Teachers are some of the most admired people in our world. Teachers are role models. They inspire us and are admired for the skills they possess in helping others learn. Teachers are also normal people, who often get held to higher standards than politicians or even ministers. Like all of us, teachers make mistakes. However, no other group of professionals is as quick to give up on its members as public education administration when effective counseling would probably take care of the problem.

We know there is no magic fairy dust that is sprinkled on someone to make them an effective teacher. There is no genetic marker that an educator is born with that gives him or her a special skill. There is no Branch of Military Service equivalent that someone can join, like the Marine Corps, for example, that gives an individual training in moral, mental and physical strength needed to be successful in the education field. I would argue it is a lot of trial by error, support from colleagues and the prerequisite leadership in our schools that can shape the success or failure of an individual teacher.

I was blessed to have some extraordinary school leaders like Doyle Harmon in Meigs County, Tennessee and Ed Howard in Bradley County, Tennessee to really help guide me. However, one administrator, Ron Chastain, at Trewhitt Junior High School, really became a mentor, whether that was his goal or not. From him, I learned much about student discipline. I learned consistency mattered. I also learned that we needed to be empathetic, but also willing to be tough. He brought the right balance to the job.

Chastain, who still remains a friend, understood adolescent behavior better than anyone I have ever met. He understood that in order to teach, a classroom had to be orderly. In order to create a safe school for all students, discipline was required. I learned much more from Ron than I ever learned in my coursework in my undergrad and/or graduate work.

My question to policymakers: where can we find high-quality mentors for teachers and administrators? We take our new teachers and often toss them into the most difficult assignments like lambs to a slaughter. Then we wonder why discipline suffers and our teachers experience burnout and fatigue, ultimately leaving the profession. Administrators are often in the same boat. Sadly, we are missing that ingredient of mentorship in our schools today.

Our suggestion is to ensure that money is included in the future Basic Education Program (BEP) to allow for mentorship to occur, either by utilizing highly effective retired educators or granting stipends to experienced classroom teachers with a proven track record in classroom management. This strategy will likely impact teacher retention efforts in a positive fashion and create a better school environment with more consistent discipline and student behavior. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee. To schedule an interview please contact Audrey Shores at 1-800-471-4867 ext.102.

Governor Bill Lee will give his first State of the State address on Monday, March 4, 2019. The speech is highly anticipated, as it will signal to the state the administration’s priorities for the immediate future. It is where campaign promises, either become realities or go to die. He will undoubtedly address issues across the board, from roads to mental health to criminal justice, and all things in between. My interest will be squarely on public education.

What do I expect the Governor to say about education?

  1. His administration will focus on getting students ready for work.
  2. He will work to strengthen the public education system.
  3. He will look for innovative and student-centered strategies for public education.

How will he do that? Here is what I suggest he might say on Monday night:

He will stress the need to build better connections between labor and education. This will mean facilitating improved linkage between school districts, community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and local industry. Meaning the state must assess our progress towards the Drive to 55 Goal. Which may include outreach to middle school students about their goals and aspirations. This is likely why one of the first assignments given to the new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has been to meet with students. Likewise, we will want secondary students to start thinking about their career. Governor Lee will probably push toward greater access to high-quality dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities in technical fields across our state. Work-based learning may be referenced. Governor Lee sees this as an opportunity to help students develop the practical abilities that help them perform in project-based environments, learn to work with others, and grow the discipline needed for success in a competitive workplace. This will require new partnerships between industry and our schools, and may facilitate a more concrete connection between labor and education, which is a direction that the federal government has taken the past few years. The state will also need to expand and improve offerings in STEM.

Governor Lee will likely continue to highlight the work of his predecessors, namely Governor Bredesen and Governor Haslam, in looking at ways to strengthen the foundations of our public education system. It is uncertain if Pre-K will be included. I would argue that he will look at some of the efforts underway and consult with State Representative Bill Dunn on this matter. All success in public education hinges on quality instruction, so it begins with our educators. We all agree that every student deserves highly effective teachers and administrators. So, it would be no surprise to hear the Governor talk about his plan to better develop a pipeline to secure educators here in Tennessee. Compensation is the key to recruitment and retention. Our teacher compensation model needs to be competitive nationally. I expect the Governor to send a message to educators that he recognizes and appreciates their efforts, and he will work to see they are paid for their efforts. I also expect that the Governor will stress the need to build upon Governor Haslam’s efforts in literacy. We know that school safety will also be a priority, as well as the need for additional school counselors. It is important that focus in counseling goes beyond mere college and career, but also into helping students with mental health issues—-especially children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Governor Lee must address the testing issue. Too many policymakers and stakeholders have been waiting on a message from the governor about how he plans to improve our assessment system, to ensure that our metrics are empowering and informing, not inhibiting quality instruction, while providing accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students.

