Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Teachers' Bill of Rights

Please excuse me for a brief moment while I jump up and down in moderated excitement. There is a bill pending in the state legislature so lathered with common sense that it became easily recognizable from many of the other bills that will be discussed this session (i.e. voucher bill, bathroom bill, marriage bill, run over protesters with your car bill, etc.).

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville and Representative Jay D. Reedy of Erin have co-introduced a bill that is appropriately nicknamed “The Teachers’ Bill of Rights.” If SB0014/HB1074 passes, it will send a clear message to all educators that the legislature has our collective backs. The much-needed byproduct of this bill is that it should help increase enrollment in teacher prep programs at our state universities. Tennessee is at the beginnings of what will become a severe teacher shortage unless drastic measures are taken immediately. Governor Haslam’s proposal to increase education funding will certainly help as will this Teachers’ Bill of Rights.

Here is the full text of the bill: “This bill creates a list of rights and protections for educators. Under this bill, every ‘educator,’ meaning any teacher, principal, supervisor or other individual required by law to hold a valid license of qualification for employment in the public schools of this state, has the right to: (1) Act upon the educator's own conscience, so long as the educator does not attempt to proselytize students, disrupt the educational process, or act as a potential threat to student safety; (2) Report any errant, offensive, or abusive content or behavior of students to school officials or appropriate agencies; (3) Provide a safe classroom and school; (4) Defend themselves and their students from physical violence or harm; (5) Share information regarding a student's education experience, health, or safety with the student's parent or legal guardian, unless prohibited by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); and (6) Review all materials brought into the educator's classroom or utilized with their students. This bill specifies that an educator must not be expected to waive this particular right.

This bill further provides that an educator is not: (1) Required to spend the educator's personal money to appropriately equip a classroom; (2) Evaluated by professionals, under the teacher evaluation advisory committee, without the same subject matter expertise as the educator; (3) Evaluated based on the performance of students whom the educator has never taught; or (4) Relocated to a different school based solely on test scores from state mandated assessments.”

In my view, the most impactful elements of the Teachers’ Bill of Rights are the last four items. Teachers have been saying for decades that we shouldn’t be expected to purchase our own school supplies. No other profession does that. Additionally, it makes much-needed changes to the evaluation system. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the notion that we should be evaluated by other educators with the same expertise. While good teaching is good teaching, there are content-specific strategies that only experts in that subject would truly be able to appreciate fully. Both the Coffee County Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association support this bill.

As this bill moves forward and hopefully becomes law, I briefly want to address a few concerns I have with it as it is currently written. The language in the bill is vague in parts, and needs clarity. For example, what, exactly, does it mean to provide “a safe classroom and school”? This can be misconstrued in many unintended ways. Will this open the door for teachers to carry weapons into their classrooms? If so, then it will create a dangerous and deadly precedent. Also, who will pick up the slack when teachers need classroom supplies and will no longer be expected to buy the supplies themselves? If this responsibility falls on local governments, it could result in unintended tax increases. The state has a surplus of money, and it should be forthcoming in funding classroom supplies. Further, I wonder what enforcement mechanisms will be in place when--not if--these laws are broken. These issues need to be worked out before this bill becomes law. In the meantime, I commend Sen. Green and Rep. Reedy for standing up for teachers and introducing common sense legislation that will actually improve the teaching profession. Please take the time to call them or tweet them your support for this bill!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

To Spouses: Thank You!

I’ve been a public school teacher since 2003, but I’ve known that I was going to be a teacher since 1992, when I was in the seventh grade. When I was in middle school, I had no idea what or where I would end up teaching, and I certainly had not heard of Manchester--the beautiful town that I am proud to call home.

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I have ended up teaching high school English about an hour from where I grew up, and it’s fair to say that the notion of teaching public school crept into my soul 25 years ago, while sitting in a 7th grade math classroom in the heart of the projects near downtown Nashville, and consumed it.

