School Culture and Climate

laws about teaching

Naturally, I am very optimistic and I spend time encouraging educators on a daily basis. I celebrate when student teachers get their first job, teachers get promoted to administrators, administrators get moved to the central office. I hear wonderful stories where teachers love their profession and school. I also hear the reports of the difficulties and the challenges.

One of the issues that is often overlooked in the education profession is the school culture and climate. Teachers understand the salary issue is ongoing, and correctly believe that it is critical for them to be paid as the professionals that they are. However, salary is not usually the determining factor to make someone enter the education profession. For most educators, it is a calling of a noble profession. They teach to make a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities.

Student discipline is spiraling out of control in many schools across the nation. We have all seen and heard stories on local news. Internally, in some schools, it may even be worse. In Hamilton County, for example, reports of teachers quitting strictly because of discipline issues are unfortunately becoming commonplace.

However, school culture and climate are beginning to really become a major issue that needs to be addressed. If not addressed soon on the local level, it will certainly become a statewide policy issue to be addressed by policymakers.

Let’s examine a few issues:

  • Loss of Teacher Autonomy. Doris Santoro, author of the book “Demoralized,” describes systemic pressures, such as top-down initiatives or punitive evaluation systems, which has diminished teacher autonomy. State Department of Educations and School Districts must do a better job of addressing the culture and climate in our schools to impact the morale of their teachers. Constant turnover in districts and schools really impacts teachers, as much as students. In addition, there are ongoing and chronic conflicts between school boards, school leaders, and even educators. While change is always inevitable, staff and stakeholder participation is essential. Too often there is little attempt to align culture, strategy, and structure in public education. If educators feel listened to, and their knowledge and experience are respected, there is a greater chance of success.

 

  • Lack of Support. In the absence of monetary support, educators desperately need emotional, and professional support from their administrators and colleagues. Support starts at the top with ongoing, collaborative teacher support. The working conditions in the schools, become the learning conditions for the students. Administrators must be consistent when dealing with student discipline or parent situations. Teachers need to know their administration has their backs. Students who are sent to school administration for extreme misbehaviors cannot be sent right back to class, and education policies must be clear to all who are involved. If criticism is warranted, do it in private, not in front of parents or children. Every situation is unique, and how an administrator handles a situation depends on each individual situation. In addition, some administrators seemingly scold the entire staff for the faults of a few. A former educator and now author Jennifer Gonzalez wrote: “Behind every teacher story is an administrator who is interpreting policy, setting expectations, and establishing a tone that will determine the quality of their teachers’ work, and by extension, the education their students receive.”

 

  • Legal and Liability Challenges. We live in a litigious society. As an educator or school employee, teachers are acutely aware that professional liability insurance is critical because district coverage may not protect them individually. Due to their unique role, educators face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen and therefore must exercise a higher duty of care than most professionals. 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. One district in the state, Williamson County, appointed an attorney—who lacked classroom teaching or school level administrative experience—as its Director of Schools. The new director has additional attorneys on his staff. This has to be concerning to parents, taxpayers, and educators when a district is top-heavy with lawyers—especially when they lack classroom and administrative experience. Ultimately such a heavy legal presence will not serve the interests of classroom teachers when they experience conflict with the district. When a conflict of interest occurs, and they will occur, the interest of the district will likely prevail over the teacher or administrator. This will mean settlements will be reached, even when educators may not be at fault. The district, in order to save money or diminish the negative publicity, will place its interests above those of the teacher or administrator. Educators know it is dangerous and potentially career-threatening if you enter a public-school classroom or school without liability or legal protection. That is why professional education associations are needed more than ever.

Together, salary, student discipline, along with school culture and climate are driving teachers out of their profession. These issues will impact the teacher labor market in ways in which it may not recover creating a shortage of highly qualified teachers in school districts across Tennessee. States and districts must track student discipline issues better. Research into why teachers leave teaching, including pressured or forced resignations would be helpful for future retention issues. Novice and experienced teachers and administrators alike will deal with school leaders that are great, terrible or somewhere in-between during their career. Those are the stories I most like to hear.

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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.

