Saturday, July 30, 2016

You Matter

Coffee County Schools’ Opening Day is today. As the Coffee County Schools Education Association (CCEA) Vice President, I was asked to give a short speech to the entire school system. Normally, the CCEA president has the pleasure of giving this speech, but she is out on maternity leave and I am honored to take her place.
When I thought about what I could say that will be both inspirational and impactful, I reflected on two individuals who have inspired me. One is Angela Maiers, who gave a powerful TEDx speech five years ago, which lead to the launch of her website, The other is Jahana Hayes, the most recent recipient of the National Teacher of the Year award. Below is the transcript of my speech, which you can also find on my website,
When I was first hired to teach here at the high school a decade ago, I never would have imagined that I would have the opportunity to stand in this spot and address the greatest, and most dedicated, group of professionals in the state. As you prepare your lessons for the first few days of school and begin focusing on how to best educate our future society, there is something that I want you know. It is something so simple, yet so complex that we don’t get to hear these words often enough.
You matter.
During the course of your teaching career, you will work with hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Unless you are supremely talented, it’s not likely that you will remember all of their names; but they will remember yours. I would like to invite you to reflect, for a moment, on your favorite teachers when you were a student. Now, think about the qualities that made these teachers so great, and why they stand out to you. For me, these teachers took an interest in me personally, and they challenged both my intellect and my curiosity. Whether you realize it or not, you express your voice as a teacher with every lesson that you teach. Every day, you matter to the students sitting in front of you--many of whom may have overcome untold obstacles just to make it to your classroom each day.
You also matter a great deal to our profession. Three months ago, I had the pleasure of attending the National Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House. The recipient of this award, Ms. Jahana Hayes, mentioned in her acceptance speech that “As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities to elevate this profession. Many states are facing challenges attracting and retaining teachers. 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’m sure that the teachers here will agree that what would be most helpful, in addition to a true cost-of-living wage increase, which we haven’t had in over a decade, it would be for people to understand how important the work is that we do, and to appreciate it, and not take it for granted. That’s why it’s so crucial for us to tell our stories, because the power of the people is stronger than the people in power. When we speak up--especially in large numbers--people listen. In Tennessee, we are underfunding the BEP--even to the point that the state is facing lawsuits from large and small school systems--and it is the job of our elected officials to step up. However, we have to make sure that we initiate the conversation. If we’re not talking, how can we expect them to listen?
On a local level, it’s imperative that we attend every school board meeting on the second Monday of each month and every county commission meeting the following night on the second Tuesday of each month. Get involved, and have your presence felt! Encourage your school board and county commissioners to do the same. They should attend each other’s meetings. Knowledge is power, and with that power, each of you can profoundly impact our profession for generations to come. We must be our own advocates because no one will do it for us. For the sake of our students, we all need to row this boat in the same direction. We are all members of Team Coffee.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

