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Executive Chef Paul Bonanno and several culinary students serving at this year’s Excellence in Education award ceremony for Hillsborough County Public Schools

“I tell them food is the thing that connects us all. It’s a universal language. It is what cultures are centered upon…and I make that point the first day with the kids. This is something we all share.” – Chef Paul (more pics can be found below)

When I started the Teacher Voice project over two years ago, Paul Bonanno was the first coworker at Strawberry Crest High School that I asked to be on the podcast. At the time it was difficult for him to commit for numerous reasons, chief of which we never even discussed during the episode–he was the boys’ head coach of our state championship winning swim team. Eventually the moment arrived, though, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. From our mutual love of cooking to how Paul truly “prepares students for life” by focusing on the effort and work-related skills they will need for the future, this podcast was truly worth the wait.

Please listen and share with others. With the focus finally shifting back to balance out career prep pathways with those seeking college prep programs, this conversation highlights how much value these kinds of kids and programs bring to our communities upon graduation. For instance, one of my former freshman Geometry students, Chase, who is referenced during our conversation, went on to become one of Chef Paul’s right hand students as a senior; now he is working as a pastry chef at Wright’s Gourmet, one of the most famous establishments in Tampa.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Behind the scenes in the commercial kitchen of The Upper Crest Cafe

Money Grab
Florida teachers trying to get any raise at all in the last decade since the Great Recession

The idea is simple and straightforward: take back the terrible teacher tax.

Make no mistake, every teacher in Florida is being taxed in multiple ways for choosing this profession. But the most pernicious of all these taxes is how the Florida Legislature, under the direction/request of then Governor Rick Scott in 2011, forced all state workers to contribute 3% of their gross earnings to the Florida Retirement System (FRS).

Much like the picture above, this was nothing more than a money grab from some of the lowest paid employees all across the Sunshine State.

At the time in 2011, the Florida Legislature was facing a $3.6 billion dollar revenue shortfall, and taxing the state workforce instantly generated $2 billion dollars. How much of that money actually made it into the FRS accounts? My bet would be on zero dollars. My guess is that this money continues to disappear into the black hole that is the general fund, which makes all the penny pinching when it comes to public education that much more insulting.

Say it with me, dear legislator, the lack of funding hurts all choices.

We cannot deny that, as an institution, the Florida Legislature has failed to invest in our children and their future. We now rank 45th in overall spending, 48th in teacher pay, and 50th–dead last–when measured as inflation-adjusted spending since the end of the Great Recession. All despite the facts that we have: 1) a ONE TRILLION dollar economy; 2) the 4th largest economy in the United States; 3) and the 17th biggest economy on the planet…

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Way to be, Florida…

All of this underscores the need to repeal the teacher tax that has been foisted onto us. When I was hired into a permanent position in 2004, it was understood that my paltry pension was a “perk” that I would receive for serving the needs and interests of the next generation of Florida’s citizenry. While the 2011 legislation could have effectively grandfathered in the current teacher workforce, the legislators at the time thought it would better to tax us all.

And what kind of return will I get on my investment? Not a particularly good one. Since 2013–the first time our W2s reflected the FRS tax–through 2018, I have been robbed of $10,329.09, and my wife lost $9,941.60. For those keeping score at home, that adds up to over $20,000, but likely would be more than $23,000 because the state collected the funds in 2012 while the FEA lawsuit wound its way through the courts before ultimately losing. If this continues until we retire at the end of our 30 years, we will easily pay $100,000 or more into FRS.

As an individual who prioritizes saving and investing, I guarantee that had the Florida Legislature not been picking teacher pockets, my return on those dollars would be much higher than any return I could have received from FRS (the same $20K would be worth $34K now had it been put into the market). In an email I sent to nearly each member of the Hillsborough legislative delegation yesterday, I wrote the following:

Florida’s teachers deserve better than this, plain and simple. Our pay is pathetic when measured against our college peers, and the FRS multiplier of 1.6 is ghastly and should be at least 2.0, which even Representative Byron Donalds intimated when he said “the real first responders are the school staff that love our children.” When committee work begins, I urge each of you to consider repealing this terrible tax on teachers. We work too hard and are paid too little. Something must be done, and hopefully there will be forthcoming legislation to eradicate this economic injustice being perpetuated against the very people who seek to serve others and spend their days ensuring that their students get a “world-class education” despite the lack of resources and personnel to actually deliver what our children and their future deserve.