 

Successful Education Leaders Communicate Effectively

Crossing out problems and writing solutions on a blackboard.

I am very sympathetic to parents who make claims that the school district in their community is tone-deaf, and will not listen. I have called and emailed school superintendents myself across the state and, on occasion, failed to receive a courtesy response.

I will often just pick up a phone and call them or their Board Chair when they failed to respond. I think persistence is key in some cases. However, some superintendents fail to understand their lack of response is harmful to the image of a district.

Parents are in a different position. Many are young parents, and do not know how government works, or is supposed to work. In many cases, this leads to a lack of parent engagement.  In public education, we must solicit more, not less, community involvement.

We must all work to hold our superintendents accountable in regard to educational, financial, and administrative performance. There is a growing debate on whether districts should return to electing these school management leaders; we have generally opposed such legislation, believing school boards can make good choices and hold superintendents accountable. We acknowledge that many school districts do a better job of this than other school districts. Notably, urban districts have consistently had much turnover in their leadership versus rural districts across the state. Constant turnover also hurts the elected versus appointed superintendent debate. School boards must elect good candidates with community input.

School boards must embody the beliefs and values of their community. School board members should be as diverse as the citizens they serve. We should thank the men and women who are serving our communities as school board members more often. They are too often unappreciated, and it is often a thankless but needed job. We need more people with management and education backgrounds to consider running for the school board in their community. The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are immeasurable. The Tennessee School Boards Association has some great information on their website for those interested in this critical role.

School boards should provide superintendents latitude in regards to leadership, vision, and strategic thinking on how to address the performance in those areas. And we must expect them to communicate effectively to all stakeholders. There is no doubt we have some excellent leaders across our state. Superintendents like Melanie Miller, Jerry Boyd, Linda Cash, Johnny McDaniel, Bill Heath, Cathy Beck, Freddy Curtis, Richard Rawlings, and Mark Winningham just to name a few.

These exceptional leaders share many characteristics. Perhaps the most important duty of a superintendent is to make sure district students are learning and achieving at the highest level possible. A superintendent must understand effective academic practices and be supportive of the teachers and administrators in the district. Leadership, vision, and strategic thinking are critical skills for every superintendent. A successful superintendent will also be an effective and excellent communicator. The communication part starts with returning emails and phone calls.

I have been critical over the years of many things in public education. From lack of focus or poorly defined goals to disagreement with curriculum or self-serving unions. However, I have always tried to do what my mother advised, “If you are going to criticize, offer a solution.” Teddy Roosevelt blatantly made it clear, “It is not the critic who counts; but rather the man who is actually in the arena.”

For education leaders to be successful they must communicate effectively.  As a practitioner of my craft, I love reading what is going on in other schools and districts across the state.  Every Monday in my email inbox appears a weekly Marczak Monday Memo from Chris Marczak, the superintendent of Maury County Schools.  It is a great example of effective communication and a model that some districts should adopt.  However, school updates are not a substitute for responding to direct emails or telephone calls.  Something I am sure Dr.  Marczak would agree, as he also excels in returning calls and emails.

At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln stated that our government was “for the people.” Cynics take that a step further and tell us government is for those who make themselves effectively heard. That is why it is most critical for elected and appointed officials to communicate clearly, concisely, timely, and effectively. For school leaders, it is even more critical.

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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.

2020 Vision for Education Policy

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Educator opinions differ on numerous issues and vary from year to year. Professional Educators of Tennessee recently surveyed its teachers and solicited educator input across the state. Nearly 750 educators took the survey sent out from Professional Educators of Tennessee in October of 2019 to our members. While the majority of respondents were classroom teachers, several administrators also took part in the survey.

Salary, school climate, and student behavior have been a constant issue during the last four years. Researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders can gain useful insight into the opinions of those on the frontlines educating children. The majority of educators are satisfied with their jobs and believe their job makes a positive difference in the lives of students. However, two-thirds (67%) of teachers stated that teacher morale was a critical issue in their district.

