Sunday, May 29, 2016

We're Not Liars

Coffee County Central High School’s graduation last week was certainly one to remember. I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations and well-wishes to the graduation class of 2016. Watching these individuals, many of whom I connected with as their classroom teacher, receive the school system’s stamp of approval to officially embark upon the challenges of adulthood was a stark reminder of what makes my career so incredibly fulfilling. As much as the education system tries to push students into proverbial boxes and label their abilities with subjective and superfluous numbers, they are still people who are now in charge of helping shape the future of our society. Like all commencement ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance was full of harmonious songs from the choir and inspirational speeches giving the graduating class excellent pointers, like “use your brain” and to “stay humble and kind.”
Recently, the Manchester Times ran an article from Ron Hart in which he discussed his advice for graduating students at a commencement speech where he was invited as the keynote speaker. It’s clear from Mr. Hart’s view of public education that he hasn’t step foot in a classroom in decades.
According to him, teachers fraudulently lie to students by telling them that their future is what they make out of it, which he attributes to: them not desiring to get a job and doing real work, half of all American workers feeling unhappy with their jobs, and an increase in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans. In English class, these assertions would be called non sequiturs. He went on to say that the government run school system does not want smart, independent thinkers (Wait, isn’t it Donald Trump who said, “I love the poorly educated”?) and that teachers spend more time helping students decide which bathroom to use instead of preparing them to enter the workforce.

One reason in particular why articles like Mr. Hart’s is so upsetting to me is because I know that he’s not the only person who feels this way--who lives in a state of ignorance about some of the wonderful aspects of our public education system. Part of that is the fault of educators, because we generally don’t do a great job of highlighting our own successes, which makes attacks like Mr. Hart’s all too easy to accomplish. In an effort to push back against the negative stigma surrounding public education, I would like to highlight some wonderful things that are happening with the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program at Coffee County Central High School.
The CTE program offers dual credit in 5 different courses, which means that students can simultaneously earn high school and community college credit. The high school is very active in work based learning, and next year we have a VIAM work-based learning experience, which will put several students to work at VIAM (manufacturing plant) so that they have the opportunity to learn real-world skills. This particular type of work-based learning is first of its kind in the state of Tennessee. All of the CTE courses are aligned with some type of post secondary institution, whether it is a Tennessee College of Applied Technology school or a two or four year university. The high school’s CNA program graduates 10 to 12 certified CNA certified students each year, and internships through criminal justice are currently offered with service learning opportunities to follow next school year. Also coming next year, the high school will offer certifications in Safe-serv for culinary, ASE for automotive and a local VIAM manufacturing certificate. All of this is not even taking into account the high school’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), cosmetology, welding, and robotics programs which are among the best in the state.

While there can always be room for improvement, Coffee County Central High School is doing the best it can to provide as many post-secondary and work-based opportunities as possible for our students prior to their graduation. Call me an optimist (I’ve been called worse), but after reflecting on the graduates of 2016, I strongly believe that our future is in excellent hands.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Nanodegree Nation

The following editorial from Dr. Ryan B. Jackson’s blog  is printed here with his permission. Dr. Jackson is an assistant principal at Maplewood High School in Nashville.

Matt programming drone
by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D
As you read this, high school seniors across America are chomping at the bit, feverishly waiting for their moment to adorn that long-awaited cap and gown and rightfully take their place in history alongside classmates as they walk across the stage on graduation day. These seniors’ final exit ticket, trumpeted to the tune of pomp and circumstance, is the historically coveted high school diploma. For over a hundred years a high school degree has served as the catalyst for future earnings and opportunities, with the actual diploma and its gold-seal symbolizing the proverbial right-of-passage into adulthood. However, this once symbolic step towards the rest of our lives is quickly being usurped by a different kind of degree – earned in the broadband classrooms of the internet’s self-learning school.
Introducing Nanodegree Nation.