So now it’s your turn, dear reader. Let’s flood the inboxes of our legislators with this idea. Giving every single educator a 3% raise would help, even if it doesn’t go far enough. What? Don’t know how to email your local legislators? It’s easy! For your House of Representatives member, it is “firstname.lastname@myfloridahouse.gov; for your Senate member, it’s “lastname.firstname@flsenate.gov.” But if we really want to get some traction, I would suggest we all specifically email the Education Committee members and their staffs in each branch. Click on the link below for each respective branch, and continue to email your legislators as often as you can. They cannot ignore us forever!

House of Representatives Education Committee Members

Florida Senate Education Committee Members

Please read and share this important post with fellow educators. Pull out your W2s, total up how much has been robbed from your family, and be sure to include the numbers in your emails to our legislators. Until they talk to actual teachers, they will never know!

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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It may not be a big number, but it’s more than most of us have gotten at any point in since the Great Recession began. Don’t we deserve better than this?

 

 

SpongeBob Split Pants

9 year classroom veteran, doctoral candidate, previous poster and past podcast guest, Seth Federman returns with a brief reflection on how teachers must be masters of the moment, often making the best of sometimes bad situations. But for Seth, this underscores the need for our own self-care in light of the negative health outcomes often associated with our profession.

The first day of school is riddled with nerves and anticipatory woes with how the students will react, how the first day jitters will transfer, etc.

Well I’m here to tell you: if you split your pants on the inseam, had technology stop working, and a semblance of control over what others could perceive as organizational chaos…I think we did OK.

Throughout the summer we have been addressing PTSD concerns, how stress is becoming the real reason our profession is dwindling, and other very important health matters. But the first day of school taught me this: the whole plan could come crashing down, but it’s always all about the students at the end of the day.

My horror at 6:30am realizing that the rip was bad (I mean really bad) was only topped by the laptop not working. If it were my fourth or fifth year, it would have been a circus act of crazy. But being in my ninth year now (which is weird to say), I had to approach it differently. As educators, we are uniquely conditioned to be empathetic. We take the emotional transference of others because that’s how we build relationships with all involved. However, what they don’t do in educator programs or professional development sessions is teach us how to deal with all of the extras.

In doing my research, primary and secondary infections and diseases are becoming prominent within educators aged 25-45. Ailments such as shingles, heart conditions, kidney disease are all things this bracket is currently dealing with. So what do we do? As a profession and working with (not against) others, we need to rethink professional development and support services for educators. Individuals working with highly emotional situations need assistance in processing and dealing with these events. Just like with students, we can’t expect that every teacher just knows how to deal with it, nor is it a question of character and/or stamina if they don’t.

Mindfulness, emotional management, and self awareness are things we agree students need to learn. But these three concepts are needed for teachers as well. Not every teacher can split his or her pants, deal with first day confusion, and no technology. Furthermore, the expectation that all teachers will just learn how to deal with these challenges is no longer acceptable. If we want to keep our profession healthy, then we need to make sure its educators are healthy.

Even though my pants did split and technology was having a tantrum, I still achieved my primary objective: build relationships.

Like what you read? Check out Seth’s earlier posts below!

Band-Aids for Broken Bones

PTSD and Teachers

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While we might not wear capes, Florida teachers are most certainly heroes for many, many reasons.