Student behavior remains a significant issue across the state. While there is a myriad issue that concerns educators, they consistently rank discipline issues near the top. The problem appears to be rooted in the student’s home environment and the school’s culture/climate; both must be considered when addressing the problem.

 

A school and district must adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as instruction for all students. One possible policy needs to be better tracking of time that 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 that instruction time is lost? School districts must balance responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students. Without discipline, students cannot learn.

Testing is an issue where educators offered some valuable insight. Not only is the amount of testing done by the district a concern, but also tying teacher evaluation scores to the testing data also remains controversial.

Salary issues provide an invaluable perception of how educators view the financial reward for their profession. Educators believe that salary compensation should be equal to other fields with the same degree. It is clear that educators either reject or do not understand what policymakers mean by a “differentiated pay system.”

Well over two thirds (70%) of teacher’s support across the board salary increases. We feel that addressing salary issues should be a primary concern for policymakers. Overall, 92% indicated that salary was an issue which concerned them, followed by retirement and healthcare. Educators were very interested in student loan forgiveness incentives.

If the teacher shortages continue to be an issue state-wide and nationwide, there must be more incentives to go into the teaching field and remain there. Obviously higher pay is the biggest enticement, but also consider giving educators the opportunity to job-share and provide more appealing benefits especially when it comes to health care and retirement. And most importantly, treat educators as professionals and trust them to do their jobs without micromanaging that is currently the norm.

Certainly, some educators have been forced to leave their school system for subjective reasons, rather than objective reasons. Actions speak louder than words. In some cases, dismissal may have been warranted, but in many cases, it appears circumstances were little more than personality conflicts and people not fitting into a certain educational or political environment. We have lost some good educators in our state because of this subjectivity, and we would argue many of these educators deserve another chance to keep their careers going. This will require policymakers to make teacher retention and recruitment a top priority.

The consistency of the same issues in the last few years means that much work remains as educators are not seeing the needed changes. Policymakers and stakeholders must continue to work to make improvements in policies that impact salary, school climate, and student behavior. Education policy must remain a high priority across the state.

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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.

Next Steps for Tennessee

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Traveling across the state in my role as Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, I talk with a lot of people interested in public education. One of the most common complaints is a lack of response from Governor Bill Lee or his team on specific education issues. It is problematic, and quite honestly has always been problematic in our state.

Better communication is always needed. I should know – I used to work for Governor Jeb Bush years ago, and communication is always a struggle for the executive branch despite best intentions.

 

I would still remind people to be patient with Governor Lee and his staff as we are still in year one; however, staff should now be settled into place, with processes and systems clearly established. We should expect better communication in year two.

Governor Lee laid out a fairly ambitious education agenda, and while our organization disagreed with some parts of it, he offered more specifics than his opponent in the election last November. He was clear in his support of vouchers from the day he announced his candidacy. It should have been of no surprise to policymakers or stakeholders. When surveyed, our members did not support vouchers.

 

His legislative victory with vouchers has yet to be implemented. This may prove challenging, as the program must be proven successful before any other future voucher program is considered. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly will demand proof of unmitigated success before any expansion or similar program is enacted. Cameron Sexton, a voucher critic, has now ascended to Speaker of the House. His track record would indicate that he is a strong supporter of public schools. This helps the governor moving forward on education policy changes needed in public education.

Other parts of the Lee campaign agenda likely won him most of his statewide support, and gave voters more specifics on which to hold him accountable. Candidate Lee suggested it was time to change the way our high schools operate. It was a bold policy suggestion, and as governor, Bill Lee should move forward on that front.

 

For the last 50 years, the way high schools have educated students has largely remained unchanged. Many business and community leaders believe the traditional high school is disconnected from the demands of the modern economy. They emphasize that graduates need additional skills to be successful in today’s workforce.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) added: “Across Tennessee, students are learning in high schools using models developed for the needs of the 20th century rather than the workforce opportunities of the future. As a result, most Tennessee students do not graduate fully prepared to succeed in college, career, and life.”

 

Governor Lee stated, “It is time to embrace new, flexible school models to support new opportunities for career and technical education, work-based learning and apprenticeships, and dual-enrollment courses for students preparing for their career.”

