With this post, I wrap up my reflections on my 18 years in public education. To recap, Part 1 is where I discussed why I became a teacher and those early years of my career. Part 2 is where I delved into my experiences from 2000-2008. It gives some insight into how we got where we are today in public education. Part 3 focuses on 2008-2013, which covers my time off from teaching and the first two years back in the classroom after becoming a mom.
And now we begin the final chapter.
INTO THE FIRE
We moved to Nashville, Tennessee in June 2013.
I knew what I was getting into. This was the birthplace of VAM. The use of value-added measures (VAM), is called TVAAS here. This magical mystery formula has some roots in Tennessee, created originally for agricultural purposes (no joke!). The bottom line was that 50% of my evaluation AND up to 25% of my students’ grades in my class were going to be based on standardized test scores, and that included both achievement and growth scores. If I thought the emphasis on data in California was bad, Tennessee was much, much worse. It’s liked they worshipped data. After all, Tennessee was one of the first states to win money from Race to the Top. Nashville was, in many ways, the epicenter of education reform. Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, was the Commissioner of Education. They had Chris Barbic and the ASD for the bottom 5% of schools. TFA has a strong presence here. There are charter schools galore, and the really ugly fights that went with them. School board races where spending huge amounts of money had begun to be the norm. This is one of the states with the lowest amount of money being spent on education. Teacher pay ranks 16th from the bottom of all states, well below the national average. There are some crazy legislators who don’t know a darn thing about education making laws about education.
Seriously, what was I thinking?
I got a job as an instructional coach in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and I stayed there for a year. I was frustrated because there wasn’t freedom to speak up, ask questions, and stand up for what is right. There was a real culture of fear present, and it was hard for me to work under those conditions. So I quit and applied for a job as a high school English teacher with Williamson County Schools. I was hired the same day I had an interview, and I taught there for two years.
I knew being a teacher here would be rough. But we moved here anyway. And we love it here. It’s a great place to raise a family. We love the schools in Nashville. Great things are happening here in spite of all the BS. However, as a teacher, I tried to do my best while biting my tongue. But ultimately, I couldn’t do it.
I saw my colleagues, unlike me, seemingly more able to not worry about these issues so much. Maybe they were used to it? Or maybe they felt like I did but didn’t dare speak up. But I hated it. I hated that 50% of my evaluation was based on my students’ test scores. I hated that we talked about the damn tests almost more than anything else. This was definitely not the reason I became a teacher. I didn’t want to be a part of that culture. It really weighed on me.
One reason teachers don’t speak up much is because Tennessee is a right-to-work state. Several years ago, the state legislature gutted the provisions of the collective bargaining process. Essentially they wiped out any power the teacher’s union had to bargain on behalf of teachers. In a right-to-work state, you can be fired anytime for any reason. There is no due process. What that translates to is a high amount of fear – fear of losing your job, fear of being looked at as an instigator, a troublemaker, someone who sticks out. When I so much as asked a question, I was looked at as someone who was aggressive, trying to stir the pot; this was a characterization I did not like. Coming from California, where the culture is decidedly different, and asking questions and speaking up is something that is respected or at least considered the norm, I felt very out of place. I also felt stifled.
ABOUT THAT SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY…
All that aside, we loved it here. That whole Southern hospitality thing you hear about? It’s real. People are friendly, for the most part. They start up conversations when you’re in line. They smile and say hi. They let you in when you’re in traffic and trying to change lanes. They stop to help. It’s noticeable. And no, not everyone does those things, but it was very obvious to me as an outsider that things were friendlier, slower, kinder in Nashville, and I really liked that a lot.
Over the past three years, we’ve decided that this is home. We’ve met wonderful people, established connections, laid down roots. It’s not hard to do here, to feel connected to this place. I was born and raised in California, but I hardly ever thought about state government and policies that affected me every day. Here, though, within months, I became acquainted with members of the State Legislature and the school board and learned a lot about local and state government, especially with regard to public education. I feel that legislators, school board members, and other elected officials – and the process of democracy itself – are more accessible here in Tennessee. Perhaps because it is a smaller state than California, but also because of that Southern hospitality.
A TRIP TO FANTASYLAND
Teaching in Williamson County was like being in some kind of fantasy land in some ways. I grew up somewhat poor in south San Diego. We lived in a trailer park. My mom worked two jobs to make ends meet. I never felt poor, but looking back, I knew we struggled. Then I went to work in that same school district in two of the neediest schools. Well over 70% of the student population there was non-white. We had a very high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch as well as a large number of English learner (EL) students. So there was a lot of need. I frequently provided supplies to students and extra support as needed.