I’ll be the first to admit that the all-consuming nature of following my passion of educating young people frequently creeps into the safe space where family life should exist. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I would like to thank my wife and my kids for being so incredibly understanding. My wife didn’t come from a family of teachers and, when she married me, I don’t think she knew at the time what she was getting herself into. For that matter, neither did I. Never would I have predicted all of the ups and downs and persistent changes that have happened in public education over the past decade or so. Never would I have predicted being able to sit across the table from the state’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen, and discuss education policy with her--thanks to the Hope Street Group Tennessee teacher fellowship. Never would I have imagined being invited to a White House ceremony honoring some of America’s most distinguished teachers.

For the non-teachers out there--and especially to the teachers’ spouses--I want to explain something that is most difficult, even for an English teacher that typically employs vernacular with relative dexterity.

Teaching is difficult because it’s a never-ending job. I can literally never turn it off. I’m always looking for new and better ways of doing things (hence, the gradeless classroom that I operate). When I sit on the couch and watch a TV show, or when I’m listening to music in the car, in the back of my mind I’m always wondering how any of it can be effectively utilized in my classroom. Everything that I see and experience is fair game.

Teaching is difficult because Darwin’s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest” has never been truer than in public education today. I must adapt to and master changes to my standards, how students are tested, and how I am evaluated. This would be much easier if I had the same group of students year after year, but that’s mostly an impossibility. Accomplishing this feat with a brand new group of people that I literally just met and adapting to their interests and their needs requires an utmost attention to detail. Teachers must efficiently adapt to their environments, or quickly find themselves both ineffective and irrelevant. I must also help my colleagues fight off predators who wish to steal public education’s most valuable resource--money. This fight is frustratingly unending but entirely worth it because I love my students, and they need someone in their corner fighting for them.

When I come home exhausted in the afternoons, please understand that the source of the exhaustion (at least for me) is occasionally physical, but mostly mental. I literally make hundreds of crucial and not-so-crucial decisions every single day. Then, once I'm home, there’s the mental journey to prepare for the next day and do it all over again. Please forgive me when I sit in line at the fast food restaurant and take five minutes to decide what I want to eat. Sometimes, I'm just over making any more decisions.

Spouses, I want you to know that teachers need and deeply appreciate your support. We need you there to listen when we've had a frustrating day; we need your help around the house while we're evaluating papers and busy saving the world; sometimes, we need you help setting up our classrooms at the beginning of the year. No one else can support us like you can and, even though we don't always say it, from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you. I'm extremely lucky to have a wife who understands all this, and I especially want to thank you for being my rock.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Vouching Delusion

Last week, Governor Haslam gave his annual State of the State Address and, for a fleeting moment, it appeared that he was truly supporting public education. I certainly give him credit for saying all the right things and checking every box. Gov. Haslam supported fully-funding the Basic Education Program (BEP) Formula and giving public school teachers another raise--two things that all teachers staunchly support. He also unveiled a new initiative--the Reconnect Act--that will afford adults the same opportunity as high school students to attend a community college for free and earn a degree. All of these proposals, if successfully implemented, will be profoundly wonderful things for public education and business in this state.

Much like the Powerful Wizard of Oz, who turned out to not have any special powers at all, I skeptically wondered what was lurking behind that curtain. I didn’t have to wait long; the very next day, Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) announced his plan to re-introduce nearly identical voucher legislation to what he sponsored last year, which Governor Haslam said he would sign if it passed through the Legislature. It’s dizzying trying to understand how a governor can simultaneously support Tennessee becoming “the fastest improving state in teacher pay” in the country and school voucher legislation that unscrupulously robs money from public schools and puts that money into the hands of businesses in the form of charter and private schools.

Last year’s voucher bill had unusually strong momentum, but it was stopped in its tracks by classroom teachers across the state, like myself. I called and e-mailed all of the members of the state house and senate education committees. A very small number--maybe three or four--actually called me back and wanted to learn more about why I oppose vouchers. While I’m proud to have played a role in defeating last year’s voucher bill, I resent having to play this political game every single year. A coalition lead by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA), and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) made it clear that Tennessee’s educators are unified in their view that vouchers will destroy our surging education system.