Self-help gets a digital makeover

Anyone unfamiliar with the live-streaming video platform Twitch let me school you on what 100 million people already know: Globally people of all ages – with Centennials serving as the bedrock – connect via Twitch to, well, learn how to play video games. If I rock at playing video games (call me a “Gamer”), I broadcast my skills through Twitch while other would-be Gamers tune-in and learn from an expert. Simple, right? There’s no video game school. No video game principal. No video game 7:05AM start time! Just various learners of different skill-levels seeking differentiated instruction from countless experts. I know, I know, we’re talking about video games, how silly – except there’s nothing silly about 2020’s $115Billion gaming software revenue projection but that’s another blog post.
The point is, like YouTube and Twitch the web’s digital classroom is eviscerating all notions of what contemporary school looks and feels like. Any educator willing to face reality will tell you students are rejecting education’s current paradigm and they have good reason to. The tip of the spear is and always will be teachers, as their effect-size carries the greatest impact. Some of us educators have adopted the digital settlers mindset, bravely, boldly trekking the #edtech frontier in search of a way to strike gold with our wayward students. Yet, we’re still too few and far between and the reality is we’re still serving within systems that are afraid of this type of thinking. The greater atrocity is the teacher-next-door who thinks smartphones are the Devil and insists on continuing the Vulcan mindmeld method of torturous pontification and recall. However, despite both our good intentions and unwillingness to adapt, students are secretly (sometimes not so secretly) sneaking clips of experts performing whatever it is they’re curious about.
coder loveUnless you’ve been living under a Gateway 2000, it’s no surprise today’s students are indelibly tethered to the digital world. From Snapchat to Kik, Twitch to YouTube, students socialize, entertain themselves and…gasp…learn while serving as flesh-and-bone Ethernet cords. This blog post doesn’t mark the beginning of students’ perpetual penchant (addiction?) for screen-time or signify its phenomena status but instead shall stand as a conversation starter as to the power of student perception on our current education framework and how this perception will undoubtedly impact both high school and college degrees.

 So old it’s new

Ages ago humans passed down knowledge orally. We’d sit around a campfire, literally chew the fat, and learn from more experienced members of our tribe. Over time this method of teaching and learning graduated to an apprentice model, where hands-on experience coupled with expert tutelage forged us into young professionals. Scene-select to the last hundred years or so as more complex societies took education to scale and we find teaching and learning now confined to age-cohorts, processed through a grade-level format with a blanket of knowledge and skills already prescribed for us. Aside from some tweaks and variances here and there, teaching and learning – school, as we’ve come to know it – hasn’t changed in over a century. That idea alone is terrifying but it’s become Stephen King-level when you consider our smartphones advance approximately every six months with students serving as the beta-testers.
Speaking of education’s one hundred years of stagnation, let’s shift our focus to today’s students and the oil and water relationship between their physical and digital education. What makes students more and more unique, unlike their student-body predecessors, is not only are they true digital natives but for the first time in history a generation has access to boundless information sources at nanosecond speed. Yes, the Internet’s been around since ’95, I’m well aware; it was my generation that staked our digi-flag in AOL’s early chat rooms. However, how we actually learned through the Internet was analogous to AOL’s dial-up speed. Nowadays, students seem to merely exist in the physical world, whereas they simultaneously live and learn in the digital one.
For educators, parents, researchers, and social scientists, it’s the learning part of that last sentence that should pique your interest the most. Why? Because it’s as fascinatingly brilliant as it is scary. Students are literally taking matters into their own hands, refusing to be confined to education’s bureaucracy and archaic system. Instead, students are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, creating their own curriculums, choosing their own instructors and gaining their own micro-certifications.
The future is no longer ahead of us – it’s upon us.

What is college?

To be fair, post-secondary academia will probably be the first true casualty of the nanodegree revolution. I’ll speak solely from experience here, as my learning has increased exponentially now that I’m a PLC junkie. My professional learning community (PLC) has without a shadow of a doubt far surpassed any learning I received during my years in grad school – and I had a solid grad school experience, standing proudly behind my action-research dissertation. (Read about the Competitive Teaching Model here.) With student loan debt sending college grads to financial purgatory and Bernie Sanders’ pleas for FREE college fading, young adults’ version of anarchy is now to find their path and expertise through free, well-informed channels.
These days when I’m hiring a new teacher or interviewing a prospective administrator I’m more interested in your digital profile than your college portfolio, as far-out as it sounds I’m more interested in your Twitter handle than any letters you have following your government name. Who do you actively learn from? What Voxer groups are you in? Have you ever moderated a Twitter Edu Chat? These are today’s version of what school did you attend and what was your GPA?
If all of this sounds far-fetched, ask anyone under the age of 30 when was the last time they read an instruction manual. And, don’t ask students who their favorite teacher is because that word has specific connotations, instead ask them who they learn the most from – and where does this learning occur.
The answers are shaping our future: the physical and the digital one.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Holy Matrimony