On the innovation front, the question is, will he or won’t he bring up parental choice, specifically regarding school vouchers and/or education savings accounts? The administration has signaled more of a wait and see approach thus far. If he plans to bring up school choice, it is more likely to be done in his first term. There has been some indication that the votes are simply not there for a proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly. The Governor is more likely to discuss changes he envisions in creating a modern high school. He is correct that for the last 50 years the way high school has educated students has largely remained unchanged. He may suggest that it is time to embrace new, flexible school models in our high schools. This means he must also discuss supporting locally-driven flexibility and innovation. On the campaign trail, he argued for the need to break down the barriers that have held our teachers, school leaders, and school districts back from creative solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. I would not be surprised to see something like innovation grants from the state for our districts. The question is whether he is willing to make some adjustments to testing, like a pilot project that allows some districts to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment in high performing districts. Lee understands when we empower school leaders to bring new solutions to the table and hold them accountable for results, we all win. By piloting innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles, he could send a huge message across the state. Hopefully, Governor Lee will grab the bull by the horns on school finance and discuss the possibilities of a school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. Because of our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies, businessman Governor Lee understands better than most policymakers the required formula that will support teachers, fund facilities, and facilitate innovation and technology, while looking to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.

I expect the speech of a lifetime from Governor Lee on Monday night. The State of the State is his one opportunity to lay out for all Tennesseans why we are the best state in the nation for education and in turn, the best place to raise a family. Tennessee continues to be a state that is moving forward.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

It is easy to argue that student discipline in public education is out of control.  And in many districts across the state, it clearly is a huge problem.  A recent headline in The Tennessee Star stated:  Metro Nashville Students So Out of Control Teachers Fear for Their Lives, SROs Fleeing from Alternative Schools, Educators, Officials Say.  The article was written after a shocking Teacher Town Hall, hosted by NewsChannel 5 in Nashville.

Lack of student discipline, inadequate administrative support, and lack of respect are frequently cited why teachers leave the teaching profession, almost as much as salary and working conditions.  The situation is clearly getting worse, despite all the feel-good policies enacted by some school boards.  Old fashioned discipline is gone, replaced with fads and trends.  In Tennessee, some legislators are pushing for legislation that is likely to make matters even worse.

The exodus of many veteran Tennessee teachers may have eliminated part of the solution and acerbated the problem, along with an influx of new administrators.  However, that is a simple explanation and a somewhat faulty logic. Worse, it lays the blame for continued societal problems at the feet of public education yet again.

It is true, public education has its issues, from design to execution, but every problem faced by society gets manifested in our schools. Educators work incredible hours, doing thankless tasks that other professionals do not have to do.  Many people have jobs with specific skills and also have a lack of acknowledgment and a shortage of appreciation.  But educators may just win the prize for wearing a multitude of hats. We need more community support.

Teaching is not an eight-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week job. There are many duties that educators tackle that do not require pedagogical skills or experience in the classroom but are necessary for the profession. Teachers need a strong immune system to protect them from exposure to every possible illness in a classroom. Not only that, teachers must comfort and guide those students with little to no support at home.  Teachers spend their evenings and weekends making lesson plans, grading papers, and other extracurricular activities. Teachers often spend their own money on classroom supplies, decorations, and food for their students.

It would be awesome if every educator had a positive and supportive working environment where they could thrive personally and professionally, and where they were free to exercise their expertise and explore the full limits of their talents. Alas, that is not the world we live in.  Every day across Tennessee, our educators work with children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect.

Policymakers and stakeholders at all levels should make it a priority to work together in order to reduce excessive educator workload, at the same time providing salary increases that will actually go into the teachers’ paychecks and not just to the district coffers. However, getting student discipline under control may be a bigger challenge.

News Channel 5 revealed a confidential report where a Nashville law firm warns the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) that it would become “difficult, if not impossible, for the district to retain qualified and exemplary employees.”  If Nashville is an example, other districts around the state should enact totally different policies.  If MNPS is a model district for any other system, then other districts may soon find themselves in a similar predicament. Administrators, teachers, parents, and students deserve better leadership there.