One of the most profound books I read about a decade ago was Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. The main thesis of the tome is that we should orient our lives around four key Enlightenment ideals: happiness, reason, reverence and hope; in doing so, we can find the moral clarity, courage, and conviction to live a life of heroism. As she explains here, however, she believes that the notion of the hero is fundamentally misunderstood in the 21st century due to the increasing shift toward a focus on victims and victimization during the 20th century.

In a more recent interview, Neiman states, “I think you can divide heroes into two: heroes who do something for other people and heroes who simply test the limits of human experience, who discover something, who explore something.” This definition certainly applies to any teacher in Florida on both counts; we do things for others, and we have explored and tested the limits of human experience in a classroom, especially considering all the various roles we must play for our students regardless of the egregious lack of resources at our disposal.

She then goes on to add that “There’s an element of risk. Being a hero still takes courage, even if it doesn’t take physical courage. There’s a perhaps even more important but connected element of self determination. A hero is a grown-up. A hero is someone who can think for himself and act to make some difference on some part of the world.”

Surely these basic yet clear notions of what constitutes a HERO, then, would apply to every single teacher working in the state of Florida. And by teacher I also mean any adult who plays a part along the continuum in which a student interacts with adults during the school day, from the bus drivers who pick them up, to the food service specialists who fill their bellies at the beginning of a new day, to custodians who chat with the kids while cleaning up during the lunches, to the guidance counselors, administrators, and teachers who spend the vast majority of their time around young minds and shape them for the better in innumerable ways.

All of us clearly want to do something for other people, and in this case specifically it is caring for the next generation and paying it forward by providing the best life lessons we can. In the end, besides parents, teachers easily spend the most amount of time around our children and have at least a modicum of influence upon them, which is why so many of the relationships we form with students end up lasting well beyond the time spent in the classroom.

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And yet it would seem as if the Florida Legislature as an institution is hell bent on destroying our profession in the name of efficiency, privatization, or some other ideological agenda that is not good for any human being involved in the process, most especially our children. We are vilified and vexed by VAM, stressed beyond belief at the thought of protecting our students in a school shooting as “first responders” (something even Ed Reformster Rep. Byron Donalds agreed upon earlier this year), and juggle an otherwise inordinate amount of various roles for the kids who need us every day.

And despite how we are treated by the Florida Legislature, we still show up.

We still get up each morning and go to work, day after day, again and again, because we know that what we do is far too important to let empty promises and platitudes from politicians stop us. The pay is terrible, the benefits continue to get more expensive, and the proposition of being a teacher in Florida becomes less and less economically tenable with each and every legislative session. We are tired of getting metaphorically-yet-repeatedly kicked in the teeth each year because clueless legislators who refuse to listen to the voices of the experts continue to pass laws that make our job much, much more difficult when they should be seeking to do the opposite. So much time, money, and effort are wasted jumping through frivolous hoops that do not improve the learning outcomes for the kids, and if only elected officials actually took the time to visit with teachers they would better comprehend the reality that they have created.

I don’t know about you, fellow teacher, but I’ve had enough. I don’t care if you work in a traditional public school, charter school, or private school. If you are a “teacher”–any caring adult who interacts with students on a daily basis–you should absolutely outraged that Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy yet is ranked 45th in public education spending and pays its teachers 48th.

Now is the time to reject the language of victimization.

Now is the time to display our courage and push back.

Now is the time to take a stand against Tallahassee.

Now is the time to become an even better hero.

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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What more do you need to know?

These were the numbers I shared with many people, many times this past summer, including the FLBOE members themselves.

And since then the numbers have only gotten worse. The average teacher pay in Florida, for example, when taking the entire U.S. into account (including D.C.), is now 48th.

Funding? According to Diane Rado’s most recent article in the Florida Phoenix News, Florida ranks 45th.

TL;DR? Funding affects outcomes. Period.

How much worse can and will it get before there is an all out uprising?

Why are educators so afraid to stand up for themselves?

How can people be so afraid when school districts all around the Sunshine State are begging people to become teachers while the already massive teacher shortage continues to worsen?

How much abuse and disrespect will educators endure before they unequivocally state that enough is enough?