But things were very different in WC. First of all, there is a serious lack of diversity. I worked at the most diverse high school, and that meant that only approximately 20-25% of the student population was non-white. Secondly, the students are mostly middle to upper class. I noticed very quickly that my students did not have a lot of the needs I was used to seeing. Did anyone need paper? Pencils? A binder? Not really. When I assigned a book to be read, many students bought their own copy. Every student had a phone. Most students had a car.
Not every student was privileged, of course. And they are teenagers, so no matter what their socio-economic background or ethnic makeup, they all have those typical teen issues – emotional roller coasters, does he like me?, no one likes me, I’m an outcast, etc. In fact, I saw more and more anxiety in my students – no matter the school, district, or state – as the years went on, and I bet it had to do with access to technology and social media. But that’s a subject for another post.
On the whole, I was dealing with less stress and fewer in-class problems in WC. However, there was a lot of pressure to keep test scores up. WC was known for having “good schools” (meaning high test scores) and that was a HUGE selling point for realtors. The overall attitude was that WC had GREAT schools and everywhere else, not so much. But teachers weren’t doing anything special in WC that wasn’t happening anywhere else. It’s just that these kids didn’t want for much. They had resources. They were generally well-fed, supported, and prepared. They had engaged parents who demanded A LOT from them. Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state AND has the highest test scores. There’s definitely a correlation there.
I was frustrated by the emphasis on test scores. I initially thought that because WC had high test scores, there wouldn’t be as much focus on them. But that just wasn’t the case.
One time, at an English department meeting, a colleague was talking about the upcoming state tests and how we were under pressure to be practicing for the test. So as a result, she said there just wasn’t time to teach any poetry. She said we needed to skip it and teach what was on the test, and since it wasn’t on the test at the time, buh-bye poetry. I was aghast. And there was no way I was skipping poetry and “teaching to the test.” I was uncomfortable by all this emphasis on the test. But because the stakes were so high, that’s the way it was.
And what about the tests themselves? They were a mess. First there was TCAP. Then there was supposed to be PARCC. But TN pulled out of PARCC, so we had TCAP for one more year. Then there were huge debacles over test delays, quick scores, cut scores, and who was going to be grading the tests, which gave the impression that these tests didn’t really mean anything other than what the State wanted them to mean. They were worthless.
And then came TN Ready this year. So much has been written about TN Ready and the absurdity of it all this year, but the bottom line is this: it was a fiasco. Everyone knew it. Teachers, parents, and especially the students. The test was worthless and a complete waste of time and money. And for what? Added stress? Lost time in the school year? Money spent on technology that could have been better spent? Arghhhh…… I was done.
I think I knew I was done around December 2015 during winter break. I felt it. I knew this was going to be my last year as a teacher, but it took a few months for me to say it out loud – then it became real.
My career as a teacher was over. The profession I had loved so dearly was changed and dead in some ways. The way I had defined myself (Hi! I’m Mary, and I’m a teacher!) was finished, and I would be starting over. I felt angry. I felt sad. I grieved. I felt weak. I felt like a failure. I felt insignificant. I felt frustrated. I spent the last few months of the school year grieving the loss of my profession, of my identity. And then, finally, in the last week of school, I reached a sense of peace and relief about it. A dear co-worker, who was retiring, told me I needed to give myself “permission to be free” from the stresses of the job and from the pressure I put on myself. And she was right.
That idea of having permission to be free was what ultimately allowed me to let it go.
I read this essay from a former English teacher and cried. Because every word of it was true for me.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
And now, what? On my last day as a high school English teacher, my classroom was empty and bare. My students were gone, already enjoying the summer. My belongings were condensed to two crates and a bag. Everything else had been given away or thrown out. I sent out an email to everyone saying bye and launched this blog on that day.
I spent the summer relaxing, trying not to think about it all.
Since moving here three years ago, I have gotten to know a host of education activists and now, friends. First through the BATs. Then with TREE and the Tennessee Education Association. There are some great bloggers here, like the Momma Bears, Dad Gone Wild, and undercoverBAT. And there are some wonderful teachers who are rising up to run for State Legislature (Vote for Larry and Gloria!) because we need actual educators making the laws about education. Together, we forged alliances like Mid-TN CAPE and TNRefinED, fought against dark money, worked hard to get people elected to the school board, and stood up against bad legislation. There are good things happening here in spite of everything else.
I am so grateful I met these people. But I just can’t continue to teach with integrity. I just can’t do it. I know as a public school parent, I will continue to be involved. I will never stop caring and fighting for public education – an equitable, high-quality public school education for every student in this country – but I’ll be doing it now as a parent and former teacher.
So what will I “do” now? When someone asks me what I do, what will I say? I know I’ll figure it out…