Student discipline needs the attention of policymakers across the state.  Failure to act quickly and responsibly will only continue to erode support for public education and see quality educators flee the profession.  It is time to address student discipline in a more comprehensive fashion.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

I am a very positive person.  I am “that person” who jumps out of bed in the morning excited to just be awake.  That can be annoying to my wife.  Especially if she hasn’t had her coffee.

I rarely feel the need to be blatantly critical of bad legislation.  I will normally talk with the bill sponsor about how we can support their legislation, and/or suggest subsequent changes.  However, there are two pieces of legislation, which will be heard in the K-12 Subcommittee on Wednesday, February 20, 2019, that I think folks need to be aware.  We can all agree that teachers are underpaid, overworked and underappreciated.  However, I simply cannot reconcile the continued barrage of top-down legislation by the Tennessee General Assembly with the needs of educators, which merely add to the workload.  Especially, given the likelihood, it will not help students.  Here are two bills just this week:

HB 0405/SB 0107.  Adverse Childhood Experiences Assessment.We can all hope that no child is ever suspended or expelled from public schools. Every day across Tennessee, our educators work with children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect.  However, this proposed legislation does little to prevent and address the consequences of adverse childhood experiences or promote healthy development and well-being among children, youth, and families.  This legislation places greater responsibility in addressing societal issues squarely upon the school, teachers, and administrators by limiting the ability to discipline misbehavior.  Research is needed to understand the variable effect of adverse childhood experiences across children and move toward evidence to guide recommended prevention and treatment approaches in public education, as well as in the wide range of community-based contexts in which adverse childhood experiences assessment, education, and interventions might take place.  Legislators should take note that a great deal of variability exists within risk groups, further assessment of positive and negative deviance in outcomes and effects for otherwise similar groups of children might prove especially valuable, and would ideally occur in the context of longitudinal studies. Existing longitudinal studies should consider including adverse childhood experiences and related variables for this purpose.  This should be done before a kid ever gets in trouble if this is a concern.  Transparency is the key to any disciplinary issue, and the process must be explained and understood.  However, the cause and effect of not disciplining certain children may create more problems in schools.  Jody Stallings, a nationally renowned teacher recently wrote: “The best way to keep students in school is to increase the number of suspensions.” He added: “In many schools, kids can bully peers, assault teachers, sexually harass classmates and create major disruptions; yet nothing is ever done about it. Then we worry about test scores and achievement gaps while the biggest obstacle to fixing those things is right there in the classroom every day: disruptive students. There is a solution. Put them out.”  That is a harsh assessment, but probably has more of a chance of success than this suggested legislation.  While there may be valid reasons to study the consequences of adverse childhood experiences a child is dealing with, and we must show compassion to all children, this legislation is like asking a fireman to analyze the cause of a fire before extinguishing the blaze.  When you have a fire, you want the firefighter, not the arson investigator.  We think the legislation is worth a discussion, nothing more.  In the end, it does little to address chronic misbehavior issues.  We oppose the legislation that mandates and requires ALL LEA’s to create a policy requiring schools to perform an Adverse Childhood Experiences Assessment before a disciplinary issue involving suspension, including in-school suspension or alternative school, and expulsion.  If a district chooses to adopt this policy, they can do it now without further legislation.  A better message for legislators to send would be that students must realize that their actions have consequences.   And for parents to help re-enforce that position.

HB 0767/SB 0820 Required Training in Restorative Justice.  On the left, Restorative Justice represents a perceived fight against racism.  On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.  Rather than engaging in political rhetoric, we examined the comprehensive study by the RAND Corporation on this subject.  The RAND Corporation is considered the gold standard in social science research.  The findings: restorative justice led to safer schools, but also hurt black students’ test scores.  We can all agree that disciplinary processes must become more transparent.  The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education on December 21, 2018, withdrew their statements of policy and guidance on Restorative Justice.   In light of this action, we OPPOSE mandatory training for ALL employees in an LEA.  Any district that wishes to engage in such training should be free to engage in training.  The results should be studied and shared with the state.   The state has a responsibility to vigorously enforcing civil rights protections on behalf of all students. The robust protections against race, color, and national origin discrimination guaranteed by the Constitution, Title IV, and Title VI remain unchanged and continue to be vital for educational institutions in the United States.  This legislation, if rejected will not change those policies.

