What do we value? Or, about that 3% raise…

What do we value? Or, about that 3% raise…

On a recent Tuesday in May, the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Board had a budget meeting where they approved, among other things, a 3% raise for teachers.

The teacher’s association, Metro Nashville Educators Association (MNEA) had been fighting for a full 3% after Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and the City Council came back with lower numbers than expected and it looked for a while that teachers were only going to get a 2% raise. Teachers rallied and spoke out, and at the budget meeting, several teachers were planning to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting to encourage the Board to fund the original 3% proposal. And then, right before the meeting started, Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph announced that teachers were going to get their 3%! Yay! Commence the cheering and the patting of backs!

Right?

But wait.

It’s not so simple. It never is.

Some teachers who spoke quickly amended their original speeches to say Thank you for the 3%! We appreciate it! And some even added But even 3% is not enough. At least it’s a start.

But I still wasn’t happy about the 3%.

This group of teachers, parents, and community members are some who came out to support raising teacher pay

There is a 2-minute limit on a person speaking during public comment. So my original speech had to be cut down quite a bit. But here is my original, longer speech to the Board and Dr. Joseph:

Good evening! My name is Mary Holden, and I am a MNPS parent and a former teacher. Thank you all for coming out to support our teachers. They are our most treasured resource, and we need to treat them accordingly.

But I am not here to argue for to thank you for a 3% raise. 3% is next to nothing. I’m here to argue for a much bigger increase.

One way to determine what a society values is to look at how and what we spend money on.

Our school board believed it was important to attract the best Director of Schools here to Nashville, so they set a salary of $285,000, a 7% increase from the previous Director’s salary. So teachers deserve at least the same: a 7% increase. But wait. The new Director believed it was important to bring in the “best” people to lead the district in our executive positions, and to do so meant they needed to be paid more. So all our executives were given an initial salary that was 25% more than what those previous positions were paid. Were questions raised by the board about this salary increase? No, because this is what was valued by our Director of Schools – that the people in these positions are the “best” and therefore deserve to be paid more money.

Well you know who is the “best,” in my opinion? Our teachers!

So I ask you all, who do we really value? Our executives – who do work hard, I’m sure, OR our teachers? You know, the people who we, as parents, send our precious children to every single day. The people who work their butts off to create engaging lessons, spend extra time with students making sure they learned a new concept, spend hours assessing student work and looking at data, spend money from their own pockets for supplies, and spend countless hours making themselves into better teachers through planning and professional development. THEY are the best. They are the people I value. And I know you all feel the same way. And so, we need to treat them like we value them. They are more than worthy of a sizable increase in their pitiful salaries. I know this from experience.

When I first moved to Nashville, I had been teaching in California for 12 years. I left California making $85,000, and when I got hired in MNPS, I was making $55,000. That’s a decrease of $30,000. Now, I know it costs less to live here than it does in San Diego; however, the price of housing here in Nashville has risen – the cost of living here has increased, and teacher salaries have NOT risen along with it. In fact, one thing I found troubling the year I taught in MNPS was the number of teachers I met who had to work a second job! Here were teachers, working so incredibly hard for their students, who could not live on their teacher salaries and had to seek additional employment in their free time. Free time, ha! We stress out our teachers to the point where they have no time for themselves. And it does not need to be this way. Not if we truly value them and the work they do.

I’m here to say that if we truly value our teachers – which we should – then that needs to show in their pay. They deserve a 25% increase. In fact, I suggest we help pay for that increase by giving our executives a salary cut. The bottom line is this: yes, it’s great that teachers are getting a 3% raise. Any raise is a good thing, generally speaking. But if you are asking me to celebrate that 3%, I say no way. 3% is nowhere near good enough. And if we value teachers, and we want them to be able to live a decent life and be able to buy a home in the city in which they teach, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Otherwise, they’re going to keep on quitting. Our teachers deserve much more than you are giving them.

Teachers, the only reason you are getting this raise is because of you and MNEA’s organizing efforts! iIf you haven’t already done so, join MNEA and fight for what you are worth!

Thank you.

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Salaries in south San Diego
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Salaries in Nashville

A few things to note:

In Nashville, the Director of Schools is the 3rd-highest paid position in all of Metro Nashville. This was true in 2014, when Dr. Jesse Register held the position with a salary of $266,033.92. And it remained true in 2016, when Dr. Joseph took the helm with a 7% increase in his salary of $285,000.00. And in addition to that $285k, there are other perks (or problems?) as well. To put this in perspective, the Director of Schools makes over $100,000 more annually than the Mayor of Nashville makes.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Thoughts?

There have been several newspaper and television news stories about the salaries I mentioned in my speech.

In one such story, MNPS had this to say about its executive-level salaries: “We hope this line of inquiry contributes to the citywide conversation about what we as a city want to invest in for our public schools. Our belief is that talent must be one of the top investments.”

This begs the question: does MNPS feel the same way about its biggest talent pool, TEACHERS?

Another television news story discussed how as Director of Schools, Dr. Joseph has “full rein” on spending. Then-Board-president Anna Shepherd was interviewed for this story as well. From the story:

Joseph recently told school board members that “we don’t have a dollar to waste.”