The fear of speaking out mystifies and perplexes me.

People on social media have told me to pipe down. That I should not be encouraging others to take a personal day. Well guess what? It’s a personal day that I can take off any time I want and will do dang well what I please with it, whether that is make the drive to Tallahassee and protest the outrageous treatment of our students and our profession or  just sit around my house all day reading books. Regardless of what I choose to do in either of those scenarios I would certainly enjoy my time…but I have a funny feeling the former option would be far more productive use of said time on January 14th, 2020.

Some claim that I am being reckless in that I have not reviewed the penalties for joining in on a strike in Florida, and if you’d like to read the statutes yourself the two main chapters are 447 and 775. Even if this were “construed” as a strike–which I will argue all day long that it is NOT–it is a second degree misdemeanor and up to a $500 fine. As a highly decorated professional with a long track record of success, as well as an army of former students who would surely cry out at the injustice of such a lunatic play on the part of the district or state, I think I would be willing to take that fight any day. I can only imagine the Florida newspaper headlines if teachers start getting arrested for standing up and speaking out for their students and profession, and in the midst of terrible teacher shortage that worsens each year no less.

Never one to leave anything to chance, I decided to ask the Florida Commissioner of Education himself. I will update everyone if and when there is ever a reply.

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Over/under on the number of days to respond?

For now, though, here are two simple options:

  1. Take a personal day on 1/14/20. Do with it what you will, but for my part I’ll likely be in Tallahassee, hopefully on the steps to greet the legislators as they begin the first day of the new session. Whether I am a lone man or one of many thousands matters not to me, but I ardently hope I am not alone.
  2. If you cannot risk taking a personal day for whatever reason, then at least join in on the post-work demonstrations that will take place locally all across Florida. If you haven’t heard of Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, it is a public group on Facebook replete with concerned stakeholders from all across Florida. Thousands of taxpayers, parents, educators, and public education advocates are planning marches with local leadership teams, and if you haven’t connected with yours, please reach out to them to find out who is helping your county.

Hope to see a massive turnout that turns major media attention toward Tallahassee, because a long overdue conversation with actual classroom teachers is just what our legislators clearly need!

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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Derek Thomas, English Teacher, Plant High School

From the moment I began the Teacher Voice project just over two years ago, one of the first people who immediately came to mind as a guest was Derek Thomas, a local English teacher whom I never met yet felt a connection to because of his positive tweets. Much like myself, Derek struck me as a person and teacher who values relationships with his students over virtually every other aspect of being in the classroom with kids.

But he’s also one heck of a writing teacher, and as someone who also reads a great deal of student writing in my role with the IB program, I wanted to discuss how he gets kids to grow as writers and, ultimately, communicators. This conversation, then, largely revolves around those two ideas and I savored every moment of this talk, both in the moment and while listening to it again before publication. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.

Thanks for listening, everyone! Enjoy the first back week with your students!

P.S. – Although this is not one of the tweets I read at the end, I intentionally skipped this one in the feed because I thought it would be a great post script/first day message from Derek. If you are on Twitter and need a burst of positivity relating to the kids or classroom, you can follow him @derekjathomas

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This has been an interesting summer full of reading and reflection. A few weeks ago at a recent HCPS board meeting, I spoke about all that I believe is wrong with public education in its current manifestation (watch here). Whether it’s getting kids to pound obsolete facts into their heads to be regurgitated on a meaningless state assessment or any number of other pointless activities we put students through so that they can receive a so-called “education”, none of what public education here in Florida (or the United States, for that matter) will truly help students thrive in life. Instead, as noted previously, our students succeed despite the system, not because of it.

But where do we go from here? What should the future of education look like? Well, I start to speak about it here, and I hope to convince you, dear reader, as to why mind training through meditation should be the foundation to not only a more holistic, human-centered public education policy, but something that you should begin in your personal life today.