Julie Marburger, a sixth-grade teacher at Cedar Creek Intermediate School in Texas describes what many educators are experiencing when she posted: “People absolutely HAVE to stop coddling and enabling their children. It’s a problem that’s going to spread through our society like wildfire. It’s not fair to society, and more importantly, is not fair to the children to teach them this is okay. It will not serve them towards a successful and happy life.”

One teacher in Florida was even fired for giving students zeroes who didn’t hand in work. Teacher Diane Tirado stated: “I’m so upset because we have a nation of kids that are expecting to get paid and live their life just for showing up and it’s not real,”

K-12 Chairman John Ragan, Representatives Curt Haston, Iris Rudder, Teri Lynn Weaver, Mark White, and John Mark Windle understand I hope, that a top-down approach simply does not work in education.  We need discipline policies that districts and schools themselves choose.  Our teachers need more support, not more unproven fads that require more work by educators for unproven results.   Lack of student discipline, inadequate administrative support, and lack of respect are frequently cited why teachers leave the profession.   This legislation does not help.  Let your legislators know your opinion.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

The Committee

Face it, we are all sick of government committees appointed by elected officials.  I think it is always wise to seek input from all constituent groups on issues; but in the end, the people elected individuals to make tough decisions for the benefit of all.  That’s why our Founders designed our government as a representative democracy.  If we do not like the decisions of elected officials enough times, we get to vote those individuals out of office.  Building consensus is a good strategy; abdicating to mob rule is a bad strategy.  Forming a posse is also ill-advised, unless you are planning a remake of Tombstone.        

Passing the buck is never the solution to tough issues.    There are times when getting stakeholders from a cross-section of opinions together is helpful in understanding the issue and finding solutions to problems you may not know exists makes a lot of sense.  In fact, a lack of proper knowledge of an issue results in the passage of bad policy and terrible legislation.   Unfortunately, the objective seems to be for many politicians to punt the issue away for a period of time, so they can stay focused on other issues that interest them.  The lack of a long-term agenda makes committee work a short-term solution.  Rarely do we analyze for effectiveness and evaluate this committee process.         

I had to laugh when I saw a Twitter post from Nashville Mayor David Briley when he said: “Together, we can build a focused, research-informed strategy to ensure all Nashville students, regardless of race or income, receive a great education” talking about his informal education advisors.  You know, those “unelected people you didn’t vote into office.”  What makes it worse, Mayor Briley hasn’t really stepped in to offer a strategy to ensure more efficient use of tax dollars in light of recent reports in local media involving Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).  This does not include a recent sexual harassment settlement.   Perhaps Mayor David Briley, Director of Schools Shawn Joseph, School Board Member Amy Frogge,  Investigative Reporter Phil Williams and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury  Justin Wilson should form a committee to ensure financial integrity in regards to MNPS’s financial operations and compliance with applicable statutes, rules and regulations, and/or its record of efficiency and effectiveness.  Just a suggestion for Mayor Briley.   

I tend to be agnostic when it comes to personalities or personnel.  My time in the United States Marine Corps taught me the value of teamwork and working together for the collective good, with whomever is there.   The objective is to educate children.   Period.  End of Discussion.   If the Mayor of Nashville feels that the trained professionals at the Metro Nashville Public Schools and the elected School Board cannot address the issues of the lowest-performing schools in the district, why does he think the unelected “Kitchen Cabinet” he selected can do a better job?  What can these nonprofit leaders and community advocates accomplish that professional educators in the MNPS system are not already doing?  And why are those “leaders and advocates” not already doing it?   Honestly, I think it is insulting. 

Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, asked the multi-million-dollar question: “How did a system designed to provide government of, by, and for the people devolve into a system in which bureaucrats unaccountable to voters (though exquisitely accountable to political players and special interests) produce masses of law that was never voted on by an elected official?”  It’s time to ask David Briley that question.   We have witnessed enough suggestions by experts and committees.  Maybe we should start listening to parents, teachers, and taxpayers?  They are a pretty formidable committee when they get a voice. And then in the immortal words of Elvis Presley it will be time for “a little less conversation, a little more action.”

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Consistently in polling, educators refer to the heavy workload as being a major factor to why they leave the education profession.  Today educators must also exercise a higher duty of care than most other professionals. Teachers face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen.  Teacher burnout is actually an international epidemic.

