a full-time job with benefits because what we’re doing right now ain’t cutting it. (Also, I can’t really earn a decent wage and have benefits as a massage therapist. Bummer.)

So, for the last few months, I’ve been actively looking for a full-time job in education. I’m still working as a massage therapist – I’m definitely going to keep that up! It’s just that now, I only plan to work on some weekends and maybe more in the summer. It’s just not going to be my main job or source of income.

I’m eager to get back to what’s been calling me…

After taking this time to truly relax and recharge, I’m not burned out anymore. In this sense, with my career path, that marine layer I was talking about has completely burned off, and things are clear as day now.

In fact, I feel excited. I feel ready. I don’t know yet where I’ll end up… but I’m hopeful.

Something I haven’t felt in a long time.

Wish me luck.

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Testing Madness in Tennessee

testing

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT TESTING.

Specifically, standardized testing, the overemphasis placed on the results of said tests, the addition of value-added measures where test scores are used to evaluate teachers and somehow measure student growth (based on a student’s predicted growth)(what?!), those same results being included in up to 25% of students’ grades, and starting this year, schools will be given an A-F grade based on their test results.

As if that weren’t enough, here in Tennessee, land of VAM, we’ve had enough missteps to piss off nearly everyone about testing. Which is a good thing – because now, maybe we can do something to end this out-of-control testing madness.

Missteps, you say? Yes. Let me attempt to sum up: First we had a different test (TCAP). Then we were brought a newer, better (says who?) test (TNReady). Then we tried to give the test (on computers), but it didn’t work (literally)(we broke the online system). So we didn’t have the test. And then students did take the test (using trusty pencil and paper) – but only in high school (yeah, that went over really well with my students). Then we waited and waited for results. This year, grades 3-11 finally took the test! But not on computer because it wasn’t ready. So back to pencil and paper. So we waited for results. And waited. And waited. And then we got some results, but not all. And the state tried to formulate TVAAS scores with the new data, but when you compare it to the TCAP data, it simply isn’t comparable (because they are two different tests) and therefore shouldn’t be used. But the state did it anyway and told us – I mean, they mailed out expensive flyers to many people across the state assuring us of it! – that we could trust these oh-so-meaningful scores. And then, last week, they said oops! we made a mistake! And now?? We still don’t have all the results. And who knows if they are accurate anyway. It’s a really, really bad joke.

Only the joke is on us.

TN ready flyer
Really fancy flyer that (our tax?) money was wasted on

WE CAN’T TRUST THE SCORES.

WE CAN’T TRUST THE TN DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION.

We need to throw out the test and the scores.

We need to throw it ALL out.

Listen, I’m writing this from memory. But I can’t even remember all the stupid things that have happened regarding standardized testing over the last four years I’ve lived in Tennessee. Luckily, you can read all about it over at Tennessee Education Report, Dad Gone Wild, and Momma Bears. I’m not being lazy, I promise; I have #TNTestingFatigue. I’m ready to #TrashTNReady because instead of TNReady, we got #TNnotReady. I’m over it.

Seriously, people, I am pissed off. This issue is a huge part of why I quit teaching in the first place. We place WAY TOO MUCH emphasis on these standardized tests. Time is wasted. Money is wasted. And it keeps happening. We need things to change – and that means at the top. Things need to change at the legislative level – with the TN House and Senate.

had enough

I’VE HAD ENOUGH. AND I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE.

So I’m part of this statewide coalition of groups that advocate for public education. In Nashville, our group is called Mid-TN CAPE (Coalition Advocating for Public Education). And we put together this resolution to send to the TN House Education Committees and State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Please sign the resolution here share it widely.

In less than one day, we collected over 1000 signatures of support! That is true grassroots organizing.

Here’s the resolution:

TN Ready Resolution

Whereas TN Ready testing in 2017 resulted in large numbers of scoring errors rendering all results suspect,

Whereas TN Ready testing failed in 2016, causing confusion and disappointment among students, teachers, families and administrators, and resulting in no data for the academic year for most students and teachers.