Spring is here, summer is right around the corner, and with it the busiest time of year for weddings. Interesting fact: The average length for an engagement is 14 months before the lucky couple ties the knot. Unfortunately, the divorce rate still hovers around 50 percent.
In the education world, this time of year usually means state testing, but it came early this year--the last week of April--for the schools that actually had a state test to give. Like dozens of other states around the country, Tennessee is experiencing commitment issues to our state’s standardized test.
Since the passage of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law in 2002 which forced states to adopt a statewide standardized test, Tennessee has wed and dissoluted three different times. Three uniquely different tests in 14 years may not sound too horrible, but much of this change has occurred recently. Since 2014, we have parted ways with TCAP/End of Course and had an annulment with the PARCC Assessment because they’re not from around here and they were in partnerships with other states, which we knew about the entire time. We got so upset at PARCC (It wasn’t them, it was us) that we passed a law stating that we would never allow ourselves to date them again--and that went for PARCC’s twin, Smart Balanced, too.
The Tennessee Legislature, who is largely responsible for creating the current educational pandemonium, and the Tennessee Department of Education are at an interesting and vitally important crossroads. The state’s attachment to TNReady only lasted a year, and few would argue against this separation.

There are many, many more testing fish in the sea. One possible option is to stick with the TNReady test that we spent time and money creating, and find a different vendor for administering it. Educators would know what to expect from the test, and most of this year’s test questions are going to be released over the summer. This option reminds me of arranged marriage. We would kind of know what we are getting into, and it could work out nicely--or not.
Another option is to cut our losses and use the ACT Aspire suite of assessments. On one side, this would mean another drastic change for educators across the state because they would have to learn how to prepare students to pass yet another state test that’s substantially different from the previous one. It will be more expensive to administer than TNReady and possibly more than if the state had stayed with PARCC. The ACT has a horrible track record of predicting future college success, which is rather ironic for a college preparatory exam. On the other side, we would know exactly what we are getting, and there should be no administrative issues like we ran into with TNReady. High school students have taken the ACT for a very long time, and there are other states who use the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for elementary through high school. Also, due to its relative predictability, it’s easier to prepare students to pass it, and the ACT is already part of the school report card that is published every year.
The tricky thing about this decision is that Tennessee has almost no time to make a good one. All of the state’s eggs were in the TNReady basket, and an accountability measure for students must exist for the upcoming school year.

Meanwhile, teachers across the state are nervous because of the unknown and are screaming for consistency. Like it or not (and we don’t), a significant portion of our jobs as educators is to ensure that students are prepared to pass the state test. Teachers’ reputations as professionals and even our livelihoods are at stake. The constantly changing testing landscape diminishes the value of any state test that will come in the future. A different test every year to every other year means that teachers, as well as the state, will have a hard time tracking yearly student progress, thereby preventing any reliable comparisons among schools and districts. I sincerely hope that whatever the state decides to do, it’s a marriage that will last.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Teacher Appreciation