Nearly every day, teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement.  And still they must teach. So, every time we see legislation that adds to the teacher workload, we look very cautiously at it.  

If we created a parent dress code, it will only add more work to our already overburdened educators, as well as increase their liability. That does not mean adults should not dress appropriately on school grounds.  However, educators should not be the enforcement part of any proposed law.  Do we expect teachers to issue speeding tickets in school zones?  Should they enforce seatbelt laws or arrest those who violate cell phone usage in a school zone?  Of course not.  So why is this issue more important or any different?      

As Professional Educators of Tennessee has pointed out, most of what Representative Parkinson seeks to address is already in state law.  It happens to be in a different code than laws that strictly are on education.  Adults should dress properly.  And of course, adults should conduct themselves properly in public.  Previous legislators understood that indecency laws and behavior problems, which impacts all of society, are criminal offenses.  It has simply been unenforced in most cases.    

Now because of a few isolated instances that were never reported to police who have proper jurisdiction, we are rushing to pass legislation and add to the burden of our public schools.  Are educators now to act as law enforcement agents on matters of dress by adults?   We should discuss the issue and perhaps study the issue further.  But changes should be made in Title 39 of the Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.): general offenses, offenses against the person, offenses against property, offenses against the family, offenses against the administration of government, and offenses against the public health, safety and welfare not Title 49 Education. 

The problem that legislation like this seeks to solve with student dress code policies alone have resulted in many court cases over the years.  This type of legislation will compound the problem for teachers, schools, and districts.  In general, public schools are allowed to have student dress codes and uniform policies which cannot be discriminatory or censor expression.  And most of the policies are targeted at females.  In St. Louis area, the Mehlville School District dealt with multiple complaints in August 2018.  This will prove extremely problematic when enforcing policies with adults.  So, if legislation is to be passed on this matter, include immunity for teachers, schools and districts.  And prepare for the litigation that is sure to follow. 

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.  It is common sense that adults should dress appropriately in public.  However, to make this cultural matter one that places public education as the gatekeepers of public indecency for adults makes little sense.  We hope this matter can be resolved without increasing, unnecessarily, the workload of our educators.   The intended and unintended consequences of any legislation of this matter might not be what you want. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

We know psychologically that there is a connection between feeling of self-worth and actions.  When teachers lose hope in their career, eventually they change the direction of their own future and in turn it impacts the future of our children.  If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and thoughts on the future of education.  Sadly, those thoughts were most likely negative.  Educators who enter the field are often bright-eyed, confident, and enthusiastic.  Teacher turnover is continuing to climb higher, yet those entering the field is going lower. What happened?  That is the problem we must solve.

Teacher turnover holds back our schools and our students.  How do you improve morale?  It will take multiple strategies, which differ from community to community, district to district, school to school.  Let’s look at four of the most prominent issues:  educator compensation, lack of respect for educators, testing and out of control students.

Educator Compensation.  Compensation is everything that is provided to the educator for their services. Compensation alone will not impact teacher morale.   Governor Bill Haslam made teacher salaries a priority, and should be recognized for his efforts.  It is debatable if dollars allocated for salary increases reached all classroom teachers.  This may be attributed to district implemented pay plans. Educators should be involved in the development of those plans. Governor-elect Bill Lee indicated he intends to develop a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. This will likely include incentive compensation programs, together with stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations.  Compensation can also be used to aid in hiring, and/or retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.

Lack of Respect for Educators.  Teaching, a profession once held in high esteem, is being de-valued both by stakeholders and policymakers for a variety of reasons. Teachers, who are on the frontlines of parental dissatisfaction with the system, are often made scapegoats by people who have lost trust in the system. This lack of respect is reflected by lack of parental support and engagement.  In fairness, some parents are supportive and work with educators to help ensure their children get the best possible education.  Yet more often than not, parents simply blame the teacher for the problems at school.  But even more than that, teachers often lack the support of their administrators, district, and even the state.  Bureaucrats keep piling on more requirements of educators with barely a nod of appreciation.  Teachers, above all other professions, deserve the recognition and gratitude of a job well-done.  Doing so on a regular basis will be a small step toward improving the teacher turnover rate.