We agree. Some of that is already in the works, through recent legislation. It is time we break down barriers that have held our teachers, school leaders, and school districts back from creative solutions necessary for the unique challenges of their communities. Increasing flexibility at the local level could lead to incredible innovations in our state.

State grants that allow local districts to fund high school redesign would be one manner in which to create change and address challenges schools would face as they transition from traditional models to a more flexible school model.

Another suggestion would be for the state to establish a pilot program for high performing districts by authorizing the State Board of Education to enter into a performance contract with school districts to grant them more flexibility. These high performing districts would be a school district in which a local school board agrees to comply with certain performance goals contained in a performance contract that is approved by the State Board of Education. In return for performance accountability, the district would be granted greater autonomy with both statutory and rule exemptions. This is an idea Governor Lee and his team should explore.

 

It is past time for the state to make good on its commitment to teachers. The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) proved that the state of Tennessee invested more than $300 million for teacher salaries in 2015-2018. Most of those dollars did not actually end up in pockets of classroom teachers. Generally, school districts employ more staff than are covered by the funding system utilized in Tennessee, known as the Basic Education Program (BEP). State and local dollars earmarked for salaries during those years were often spread over more teachers than the staff positions generated by the BEP.

The Tennessee General Assembly did address that school districts in the future must now report where salary increases are spent. Governor Lee included a $71 million increase for a “2.5 percent pay raise for teachers” for the fiscal year 2020. It is time to guarantee that teacher salaries, at the very least, match the cost of living increases faced by educators across the state.

 

Finally, we must update our school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. We need a plan and a funding formula that reflects our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies. The plan should support teachers, fund facilities, and facilitate innovation and technology while striving to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.

Governor Lee has proven he will fight for what he believes in. It is time to come together to focus on the other education ideas that were discussed on the campaign trail. It is time to move forward on these issues to help all children, teachers, schools, and communities. Let the policy discussion begin. Communication is critical.

 

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JC Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.

Christmas Memories

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My dad was not a man of grace and refinement. He was, and I can correctly describe him this way, a bona fide tough man. I can only recall seeing him cry twice. Once when his mother died, and once when I told him I had joined the Marine Corps. He was also never afraid to share his opinion on the issues of the day that interested him.

I have written stories of my dad, as witnessed through my eyes, numerous times. Most versions are probably incomplete, but it was my perspective at that time in my life. That perception was based on my age, my knowledge at the time, and my interaction.

When someone moves out of your life, either through relocation, separation, divorce, or even death, we tend to leave that person frozen in time in our minds. For example, as a former teacher, when I interact with former students, they still come up to me and call me “Coach” or Mr. Bowman. I think back on them as they were, but now see them as they are. The challenge we have as we get older is to let our perceptions change as we often reflect on the people and the times that shaped us without complete information.

Growing up we embraced the concept of Santa Claus, yet we kept our focus that the season was about a miracle in the birth of Jesus Christ. My dad and several of his brothers had played the role of Santa Claus in holiday festivities. My Uncle Ed played Santa Claus for the city of Baltimore. My dad donned the suit for the United States Navy at an orphanage in Korea. A little girl asked Santa for a Daddy. It impacted my dad to such an extent that he never played Santa Claus again.

One Christmas, my dad decided we would be that one family in the neighborhood who had all of the holiday lights on their house. While not to Clark Griswold’s level in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it was not far from it. We lit up the neighborhood. Other neighbors also joined in with decorations that year.  As my dad looked at his handiwork with the Christmas lights, he noticed the gap in the huge window in the front of our house.

My dad disappeared into our utility room and retrieved some lumber.  On our carport in the cold, he started measuring, cutting and crafting something. What was it going to be? My brother and I were not certain. He painted the ends, then wrapped it in thick aluminum foil, to which he wired lights to it. He had made a perfect cross. My dad had built a giant wooden cross. The amazing thing was we were not a particularly religious family, yet he wanted an illuminated cross to shine through the darkness for all to see. It was at the center of our house. The message was not lost to me.

