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).
Knoxville 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!