Testing.  The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators.  Nobody would object to testing that benefits the teaching and learning process of students.  As it stands currently, the data is not received in a timely manner and the results yield little or no benefit to the students.  Educators would welcome a robust, practical solution to current assessment issues. A portfolio-based assessment model is also problematic.  However, it may be a preferred model of student evaluation if it is not too time-consuming.  It is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than on a single, paper-and-pencil test taken over a few hours.  We must work to ensure that our assessments and the subsequent results are empowering and informing without being a time drain.  Assessments should not inhibit quality instruction but provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. Most importantly, assessments should be not used a punitive measure against teachers.

Out of Control Students.  Effective educators consider the root causes of misbehavior and develop appropriate solutions on a consistent, ongoing basis.  However, some students need attention and intervention beyond the scope of what a classroom teacher can provide.  It is imperative that a school and district adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as student instruction for all students.  One possible policy has to be a better tracking of the time an educator has to spend on discipline issues.  Do parents have the right to know, for example, if one student disrupts their own child’s education so frequently, they lose instruction time?  School districts must balance their responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students.  Without discipline, students cannot learn.  Students themselves must respect rules and authority regardless of underlying disabilities/issues.  Districts must have policies in place that protect all students’ right to learn.

There is no one size fits all strategy that will work in every school or district.  This is a recurring theme among those who believe in local control in public education.  Together, we can work to address teacher morale issues.  Once a plan is in place, it is very important to examine, evaluate, and adjust as necessary.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

JC-school-culture_840x480

Perhaps the foremost expert on changing school culture in Tennessee is Dr. Ryan Jackson. People from across the country have taken notice of the amazing turn around he has done at Mt. Pleasant PreK-12 School in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. Ryan Jackson is beginning his 3rd year at Mt. Pleasant School in Maury County, and the culture shift that he has instigated is nothing short of amazing. We wanted a deeper probe of what he was doing, so his methods could be replicated.

In 2016, when Ryan Jackson first came to Mt. Pleasant School, it had a negative stigma attached to it. He immediately realized that the school lacked an identity. Being a firm believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he realized he needed to create a sense of belonging. The first thing he did was create ‘The Mount.’ More specifically, #TheMount which was strategic for a couple of reasons. Jackson relays, “One, it side-stepped the stigma. This was new. Some people thought it was like putting lipstick on a pig. But it did create a psychological shift. ‘We are The Mount’, not the old Mt. Pleasant and everything you thought about Mt. Pleasant before July 2016 has just changed including how we identify ourselves.” He continued, “It was more than just a rally cry; it was the beginning of this new identity and getting people to see Mt. Pleasant differently so we could one by one, person by person, student by student, teacher by teacher, community member by community member get them to come on board and feel like they belong.” It was not an overnight process but through repetition, constant branding, constant messaging, it was successful.

We have learned, as educators, that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you. Ryan Jackson made social media an integral part of the culture shift. He stated, “Social media is a high yield strategy that costs absolutely nothing financially, just a time investment. It gives everyone, but specifically the immediate community, the windows of insight into what’s going on at the school. It gives them a proud thing to hang their hat on that they didn’t have in the past. I wanted them to see the fact that we had seven different CTE programs. We had multiple forms of art being represented. I wanted the community to see some of the cool project-based learning experiences that we had for kids…things that they would not know if they weren’t here on a day to day basis. I wanted the community members to have access into the school day via the social media platform. By doing so, we are getting the attention of more than just the community, but also the state and the nation as well.”

Jackson sees the social media posts as sort of a mini-commercial for his school. The community now sees them as a positive influence and thinks, “Wow, things really are changing [at Mt. Pleasant].” He reiterates, “Not only that, social media gives you the opportunity to highlight teachers, students and programs while reinforcing the belonging. When people have emotional connections to something, they will share it with others. You are literally evangelizing your message, your school.”

The rebranding, done primarily via social media, has also led to grants/partnerships from the community. Jackson attributes the Theater Renovation Grant for $67,000 that they got from Lowe’s to social media branding. These organizations vet the recipients of their grants, and when they google Mt. Pleasant High School, they start to see everything that they’ve done. Jackson reminds us, “No school is perfect, but you want to make sure that daily you are putting in enough credit that when something bad does happen, your credit is so high that there isn’t a negative impact.” They also got a $500,000 grant from Parker Hannifin Corporation with which they built an Innovation Lab. “Any school that is not leveraging social media power is missing an incredible opportunity,” Jackson emphasized.