School Year Jitters

The new school year is just around the corner. I have already started planning the first few lessons for what will be my thirteenth opening to the school year. The butterflies and the excitement are still there and, at times, I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. My upcoming students, whom I haven’t met but already love, will (hopefully) only experience my class once. As a high school English teacher, I work with over a hundred students a day, and by the end of the school year I want them to be more proficient at reading, writing, technology, communication, and discerning reliable information over the unfounded so that they can be productive citizens when they graduate. They will cross the finish line at different paces and, in fact, that finish line might look different for each of them because they will all begin in different spots. Over a hundred different starting points and equally as many finishing lines. Most importantly, at the end of the school year I want them to know that they grew as learners and as human beings.
In essence, my goal is to help my students set and accomplish their own goals. Very, very few of them will have the goal of becoming a high school English teacher--a noble profession if I say so myself. The trick, then, comes in taking a poem, short story, or play that may have been written decades or even centuries ago, and making it relevant to their lives. That way, they are one step closer to getting where they want to be.
With the endless, 24-hour news media cycle often times perpetuating hate, I do have one other motive that I hope to accomplish with my students this year--teaching them empathy. The group of students getting ready to walk into my classroom were born in the year 2000 or later. They are digital natives who have been raised in an era of smartphones and advanced video game systems. They are also the victims of a school accountability movement ushered in by No Child Left Behind (which was very recently replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act), meaning they have been bombarded by an incessant stream of worksheets and multiple-choice questions while often times being denied recess. All of these variables, and more, have contributed to students who often times lack the ability to relate to one another and to society.
There are many things that I can’t control as a teacher. I can’t control the students’ home lives, which varies widely in this county between the haves and have-nots. I can’t control my school’s schedule, which state test my students will take, or their physical and emotional well-beings on a day to day basis. We all have rough days, including myself; however, when the teacher has an off day, then a day of valuable instruction may be lost. One thing I can certainly control is myself. I hope to approach every class period, every day, with enthusiasm both for the content that they are about to learn and for the learners themselves. After all, students need me in their corner, cheering them on.
For me, teaching is not just a job, or even a career. It’s an opportunity to touch people’s lives and to be a strong building block in the foundation of our society. John Dewey once said that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Teaching is my passion, and my classroom is my sanctuary. It’s where thought-provoking, life-changing lessons happen.
The upcoming school year understandably brings with it a tidal wave of anxiety. Even the best laid plans of mice and men go astray, which for me adds to the adrenaline and excitement of going to work each day. I can’t wait to see how this school year unfolds. Being the English teacher geek that I am, in uncertain times like this, I like to think of Tennyson’s heralded poem, “Ulysses,” in which he wrote “I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.” My life experiences, as well as that of my students, have prepared us for this moment--this journey of learning together and pushing the boundaries of each other’s knowledge. Let’s. Get. Started.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Over the past few years, I have heard the statement from many of my teacher colleagues that they are not encouraging their children or their students to enter the teaching profession. Their sentiment is alarming to me on two different levels--it’s a profession that I love and to which I have dedicated my livelihood, and teachers are the best ambassadors for our own profession. WIth that said, I can completely understand where they’re coming from.
There is an unrelenting focus on standardized tests, and with that comes a slew of related problems. Teacher effectiveness, including their ability to keep their jobs and in some school systems receive bonuses for “exemplary performance,” is tied to these tests. Educators are now also expected to be tacticians in the classroom as the profession is becoming increasingly more specialized. It’s a monumental challenge to keep students engaged in their learning, finding authentic, real-world tasks for them to complete, and designing a curriculum that is challenging to every student, every day in a classroom that is full of students with mixed ability levels. Understandably, enrollment in teacher education programs at universities has declined sharply and nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Add to that teaching in Coffee County Schools, where experienced teachers have set a precedent of transferring to nearby higher-paying school districts.
It’s crucial, now more than ever, for the citizens and elected representatives of Manchester and Coffee County to put our egos and prior history behind us and focus on the future. With the teaching profession becoming more challenging every year, we must do everything within our power to attract qualified and energetic educators to this area. This begins by offering a competitive salary--which is unfortunately difficult to accomplish because, by law, any salary increase given to Coffee County teachers must also be given to Manchester City and Tullahoma City teachers. If we look at this situation with an altruistic mindset, it’s easy to see why Manchester City Schools needs to either consolidate or unify with Coffee County Schools; however, this will not occur without support from the voters. Pressure needs to be placed on the Manchester Mayor and Board of Aldermen and on the Coffee County Commission to come together and work on a viable solution that is amiable for all involved parties.
Another crucial component of improving the teaching profession in this county is more easily solved. There needs to be improved communication and trust between the Coffee County School Board and the County Commission. When I talk to members of the commission, I hear from them that the school board doesn’t put teachers as a top priority in their yearly budgets. They see items like refinishing the track at Raider Academy and purchasing more Chromebooks as superfluous expenses because the communication isn’t there for them to understand why these expenditures are needed. Likewise, when I talk to members of the school board, they point their fingers at the commission and say that they’d love to give teachers raises but they don’t have the final say in the matter. Who gets stuck in the middle of this mistrust are the students of Coffee County because they are dependent upon these two governing bodies getting along with each other.
Is it too much to ask for the members of the education subcommittee of the commission to attend all of the school board meetings? Likewise, shouldn’t the members of the county school board reciprocate and attend all of the county commission meetings? Being present at each other’s meetings would make a grand gesture in improving the dialogue between the two.
Whether the candidate is running for mayor or alderman of Manchester, the Coffee County School Board, or the Coffee County Commission, our children are our hope for the future, and they are depending on a symbiotic relationship among these three governmental bodies. In this election season, I encourage the voters in this county to seek out and support candidates who will put students first. Anything less is a disservice to them.