On Tuesday of last week, I received one of the greatest professional--and personal--honors of my life. I traveled to The White House as one of America’s most distinguished educators and participated in honoring Ms. Jahana Hayes as the national teacher of the year. 
This event is celebrated annually during Teacher Appreciation Week, and I could not have been more blessed to attend. I want to express my sincere gratitude to Hope Street Group, to Coffee County Schools, and to my wife and my mother--all of whom played a role in making this day happen for me.
After passing through various levels of security, when I entered The White House I was surprised to see plates of hors d'oeuvres prepared by White House chefs. There were mini salads, freshly-made potato chips served in brown cone-shaped paper cups, beef tenderloin Po’ Boy open-faced sandwiches, chicken satay, spinach pie, and many different kinds of bite-size desserts. To help warm up the crown, the music group Fun played a few cover songs, and then the state teachers of the year took the stage. The ceremony itself only lasted 30 minutes, beginning with a short speech from Ms. Hayes. She is a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut--an inner-city 9-12 school with nearly 1400 students. Her passion-filled opening remarks set a powerful tone and her enthusiasm for the teaching profession was palpable.
Once Ms. Hayes concluded her opening statements, she proudly, with tears in her eyes, introduced President Obama. I would be an emotional wreck if I were in her shoes, too. How often does one get to introduce the President? His electricity and “it factor” as a public speaker is indisputable, and every single person in the audience felt every syllable he uttered. 
Other than when he spoke out against standardized testing as the primary means of school accountability, one of the loudest applauses he received came after he said: “The teachers here will tell you that what would be most helpful, in addition to a little financial relief, would be people understanding how important the work that you do is, and to appreciate it, and not take it for granted.” It is true that, outside of Teacher Appreciation Week, educators often do feel taken for granted.
Ms. Hayes’ and Mr. Obama’s comments that evening both emphasized the importance of teacher voice. Ms. Hayes said during her opening remarks that “Teaching is about the passion, the commitment, the joy, the stories. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities to elevate this profession...We must lead the charge and change the dialogue surrounding this profession...Everyone has something to contribute, but we can not do it alone. Find your gift. Tell your stories. It truly does take a village.” I look forward to the day when I live in a village that actively supports public education and altruistically makes tough decisions for the greater good of all involved.         
On the way back to Nashville, I had time to reflect on attending this sublime White House event. Continuing the spirit of this ceremony the best way I know how, I am committed to help my fellow educators elevate and express their voices and tell their stories. Teachers matter. No one knows how to improve the educational landscape better than us. We are the experts, and when we speak in unison, educators have a remarkably strong voice. It begins with educators telling their own stories and having honest conversations about what’s working in our profession and what’s not. In my opinion, true teacher appreciation looks like teachers having: fully-funded school systems that are allowed to focus on students instead of tests, the the ability to collectively bargain for our rights, tenure that actually means something, and salaries that reflect that teachers are indeed valued by society. Things don’t have to be this way. Teachers, parents, and community leaders have the power to make change happen.
          If you are
 interested in seeing more pictures from my trip to Washington D.C., please click on this link!
To watch the full 26 minute video of this event at The White House, please click here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Equal Opportunity for All

As an educator, I’m worried about Tennessee’s new “counseling bill” on two levels. First, things like the counseling bill and the Bible bill get people worked up and distracted from common sense solutions to actual problems--like passing Insure Tennessee, for example. Second, I’m concerned because I work with the very population that this law affects the most. I work with students like Blake Brockington.
Blake, an 18-year-old student at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, became the first openly transgendered homecoming king in a North Carolina high school. When he was named homecoming king, Blake said, “Nobody should be scared to be themselves, and everybody should have an equal opportunity to have an enjoyable high school experience.” He went out of his way to mentor younger transgendered high school students--all while his home life was in turmoil. After coming out to his parents, his was kicked out of his house and placed in state custody, where a foster family eventually took him in. He committed suicide a little over a month ago.
Unfortunately, Blake’s experience is all too common in a society that fears what it does not understand. Transgendered individuals are not confused about their identities. In fact, they are as positive about their identities as you and me. Transgendered people identify as the opposite gender because they truly believe that they were born in the wrong body. It’s not because they’re homosexual and they’re certainly not identifying as the opposite gender to go into a different bathroom and commit heinous crimes.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, an extraordinary 41 percent of trans people have reported attempting suicide--a rate nearly 10 times the national average for non-transgendered individuals. Certainly, life would be much easier to blend in with society and not be the social outcast, but this lifestyle is not a choice. What is a choice is how we react as a society. We can choose to either educate ourselves and become more accepting of people who are different from us, or we can turn our collective heads the other way, remain ignorant, and exacerbate the problem.
Sadly, Tennessee can now lump itself in with Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina as a states who are choosing to look the other way. Recent legislative attacks that were endorsed by the Republican National Committee are perpetuating the harmful narrative that transgendered people are dangerous and evil. This causes them to feel hopeless and turn to a counselor for help--except, in Tennessee, they can be turned away.
Granted, most counselors in this state will still help patients just as they did before this law was passed because, like educators, doctors, and other professionals, they do it because their passion is to help people. I also understand why Governor Haslam signed this hate-filled bill into law. He is a Republican governor who has to work with a Republican legislature for two more years. That means sometimes passing laws that are, frankly, bad for business. If the American Counseling Association moves their convention in 2017 to a different location, it will cost the state approximately $10 million in lost revenue. If musicians stop performing in Music City (and, possibly, Bonnaroo), as they have in North Carolina, the economic impact will be far greater--certainly in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The irony of this bill is not lost on me, as Republican lawmakers, who pride themselves on being pro business and small government, invented a problem to solve and then spent taxpayers’ money solving it, all the while breaking their sworn oaths that they “will not propose or assent to any bill, vote or resolution, which shall appear to me injurious to the people.”