At Christmas, we reflect on a baby in a manager. It is the picture in our minds of a simple manger, a feeding trough out of which livestock would consume food from that the Savior of the World rested in as a newborn baby. It is an amazing story to consider. From the meekest of women, in one of the most unassuming of small towns, in modest accommodations, Jesus Christ was born. In fact, he was laid to rest each night in the most self-effacing of cradles. However, we are reminded it was His death, not just His birth that truly changed the world. That was why my dad focused on the Cross as a proclamation of our faith.

While the faith aspect of the holiday is often lost on many people, it is the central part. We should take the time and discuss the importance of faith in their lives, and share stories and traditions with their family and friends, lest the stories are lost. Yes, as children we still expected a white-bearded man to show up with gifts between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and bring prizes as rewards for our good behavior.

From that Christmas on, at least in my house, we started placing a greater emphasis on things that were more important and had a more significant eternal value. I had discovered that my dad, unbeknownst to us, had also been purchasing hams for people every Christmas—People who had influenced him or who he knew had no money or were less fortunate. He did that in secret. The only reason my brother and I knew that fact was that he sought our help when he was no longer physically able to do the task himself.

My perception of my dad was often skewed by personal battles between us, but of this I am certain—my dad understood Christmas and celebrated its true meaning. In his own way, he sought to spread cheer to his family, friends, and neighbors. Even for non-believers, the core elements of Christmas — being good, spreading love, and kindness, as well as giving selflessly to others, are traits worth imitating. It is something we must pass on to the next generation.  I learned those values as a child growing up here in Tennessee. I would never trade that memory of a Christmas Cross.

Merry Christmas to All. And God Bless Us, Everyone. 
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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.

Who’s Naughty or Nice?

We have all sung the line in the Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town, “He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” In fact, some of us believe that a list might actually exist, and a few of us keep our own.

We also remember the offensive and bad-tempered Burgermeister Meisterburger, the villain who outlawed toys in Sombertown, in the Santa Claus is Coming to Town television show. Dick Allington, a former professor at the University of Tennessee bears an uncanny resemblance to the fictional mayor. His recent disparaging comments at the Literacy Association of Tennessee Conference in Murfreesboro are enough to get Allington on the naughty list of many educators and parents across the state of Tennessee. He made my naughty list.

Let’s look at some similarities:

  • Burgermeister Meisterburger hates toys. He passes a law declaring toys “illegal, immoral, unlawful, and anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon. The children of Sombertown are forced to do chores instead of playing.
  • Dick Allington “denounced dyslexia, questioning its existence and slamming advocates of the learning disorder.” Allington added that former Governor Bill Haslam was going to hell for signing the bill and said dyslexia advocates were on drugs according to the audio and media reports.  (Note:  Governor Haslam and his family are major donors to the University of Tennessee).
  • Burgermeister Meisterburger arrests Kris Kringle and others for bringing toys to the children of Sombertown. 
  • Dick Allington said “If only [Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam] had called me, I would have said, ‘Just veto it and shoot whoever made this bill,'” Allington said, of the Say Dyslexia law, which passed in 2016.

In his presentation at the Literacy Association of Tennessee Conference, Dick Allington states his son “only learned to read because he experienced his first male teacher.” That particular comment has not garnered as much attention. In fact, roughly 82% of the teachers in Tennessee are female. Whether his son learned to read because of a male or female teacher is irrelevant, that particular comment was degrading and very unnecessary. Why would he consider the sex of a teacher relevant in a speech about literacy? Educators are more interested in figuring out what’s best for their students, not the ideological bent and insults of a retired professor in upstate New York.

Functional illiteracy has become a serious deterrent to economic development, in our communities, state, and nation. Reading is a serious issue, and Dyslexia is a scientific fact. But don’t take my word for it, look at the research being conducted at Yale University and Middle Tennessee State University. Commissioner Penny Schwinn added: “At TDOE we are proud to support the whole child and focus on the science of reading for all students.” Zack Barnes, an assistant professor of education at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, says that “the research is clear that dyslexic students need systematic, explicit phonics instruction.”