Whereas the State of Tennessee made the decision to change testing instruments from TCAP to TN Ready, a defensible shift that nonetheless complicates judgments about student achievement and growth and teacher accountability in the short term,

Whereas TVAAS is an unstable measure of student growth especially when fewer than three complete years of data is available,

and

Whereas the American Statistical Association (April 8, 2014) and the American Educational Research Association (November 11, 2015) have issued cautions regarding the scientific and technical limitations of the use of value-added assessment for purposes of accountability

Therefore, be it resolved, that we the undersigned call on the TN State Legislature and TN Department of Education to suspend use of testing data for consequential decision-making until after the 2019-2020 school year.

We further call for a three year collaborative study —involving the TN legislature, the TN Department of Education, teachers and their professional organizations, school boards and district administrators, and parents of public school students — to determine the most productive and constructive path forward to ensure real and reasonable accountability for educational outcomes in the service of the best possible education for Tennessee’s children.

And soon after the recent scoring debacle was announced, we held press conferences across the state demanding changes. Knoxville. Nashville. Memphis.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 8.00.47 PMHopefully the State House is taking notice. They are holding their Education Committees Joint Meeting on October 24-25 and TNReady is on the agenda. In fact, I’ll be speaking out against it at that meeting.

I’ll update this blog post after that meeting with some notes and my speech.

** FINALLY! AN UPDATE! HEY, IT’S ONLY 3 MONTHS LATER! **

It’s about time I updated this post with my speech from that meeting back in October! To be honest, that meeting felt like a set-up. And I was depressed about it for a while, so I didn’t feel like updating this post. I didn’t get to make my speech, nor did others who feel the same way as I do and had waited patiently all day to speak, thinking we were on some actual list of speakers. What happened was that SCORE, a group with a lot of power with the TNDOE and certain members of the State Legislature, had stacked the deck with teachers (all were current or former SCORE Teacher Fellows) who spoke about their undying love for TNReady and of their inability to teach effectively without their detailed TNReady Score Reports. For real? I found myself asking after each of these teachers spoke. They can’t teach without their Score Reports, which teachers hadn’t even received yet?! It didn’t make sense. But then I realized it did make sense because SCORE doesn’t want their precious TNReady or its effects on teacher evaluation to go away at all. And they had the power that day. My only hope is that our legislators saw right through their BS.

Anyway, here is the speech that I would have given that day if I’d had the chance. Hey, I only spent the entire day at Legislative Plaza, listening to ridiculous testimony from the head of Questar, the test vendor, and our State Education Commissioner, and waiting patiently to set the record straight…

Good afternoon. My name is Mary Holden. I am parent of a 4th grader here in Nashville public schools, and I also taught high school English in California and Tennessee for 15 years. I’m here to talk about why TNReady isn’t doing what you may think it’s doing.

We place too much emphasis on standardized testing in Tennessee. Test results count toward evaluating teacher performance, figuring into student grades, judging our schools, and even influencing the real estate markets. This is ridiculous. It isn’t what testing is for. By placing so much emphasis – and legislation that backs it up – on the test, we have changed what we focus on in classrooms. In other words, teachers must focus on the test because their job depends on it. This results in a narrowing of the curriculum – as an English teacher, I was told not to teach poetry or whole novels because they weren’t on the test – and this shortchanges our children. They are the ones who lose because of our testing madness. Public education should not be about preparing students for a test. But that is what our state laws have made happen.

Then there is the debacle that is TNReady. First we switch tests. Then the test gets canceled. Then it’s back on. Now we can’t get the data back. Then the data we get is flawed and incorrect. But we do get expensive flyers mailed home assuring us that we can trust the results. Are you kidding me?! Even my high school students knew it was all a joke.

Pro-testing advocates like to say that these tests inform teachers’ instruction. But that is not true at all. Teachers are naturally assessing students every day, in both informal and formal ways, and in diagnostic, formative, and summative ways. Teachers know their students. That’s what they do. Assessment is a natural part of teaching. But these standardized tests? They don’t give any valuable or new information to teachers at all. Not to mention that results have never been received in any kind of timely manner. And this year, the state tells us that there were mistakes made in scoring the tests? We aren’t buying it.