As a lifelong lover of wisdom, most of my favorite philosophers hail from the Axial Age, a period from roughly 800 BCE through 200 CE when the world produced some of the most influential thinkers whose thoughts and ideas have stood the test of time. For me, the top five who have influenced my thinking and humanity the most are (chronologically): Siddhartha Gautama (the historical “Buddha“); Socrates; Aristotle; Jesus; and Aurelius. All of them in their own ways deeply inform who I am trying to become and, more importantly in this context, who I am as a teacher and exemplar in the classroom.

Beyond these sages from antiquity, very few other philosophers loom so large in my mind and worldview than my two 19th century favorites: Friedrich Nietzsche and William James, the latter of whom I hope to introduce you to and have you think about, especially if you are a classroom teacher.

William James is an intellectual giant for numerous reasons, chief among them being widely recognized as the “Father of American Psychology” after publishing his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology. Within this work, two chapters should be of particular interest to all educators, as they would be the ideal bedrock upon which to erect the edifice of an education: attention and habit. Both chapters are hyperlinked and are worth reading for a deeper understanding of James’ ideas, but I hope to demonstrate why these two critical facets would / could / should be the basis for any public education system as they are both foundational to a life well lived.

As mentioned in the second set of comments, most people do not fully appreciate the amount of cultural disruption that will stem from technological innovation, radically changing how we interact with our environments and, far more critically, with each other. Take a moment to think about this fact: the iPhone, which I believe is widely acknowledged to be the first true “smartphone” debuted in 2007. That was only twelve years ago; what will the next ten, twenty, or thirty bring?

Now think about how much our attention has been fractured during that same twelve year period. How much our devices beckon us. How much the siren song takes attention away very often from those who matter most–the closest people in our lives. Even now I have to admit the ironic use of this particular medium that is, statistically speaking, being read on said device or some similar type screen. Perhaps there is a reason we have witnessed the rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in the last 30 years. Perhaps there is a reason we are all so constantly stressed by the demands that compete for our attention, which, in reality, is the currency of our personal time, life’s most precious resource…

And yet, without the proper habits, without the proper mental training to consciously develop the good habits of mind we want in all people, the brain has a tendency to hardwire much of what our environment and lack of self-reflection and self-awareness ingrain into us. William James, as a medical doctor at Harvard, became deeply interested in the human brain, and he was the first (that I am certainly aware of) in the West to diagnose the problems caused by bad habits and a lack of attention.

Among many other famous aspects of his great psychological work, James coined what is now an everyday phrase: stream of consciousness. He was deeply curious about how our waking experience could be used to shape our daily realities. As a philosopher, James is known as a Pragmatist (the chief reason he is one of my favorites), which focuses more on practical experience rather than theoretical or abstract ideas. So when he realized that our stream of consciousness could be nudged to develop better and better habits, he began to develop a philosophy around that idea.

And what better way to achieve this than by the willful use of attention. If we know how to rein it in and use it proactively, the  attention can be used to direct the stream of consciousness to what is most important in any given moment. Moreover, the long term effect of this mind training–something that has conclusively been demonstrated by neuroscience in the last twenty years–is an increased ability to focus as well as greater attentional stamina.

Why is this not something that is slowly taught to every single student starting Day One?

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So how can we can train students to maximize this ability? I believe the entry point into this mind-training is through meditation. The word meditation itself admittedly has baggage, because people hear the word and Buddhism automatically comes to mind (interestingly enough, Christianity had a very long and storied contemplative tradition that was de-emphasized during the Reformation and Enlightenment); my entry point to meditation ten years ago, however, was through the lens of the emerging neuroscience, yet tempered by my general skepticism with which I tend to approach most weighty claims. Like James, I realized that I had to become my own experiment. I had to live out the experience in order to see first hand if this could be beneficial.

As a Type A personality who always feels compelled to be moving, active, engaged, etc, asking me to sit down, close my eyes, and focus on my breath was an absolute insane idea. I distinctly recall trying to make it through one cycle of deep breathing and by the second inhalation my mind exploded with thoughts: I can’t do this! I’m wasting time! I have to send that email! What’s for lunch? How much longer?, and on and on. If you’ve ever tried meditation, I’m confident you had a similar experience. But that first step has taken me on journey I never would have expected or believed had you told me I would be this person a decade later.