Reading is one of the most critical skills in education. The National Reading Panel’s analysis that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates: instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, fluency, and comprehension. Improving reading instruction at the classroom level includes providing our teachers with relevant professional development to assist them; assessing children’s reading skills in kindergarten through third grade; and, offering assistance to schools in which kids are falling behind.

Policymakers and stakeholders now know that children who cannot read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives. These children are less likely to graduate or gain meaningful employment. Children who lack these necessary prerequisite reading skills are at greater risk for drug-use and other criminal behaviors.

At the end of Santa Claus is Coming to Town we find out that the Meisterburgers eventually die out and lose their power over Sombertown. The citizens recognized that the silly law outlawing toys was unnecessary, much like Dick Allington’s insults at the Literacy Association of Tennessee.

Perhaps at one point in time, Dick Allington had significance in education and literacy. However, it is time for the University of Tennessee to remove him from their website, remove the word “Emeritus” from his title and send a letter asking him to cease and desist identifying with the University of Tennessee. Any organization that invites Allington to speak in the future needs to reconsider the invitation. Dick Allington has earned a well-deserved place on my naughty list. I hope he likes coal in his stocking.

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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.

The Reading Wars Continue

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I tend to avoid the debates among people discussing reading. I think there is some truth in all sides of a debate. I learned to read early and easily. I am also unabashedly an advocate for children with dyslexia, as it has been an issue identified and championed by our members. I am encouraged by the research being conducted at the Center for Dyslexia at Middle Tennessee State University. I believe the work they do there will impact thousands of children across the state who learn to read because of their research and efforts.

For the better part of the last five decades, what has been described as “Reading Wars” has pitted “phonics-based” instruction against “whole language” instruction. Another approach in the reading wars, a hybrid of phonics-based and whole language instruction called balanced literacy has emerged in the last decade. However, the debate over reading instruction itself is centuries old. The debate will continue as long as educators are free to hold differing opinions.

All sides of the reading debate have proponents, often found in the Ivory Towers of academia.  The dispute is a genuine political issue, and the opinions of policymakers drive our education policy. You may not notice the debate, but it is occurring when states approve and purchase textbooks and other materials for instruction, how we teach in our teacher preparation programs, and what is offered in our current professional development for teachers.

Emily Hanford, an advocate of phonics-based reading instruction points out, “the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth-graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.” In her New York Times editorial, she states that Colleges of Education faculties simply do not teach the science of reading.

Stacy Reeves, an associate professor of literacy at the University of Southern Mississippi says “Phonics for me is not that answer.” Her former colleague Mary Ariail, past chair of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education at the University of Southern Mississippi, remains opposed to explicit phonics instruction. Ariail states: “One of the ideas behind whole language is that when [reading] is meaningful, it’s easy,” she said. “And when it’s broken down into little parts, it makes it harder.”

Ariail left her position in 2018, because of her disappointment in changing reading instruction in Mississippi. She said she sees it as an example of lawmakers telling educators what to do, and she doesn’t like it. She now resides in North Carolina working as an independent consultant. Mississippi did an exhaustive evaluation of its early literacy programs in a recent study.

Mark Seidenberg, a University of Wisconsin cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight” argues “Balanced literacy was a way to defuse the wars over reading.” “If the whole language/balanced literacy approach is as flawed as described, many children will struggle to learn,” Seidenberg insists. For those students, in thousands of U.S. schools, there is Reading Recovery, “an expensive remediation program based on the same principles. Fewer children would need Reading Recovery if they had received appropriate instruction in the first place,” he writes. As for teachers, they are “left to discover effective classroom practices [on their own] because they haven’t been taught them.

Educators have argued about multiple approaches to reading instruction since public education began. The politics over literacy will continue to be contentious and debated.  Perhaps we, as educators know less about how children actually learn to read or how they should be taught than we care to admit. Perhaps it is different for every child. The more we honestly look at the issues surrounding the reading wars, it is clear that a one-sized solution does not work for everyone.

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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.

Let Hope Rise

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While discussing faith, I am reminded of a lyric from an old religious song: “Let hope rise and darkness tremble.” That is a powerful and optimistic statement for those who share a strong belief in God.