While he prepares to cut other parts of the schools budget, some teachers privately question whether the money he’s spent on salaries and take-home cars might mean less money for programs that affect children.

Shepherd has no such questions.

“I think that Dr. Joseph needs to do whatever he needs to do to make sure that we are successful. And in his infinite wisdom, if that’s what he thinks he needs, he has full rein to do that.”

Again, where we spend our money clearly shows what – or, in this case, who – we value.

Nashville isn’t the only place where teachers aren’t paid well and don’t seem to matter. Andy Spears writes about Arizona here. There is a growing teacher shortage there (here too!) and the state has responded by lowering the standards for entering the teaching profession in addition to having one of the lowest teacher pay scales in the nation. Spears writes:

“So, now in addition to low pay, teachers in Arizona are being told that just about anyone could do their jobs. Lowering the standards for entry into the teaching profession sends a clear message: Teaching doesn’t matter. It’s a message students and parents alike are sure to see. If anyone can be a teacher, teaching has little value. Taxpayers are being told that cheap teachers are more important than good teaching. So, why pay more for talent when you can just lower the standards?”

Teachers across the nation are demoralized. They are quitting in record numbers (this is true in other parts of the world as well). So maybe it’s time we start to value them and the work they do? Seems too obvious to be true, but it is.

There are many ways we can show that we value our teachers. One way to show that we value our teachers is to pay them well. I remember when I was a younger teacher, someone wrote a book suggesting that we needed to pay our teachers more money – The $100,000 Teacher came out in 2003. These days, however, I don’t hear this kind of talk happening anymore. There are small raises that happen every few years to keep up with the cost of living, but is there talk about actually paying teachers a decent salary? No. I guess we don’t value teachers and their expertise anymore. And we are paying the price.

Here in Nashville, the Director of Schools seems to value his friends, the new, very-well-paid execs, because he raised their salaries from a meager $147k to $185k when they got those positions. Think about that for a second. That is a 25% increase for the people he hired into those positions. The people who were previously in those positions probably weren’t complaining about their pay (you know, because $147k is still pretty damn good!), but for some reason, Dr. Joseph felt that wasn’t enough. So he found the money in the budget to pay them more.

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This begs the question: Does he truly value our teachers? Where is the fight to get them their due? To make Nashville the city with the highest teacher pay in the state of Tennessee, so that teachers might be able to afford a home (ha!) and live the American Dream? To attract and retain talented teachers?

I just don’t see it. Do you?

An important lesson from Diane Ravitch: “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats”

Diane Ravitch remains a hero of mine. She is the nation’s foremost expert on the history of public education and one of its biggest champions. She is the voice for many teachers across the country who are frustrated with what is happening in public education. 

In her post below, she shares an article she wrote for New Republic magazine. In it, she lays out exactly why we are in this problematic situation with public education in the US. From Bush the first to Clinton to Bush the second and Obama – and now with Trump and DeVos – we have been on an increasingly frustrating and devastating trek for some time now. Ravitch shows why Democrats aided heavily in getting us to this point. 

And boy, does she nail it. As a Democrat and former teacher who started teaching in 1998, the last days of Clinton and just before No Child Left Behind became the law of the land, I experienced firsthand what Ravitch describes. It all happened over my career as a teacher. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I quit. I couldn’t take the frustration I felt any longer. 

Ravitch doesn’t just teach us a history lesson though. She also lays out what we could – and should – do now to finally reverse this course and set things straight. 

She writes:

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.

So… here’s hoping. With Trump self-destructing and such strong opposition to DeVos, I’m (somewhat)(cautiously) hopeful Democrats will change course and return to our roots. Time will tell. 

Diane Ravitch's blog

I wrote this article for The New Republic.

https://newrepublic.com/article/142364/dont-like-betsy-devos-blame-democrats

It explains how Democrats set the stage for DeVos’ anything-goes approach to school choice by their advocacy of charter schools. Charters are the gateway to vouchers. We have seen many groups like Democrats for Education Reform try to draw a sharp distinction between charters and vouchers. It doesn’t work. Once you begin defaming public schools and demanding choice, you abandon the central argument for public schools: they belong to the public.

The political side to this issue is that the Democratic Party sold out a significant part of its base–teachers, teachers unions, and minorities–by joining the same side as ALEC, the Walton family, and rightwing conservatives who never approved of public schools.

Their pursuit of Wall Street money in exchange for supporting charters helped to disintegrate their base. To build a viable coalition for the future, the Party must walk away…

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Backpack Full of Cash: See this film!

backpack movie

On Sunday, April 23, 2017, I attended a screening of Backpack Full of Cash as part of the Nashville Film Festival. It was sold out.

nashville film festival

Last year, at the Network for Public Education National Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, I was fortunate to attend a screening of a rough cut of this film and meet the filmmakers. Matt Damon narrates the film, and we had Nancy Carlsson-Paige (his mom!), introduce the film to us. It was pretty cool to say the least.