Jackson admits that grants have assisted in the cultural turn-around by being financial affirmations. “Organizations see their money going to a school as investment which they believe they will see a return on. Those grants help to foster a shift from momentum to inertia. And now we are a school that cannot be stopped.”

Working with educators, we know there are a few who are resistant to change. When asking Jackson how he dealt with those who did not buy into his vision, he stated, “In any organization, there is always going to be the ‘toxic 2%.’ Annually, you’ve got to get rid of the toxic 2% because if you don’t, it can be like cancer and it will spread. Teachers/staff must grow or go. You will have that core group of people who will buy into your vision immediately.”

Ryan describes himself as a strength-finder leader. “We focus on our strengths and talents while managing our weaknesses. We devoted the first year entirely to changing the culture. We didn’t start on changing the curriculum until year two. We lifted people up, building capacity, building, supporting the teacher leaders. Then they took their network and influence to bring over the early majority. We showed wins in grants, school discipline, attendance etc. When you see your school logo on T-shirts at Walmart and RiteAid, the late majority is starting to look at it like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this thing.’ Now we have buy-in from the early and late majority.”

Changing the school culture has not just changed the school, but it has transformed the community. Mt. Pleasant is a community of about 5200 people. Mt. Pleasant School is sort of a mini school system. Jackson explains, “[The school] has been a catalyst for everything. We have been positioned as the lighthouse for rural development and that starts with education. People are only going to move back to Main Street, America if they think their children have a great shot at an excellent education.”

Jackson continues, “We understood that fundamentally and made sure the city had something they were proud to hang their hat on in terms of their schools. Once we gave them a taste that this could turn out to be something incredible, we saw parental involvement go up. We started to see the community come out for football games and other events. Every 30 days we are showcasing something new and different such as the ‘Tiny House’ project we are working on or a mid-town barbeque festival with the community. Now we have the cooperation with the city government to raise $155,000 to build a Splash Pad for the community. It’s a multitude of things such as building an authentic partnership with city government and its schools so we can do things together that will improve the quality of life. It’s showcasing the programs in such a way that you can get parents and business owners excited about their local schools.”

Not only that, when you create a high-profile buzz with the rest of the country looking at you, it becomes infectious. Jackson proudly brags, “When the folks in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee hear that people from Palm Beach County, Florida, the 11th largest school district in the nation, are coming to visit to see what we are doing, they can’t argue with success. That is the attitude you have to adopt. The city is starting to feel like a winner again and it is long overdue.” He reiterates, “After you feel like you belong, then you will start feeling efficacious and capable. Then and only then can you transfer to self-actualization, just being your best. Mt. Pleasant’s new business owners are feeling capable. Now let’s give this thing a go because we all feel like we belong.”

When Ryan Jackson was asked what advice he would give to struggling administrators, he said, “First and foremost, be a leader, not a figure-head. You have to be present. People want to see their shepherd – ten toes down leadership. You are in the halls, in the classrooms. You’re engaging the students with fist-bumps, high-fives, ‘how you doing?’ You need to have mini conversations with kids and identify their passions. Get to know your staff on a personal level. For far too long leadership programs have emphasized that being a good manager is where you draw a firm line. I think things have just changed. [As administrators], we have to be smart, we have to be savvy and we have to be professional, but most importantly, we have to be present.”

With all that being said, part of partaking in a cultural shift is to change things. Jackson declares, “Sometimes, you’ve got to disrupt the norm. Be comfortable in being a stimulus for change. Great leaders are comfortable with dissent. You have got to understand that not everybody is going to see things as they should right away. But it is our job as a leader to influence them. Leadership is the art of influencing and you cannot influence people from behind a computer screen. If you are sending emails that are fear-based, that may last for a little bit, but everything is built on relationships. You have to establish those kinds of ground level relationships first.”

Jackson concludes, “It is your job as an administrator to become your biggest evangelist. Share your story. Highlight your success. Don’t be afraid to share some of your struggles or setbacks, because we are all human and fallible. We are looking to learn from our networks. So, you share within your networks- ideas, struggles and celebrations- in an effort to get better together.”

His biggest piece of advice is to “get out of the office, get in the hallways, in the classrooms, in the community. Be present at games and events. Get to know your students on a first name basis. Kids get excited when they know you know who they are and what they are passionate about. That stuff is life-changing; it’s psychological solutions. You can’t put a dollar amount on that.” No school in Tennessee has changed its culture more than ‘The Mount’. This school culture is an example of a strategy that other schools and districts can duplicate.