You want to help? Let’s take a well-needed break from this testing mania. Let’s start with a 3-year moratorium on state testing. Then let’s remove all punitive restrictions on this test – that means we get rid of TVAAS, which is unreliable, inaccurate, and highly impersonal to our children – who aren’t statistics (and Houston ISD just removed it from teacher evaluations); remove results from student grades; and stop grading schools based on test scores.

Let’s be forward-thinking and look at other ways to evaluate school success that are research-based and developed in conjunction with teachers, professors of education, and other education professionals. TEA knows plenty of educators who would like to be involved in shaping future education policy in Tennessee. Our students are more than a score.

The good news now is that it does seem like many legislators are waking up to the testing madness in our state. And now that the Legislation Session is officially underway, maybe there is some hope we’ll see some legislation that helps our schools.

IF I RAN THE WORLD

If it were up to me, I’d get rid of standardized testing completely. After all, it has its roots in racism (see here, here, and here for some background). If we truly did want to have a general overview of what students are learning – a snapshot, so to speak – let’s go to grade span testing, where students take a standardized test in grades 3, 8, and 11. These tests wouldn’t have any punitive or evaluative measures behind them; they would simply be a snapshot of statewide data. But the moment you attach any more meaning than that to these tests, their original purpose is gone. And then, the test becomes the focus. The test drives all decisions. That is wrong.

You think students care about these tests? No way. Don’t believe me? Ask them and see for yourself. In 2014, a then-16-year-old student from Ohio asked What’s the Point? Students know these tests are total bullshit.

You can’t use these tests to measure school success. Or to measure equity. In fact, that is what some pro-testing advocates believe – that we need annual tests to show us the inequities. But hello! We already know where the inequities are (since there is a strong correlation between test scores and poverty levels – see also here, here, and here)! So here’s a novel idea —– let’s actually fix the inequities!!! Let’s take a long, hard look at how to eradicate poverty and reduce the effects of trauma on our kids.

And to do that doesn’t require annual testing. It does, however, require a true commitment to improving public education. Which means a real commitment to fully funding our schools (come on, Tennessee!), supporting the transformational community schools model, looking at ways to integrate our schools, and finally, really investing in our teachers – not only with respectable salaries, but also with autonomy and overall respect for the profession.

I know we can do it.

We have to do it. We can’t give up on public education.

Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. And as I recently heard TN State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a candidate for TN Governor, say, “Education is not a quick fix. It’s the only fix.” (And yes, I’m #TeamFitz all the way!)

Indeed. Public education is the foundation for everything we do. So let’s make it a priority.

#TeacherVoice

In May 2016, I quit my job as a high school teacher. I’d been teaching for a long time, and it wasn’t an easy decision. In fact, I miss teaching quite a bit.

I am still very involved in public education advocacy, especially here in Nashville, Tennessee.

MNPS success

One thing I care deeply about is our local school district, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The school board hired a new Director of Schools last year, and I was very optimistic, even welcoming him to the district at a board meeting. Over this year, though, I’ve seen some things happen based on decisions he’s made that have made me very nervous and concerned. Actually, I feel angry. And as my concerns built up, I decided it was time to use my teacher voice to speak up.

Here’s the 3-minute speech I gave at the school board meeting this week, along with some ranting, er, I mean, notes:

Good evening. My name is Mary Holden, and I am an MNPS parent and a former teacher with 18 years of experience in public education. Tonight we have heard about some of the wonderful things happening in our schools with our teachers and students, but all my concerns lie at the top.

The school board meeting started at 5:00PM. There was a performance by White’s Creek High School’s World Percussion Ensemble that was incredible! It certainly got me pumped up. Then there were awards for students and teachers and local business partners, acclaim given to some of our schools’ programs, and presentations from community groups who support our schools. These were important things to hear about because public school successes are something you don’t always see in the news. So I wanted to make it clear at the start of my speech that the concerns I was about to express specifically have to do with decisions made at the top, meaning by Dr. Joseph and the executives who surround him.

Basically, the way I see it, MNPS is, as my friend TC Weber recently wrote, in the weeds. And it’s about time we pull them out.

When Dr. Joseph arrived last year, I felt excited about the possibilities for him to build on our successes and be a champion for our schools. Instead, the culture of fear is worse. Teachers have never been more scared to speak up. The demands placed on them far outweigh their pay. Their autonomy has been stripped away. There’s a teacher shortage and retention is a problem. None of this is acceptable.