Over at the blog Busted Pencils, Tim Slekar has an interview with the filmmakers discussing why they felt compelled to make this film. In the film, filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow focus on the 2013-2014 school year in three cities where corporate reformers have a strong foothold: Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Nashville, as well as other cities. They clearly show the negative effect that school choice, through charter school expansion in some places and the introduction of vouchers in others, has had on the public school system. It’s both heartbreaking and maddening to watch, and I found myself wanting to scream at the screen in frustration about what was happening to public schools in these cities.

Nashville is featured in the film, so I watched it with perhaps even more interest than I would have otherwise, and several people I know are in it – school board member Amy Frogge, and teachers Michele Sheriff and Jennifer Eilender. It’s both exciting and sad to see Nashville up there on the screen. Exciting because Cool! I live there! This is the district where my daughter attends school and where I taught for a year! Yay! And sad because of what is happening here with charter schools and how their continued expansion harms our public schools.

Nashville teacher Michele Sheriff, Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow, and Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge at the film’s Nashville debut


This film raises the question of school choice, what it is, and how it should be done – or not done. Linda Darling-Hammond recently wrote in The Nation about this topic as well:

Clearly, the issues surrounding school choice are more complex than the typical pro-charter/anti-charter battle lines might suggest. The central question for a public-education system in a democratic society is not whether school options should exist, but whether high-quality schools are available to all children. The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome.

The key question, therefore, is whether we can create a system in which all schools are worth choosing and all children are chosen by good schools. How might DeVos’s agenda affect these goals?

One facet of the charter fight is whether or not charters are doing any good. Darling-Hammond writes about a recent study: “Despite the rush to trade district-run public schools for privately managed options, the research has found mixed results for both voucher programs and charter schools, with some charters doing better and others doing worse than public schools. For example, a large-scale study of student data from 16 states by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charters produced academic gains that were better than those at traditional public schools, while 37 percent performed worse than their public-school counterparts. Most showed no difference.”

So…. let me look more closely at that data… Hmm…

Seems like… maybe…  charters aren’t worth it. Maybe… we should just be investing all those backpacks full of cash into our existing schools? Hmm?

Sometimes the best solutions are the most obvious ones: LET’S SUPPORT OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Sounds simple. But why isn’t it done?

Her closing thoughts: “At the end of the day, the public welfare is best served when investments in schools enable all young people to become responsible citizens prepared to participate effectively in the political, social, and economic life of their democracy.”

Seems like a good plan to me. We’ve got established public schools all over the country that need our attention, our funding, and most importantly, our support.

***

Amy Frogge, who has long been a champion of public schools, writes here, in a Facebook post, why she loves public schools:

Like many parents, I initially worried about enrolling my children in our zoned public schools, because I heard negative gossip about local schools when we first moved to our neighborhood. But our experiences in local public schools have been overwhelmingly positive. This year, my daughter is a 7th grader at H.G. Hill Middle School, and my son is a 4th grader at Gower Elementary School. They have attended our zoned neighborhood schools since pre-k (my son) and kindergarten (my daughter). Our local schools are Title 1 schools (Gower recently came off the Title 1 list) serving widely diverse populations.

If you have not considered Nashville’s zoned public schools, you really should. These are just a FEW of my children’s experiences in our schools:

My children have taken many educational field trips over the years. My son has traveled to Chattanooga to visit the Challenger Space Center and the Creative Discovery Museum. My daughter has visited the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Discovery Park of America in Union City, TN, and Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, TN. This year, she is heading to Six Flags for a second time with her middle school band. (Last year, she played at Six Flags over Atlanta, and this year, she’ll play at Six Flags over St. Louis.) As part of this year’s band trip, she’ll also tour The Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward expansion.

Here in Nashville, my children have taken field trips to the Adventure Science Center and planetarium, Traveler’s Rest (to learn about history), the Nashville Zoo, Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall (where they learned about instruments from a symphony member and a Nashville sessions player). They have sung with their elementary school choir at the State Capitol, Nashville City Hall, and the County Music Hall of Fame. They have both studied songwriting in a special segment which brings professional songrwriters to their school to set their songs to music. This year, my children both participated in the Project Based Learning Expo at Trevecca Nazarene University, where my son presented a project on the book “I am Malala” and my daughter presented a project on Samurai.

My children have both performed in a 1950s-60s music revue and in numerous choir and theatrical performances. My son played “The Prince” in “Cinderella” last year at Gower and this year will play “Scar” in “The Lion King.” His drama teacher suggested him for a NECAT children’s show, so he also went to a studio this fall to film a television production.

In elementary school, my children helped hatch baby chicks in the classroom in spring. The teacher who hatches chicks also operates an animal camp each summer at her nearby farm, where children learn about both farm animals and exotics- and also just spend time playing in the creek! My children have also attended other summer camps through the school, including Camp Invention, where they built their own pinball machines and more.

My daughter now plays in three bands at her middle school: the 7th-8th grade band, the Honor Band, and a rock band. She recently participated in a band competition at MTSU and was thrilled when her middle school band won awards. My daughter has learned to play three different instruments and also has been invited to sing solos with her rock band (for which she also plays the piano). She has played soccer, played basketball, and currently runs track at H.G. Hill Middle, where she also serves as a Student Ambassador and gives tours of the school to prospective families.