It’s noteworthy that Rep. Dunn doesn’t refer to them as vouchers in House Bill 336; he calls them “opportunity scholarships.” In so doing, he is putting a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Don’t be fooled. According to an EdNext 2016 survey, the 37% of the general public supports vouchers, whereas almost 50% support opportunity scholarships. Both of these percentages have dropped 15% in the last ten years. Public support for this program continues to wane because people have had the opportunity to see for themselves the harmful effects of voucher legislation that has passed in many states around the country.

This begs the question: Why are Rep. Dunn and Gov. Haslam advocating a voucher bill that the general public doesn’t support and that educators obviously oppose? I argue it’s the same reason why so many Republican U.S. Senators (including Tennessee’s two senators) stubbornly support Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, despite a bipartisan union of concerned citizens flooding their phone lines and writing hundreds of thousands of letters in opposition. That reason is money. The DeVos family has donated $8.3 million to Republican U.S. Senators’ campaigns over the last two years. Likewise, powerful pro-voucher and pro-charter lobbying groups (like Devos’ group American Federation for Children) are extremely active on the state level and work hard to get legislation introduced and passed.

If Dunn and Haslam truly want to help Tennessee’s children, they would work with TDOE to destroy the silos of information, self-contained within each district, of what works for students and what doesn’t. If they wanted to help children succeed, they would eliminate the ridiculous A-F grading system that measures how well schools prepare their students for TNReady. This grading system has failed in Texas and needs to be rescinded in Tennessee before it is implemented. There’s already plenty of information out there on how well schools perform. Simplifying that into a single “grade” in nonsensical. If they wanted to help children succeed, then stick to Gov. Haslam’s original proposal of giving teachers raises and fully-funding the BEP, and then get out of the way and let us concentrate on what we do best--educating future generations.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow Amanda Arnold penned this letter to President Donald Trump. The letter was originally published on and, later, on and on this blog. Mrs. Arnold is an assistant principal at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, TN.
Dear Mr.  President:
As you begin this journey, please take to heart that education is critical to the success and future of this great nation. “Making America Great Again” is a goal rooted in the future, and that future lies within the students of this nation. Education is one of the most versatile and powerful tools that government possesses. History has relentlessly proven that nations can be built and destroyed by how a government educates its people. Appropriate and effective education empowers the people, but education without clearly defined purposes, ethics, and goals can destroy the same people. Please act upon a vision of education that recognizes the following:
  1. Education can break the cycle of poverty.
  2. Impoverished communities need equal access to quality education, resources, and opportunities.  
  3. Students deserve safe, clean, and well maintained schools. Many of our impoverished communities have schools in a state of crisis.  
  4. Educational policy should be a problem-solving model based on demonstrated needs and research based results.  
  5. Every student is capable of growth, but all students do not academically grow at the same pace.
  6. All students do not reach proficiency at the same rate. Some students need more than four years to achieve high school proficiency. Some students need more challenges within that four years. Schools should not be punished for meeting a student’s needs.
  7. College and career readiness has two parts. Students need career and technical training. Educational policy has abandoned training and educating students for blue collar jobs. Our country needs blue and white collar jobs.
  8. College is not appropriate for every student, but every student who has a desire and the academic ability to pursue that route should have equitable preparedness and the opportunity to do so.
  9. Equitable does not mean equal education. Different students have different needs.  Different school districts have different needs. Want to make them great? Meet their demonstrated needs.
  10. Parents want success for students. No parent wants to see his or her student struggle or fail. Strengthen the parents to empower the students.  
  11. Hold educators accountable, but give educators the proper support, resources, guidelines, and tools to meet the needs of the students.  

Education must prepare a  diverse group of talented, well-educated students. The nation needs electricians, business professionals, mechanics, blue and white collar workers. Diversity in talent and developing the skills to meet the needs of those talents can make students successful contributors to society. Successful contributors make a successful society.

Making any country great begins with expectations: the expectation that every student can be successful, the expectation that poverty does not have to be a cycle, the expectation that the right tools in the right hands can change lives. Greatness does not manifest itself the same in every person; it is unique—just like our students. If you want to make America great, make educational opportunity great.