There’s a teacher shortage here in Nashville, along with many places all over the country. But here, it seems like our own Human Resources department and the bosses at the executive level just can’t figure out two things: how to hire new teachers and how to prevent them from leaving. Again, TC wrote an excellent post addressing the district’s shocking ignorance about why teachers are leaving. Here’s a hint to those flying blind over in HR: it’s called R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And autonomy. And better pay. And teachers ain’t getting any of that.

Dr. Joseph, you talk about leading outside of the box, but instead you’ve put yourself in a very expensive bubble, keeping you isolated from not only what’s going on, but also from the bad and sometimes unethical decisions your executives have made.

So you’re leading from within the bubble instead of outside the box.

When Dr. Joseph arrived, one of the first things he did was have all the district leaders go through expensive, er, I mean, extensive training with The Arbinger Institute. They had to read this book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box.

Here’s a review of that book: “The ‘disease’ of self-deception (acting in ways contrary to what one knows is right) underlies all leadership problems in today’s organizations, according to the premise of this work. However well intentioned they may be, leaders who deceive themselves always end up undermining their own performance.This straightforward book explains how leaders can discover their own self-deceptions and learn how to escape destructive patterns. The authors demonstrate that breaking out of these patterns leads to improved teamwork, commitment, trust, communication, motivation, and leadership.”

Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen and heard, I don’t think Dr. Joseph heeded his own advice. He hired a large number of outsiders for the top positions and even created new positions that didn’t exist before to create his own protective layer of executives which keep him isolated from what’s going on. I call it a bubble. Former Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register also had such a bubble around himself and always seemed disconnected from what was really happening in schools. [And for the record, I called him out on it as well. I even sent him this post on data when I worked in MNPS. I don’t think it went over too well though.]

When I’ve spoken with Dr. Joseph one-on-one, he does seems genuine. But when he’s speaking in front of a group, I get the opposite feeling. It has seemed to me, from the first time I heard him speak publicly, that he seems somewhat disingenuous. Or blissfully unaware of the havoc being created by his hirees. Not sure which it is. But either way, it’s not true leadership, in my opinion. It’s the opposite of what was written about in that book. [And Dr. Joseph, if you’re reading this, I would like to you know I sincerely want you to succeed. But I also think that means some things need to change. We are about the same age. We have both spent many years in education. While I only studied how to be an administrator, you actually became one. But I have talked with several district superintendents about what it means to be an effective leader, and I don’t see it happening here right now. The culture of fear is worse. But I actually am rooting for you. Because your success here truly means success for everyone in MNPS. I’d love to talk with you more about it sometime.]

You’ve said you brought in the best people for these executive positions, but many lack the qualifications needed for their jobs. Instead of being forward thinking, they are backward thinking, only focused on standardized test scores and data. The only thing those scores show us are poverty levels. So while we should be working to combat poverty and make our schools equitable, instead we are wasting our time and precious resources focusing on meaningless test scores. We need to de-emphasize the role that testing plays and stop the false narrative that our schools are failing. This means getting rid of all the extra testing and data collection requirements that have been imposed and instead, trust our teachers and let them teach.

I’m going to again direct you to TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild for specific information about the bevy of unqualified people Dr. Joseph has brought in, mostly from Prince George’s County in Maryland, which is where Dr. Joseph most recently worked. TC’s done a lot of deep diving when it comes to checking out who is behind the decision-making at MNPS these days. But let me highlight a few: we’ve got someone in charge of professional development who has never been a teacher. We’ve got a new executive position that was created and given to the wife of the second-in-command. We’ve got highly-paid executives who weren’t properly credentialed by the State when they got their jobs. Or who are involved in a lawsuit. Or who get paid more than more experienced administrators who were already working here. Or who are in charge of curriculum and instruction but don’t seem to understand what those words mean. Or who have questionable records of leading schools. Or who tried to enact charter school legislation in another state. And on and on and on.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the complete disregard and disrespect for the excellence, knowledge, and skills that already exist here in Nashville.