I am standing up for students like Blake Brockington. Transgendered people deserve an equal opportunity to pursue their own happiness as human beings. They deserve to have educators, doctors, counselors, and other professionals treat them humanely regardless of their own personal beliefs, because that’s what professionals do. The citizens of Tennessee deserve to have a legislature that is interested in solving actual--not imaginary--problems.

Keep Calm and Stay Positive

Unless you are supremely talented, it takes several tries to master a new skill. As a teacher, my lessons are sometimes better in the afternoons than in the mornings because I’ve had an opportunity to tweak them throughout the day. This same concept applies to field of education in general.
Five years ago, Tennessee adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and Language Arts. This change was desperately needed because the previous state standards were among the weakest in the country and high schools were graduating students en masse without the skill sets needed to successfully enter college or the work force. Since that time, CCSS has undergone a lengthy public review process in which nearly three-fourths of the comments for revision were made by experts--teachers across the state who have been teaching the standards the past several years. The new version of these standards has just been released, and they are much improved. The language in the standards is easier to understand and the layout on the page also makes more sense as it better allows educators to see the progression of each standard through the different grade levels. It took a few years for the state to get it right, but our children are greatly benefitting from the process of implementing higher standards. I’ve seen it with my own fifth grade daughter.
In case you haven’t heard about the latest TNReady debacle, after the Tennessee Department of Education decided to pull the plug on online testing and move to paper and pencil testing, Measurement Inc. has once again failed to deliver the test materials to schools on time. This happened during the first part of TNReady back in February, and Measurement Inc. has done little to keep from repeating the same mistake again. This time, all high schools have their materials but elementary and middle schools across the state vary widely in the amount of materials they have received, and the Department of Education has vowed that they will not push back the testing window--meaning, if the materials don’t arrive in time, then no test will be given at all.
Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen, inherited the contract with Measurement Inc. due to poor decision-making by the Tennessee Legislature to scrap the PARCC Assessment (whose online assessment worked without any glitches this year) in favor of a cheaper option that isn’t controlled by testing giant Pearson. Dr. McQueen has said publicly that she has lost all faith in Measurement Inc., and House Democrats have called for the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury to look into how much the state has paid this testing company that is having a horrible time successfully administering a test. Additionally, after hearing the cries from parents and teachers that TNReady is too long (and it is), changes will be made next year to shorten it, but it’s unclear at this time what that will look like.
It’s a shame that Tennessee’s testing situation is such a mess, because TNReady is a greatly improved assessment over the previous TCAP/EOC assessments. Instead of entirely being multiple-choice, TNReady requires students to explain their answers in writing and it contains multiple-response questions that have more than one correct answer. It moves beyond the simple recall of information to analyzing the concept behind why the correct answer is what it is.

TNReady is in its first year of implementation and it is too early to start reaching for the panic button. Because of Measurement Inc.’s blunders, TNReady will not count this year as part of teachers’ evaluations (though it could still be factored in down the road) and it will not impact students’ report card averages. Tennessee House Democrats have again called for a three-year moratorium on holding districts accountable on TNReady measures. This common-sense solution will hopefully gain some traction in the next legislative session because, like what happened with the standards, it will take some time to get the kinks worked out of TNReady. This will hopefully mean that the state will find a new vendor for TNReady because Measurement Inc. have proven themselves more than incompetent. In the meantime, let’s take a collective deep breath. The education system in Tennessee is vastly improving. This process takes time, and there will be speed bumps on the road to success, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Stop the Homework Insanity!