The inward focus that meditation requires effectively asks us to step into that stream of consciousness, and one of the most interesting things I have learned and would be so beneficial to every child in the world is that you are not your thoughts. Here’s how I pitch it to students:

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

But sometimes it can be more than one voice, right?

And when there’s more than one voice, it’s usually a debate of some kind, so which voice is the real you?

*Most students are smiling, laughing, or deep in thought by this point, as most human beings have never had their attention consciously directed to the interior experience of their minds*

FINAL QUESTION: WHO OR WHAT IS WATCHING THESE VOICES ARGUE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

One of the most important discoveries that William James intuited through his own experience is that the thoughts are not consciousness itself. Setting aside the more metaphysical dimensions of what the consciousness may or may not be (we still cannot pin down physical correlates to consciousness with brain function at this point, but it would seem to be an emergent property of the entire neural network), we can at least use this simple set of questions to pierce the illusion of thoughts-as-consciousness and understand the metaphor of the stream that James was using in his psychological framework. Consciousness is always there, flowing like a stream; some times it is calm, some times it is raging torrent that is overflowing with a powerful emotion such as anger. Thoughts and emotional states are like rocks being thrown into the river, some of which are large enough to divert its flow and carry us off in a new direction*. The trick is to realize that, through mind training, we can better control the stream, so to speak, because the more meditation wears down the identification of consciousness with the thoughts themselves, the more we realize we have the power to choose and cultivate the thoughts that will benefit ourselves and each other.

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The ultimate goal of any education should be to produce lucid yet malleable minds that are able to keep pace with the coming cultural and technological change. Education should focus on the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. We should be teaching our students first and foremost how to navigate their daily experiences by providing the mental tools that have been scientifically proven to: 1) decrease stress and anxiety; 2) increase mental acuity, focus, and attentional stamina; 3) enhanced executive functioning, with great access to fluid intelligence/working memory; 4) improved well-being in the form of a strengthened immune system, better emotional regulation/impulse control, and an increase in pro-social behaviors.

Who would not want this to be part and parcel of every child’s education in preparation for life? Is the goal not to produce human beings who have the capacity and freedom of thought that results in lateral, critical and creative thinking that will produce innovative solutions to our most vexing problems? Because I guarantee training children to fill in bubble sheets all the time will not get us there. While meditation should be the foundation, ideally each level would focus on different aspects of education:

Elementary: constructive play for the earliest ages with a focus on communication and collaboration. This seems to be the critical ages at which the innate curiosity and creativity are ground out of children in the name of the factory model. Scrap standards based learning and go back to holistic, content-rich thematic units that provide the basic building blocks of our world, with a focus on literacy across all curricula.

Middle: continued emphasis on relationship building and empathy, while allow students to explore ideas within generalized domains that they may find personally interesting. Provide more robust project-based learning that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of the world in various ways, especially through demonstrations to further enhance communication abilities.

High: beginning of specialization for those who demonstrate the aptitude and desire to focus on a particular path in life. For those who are still unsure, a continued open exploration of topics of any choice with continued emphasis on producing evidence of learning and problem solving in novel ways.

These are only some ideas about how our education system could be radically altered for the better if there were the political and cultural will to do so. As it is now, our system fails a great many students. If you have read this longer piece to the end, thank you for taking the time and interest in thinking about these things. I honestly believe, as nearly all teachers do, that being successful at this craft is really all about our relationships with the students. My meditation practice has helped me bring a palpable presence into my room each and every day, and I do my best to infuse that space with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience, five of the key values that motivate my life and with which I feed my mind thoughts on these subjects every day.