My children have both participated in numerous clubs at their schools, including robotics/coding (my son can now code games on his own), cartooning club, gardening club, and the Good News Club. In Encore, my daughter built rollercoasters to learn about physics, and my son has extracted DNA from strawberries. My son was excited to learn today that he will soon study special effects makeup in his drama class, and he will also soon participate in the school’s “Wax Museum”: In 4th grade, every student dresses up as an historical figure and shares that person’s story with those who come to tour the “museum.”

My children have experienced ALL of this because of public education in Nashville. They are learning SO much- not only academically, but also about their community and the larger world from their friends who come from many different countries and speak many languages. I believe the education my children have received in our often underappreciated zoned schools rivals any they would receive from private schools in Nashville or the more coveted public schools in more affluent areas of Middle Tennessee. My children are both doing well academically, and they are getting all they need to be happy, well-rounded, and confident.

Public schools rock!

Please support our public schools! Our public school teachers, leaders and staff work hard to serve our children well.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

***

Even though Backpack Full of Cash focuses on the 2013-2014 school year, the filmmakers have added an epilogue to the film which clearly connects what happened during that school year to our present situation. With the election of Trump and the appointment of DeVos as Secretary of Education, the issues raised in this prescient film are more important than ever.

So, here’s my advice: SEE THIS FILM! If you care about public education and you want to know what we public school advocates are fighting for, SEE THIS FILM!

Dewey quote

Go Big Orange! Or, why I feel hopeful about our future teachers.

In The South, college football is a big deal. A VERY big deal. It’s not really my thing, but I quickly saw how big a deal it was when I moved here. People here don’t mess around when it comes to their teams. Go Big Orange! Roll Tide! War Eagle! etc. People have their loyalties, and boy, are they fierce about them! Though it seems a little crazy, it also seems fun, and I’ve added attend an SEC football game to my bucket list. One of the big teams in Tennessee is characterized by the big orange T that you see everywhere here. And that would be the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK).

gobigorangeKnoxville is about a 3 hour drive east of Nashville, and I hadn’t been there until recently. A friend and fellow public education advocate, Lauren Hopson, asked me if I wanted to join her on a panel for a classroom of students in a teacher education program at UTK. The topic was “teacher leaders.” The students were all in their final year of a program that included their teacher education classes, one year of working as an intern teacher (AKA student teacher), and completion of their Master’s degree. Come late summer, they will all hopefully have teaching jobs for the upcoming school year. So I said yes, because I thought it would be fun for me and maybe (hopefully) interesting for them to hear an out-of-state perspective.

There were four of us on the panel. Amber Rountree is an elementary school librarian-turned-school board member in Knox County. Dave Gorman is a middle school science teacher in Knox County. And Lauren Hopson is an elementary school teacher and current Knox County Education Association president. And then there was me, a former high school teacher who taught mostly in California but spent three years teaching in Tennessee before I quit almost a year ago. We all had different perspectives, and yet we had many things in common.

Though the four of us came from different backgrounds and taught at different levels – elementary through high school – we were all experienced educators. And we were all spurred into activism for different reasons. Amber was a librarian who saw the library budget being slashed and wasn’t happy about it. When she was asked to administer a standardized test to kindergartners (the SAT-10 test is optional for districts in Tennessee to choose to administer to grades K-2), it was the final straw, and she knew she had to speak up. Only not many others were really speaking up at the time. But she didn’t stop. In fact, she ran for school board. And won. Now, a few years later, with the help of teachers-turned-activists like my fellow panel members, Knox County has a majority of school board members who are also teachers and actually know about public education. It’s pretty awesome.

Lauren had been an elementary school teacher, watching as the pressure to perform on standardized tests increased for both students and their teachers, and she was also frustrated by the teacher evaluation system and all of the unreasonable demands being placed on teachers. She had had enough. So she went to a school board meeting and spoke up. That video of her speaking at the school board went viral. But she didn’t stop. In fact, she became president of the local teachers union association (Ssh! Union is a dirty word for many around here!). She’s been making strides for teachers in Knox County ever since.

And now, pardon me, it is time for a quick rant.

In Tennessee, the birthplace of value-added measures (VAM), the teacher evaluation system is messed up, to say the least. Teachers are evaluated on a rubric where they can earn a score of 1 to 5 in 19 (!!) different areas. Naturally, teachers want a high score and feedback that is helpful. I knew that if I got a 3 in any one area on the rubric, I wouldn’t feel very good about it. As an experienced teacher, I was striving for a 5 or a 4. But the way administrators are trained in observing teachers and giving scores on the rubric is askew. For example, administrators are told that a 3 is not bad at all. They even call it a “rock solid 3,” as if that’s supposed to make teachers feel better about scoring what really amounts to a C. Give me a break. Administrators are told to deliberately score teachers low, in the 3 range, because a 4 or 5 should be hard to get. Well that seems to have been interpreted as do not give fives. In addition to the ridiculous rubric, teachers are also evaluated on their test scores. In fact, up to 50% of their evaluation is supposed to be based on student test scores. It’s RIDICULOUS. Since there is a strong correlation between test scores and students’ economic backgrounds, it’s a given that if you work with the neediest students, your evaluation score will go down. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter if you are the best teacher on the planet, if you can’t move scores significantly higher, your evaluation score will go down. And the only way to move students score is significantly higher, other than cheating, is to focus on the test and only the test all of the time. And nobody wants to do that. The whole system is VERY frustrating. End rant.