You’ve been operating from the false assumption that we are in crisis mode and that we don’t have the capacity to fix it on our own. And that’s been driving the bad policy decisions – like purchasing canned curriculum and scripted lesson plans, outsourcing home visits to a company based in Maryland, and expensive, unnecessary out-of-state trainings, to name a few. Just as the new school year began, there was a new grading policy, a new homework policy, and a new literacy plan all forced on teachers from the top down with no input.

This is the opposite of what should be happening.

This part really makes me the angriest. Dr. Joseph and his team came here with the belief that MNPS is broken. And when that is your paradigm, of course all your decisions are going to based in tearing down the “broken” system and remaking it into something you think is better.

Only we are not broken.

We do have great disparities in Nashville. Over 70% of our students come from high-poverty levels. But we aren’t broken as a school system. There are good people doing good things here. There are great teachers working way too hard for our neediest students without the resources they need. There is learning happening in classrooms throughout the district every day. There are schools and programs that have gotten national acclaim. But when the new people got here, they ignored all that. They fired people left and right and drove others out before really gaining an understanding of the culture that existed here before.

I’m not saying it was all good. I’m saying that they assumed it was all terrible and made their decisions based on that assumption. All this was based on test scores, of course. We had the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction tell all the district principals that she was ready to roll up her sleeves, slather on some Vaseline, and fight because she was so angry…. about poverty and inequity, you may ask? NO. About test scores. And now she’s on a mission to raise those scores, at any cost, it seems. She’s purchased scripted lessons and pre-packaged curriculum units that teachers are forced to teach, which basically renders teachers mute. She’s set up trainings on literacy that aren’t needed because teachers already know the material. She is not giving ANY credit to our teachers because it seems she thinks THEY are to blame for low test scores. A friend who teaches high school English told me the literacy coach at her school told English teachers not to bother teaching a whole novel and instead focus only on excerpts… because that’s what’s tested. As a former English teacher, this makes me fuming mad. Mad enough to where I’m willing to roll up my own sleeves…

All this emphasis on test scores and data, data, data makes me crazy. Because that seems to be the only thing that our leaders are focused on, all our resources are being devoted to raising scores. In the process, our curriculum is being narrowed and teachers are losing even more of their autonomy. Then teachers are directed to assess students frequently with outside assessments and benchmarks and keep track of the data. All of this is what drives teachers away.

And that’s why I called our district leaders backward thinking. They seem unable to see the big picture and the proper role that standardized testing and data should play (here’s a hint: it’s a very small role). And because of it, we get things like the district’s new homework policy forced on us right after the school year began. Now my 4th grade daughter MUST have 40 minutes of homework every night because the district said so and not because my daughter’s teacher thinks it may or may not be necessary. And we get canned curriculum in place of teacher autonomy and computer programs in place of real relationships and real teaching.

HUH?

It almost seems like district leaders don’t really care about teachers. At some schools, they’ve already plopped students down in front of computers because they can’t hire teachers to fill those spots. Is that the end goal here? That since they can’t find teachers, ahh, well, who needs them? Hey, it’s not unheard of. But that shouldn’t be what we sink to.

This is not right for our students. They are ultimately the ones being shortchanged here.

Relationships matter. In fact, they are the MOST important thing in life. 

School board members, I beg you, stop being silent followers. Your silence makes you complicit in these issues. You don’t need to be in lockstep agreement all the time. If you’re frustrated about these things, I expect you to do something about it.

A few years ago, current MNPS board member Amy Frogge wrote that experienced teachers should be the ones driving education reform. I couldn’t agree more, and I am proud that Amy serves as a board member. I count her as a friend and greatly respect her, as well as some others on the board.

But.

Lately – and by lately I mean since Dr. Joseph was hired – the school board has gone from being vocal in the media and on social media about issues that they agreed or disagreed on to being completely silent. And when they do speak out, it’s a little too Stepford Wives-like. Here are the opening sentences from the board’s statement in August 2016: “As the Metropolitan Board of Education, we speak as a unified body. As the Board Chair and on behalf of the Board, I would like to say that we support Dr. Joseph and his leadership team, and we stand behind the hiring decisions he has made.”

