Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Future, with Betsy DeVos

I heard a commercial on my car radio from an over-eager pitch man on the way back from working out on a mild summer morning in early June: “Parents! Don’t delay! Enroll your student at Freedom Preparatory Academy by July 1st, and you’ll receive a $50 Visa gift card and be entered into a drawing to win a FREE Chromebook. You have many choices where you send your child to school. Experience the freedom of Freedom Preparatory Academy.” I quickly snapped off the radio. These charter school advertisements are so abundant that you’d think there was another presidential election going on. Instead, after two years of Betsy DeVos running a U.S. Department of Education that greatly incentivized states to create more charter schools, and with a Republican supermajority in our state legislature, charter schools have been popping up everywhere.
President Trump sold it well. I have to give him credit for that, at least. He fed the country false information about how we should have more choices of where to send our children to school, and that the competition created by charter schools will improve the education system for everyone. “It’s like a business,” he said. “It’s good for the consumer when businesses compete with each other, and it’s good for students when schools do the same.”
On the surface this sounds like a logical argument. Teachers tried to be the voice of reason and educate the public about why this didn’t make sense and why the expansion of charter schools is harmful to students. Well, many of us tried, anyway. Unfortunately, even on this crucial issue, teachers did not present a united voice. Too many voted against our students’ interests and voted for political candidates with an “R” next to their names. It was clear what would happen to the country’s public education system under Republican control. They’ve been busting teachers’ unions and pushing “school choice” initiatives for decades.
Those of us who tried to raise awareness about the dangers of “school choice” expansion pointed out that these initiatives steal money from an already underfunded public school system. We attempted to explain that schools can’t be run like businesses because, quite simply, they’re NOT businesses; they’re a bureaucracy. A business has the ability to choose from the finest of materials to make their products. Public schools take everyone. Competition among businesses drives down prices and benefits the consumer. Competition among schools lessens the quality of education because schools fight for the same raw materials--students and teachers. The good teachers and the good students become spread out across several schools. With a lower enrollment at each school, the schools themselves are more costly to operate. It used to be that charter schools were regulated, but now, under the new Trump administration, businesses are allowed to run publicly-funded schools with no expectation that they actually perform on the same level as other schools across the state.
This is exactly what happened in Michigan before Betsy DeVos took responsibility of the nation’s public school system. The warning signs for the downfall of the American education system were there. The New York Times ran several stories about this, like “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Amiss” and “The Risk with Betsy DeVos,” but people blew them off as being from a biased liberal media.

So here I am, living in the new normal in 2018: where schools are so desperate for students that they’re offering gift cards to get parents to enroll their children there, where states accepted federal money to pass anti-union legislation and made teachers’ unions a relic of the past, and where “school choice” has led to an uneven playing field that clearly benefits the wealthy. If only teachers across the country had inspired their local communities to contact their U.S. senators and implored them to vote against Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education. A website was even created for this: Oh well. It’s time for me to put on my Freedom Prep Academy polo, and go to work.

It's the Small Things

Every Monday at the high school during our homeroom period, we have a time called “Monday Matters.” During this time, teachers discuss topics that students may need to know, such as: good sportsmanship, maintaining a positive school culture, the importance of having good attendance, and why voting matters. This past Monday, the topic was gratitude. It was a time for the high school community to reflect on the true meaning of Thanksgiving and to consider life’s blessings.

Life moves way too fast and, as much as a technology geek as I am, I have to admit that it occasionally exacerbates this problem. Society stares mindlessly at its smart devices while life, and all it has to offer, passes them by. One of this country’s greatest philosophers, Henry David Thoreau, once paradoxically noted that “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” As I’ve aged and matured, I have started seeing things with greater appreciation.

For example, I Iook at the blessings that surround my dog, Trinity. As I wrote about in a recent post, she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right hind leg and she has now undergone surgery to remove that leg to keep the cancer from spreading. The support that I have received from family and friends helped make this operation a reality, and she is on the road to recovery. I watch her learn to how get around on three legs and she’s overcoming that obstacle better than I could have imagined, though there’s still a learning curve ahead of her.

Thanksgiving break could not have come at a better time for me. I feel like I have a million things to do during the nine days that I, thankfully, get off from school. Spending time with family is, of course, at the top of that list, along with eating some delicious food offerings that I generally only get to eat during this time of year. I also plan on providing feedback on student papers (still trying to get myself caught up from starting the nine weeks behind the eight ball), finishing a couple of professional development books that I’ve been reading, having a yard sale, and going to some Vandy football and basketball games. I’ve been going to Vanderbilt men’s basketball games for twenty-eight years, and I am excited about the upcoming college basketball season, as well as their upcoming home football game against Tennessee.

This seems like plenty to do during my break, but I also intend to set aside a few minutes each day to appreciate life and to continue working on being more gracious. Noticing the small things helps keep me grounded and feel like my life is fulfilled. In general, we need more of that feeling of fulfillment across the country. We just experienced a divisive election process where we, once again, have forgotten that “the other side” consists of real people with real emotions. Blanket statements that describe large groups people are almost always false and hurtful. I can’t help but think that if we became more focused on our own contentment, then people would not feel the need to attack and belittle others.