The third member of the panel, Dave Gorman, can attest to this frustration. He had been a middle school science teacher for many years, when suddenly his overall score was a 1. That means he had the lowest score possible for a teacher. This wasn’t because he wasn’t a good teacher. It wasn’t because he wasn’t preparing his students. There are a variety of factors involved with his students’ low science scores, but it didn’t matter to the state. All that mattered was when his students’ numbers were put in to the magical mystery VAM formula, he was deemed a 1. It’s so sad that teachers are characterized this way, reduced down to a number. It’s dehumanizing. Dave was assigned to work with an instructional coach. The coach worked with him, had great things to say about him, and the year went by. His students took the test, and again, the scores were low. He was still a 1. He continued working with a coach. Again, same thing happened. Then, one year, after doing nothing different from what he had done in the past, he was suddenly deemed a 5. Ta-da! Now, all along, Dave had been a solid science teacher. But the formula the state uses for teacher evaluations is so incredibly screwed up that he went from being a 1 to a 5 in just one year. Just like that, he had gone from being the worst to the best. He knew it made no sense, but it didn’t matter to the state. The end result was that Dave is still teaching science, but his morale was shaken. It cost him a great amount of stress and humiliation. And ultimately, that lead to him getting involved as well.

My story was different, but similar. I had been teaching for many years, mostly in California, before moving to Tennessee and teaching under its very punitive and restrictive laws about public education. I thought I could just close my classroom door and focus on my students and ignore all the BS outside, but after three years, I just couldn’t do it. I hated all the focus on the standardized test and test scores, and I couldn’t really hide that from my students. So I had to quit. I also felt I could not speak up freely without feeling very vulnerable, and I didn’t like that feeling. I could do more as a parent than I could as a teacher, so I made the tough decision to quit a career I loved, and now, it has been nearly a year since I left the classroom.

The four of us each shared our stories briefly, and we tried to keep the focus on what it means to be a teacher leader. We certainly were not trying to scare off the students who are just entering the teaching profession, and I think, or at least I hope, that we didn’t. But we wanted to keep it real. New teachers cannot go into this profession with blinders on. It is just not enough to be able to close your door and block out everything. You’ve got to be aware of all the issues in public education and realize how they are going to impact you in the classroom. And at some point in your career, you’ve got to think about what you can do about those policies with which you disagree. Because you will disagree with policies. Especially when they are harmful to the work you are trying to do with your students.

One thing we focused on was how to be a teacher leader at your school, in regards to curriculum and instruction, school leadership positions, or professional development. We had all been in leadership roles in some way, so I think the advice we shared was helpful to brand new teachers. For example, we all reiterated the idea of finding a mentor or experienced teacher you can go to for advice, help, and support. We talked about how the three most important people in any school are the librarian, the head secretary, and the custodian, and that it is important to forge positive relationships with these people so that you can find out how things work at that school. We talked about how working with an excellent principal can make all the difference in the world, compared to working with the principal who clearly should not be a principal. I had the great fortune of working for a phenomenal principal who made it her mission not only to lead the school, but also to empower teachers to become leaders. And that made a huge difference in my career.

However, most of our conversation focused on how to be an advocate and an activist for public education. We all shared our experiences of what spurred us into activism. Were we frustrated with unreasonable demands being placed on us? Were we tired of the tests and the data and the pressure to perform? Were we angry about budgets being slashed and resources being cut? Were we distraught because there was no support for teachers? Or were we just depressed and stressed when it came to the perception of public schools, teachers, and the notion that we are all failures? Whatever it was, all four of us found our way into the role of activist. We all shared our common realization that we weren’t the only ones feeling that way. We talked about how it was a relief to see and hear from other teachers who were feeling the same way and how we developed a network so we could get involved and speak up for what was needed. We encouraged these new teachers-to-be, in their own way and on their own time, to build up a network of people they can rely on, get advice from, and work with in support of public education. Because we are going to need them in this fight.

Hopefully, it was a relief for them to hear that there are so many teachers out there who feel the same way about public education. That there are groups like the BATs, TREE, Momma Bears, CAPE, and SPEAK that are already active in advocating for students and teachers. I shared resources with them like the Network for Public Education and Diane Ravitch.

Hopefully they see they are not alone.

***

Later, I thought about other advice I would give a new teacher. I would say that it’s important to know why you became a teacher and to keep that at the forefront of your mind. Because things are going to get hard. Some days are going to be rough. You might cry, you might want to scream. Maybe both at the same time. Teaching is already a challenging job, but it used to be that the rewards outweighed the challenges. Nowadays, it’s even harder. So you’ve got to find a way to keep focused on what’s important, and that’s your students, your health, and knowing that you are making a difference in those lives you see every day.