Well, dang. Pretty cut and dry then, right? We, the public, voted for you all, then you say this, and we’re all supposed to sit down and say, “Okay, then, do as you please”? I don’t think so. Not if you have a child in an MNPS school. Not if you know teachers who teach in MNPS. Not if you used to work for MNPS. And not if you care about MNPS.

[SIDE NOTE: Dear board members, I do not believe for one second that you all believe that statement from last August. I keep hearing that Dr. Joseph is doing what he said he would do, so there’s nothing to critique. But here’s the thing: If I’m the boss, and you hired me, and I say I’m going to hold community meetings and put together a report about what I learned from those meetings, and then I do exactly what I said I was going to do, are you going to give me an “A+” on my evaluation? But in reality, what have I actually done besides hold some meetings and make some pie charts? And I didn’t even do those things, by the way! I hired a consulting group to come in and do it. Hmm. In other words, there have been A LOT of meetings and plans made and due dates and reports and strategic plans and pie charts and graphs and surveys. Nothing against meetings and those other things. They are important. But it seems like when it comes specifically to the director of school’s evaluation (which, by the way, should have already happened, right? Wait, when is it going to occur?), there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of substance. And what’s even more problematic is that SERIOUS ACTIONS have been taken that are disastrous and maybe even unethical and they’ve been done by the Chiefs and they aren’t getting noticed by you because they weren’t enacted by Dr. Joseph directly. Remember that bubble I mentioned before? Do you really believe that he has hired the most capable people to make these very important decisions? I think not. But he is YOUR employee. I expect you to be supporting him overall, BUT ALSO critiquing, questioning, and criticizing when needed. AND IT’S NEEDED NOW. It is your PUBLIC SILENCE I am most upset about. I do NOT understand your compulsion to speak as one. You’re not the Borg, for f*$k’s sake. And you can disagree respectfully, by the way. You don’t need to be at war with each other or with the director. But you were voted into office for a reason. Please don’t forget that.]

I am an experienced educator. I care deeply about this district. And I see something wrong happening at the very top of MNPS. And I am speaking out.

You want to know where to focus the district’s resources? Change your paradigm to one of building on success rather than destruction. Build meaningful relationships. Genuinely listen to teachers, parents, and students. Trust, respect, and empower teachers. Get rid of the bubble around yourself. Bring in local, qualified leaders to take the top spots. Change the focus from being test-driven and data-driven to being people-driven. We need less top-down, more bottom-up leadership.

We need to be building up our schools, our children, and making their educational experiences equitable, not tearing down all the people who make them strong. We need to follow the transformational community schools model as a proven model of success.

This is the way forward.

Thank you.

I really, really tried to end my speech on a positive note with the suggestions of what could be done.

Really, I did.

Also, being a forward-thinking superintendent isn’t unheard of. Here’s a great example on one in New York.

I hope this all didn’t sound like one long rant. But it might have. I am pretty frustrated.

What is comes down to is this (and here’s a TL;DR for this whole speech/rant): I disagree with the leadership and the direction our district leaders are heading in MNPS. I worry the internal decisions being made will have serious repercussions on the district that will negatively impact our teachers and students. And these decisions aren’t really being publicized, but they are having a huge impact, so I believe the public needs to be aware of what’s happening.

So now you’re aware. Get involved. Speak up. Hold our leaders accountable. Fight for equity. Fight for quality public education. Be champions for our public schools.

Let teachers teach_Cody

 

Back to School Once More

Two weeks ago, my daughter started 4th grade. I was overly emotional about it, even tearing up when I met the teacher during the parent night the week before school began. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make me teary.

But still. I felt a mix of emotions about back to school time this year – from being proud of my daughter for all she’s learned so far from her wonderful teachers and for her excitement about being a 4th grader, to sadness because she’s growing up so fast (4th grade! Where did my little baby go?!), to nostalgia about my own positive experiences as a student way back when, to really feeling overcome with emotion about my not being a teacher anymore.