Bethany Bowman is the Director of Professional Learning for Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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“We are making progress in education in Tennessee according to every data point, but we also have challenges,” acknowledged Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Dr. McQueen has been at the forefront of public education the last four years, since she replaced the unpopular and non-communicative Kevin Huffman.

Huffman, the proverbial outsider from Washington DC, was his own worst enemy. A known Democrat, he was never embraced by the newly elected Republican majority that governed the Tennessee General Assembly. His popularity and likability never extended outside the recruits he brought into the state with him, the Governor’s Office or the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). Huffman perfected the art of rubbing people the wrong way. After Governor Bill Haslam won a second term, he must have decided it was time for one of the most divisive figures in Tennessee politics to exit the stage. Enter McQueen.

In order to reverse public education’s disdain, Haslam needed the antithesis of Mr. Huffman, and Candice McQueen clearly provided that to the Commissioner of Education position. McQueen was a senior vice president and dean of the college of education at Lipscomb University. McQueen had an intricate task ahead of her. She inherited many personnel who were ill-fitted to the state. Many lacked requisite experience in leadership, in the state, or in the field in which they were being relied on to provide expertise. She had to restore relationships with Legislators, Superintendents, School Boards, Educators and parents. She understood the nuances of working with the scores of special interest groups that populate the K-12 landscape. She became one of the best communicators in state government. She had to do this while providing management to arguably the most important agency in state government. It was truly an example of flying the plane while they attempt to build it.

However, the Achilles heal of her term in office has been standardized test administration. This failure is well-documented. Whether or not that is a fair accusation is debatable. She inherited some of the baggage. Nonetheless, Commissioner McQueen concedes the problems with standardized testing, including online implementation and delivery challenges. She apologized, on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Education, for the challenges and frustrations of the test administration. In addition, the state has taken specific steps to address the concerns as the state moves into the 2018-19 testing cycle. Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen recently engaged in a statewide listening tour to get educator input. It is yet to be determined if that effort will have any bearing on the next Governor.

Here is what is certain, the next Governor of Tennessee will either be Republican Bill Lee or Democrat Karl Dean. Both men, for better or worse, will inherit the responsibility of building on Haslam’s record in public education. The choice of Commissioner of Education will assume the overwhelming burden of ensuring that every child in Tennessee graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce. The success or failure, of the next Commissioner of Education will largely determine the success or failure of the next Governor. It will be a difficult job to fill and it may be a job that nobody wants.

The next Governor will want to select someone who understands public education, understands the state of Tennessee, and is capable of running the most visible agency in the state. For all the local school superintendents who wake up thinking they are up to the task, they should be reminded that the lights of Nashville burn bright and they will be living in a fishbowl. The next Governor cannot afford to go outside the state to recruit a Commissioner of Education as Haslam did, after the Huffman fiasco.

The next Commissioner of Education must have a vision that aligns with the new Governor. They must understand the commitment they will be asked to make. Their evaluation will occur every single day by policymakers and stakeholders across the state, and often in the media. Their success only occurs when every person at a bureaucracy is working in the same direction, understanding and buying into the mission. The obstacles may seem insurmountable, and may keep you from reaching your objectives and not even be under your control. Items like contracts with vendors may be impediments to success, or a bureaucracy which stymies your objectives.

For a Commissioner, the risk is having a Governor who does not support your vision, which will hinder support for your management. Your resources will certainly be limited. Failure will almost certainly be associated with you personally. Financially, many school superintendents are already paid more than the Commissioner of Education, and their headaches are much smaller. Those people who have the skills to perform the task are more limited than the short list of people who think they are up to the challenge.

A disruption in January for 70,000 educators and 1,000,000 students, created by a new agenda for the state, might generate many unexpected issues and unnecessary anxiety during a transition. It is something that a candidate running for office cannot readily discuss, but something that a candidate elected to office must rapidly address. It must be someone who understands our unique language in public education, our stakeholders and policymakers in K-12, and the challenges facing our state.

The question asked by many educators, would either Bill Lee or Karl Dean consider retaining Commissioner McQueen? That has to be a consideration, if she would stay. What happens when you have a job that nobody wants and few are qualified for? We are about to find out.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

Dr. Ryan Jackson from Mt. Pleasant High School in Maury County, TN, “The Mount,” shares real life examples as he talks about educators being advocates for the “underdog.”