But it’s hard to lose that focus. So do your best to keep it.

Another piece of advice I would give is do your best not to get caught up in unnecessary drama. Honestly, that advice applies to any job. But in teaching, it can be really easy to sit down and have a bitch session with colleagues, and then that becomes the norm, where all you are doing day after day is complaining about things you don’t have any control over. And that is a quick road to burn out. Of course it’s important to be able to vent, but if this becomes a daily habit, it will lead to frustration. Instead, try to channel that frustration into action. If you’re frustrated because there is something you need for your classroom, but you can’t find a way to get it, talk to other teachers and ask questions. Find out how you might be able to get what you need in a different, new, or creative way. If you’re frustrated because the budget was slashed and you lost resources, find out why that decision was made and who you can talk to about it. Maybe you can reach out to a school board member. Or if it’s a state budget that was cut, you can reach out to a state legislator about it.

Your voice as a teacher is a powerful one. Use it in a way that won’t get you in trouble, but that will inspire others to help you. It can take a while to figure out how to do that, but never forget how valuable your voice is. You’ve just got to find a way to use it.

***

There were two things I was impressed by on this day. One was the enthusiasm these future teachers displayed. I hope they never lose it. And second was that their professor, Dr. Amy Broemmel, invited us to speak on this topic in the first place. It’s extremely important for teachers to be aware of what they are getting into nowadays when they become teachers. Dr. Broemmel seems to recognize that some degree of activism and advocacy for public education is necessary for teachers. In other words, gone are the days when you could just close your door and ignore everything else. You’ve got to focus on your students, honing your craft as a teacher, and your well-being, but you can’t ignore all of the policies that are being enacted to destroy your job. Because if you do, soon you may not even have a job. You’ll be replaced with a computer or some kind of AI robot. And we can’t let that happen.

I have read several news stories about fewer people going into the teaching profession than ever before, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this class of students who were so close to being teachers. By the end of the class, I felt hopeful for them. That they could make a difference.

At the end of the class, I was reminded of the words Diane Ravitch shared at the very first NPE conference in Austin three years ago. She discussed, in talking about supporters of public education, why we will win.

Now more than ever, it’s important for teachers to band together to fight against privatization and laws that are destructive and harmful to our children and the teaching profession. We all need to be advocates.

Hopefully, on this day at UTK, we inspired a few future teachers to do the same. It was an honor to speak with them. I wish them the best in their career. Go, Big Orange!

My Day On The Hill

On Tuesday, March 14, I had the pleasure of spending some time at Legislative Plaza, where laws are made for the state of Tennessee.

I didn’t just show up on any random day (although I definitely could do that); this was a day on the Hill, as they call it, for teachers who are TEA (Tennessee Education Association) members on Spring Break to come, observe committee meetings, and meet with legislators. TEA calls it “Civication,” and they offer travel reimbursement for teachers to come to Nashville on the Tuesday of their Spring Break, when Tennessee school districts have their various breaks in March and April. It’s a great opportunity for teachers to learn more about how state lawmakers do what they do. Though I’m not a teacher anymore, I still wanted to join them, and I’m glad I did.

 

Sitting in on a meeting of the Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee
The big issue for the day was vouchers.

Republican legislators in this state have been trying – unsuccessfully – to pass voucher legislation for the past several years. They just won’t give up. Or rather, their donors won’t let them give up. Anyhow, during last year’s legislative session, they did manage to pass limited voucher legislation that only pertained to students with IEPs. As that law went into effect, it didn’t seem to be successful at all, with fewer than 40 families statewide opting to take this voucher.

In this year’s session, there are several bills in process that pertain to vouchers. Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

There are many things that bother me about voucher legislation. But here are the two biggies:

  1. Vouchers haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been implemented. The evidence is clear. See also herehere, and here.
  2. Look who opposes vouchers: Teachers! You know, those people who actually do the work of educating our children! They know a thing or two about what is needed in public education, and we should be listening to them! (I should know…. I was a teacher, in case you didn’t know!)

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Do you see what I see? Tons of dead white men staring back at me!
But seriously, if the people we trust to educate our children believe vouchers would be harmful to our schools AND if there is plenty of evidence showing that vouchers aren’t successful, then why???? Why do they keep getting proposed?

I just wish that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, could see the view from where I stand. Because they would see a pretty clear picture: On one side, supporting vouchers, you have legislators (usually a lot of older white men, by the way, who clearly are not public school parents!), donors, and lobbyists. And on the other side, opposing vouchers and, more importantly, calling for support of our public schools, you have the majority of the general public – including teachers and public school parents, whose voice matters most in this area. I mean, it’s crystal clear – or it should be! – which side legislators should be listening to, but sadly, many of them aren’t listening.

From The Tennessean:

The union’s poll said that, of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers while 29 percent approved.

“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA’s lobbyist, in the news release.

***

img_9693While on the Hill today, I got to speak in person with my State Senator, Steve Dickerson. I found him to be in an increasingly rare variety of politician: a reasonable one. And by reasonable, I mean he seemed to be open minded on some issues, while being strong in his feelings on other typical partisan issues, but still very much interested in current research, data, public input, and polling on the issues. Though he is a Republican, my impression is that he is someone who weighs the evidence carefully before making a decision in most cases, and he seemed to understand and appreciate the importance of truth and facts. While he and I do not agree on every issue, I had an enjoyable conversation with Senator Dickerson.