Thanksgiving provides an excellent opportunity for us to come together and have fellowship as families and, more broadly, as a community. It gives us time to heal from a barrage of hate-filled remarks that has destroyed friendships. It allows us the chance to, quite simply, improve ourselves. I hope that we take advantage of these opportunities, and more, that lie in front of us, and stop, if only for a brief moment, to absorb the beauty of the morning sunrise

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ending the Echo Chamber

Image result for echo chamber

Julie Jee, a high school English teacher from New York whom I follow on Twitter (@mrsjjee), posted, “This election is making me realize that we're all just screaming inside echo chambers of our own making.” Sadly, friendships both on and off line have been lost during this last election cycle. Regardless of the outcome, roughly half of the population was going to be upset.
It’s human nature to surround ourselves with others who are like us. Therefore, it stands to reason that the people we interact with on social media will likewise share similar views. The media was steadfastly against Trump becoming our next president. Even conservative newspapers supported Clinton over him. Was this an indictment on Trump’s ability and mindset to lead the country? Probably. Only time can answer that question. But it’s also fair to say that the media, like many of us, got caught up in its own echo chamber full of inaccurate polling and a lack of focus on the very thing that made Trump’s rise to power so strong--many Americans feel ignored by the political system.
If this country is going to heal, then we have to stop echoing thoughts that agree with our preconceived notions and biases. People who are against Trump are protesting and rioting in the streets; meanwhile, Trump supporters--even school-age supporters--are doing egregious things to their classmates, to women, and to minorities. It's time for people to treat each other with respect and dignity again. We will not all agree with each other's political and religious views, but at the end of the day, we are all human beings; we are all Americans. Discussion on these topics with the intent of understanding the other side is what helps us grow and become more accepting of each other. Life is not a binary code composed entirely of 0s and 1s. Parents need to stop teaching their children to hate. Life is too short for that. Love will always conquer hate, and it's time for the healing to begin. This means turning off openly biased Fox News and MSNBC. It means not sharing hateful things on social media; we know that war leads to more war, and hate only leads to more hate--the current divisiveness of our society is proof of that. It means standing up for minorities when people are ugly to them. They need our help now, more than ever.
For that reason, if you see me out in public, I will have a safety pin attached to my shirt. I will wear it as a symbol of solidarity with victims of racism, homophobia and religious discrimination. I will remain an ally to marginalized groups. I want others to join me.

Trump’s presidency is expected to be unapologetically anti-marriage equality, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority. (There’s a reason why the KKK openly supports him.) Reverting progressive policies opens the door to an increase in racism and xenophobia. It’s crucial during our unification that we be highly self-conscious about spewing hate toward each other. As a father of two young girls, as a teacher to over 100 students each year, and as a lifelong Democrat, I intend to set an example for the future generation to follow. The Law of the Prophets teaches us to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” To me, the safety pin is a perfect representation of this law. If I were an American-born son of immigrant parents facing classmates who yell “build a wall” and “go home” at me, then I would hope for someone to be in my corner.

Image from

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Life Happens

The great John Lennon once said that “Life happens while you’re busy making plans.” As a teacher, my life is almost entirely composed of making plans. I have to turn in weekly lesson plans to my school, and outside of school, I have to plan out my afternoons and evenings--often times weeks in advance. Then, when I least expect it, life interferes with my plans, and monitoring and adjusting becomes a survival tactic.

It’s been a rough month for me. We all, at times, go through spells where one bad thing after another happens to us. For me, this includes the unexpected passing of my father-in-law and a recent diagnosis that my dog has a bone tumor in her leg that will require amputation. Both of these events have dealt an enormous emotional and financial blow to my family. I have never done anything like this before, but I have set up a GoFundMe account to cover the expenses of my dog’s pending amputation. If you care to donate, the website is

In times like this, being a teacher is both a blessing and a curse. While I’m in my classroom, my job requires that I be present, in every form of the word. I owe it to my students and they deserve nothing less. Therefore, I mentally tune out everything that isn’t important to the lesson. School provides me with a sanctuary where I can compartmentalize. Likewise, my family deserves the same when I am at home--especially now, with these two unfortunate events. The last thing that I want to do at home is provide feedback on student papers and take time away from them. I have been doing what I can while at school, but it’s not enough; the papers have been snowballing in a horrific way.

The home/work balance is difficult for most teachers, and it’s something with which I have always struggled. I realize that part of my job requires me to evaluate my students’ papers. This is also important to my students so that they know how to improve their performance on future assignments and, ultimately, grade themselves at the end of the nine weeks in my gradeless classroom environment. At the same time, when I’m not physically in the school building, my head and my heart have recently been veering away from my responsibilities at work.

I remember some advice that my principal, Dr. Joey Vaughn, gave to the entire school system during our opening day convocation at the beginning of this school year. His advice was, when times get tough, just remember: “Left foot, right foot, breathe.” Teachers are among the most stressed individuals that you will ever meet--especially in this age of accountability and the overemphasis on standardized testing. Add to that mix stressful situations that happen outside of our job, and it’s almost too much to handle.

Cliches are cliche for a reason--they’re oftentimes true. To those who are also experiencing high levels of stress in your life right now, regardless of whether you’re in the education field, just remember to breathe. You are strong, and you will make it through this, and ultimately, I will, too.

In the meantime, I have paperwork, a family, and an ailing dog that all need my attention. With progress reports coming out this week, my focus will be on my students’ papers. I have never really looked at progress reports as being a particularly accurate representation of my students’ progress, but many parents do. I hope I can finish everything in time, and I will give it my best effort because I really hate missing deadlines. If not, I hope that my students and their parents will understand.