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

P.S. – I realize this piece is a little light on sources/links, but it’s only because in the ten years I have been meditating I have had a love affair with neuroscience. On the low end, I would venture to guess that in that same decade I have read at least 50 books on either the brain, meditation, or how the latter impacts the former. And I still continue to read at least 3-5 books on these topics every year.

So have a piqued your curiosity about possibly beginning your own meditation practice? I hope so. If you are interested, here are some essential resources that I recommend to others with some frequency.

Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – written by Oxford professor Mark Williams and award winning journalist Danny Penman, the book is written as an 8-week course of MBCT, or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. They provide all the rudiments of basic mindfulness meditation while reviewing much of the basic neuroscience that speaks to the efficacy of these mind training practices. Even 10 minutes per day in as little as 8 weeks will create both functional and structural changes in the brain. The associated website with a few guided meditations can be found at franticworld.com.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn was a practicing Zen Buddhist in the 1970s who understood the power of meditation; he was also a physician working with terminally ill cancer patients at UMass General, so he developed what is now commonly referred to as MBSR, or “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” to help his dying patients make the best of their end of life experiences. This book is best listened to rather than read, as the audio version contains several guided meditations.

Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity – For those of you who may be interested in the more traditional, spiritual dimensions of meditation, B. Alan Wallace’s text is a wonderful blend of the science behind the brain, various meditative practices, as well as a history of how meditation developed within two different spiritual contexts of the East and West.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion – This is an excellent read for those who are agnostic or atheist. Regardless of how much I try to share the power of meditation through neuroscience, a few friends still write it off as religious mumbo-jumbo no matter how many fMRI scans I show them or information I quote from the many books I’ve read. Sam Harris, though, is both a neuroscientist and an atheist, so his book, which is both a personal exploration of how his own meditation practice developed as well as the neuroscience explaining the changes to the brain, has won over a few of my irreligious friends.

And if you’re feeling really nerdy, you can watch my “Neuroscience of Mindfulness” presentation that I delivered at USF Health five years ago. Word had gotten around that I start my classes with a “Mindful Minute”, and I was invited to be a panelist discussing the use of mindfulness in education settings. Between professors, principals, psychologists, counselors, and social workers on the panel, I felt a bit out of my element, but it made for an engaging discussion after the presenters had delivered their respective sections. The PowerPoint is below the video as well.

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness v2 (PowerPoint I’m using in the video)

Basic-Mindfulness-Practices – Basic instructions for breath focused meditation either seated or lying down.

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What Every Florida Legislator Should Feel For Letting It Get This Bad…

Dear Fellow Floridian:

Click Play.

Like what you heard? Sharing is caring 😉

Have an awesome weekend, everyone!

*Correction* – in 2014 there were three A-rated districts (not four); the 800% increase has resulted in 24 “A-rated” districts currently in 2019.

P.S. – Don’t forger to download, display and share your #InfographicOfShame!4544F7E3-3701-41B7-A509-9F2CD4445295

This is my most recent set of comments delivered to the HCPS School Board. Make no mistake, it is a lament about our test-and-punish culture that is destroying creativity and initiative in its wake, leaving many students dissatisfied with their education and experiences related to it. As noted previously, “the kids who succeed do so despite the system–not because of it.”

And the greatest sacrifice laid on the altar of lobbying interests in this entire travesty that has become our public education system here in Florida?

A love of lifelong learning for far too many children…

The overuse of standardized tests to generate the almighty data for the false god of accountability has virtually destroyed an entire generation’s innate curiosity. As so eloquently stated among innumerable ways throughout her acerbic piece, writer Anastasia Basil recognizes the urgent need to revolutionize and reconfigure our entire educational enterprise when she bluntly states, “The time for radical change was yesterday. (You’re late. Here’s a tardy slip.)”

How did we get here? Money, plain and simple.

What is happening to education now also happened to what once used to be another non-profit/public good in the past: medicine. Much of the privatization began in the 1970s and now we have created a system that equates to roughly 20% of our entire nation’s GDP. The public education sector started trickling down this revenue stream in the 1990s, and now it seems like the Education Industrial Complex, led by Pearson first and foremost, is an unstoppable waterfall that will pummel every aspect of education until it is completely commodified and monetized.