Teachers of all levels, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, are under an immense amount of pressure to cover more material more deeply and efficiently than ever before. As my older daughter, who is in 5th grade, has progressed through elementary school, I have seen a steady increase in the amount of homework that she has received. She’s a great student and will do whatever is asked of her--even if it means coming home from school and doing homework for 1-3 hours that night, in addition to her after-school activities. As a teacher and as a parent, I often wonder if her homework is truly benefiting her at all.
In elementary school, my daughter is asked to sit still for several hours a day, sometimes without recess (which is wrongfully viewed as a privilege that can be denied for her class’s poor behavior), and then to come home and sit some more and do her homework, which almost always consists of worksheets and reading a book of her choice. We have a childhood obesity problem in this country. Sitting for countless hours per day not only exacerbates this problem, it is also developmentally inappropriate to expect young children to sit for so long every day doing work. By the time they come home from school, they’re done being students and are ready for their after-school jobs of household chores and just being kids. At the elementary level, completing worksheets is not helping my daughter become more successful at anything. In fact, according to a recent Time magazine article, homework at the elementary school level has the opposite effect--it causes students to dislike--even hate--school.
I invite you to think back to a time when you did a worksheet in elementary school and it changed your life.
Having trouble? Yeah, me too.
It’s no wonder that parents have to fight with their children to do homework--assuming that the parent is physically home to accomplish this feat. Many parents work in the afternoons and evenings, and it becomes someone else’s job to check the child’s homework, if it gets checked at all. Children frequently receive failing grades for not doing their worksheets for homework, and the societal issue of parents being physically unavailable--in order to pay the bills and put food on the table--is certainly at play.
The only thing that students realistically should be expected to do after elementary school each day is to read a book of their choice for 30 minutes. Instilling a love of reading for pleasure has been proven to boost students’ vocabulary, test scores, and their overall productivity as human beings by helping them develop critical thinking skills. Oh, and it’s authentic. Just for clarification, reading for pleasure does NOT mean reading to acquire Accelerated Reader (AR) points, which is readicide (killing the love of reading). No one outside of a school setting reads books for points.
As a high school English teacher, the issue of homework is something with which I have had to grapple. I ponder questions like: Should I assign it to my students? If so, how much? What should it look like? Is it relevant? Will it be graded? How will it help them be successful in my class and in life? Would I want to be a student in my own class and do my homework?
Though homework is developmentally appropriate for high school students, I rarely assign it. Usually, my homework consists of finishing work that the student did not get to finish in class, and (if you had not already guessed) reading a book of their choice. I also realize that many of them have jobs after school, and no matter how important the homework is that I would have assigned, the after-school job will always take precedent. In short, homework for my class is authentic, because students basically assign it to themselves.

If you are a principal at one of our elementary schools, I implore you to ban all homework outside of reading a book for pleasure. If you are a teacher at one of our elementary schools, I strongly urge you to consider the purpose of why you assign homework, and if it is more important than letting kids be kids and enjoy their childhoods. Wouldn’t it be great if our elementary-age children could stop worrying about balancing homework with after school activities like gymnastics, cheerleading, drama, basketball, football, or merely playing in the yard?

Change is in the Air

It's that time of year again! The flowers are beginning to bloom, the grass needs to be cut, and my seasonal allergies are going haywire. It can only mean one thing: springtime. It's so easy this time of year to become distracted by the beautiful spring days and lose focus on what's happening right under our pollen-covered noses.
I learned at the most recent county commission meeting that there is currently a projected $900,000 budget shortfall that will cut into our $2.7 million balance. This budget shortfall does not include additional money that will be requested by the county schools for necessary budget items, such as purchasing new school buses, which is required by law, and finally giving the teachers in this county a much-needed and way overdue cost-of-living raise. It’s been at least a decade.
First, to the county teachers who say that we haven't had a raise in over 10 years, it's important that we are more accurate in our narrative. Teachers with 24 years of experience or less still receive step increases every year for experience and advanced degrees; so, technically, we receive raises. What the county commissioners and the general public need to understand is that these minuscule salary increases don't even come close to the rising cost of inflation--especially if a teacher has to use student loans to obtain the advanced degree and increase in salary.
I'm sure there are people reading this article who disagree with county teachers getting a raise. After all, when the going gets tough, we just need to “tighten our belts” and make due with what we have, right? Here's why a cost-of-living raise for teachers is absolutely essential: The public education system is a service provided by the county government, and you get what you pay for. “Tightening your belt” on a public service leads to a lower quality service. In this case, a poorly-funded education system leads to an even larger inmate population at our new jail. Great teachers are already leaving #TeamCoffee to take positions in nearby systems who pay substantially more money. Not only will this trend continue, but it's difficult to attract good teachers to replace them when they're comparatively not paid very well.
The numbers completely back this up. According to school board member Pat Barton, Coffee County Schools ranks 57th in the state in teacher pay, which puts us slightly above average across a state that ranks 39th nationally in this category. Using median salary, the following middle Tennessee systems pay their teachers more money than us (in order): Davidson County, Murfreesboro City, Franklin Special School District, Manchester City, Lebanon Special School District, Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Hamilton County, Tullahoma City, Fayetteville City, Dickson County, Bedford County, Sumner County, Williamson County, Marshall County, Putnam County, Warren County, and Maury County. That’s 18 school systems within approximately one hour of us. In fact, there are only seven middle Tennessee systems with a lower median teacher salary than Coffee County.
Of the systems listed above, only one--Davidson County--has higher property taxes than us. The county commissions of these other school systems have found a way to pay their teachers more money without a property tax increase. It definitely helps that NONE of them are supporting three independent school systems and a brand new jail that is already in disarray and is being mismanaged, costing taxpayers more money by the day. 
It’s easy to pay lip service and say “I support public education,” but it’s an entirely different thing to actually do it. Supporting public education looks like voters being allowed to choose if Manchester City Schools should consolidate with Coffee County Schools. Supporting public education looks like county commissioners taking action to put teachers first so that we can retain and attract the state’s best teachers because our children deserve it. Supporting public education looks like teachers standing up for themselves and the students they serve every day by filling the room at every county commission meeting because they realize that it’s better to be proactive on the front end than to keep getting it handed to us on the back end. In this season of growth and rebirth, it's time for the spirit of change to grow as plentiful as the pollen in the springtime air.