We discussed my history as a teacher and why I quit, vouchers, the overemphasis on standardized testing, how much time is spent in the classroom on tests and test prep, and even a little bit about accountability. We both agreed we didn’t have nearly enough time at that moment to really delve deep into these issues, but he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and encouraged me to stop by anytime and stay in touch. I will do so. In fact, one big takeaway from my meeting with him was that we all need to be doing this – contacting and/or meeting with our elected officials to let them know the true stories of how their legislation affects real life. Public input matters, especially at the state and local levels.

Thank you, Senator Dickerson, for giving me a little hope in politics these days. I know we won’t always agree, but I do believe you want to hear from your constituents and that our input won’t fall on deaf ears. And for that, I am grateful.

***

For me, the results of the national election have brought about some very scary times. But one silver lining is that people seem to be more engaged than ever in the political process. So now is the time to speak up and support public education because it is clear that this new administration is determined to destroy it. Just check out their proposed budget.

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Nashville teacher Amanda Kail knows the truth!
Public education is one of the things that makes us great, and our public schools need support. They aren’t failing. They’ve been put on life support in many cases, and instead of helping, Republicans (and some neoliberal Democrats as well) seem hell bent on tearing them down. But that is not the answer. We need to double down on our support. We need to look at expanding resources – like support staff, wraparound services, and Community Schools – for our neediest schools. We need to move beyond the education reform of the Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race To The Top) eras and get back to trusting our teachers and schools.

We need people to speak up in support of public schools and against vouchers. Contact your legislators at the federal and state levels when there is proposed voucher legislation. The Network for Public Education, the BATs, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools make it easy to get involved. In Tennessee, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) make it easy to contact your elected officials. In Nashville, choose to work with grassroots groups like the Middle Tennessee Coalition Advocating for Public Education (Mid-TN CAPE) and attend one of their events.

Get involved. Don’t give up hope. Our schools and teachers need our support. Our children are depending on us now more than ever.

DAD GONE WILD LAUNCHES FIRST EVER POLL

My friend TC Weber writes a helluva blog here in Nashville.

He put together a poll about local issues within Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), and I encourage you all to read it, and if you’re local, take the poll and maybe leave a comment. (And oh, those comments……. wow….)

I’m working on a post about my own reaction to what’s been happening within MNPS since the arrival of our new Director of Schools, so stay tuned…

Dad Gone Wild

img_2011I was sitting around this week reflecting on all the wonderful people that share info about Metro Nashville Schools with me and how blessed I am to have so many readers. It suddenly dawned on me, I should do a poll.

I think it is extremely important to always self evaluate and to evaluate the information you are receiving. It doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily change what I write, but I do want to give credit where it is due and if my opinions are in the minority I need to acknowledge that.

In that light, every Friday I’ll ask three questions and we’ll see what kind of responses I get. Please no dead people voting and if you can, only vote only once and share with as many people as possible.

View original post

Channeling my rage

It’s not hard to be angry these days. Look around. There’s plenty to be upset about.
Since watching the news unfold on November 8, I’ve kind of been in a haze. I honestly can’t believe Donald Trump is actually the president. There are just so many bad things happening politically I can’t take it all in. And it’s only been one week since the inauguration.

I feel like I literally can’t process reality. I don’t want to watch or read the news, but I can’t stop watching and reading the news. Seems like we are stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day-style tsunami that just keeps hitting us over and over and over again. I need a break.

It’s been difficult for me to express my feelings accurately because I just get so wound up about it. Right now, I’ve probably got about five different blog posts started but not finished. Once I start writing, my head feels like it’s going to start spinning around and fly off. I keep getting stuck. A sort of mental numbness sets in, and I end up staring at the screen blankly for a while before giving up.

Since public education is a very important issue for me, this new reality has me feeling very nervous and angry about the future of public education. Nervous because it seems Trump wants to destroy public education. And angry because he nominated Betsy DeVos to help him do exactly that as the next Secretary of Education. There is probably no one more unqualified to be SOE than she is. And the outcry against her nomination has been strong and loud, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to my own Senator, Lamar Alexander. He conveniently ignores all the voices around him telling him he’s wrong about DeVos and lets his voicemail fill up so he can’t be reached. It’s incredibly frustrating.

***

One reason I’ve felt so angry is because I feel hopeless, like I can’t do anything about it. But once you figure out who exactly you’re mad at, then you can start getting stuff done. But it’s hard sometimes to figure that out. Who is to blame?