I am also convinced that our purpose in life is directly linked to the clarity of our own vision for the future. Too many people imagine a bleak and hopeless future, and it shows in choices they make in their work, their relations and in their outlook on life. The glass is half empty. Darkness and desolation will always be all they see and find.

I had an opportunity to spend a few hours with a friend of mine, Karolyn Marino, as she taught her Kindergarten class. She was bursting with enthusiasm and energy to match that of her pupils. Karolyn told me that her job was not only to reach every child in her class, no matter their level of knowledge on a subject, but to also make sure that her classroom was one of optimism and hopefulness. Her interaction with children went beyond the walls of the schools. The children knew no matter what awaited them at home, for the hours that they were in Miss Karolyn’s class, they were warmly welcomed and loved. She is also one of the top teachers in her school district. Kids learn when they are loved.

As one of her goals, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn stated she wants to make sure that our schools are equipped to serve the academic and non-academic needs of all kids. That means that schools and districts will have better access to online tools, statewide partnerships and more resources for schools. That is a good and positive direction for our educators and our students. We look forward to working with her on this agenda in Tennessee.

Schwinn also has brought up a subject she wants to champion: character education. This too, should help our students make more meaningful contributions to our society. In a world where it is getting more difficult to determine right from wrong, maybe we do need to step back and look at some of those basic attributes we call character development and reinforce them at school. Loving our neighbors should be innate, but if it is not, we can show the way by practicing what we preach.

Martin Luther King said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” King’s words still ring true.

I am a believer in public education. But I also understand that what that we have gone down a few rabbit holes and lost focus at times. Change will continue and, in education at least, more change is on the way. We should welcome the debate over change in public education and continue the discussion, knowing that a one size fits all strategy does not work in any school, district or community.

Public education is at a crossroads in Tennessee. People say it is broken and beyond repair. I tell those critics that they are wrong. We succeed every single day in small victories across our classrooms and schools. Our success far outweighs our failures and we can acknowledge those failures and take on those challenges head-on.

Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t. When the light of hope comes, darkness has no place. Darkness is driven away by light. Let hope rise and darkness tremble. Public education has a bright future.

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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.

Be a Bright Spot During a Dark Time This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving3

This year will mark the fact that I have had the opportunity to live through 56 Thanksgivings. I was born on a Sunday, November 24th, 1963, two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Thanksgiving occurred on November 28th that year, the same as this year. It was a time, not unlike today, filled with political uncertainty. My mother told me I was the only child born that evening. Nurses and doctors were still in shock at the Kennedy assassination, but my birth was a bright spot during a dark time. I have always loved that story.

Presidents and Congresses from the beginning of our republic have designated days of thanksgiving and fasting. The Thanksgiving we celebrate annually in November was established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and made into law by Congress in 1941. It is rooted in a 1621 event where Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgivings.

Rather than allowing fear and trepidation to dictate our state of mind here on the cusp of 2020, we should look at the great hope our country provides to the world. This Thanksgiving we need a more civil, honest discourse among ourselves, as families, friends and as countrymen. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to political conflict in his day.  King reminded us, “Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.” Hate breeds more hate, but love conquers all.

Rock singer Bono said in a Rolling Stone interview: “I don’t fear politicians or presidents. They should be afraid. They’ll be accountable for what happened on their watch.” Bono added, “It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. This should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead, it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s ‘difficult’ justify our own inaction. Be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don’t have is the will, and that’s not a reason that history will accept.”

Poor and starving people are not particularly appealing news stories, but fighting poverty is and should be a moral imperative for citizens in our cities, state, and nation. Teachers are often on the frontlines fighting battles with children who go to bed hungry and wake up starving. Theological apathy, just like political apathy, is not an acceptable excuse. Yes, “the poor will always be with us.” However, Jesus, in his first sermon said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

This Thanksgiving we should be thankful for both the small and large blessings in our lives. And just as in years past, we should seek with grateful hearts the political, moral, and intellectual blessings that make self-government possible. However, we must recognize what is truly essential: faith, family, and friends. Embrace others and treat everybody with dignity and respect. If you want to touch the heart of God, take an interest in the things that interests God. Let God love others through you.