There are a lot of things I miss about teaching, and the whole process of school itself – the routines of it, the way a school year feels – excitement, anxiety, teenage hormones (I taught high school), the ups and downs, traditions, getting to know students, students learning, students figuring out what their next steps are after high school graduation, teenagers making baby steps into adulthood before your very eyes, assemblies, Open Houses, football games and other sporting events, spirit competitions, Homecoming, just the feeling of walking through the hallway during a passing period, faculty meetings, and on and on and on – in many, many ways, I really just miss it all.

So, whenever I enter a school, I feel it. That mix of sadness and joy when I am sitting in a school seeing it all just happen. Sigh.

Of course there are things I do not miss at all. But that’s a different post.

first day of school

But I’ll say this for certain: the start of a new school year is always filled with promise and joy. It’s a brand new start, the chance to make great first impressions, to create a sense of community in each classroom where learning can happen and students feel safe and supported and teachers feel empowered and excited. It happens each year, every time a new school year begins.

I’d like to say that all teachers experience such positive experiences with the start of a new year, but that isn’t always the case. And one of the reasons why is a simple one to identify, but a difficult one to solve: leadership.

The importance of a good principal cannot be overstated. Having a strong, committed, intelligent, empowering principal at the helm of a school can make or break a teacher’s career. Because working for someone who really knows what they are doing and who truly respects and empowers teachers makes teaching easier in many ways.

WHAT’S NEEDED? TEACHER AUTONOMY.

If you read anything at all about education, then you’ve heard about how great things seem to be in Finland. But as this article points out, what does stand out about Finland’s education system in general is how they treat their teachers. When some teachers from the U.S. visited Finland, here were some of their takeaways:

Nelson said the Finnish belief is: “‘You are the expert in the field, we do not need to test your kids to see how good you really are.’ … We don’t have that in the States. It really undermines teachers’ self-esteem.”

And teachers in Finland have the autonomy to decide what and how to teach in their own classrooms.

“American teachers hesitate to say, ‘oh, this looks good, let me try it,'” Vlasnik said. “That was one of my main takeaways: There’s no secret to education, there’s no secret formula that they’re doing right and we’re doing wrong, they’re just trying new things and being innovative and giving teachers more power.”

She said Finnish educational leaders believe “teachers know good instruction, we just need to let them do it.”

This is not a novel idea. Trusting teachers to do their job – BECAUSE THEY ARE TRAINED PROFESSIONALS – should be commonplace practice in every school district. But it’s not.

An article from last year in The Atlantic discussed what happened when some Finnish teachers taught here in the U.S. Guess what they noticed? The lack of autonomy. And that’s a very bad thing: “According to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, teacher autonomy is positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and retention. And while most U.S. public-school teachers report a moderate amount of control in the classroom, many say they have little autonomy.”

Let me repeat that in a different way: We have a teacher shortage. Want to retain teachers and attract new ones? Then trust them to do their jobs. Ask them what they need, and then give them the support they need. (Oh, and paying them more would help, too!)

Steven Singer, a middle school teacher and fellow blogger, wrote about not being a “hero teacher,” and instead discusses the hard work that teachers do every day, as well as what they want and need. Now imagine what public education would be like if we actually started listening to teachers!

And a Senator from Louisiana shared his own revelations about teaching when he began substituting in schools on his off time from the senate. His big takeaway: teaching is hard work! (Duh! said teachers everywhere.) And people who make policies about education ought to know something about how it’s done. (Yessssss! said same teachers.)

joy of learning
The opposite of the joy of learning

A POSITIVE EXAMPLE

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s an example.

When teachers return to school before a new year begins, they usually have anywhere from 1-4 days of professional development / meetings / planning / setting up classroom time. Ideally, most of this time would be spent planning and preparing for the school year, but frequently, this time is usurped by endless meetings and often mind-numbing professional development. Ask almost any teacher if they have enough prep time before the school year begins, and you’ll hear the same responses: No! We need time to plan! Let us plan!

My friend Chip, who teaches high school math at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California (where I taught with him for 10 years), recently emailed this to his principal for the way the opening of school was handled this year:

I can’t lie… I’ve done 18 of these weeks at MVH.  In the beginning I would dread having enough time in my classroom just to get ready… “why so many meetings?”

Then came the age of data… meetings were inundated in interpreting graphs about students I might have more of or less than the teacher sitting next to me.  “why so many meetings?”