By my count, this is the fifth installment of Tennessee Teacher Voice, and I think it’s past time for me to formally introduce myself.

My name is Mike Stein, and I’m a teachaholic. Now that I’ve publicly made that admission, I have some confessions to make.
Confession #1: My passion for teaching has always been there.

There are those moments in your life where you know exactly where you were when a certain event occurred, like when John Lennon and John F. Kennedy were shot, or when tickets for Star Wars: The Force Awakens went on sale. Knowing that I wanted to be an educator is one of those life-changing events. I remember it well.

I was in seventh grade math class in Cameron Middle School in Nashville, and my teacher was Mrs. Robinson. She taught math with a multiplicity of worksheets and her primary interactions with students were mostly negative ones. I had math right after lunch, and the class returned from lunch rather noisy. Mrs. Robinson fussed at us and, as punishment, she gave us additional math worksheets to complete. I was livid. But I was also an introverted dork (hence my excitement over Star Wars) and kept it to myself. I remember promising myself that one day I would become a teacher, and that I would treat students better than I was being treated.

Confession #2: One time, I wasn’t good enough.

After graduating from Tennessee Tech, I went home to Nashville, where I was born and raised, because I wanted to complete the circle and help students like myself. My first position was at an alternative high school for students who were academically challenged. It was certainly arduous as a first year educator teaching four different subjects to students who could care less; however, I absolutely loved it. I look back on those days with the fondest of memories.

Unfortunately, Metro Nashville decided to close that school, despite its success, and open an identical version at the middle school level. That started a whirlwind leading to me eventually teaching in four different schools in my first three years. Due to the transient nature of students there, I got transferred three times by the district, and I requested a transfer once for personal reasons. My last placement was at an inner-city middle school.

I landed there due to administrative transfer and it was already five weeks into school. I had never taught middle school before, and I once again found myself teaching four different classes, but this time to 8th grade students who were on their fourth principal in four years. At the end of the school year, the principal told me that she saw some brilliance in my teaching, and I did a good job holding my own, but she felt that I wasn’t ready to be granted tenure. My teaching career in Nashville was over.

Confession #3: That failure lead to success.

That principal’s decision certainly delivered a gigantic blow to my dream of being an educator. In a completely serendipitous way, I ended up getting hired at Coffee County High School. While teaching at the high school, I have had the pleasure and opportunity to serve in many teacher leadership roles and to present at a handful of different education conferences. It’s amazing how stability, being granted my first leadership position--English Department Head--and using Twitter as the best form of free professional development out there, have positively snowballed into me becoming a staunch advocate for my profession and into developing a growth mindset and thirst for learning that is nearly impossible to quench. 

Confession #4: I am one of many. 

Coffee County is full of excellent educators who share my level of passion and enthusiasm for teaching. #TeamCoffee, as we affectionately call ourselves, is full of teachaholics like myself. New education initiatives seemingly come on a yearly basis, which is part of Tennessee’s growing pains of becoming the fastest improving state in education in the country. #TeamCoffee approaches these new initiatives with a solutions-oriented viewpoint with students remaining at the heart of how we operate daily basis. Given the comparatively low teacher salaries and no cost of living increase for at least a decade, we are doing some phenomenal things our classrooms. The citizens of Coffee County should be very proud of the quality of our schools.