Every great nation should include the recognition that every child is created in the image of God, and that fact means we will use our resources to meet the most basic needs of all citizens, especially the vulnerable. Think of those less fortunate this year before your Thanksgiving prayers, remind yourself of those in poverty whose plates are often empty. We are incapable of breaking the cycle of poverty without all of us working together to address poverty and hunger.

We must endeavor to understand our nation’s place in the world. And while some Americans may believe we have lost some of our lusters, the truth is that we are still the greatest beacon of freedom on the planet. We do not get our rights from the government but from God. The government exists to protect our rights. I would remind people, don’t fear the politicians. Hold them accountable.

Our nation is an exporter of dreams, and we must cast a vision of an exceptional America to the world. Do we have problems as a nation? Yes, we do. So does every civilization that has ever flourished. This Thanksgiving let us count our blessings and be truly grateful for an opportunity to be alive at such a time as this and call ourselves Americans. The most important thing you can do is be a bright spot this Thanksgiving for someone going through a dark time.

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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.

Be a Bright Spot During a Dark Time This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving3

This year will mark the fact that I have had the opportunity to live through 56 Thanksgivings. I was born on a Sunday, November 24th, 1963, two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Thanksgiving occurred on November 28th that year, the same as this year. It was a time, not unlike today, filled with political uncertainty. My mother told me I was the only child born that evening. Nurses and doctors were still in shock at the Kennedy assassination, but my birth was a bright spot during a dark time. I have always loved that story.

Presidents and Congresses from the beginning of our republic have designated days of thanksgiving and fasting. The Thanksgiving we celebrate annually in November was established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and made into law by Congress in 1941. It is rooted in a 1621 event where Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgivings.

Rather than allowing fear and trepidation to dictate our state of mind here on the cusp of 2020, we should look at the great hope our country provides to the world. This Thanksgiving we need a more civil, honest discourse among ourselves, as families, friends and as countrymen. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to political conflict in his day.  King reminded us, “Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.” Hate breeds more hate, but love conquers all.

Rock singer Bono said in a Rolling Stone interview: “I don’t fear politicians or presidents. They should be afraid. They’ll be accountable for what happened on their watch.” Bono added, “It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. This should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead, it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s ‘difficult’ justify our own inaction. Be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. What we don’t have is the will, and that’s not a reason that history will accept.”

Poor and starving people are not particularly appealing news stories, but fighting poverty is and should be a moral imperative for citizens in our cities, state, and nation. Teachers are often on the frontlines fighting battles with children who go to bed hungry and wake up starving. Theological apathy, just like political apathy, is not an acceptable excuse. Yes, “the poor will always be with us.” However, Jesus, in his first sermon said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

This Thanksgiving we should be thankful for both the small and large blessing in our lives. And just as in years past, we should seek with grateful hearts the political, moral, and intellectual blessings that make self-government possible. However, we must recognize what is truly essential: faith, family, and friends. Embrace others. Treat everybody with dignity and respect. If you want to touch the heart of God, take an interest in the things that interest God. Let God love others through you.

Every great nation should include the recognition that every child is created in the image of God, and that fact means we will use our resources to meet the most basic needs of all citizens, especially the vulnerable. Think of those less fortunate this year before your Thanksgiving prayers, remind yourself of those in poverty whose plates are often empty. We are incapable of breaking the cycle of poverty without all of us working together to address poverty and hunger.

We must endeavor to understand our nation’s place in the world. And while some Americans may believe we have lost some of our luster, the truth is that we are still the greatest beacon of freedom on the planet. We do not get our rights from the government but from God.  The government exists to protect our rights.  I would remind people, don’t fear the politicians. Hold them accountable.

Our nation is an exporter of dreams, and we must cast a vision of an exceptional America to the world. Do we have problems as a nation? Yes, we do. So does every civilization that has ever flourished. This Thanksgiving let us count our blessings, and be truly grateful for an opportunity to be alive at such a time as this and call ourselves Americans. The most important thing you can do is be a bright spot this Thanksgiving for someone going through a dark time.

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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.