As a (former) teacher, there’s plenty of frustration. One of the schools where I taught had a paper problem. As in, there was not enough printer paper. Sadly, this is a common problem for teachers. Cuz you know, teachers make a lot of copies. A lot. Anyway, my principal had had enough one day when we wouldn’t stop making copies, so he took all the remaining paper into his office. We had to go see him when we wanted paper. And it wasn’t simple, like I need a ream of paperOf course! Here you go! No. It was an interrogation. I need a ream of paper. For what? How many pieces do you need? Why do you need to make copies of this? And then, he’d grab approximately the amount of paper you need. And if you needed 56 pieces of paper but only received 52 pieces? Oh well. This was beyond frustrating. Many teachers added computer paper to their already lengthy school supply shopping list just to avoid having to explain every little thing to the paper nazi principal. I hated going to see him about paper.

But when I think about it now, I wonder if I was mad at the wrong person. He didn’t control how much paper we were alloted from the school district. He was coming up with a solution – albeit a crappy one – for how to deal with the fact that we didn’t have enough money for paper. And who controlled that, exactly? Because that is where our anger should have been directed.

Anger without action is just complaining. And complaining leads nowhere. Action means that you can channel that rage or anger into an actual solution. But it requires a thorough understanding of the problem. It requires objectivity. And when you’re pissed off at something, being objective can be a real challenge.

If you’re mad as a teacher about budget cuts, who is responsible? Why did those decisions get made? What can be done about it? How? Who do you talk to?

Now go bigger. As a parent, I’m upset that there is so much emphasis on test scores. Who do I talk to? What can be done?

Figuring out who to talk to is complicated sometimes. Is this a problem that stems from the classroom level? Talk to the teacher. Is this a school policy? Talk to the principal. But bigger issues aren’t so simple. Is this a district policy? Talk to the district… but who exactly?

Or is this a state law? Talk to the state lawmakers, starting with your local representative. Is this a national law? Talk to your members of Congress, if you can. Find groups that support and fight for the same cause(s) you do, and join them.

The bigger the problem, the harder it can be to reach someone or to find out exactly how to get done what you’d like to get done. But our voices matter.

This is what makes advocacy and activism so challenging. It’s easy to complain about what is wrong. I can do that for hours on end if given the opportunity. But it’s hard to take the next step and ask So what do we do to fix this? And it’s even harder to follow through with that.

***

Since the new year began, I’ve slowly started to feel inspired about taking action. Like maybe there’s some hope to temper my anger and feelings of hopelessness about everything that’s happening.

I read the Indivisible guide. Then I heard about the Women’s March in Washington and wanted to go but couldn’t make the trip to DC. But Nashville was having a Sister March, so I made plans to go. I was already part of several statewide educational advocacy groups, and we started organizing for the upcoming legislative session here in Tennessee.

Slowly but surely, I was working through my anger and starting to take action. It felt good.

My first protest sign

Then, on January 20, after I listened to Trump’s speech and was disgusted, I made my protest sign to take to the Women’s March in Nashville the next day. I’d never participated in an event like this, but I knew I had to be a part of it.

With at least 15,000 other people in Nashville, I marched with friends and allies. For the first time in months, I felt hope. Inspiration. Joy, even. To be honest, I felt proud to be an American as I marched. I looked around and saw people coming together because they love this country and want to see us united around American ideals of equality, justice, and freedom. It was beautiful.

And yet there are those who still don’t understand why millions around the world marched that day. Here’s a beautifully-written explanation (thanks to a Facebook post crediting Rabbi Toba Schaller):

To those who are confused or surprised about why millions of people showed up to protest. . .

Women are marching because our children deserve a secretary of education that cares about education.

Women are marching because our family and friends deserve healthcare. Did you know that before the ACA, newborns in the NICU would hit their lifetime caps on health insurance coverage? That’s right, babies who had never felt the sun on their skin could no longer get health insurance.

Women are marching because domestic violence crisis centers and after school programs deserve funding.

Women are marching because we deserve clean air, clean water, and national parks.

Women are marching because we believe the children protected by the DREAM act deserve to be here and they deserve to live with their parents, not in orphanages and foster homes.

And most of all, women are marching because we have the right to. The right to protest and speak out against our government is the first amendment. That’s right, #1! It is one of our most fundamental American rights.

Saying that we’re whining, throwing temper tantrums, or that we’re immature, or that we need to get over it will not stop us. It will not stop us from fighting for you. And we are fighting for you because you deserve these rights too.

We’re not marching because Trump won.

We’re marching because he wants to take all of the things that we hold dear away. All of the things that we’ve been fighting for for generations.

And we’re not giving up easily.

Anyone who thinks we’re marching because we lost just simply isn’t listening. We’re fighting because we refuse to lose more.

– Rabbi Toba Schaller

Then, yesterday, at Senator Lamar Alexander’s office in Nashville, hundreds of people showed up in the cold to protest the DeVos nomination (see here, here, and here as well). Again, I felt the same hope and inspiration I had at the Women’s March.

Just tonight, my neighbor invited me over so we could write out our postcards to our very own Tennessee Senators. We had no problem expressing our frustration to them.

I’m not alone in my anger and frustration and fear. There are millions of people who feel the same way. And the further we get into a Trump presidency, the more visible the path for resistance becomes.

That anger will get turned into action and will fuel us for the next four years.

Americans are rising up. We are standing up against alternative facts, hatred, intolerance, and injustice. We are determined not to let evil win. We will resist. We will overcome.

Onward.