Since I’ve never emailed a principal after these days… I just wanted to thank you for taking the focus off of content, off of data, off of outcomes.

These three days have been about what’s important… the students (seeing their faces on the slide hit me), the teachers (treating ourselves right with yoga and bike rides), the community (what binds us all).

I learned something this week.  Not about my content, not about data… about my awesome colleagues and their stories.  Mmmm… what you miss when you don’t ask the important questions!

Thanks for keeping it real and our eyes on the prize.

I can only hope this year will be better.

– Mr. Case

Here’s what the principal, Rich Carreon, wrote in response:

I have read this email 4-5 times already. I always appreciate the positive and constructive feedback. I don’t think you know how much sleep I lose over wanting to support and provide opportunities for each student. Thank you for the ongoing dialogue. This motivates me.

Respectfully,

Rich

There are several responses I had to reading this interaction (which Chip and Rich allowed to me share):

  1. I miss working there! I have some great memories of my time at this school.
  2. Chip is happy. And when Chip is happy, his students will be happy. And they’ll learn even more math than if Chip weren’t happy. (This applies to every teacher – when they are happy, that translates to their students. It’s called the joy of learning.)
  3. Rich is an inspirational leader. There needs to be more principals like him. In fact, I think there probably are a lot of principals like this, but in some places (like here in Nashville, for example) there are too many restrictions on principals. The fact that teachers and principals are judged by students’ test scores, for example – restrictions or laws like this don’t allow principals to be as supportive and empowering as they could be. And it really bothers me.
  4. The act of thanking someone and telling them why you appreciate something they did is so very powerful. We should all do this more often.

This all happened because there was a principal who clearly understands what teachers need to feel supported and then actually provided that. He was empowered by another great leader, Dr. Karen Janney, the superintendent of the district, who clearly understands what teachers need AND what principals need in order to ensure that teachers are feeling supported.

Karen was my teacher at San Diego State University when I was earning my administrative services credential, and she used to be my boss when she was an assistant superintendent. But she has also long been a dear friend. When I talked with her recently about this email exchange (which Rich had shared with her), she was excited because, as she told me, “We are doing all the things we talked about doing!” Meaning when she was teaching classes on leadership and talking about what’s really important – like focusing on building community, empowering teachers, and caring about the well being of everyone involved from the students and parents to the teachers to the district office personnel – now, as superintendent, she’s able to put those practices into action. And it’s clearly having a positive reaction.

THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT

This is the way school should be done.

This is how you get teachers to stay. (Well, one way, at least. Paying them more would help too! Have I mentioned that?)

This is how you get students to have the best environment for learning.

This is how you have joyful schools.

(Of course, schools should also be fully funded and free from standardized testing requirements that aren’t helpful as well. But those are factors over which districts do not have direct control.)

The way I see it, the reason not all districts or schools are like this is because of a lack of leadership. We are seeing that happen here in Nashville in Metro Nashville Public Schools. And let’s not forget, there is a national teacher shortage as well due to years of education reform tactics that have turned away many prospective teachers.

I wish more districts would recognize what teachers have been saying for years – stop focusing on the data and the test scores and all the punitive measures that have been in place since the dawn of the accountability movement, and instead, focus on what matters: People. Relationships. Community. Developing the joy of learning. And trust our teachers to teach the subjects for which they are trained to teach.

This article out of Oklahoma gave me some hope:

The “best practices” of recent years have it backward, emphasizing academics before laying a socio-emotional foundation. The New York Times’ David Brooks and Paul Tough summarize the cognitive research on how children learn from people who love them. James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate who attended Harding High School, shows that test scores don’t correlate with lifetime outcomes. Summarizing the science, Heckman says, “we boil all this down, … it’s almost like this Beatles song, you know, all it takes is love.” To students, it’s about “somebody love(s) you.”

Maybe the tide is turning slowly. But when I watch the news each day, it definitely doesn’t feel that way. I worry that too many teachers are leaving, and in doing so, schools are suffering. And when schools suffer, children and their education will suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

And teachers, as you begin a new school year, I hope it is one filled with as many joyful moments as possible. Thank you for all you do.

HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR!

Thank you teachers