Tests are a natural part of education as formal assessments used occasionally by classroom teachers–the actual experts in the room working with children that lobbyists and think tanks continue to micromanage with campaign contributions. But all of the ridiculous state level tests that students must endure–as well as the nearly constant “progress monitoring” at the earliest ages–is creating a toxic environment that is riddled with chronic stress on every human being involved, most especially our children.

Take my high school as an example. We began testing on May 1st as decreed by law and it was a logistical nightmare. From 5/1 through 5/23 our school was administering some sort of standardized test every. single. day. Students had to take the FSA, EOCs (End of Course exams for graduation requirements such as Biology and Algebra I), AP exams, or IB exams. Most students end up testing for consecutive days, especially ESE students with accommodations for additional time. Many IB students took multiple exams on multiple days due to the scheduling conflicts and, in some cases, even took makeup AP exams after graduation. Furthermore, the scheduling was compounded by the lack of computers in the school, which had numerous teachers and students having to move to alternative classrooms so that the computer lab or media center could be taken over for testing.

Beyond the logistics–and far more critical–is how much all the testing truly stresses out students. For the Sunshine State to claim that it cares about the mental health and well-being of its children on the one hand, it makes for a comically absurd paradox that Florida’s reliance on standardized tests crushes the creative spirit of many children while simultaneously heaping undue stress and anxiety upon them on the hand. Our students need love, attention, and encouragement; they need to feel cared for and nurtured by the adults in their school house. What they don’t need to is to be told they’re inadequate by being reduced to a number…

IMG_1885
Who needs creative and critical thinking when you can speak bubble sheet?

The reductionist view of seeing kids as merely data to be mined is deplorable and demeaning. While this might not necessarily be the intention, it certainly leaves many of them feeling dehumanized if nothing else. In virtually every aspect of the testing regime that begins May 1st, kids must know their student number, the school code, the testing site digits, and on and on.

Worse than this, the focus on the almighty tests that determine the fate of would-be graduates all but eradicates any true desire to learn for its own sake. In the last decade or so, the students who have survived the test-and-punish model leave in one of two states: roughly the bottom half leave with a false sense of confidence due to inflated district and state exams, while the top half walk away knowing how to “pump and dump” as the kids call it: memorizing facts to regurgitate on some test, all so that they can get an easy A.

And regardless of the half, all of them are glad that it is over.

Education has become so transactional and formulaic: Memorize stuff. Spit it out on a test. Get the grade needed to move on. Repeat. There has to be a better way, and it begins by lessening the focus on testing. Two main suggestions:

– Reduce or eliminate as many tests as possible, preferably all of the FSAs and EOCs; instead, rather than using it as an alternative graduation requirement, allow an SAT or ACT baseline concordance score in its place. The state already has every student taking the SAT, so perhaps the adversity index could even be used in the mix. Currently, there are several states in the U.S. that solely use concordance scores in lieu of any state test, and this would provide a better gauge to compare Florida’s students against the rest of the U.S. on a norm-referenced test rather than criterion-based and otherwise meaningless exams with opaque sliding scales that tell us nothing useful.

– If the tests must stay, return to paper testing for all exams. It may be more expensive, but it saves time to administer the tests all in a single day in any given classroom rather than the few available computer labs or the school’s lone media center. If the school is even fortunate enough to have a full time teacher-librarian, he or she should be opening new vistas for children, not watching them get the joy of learning sucked out of them like the Pod People in The Dark Crystal.

Pod People
A child’s innate capacity for curiosity and wonder being drained away by i-Ready

Commissioner Corcoran and the Florida Board of Education claim to want the very best for our children and their education. What parent or teacher would not want the very best education for their child so that he or she may continue to be lifelong learners with a passion for constantly getting better as human being while living as well as possible? Should that not be our aim? To help recognize, encourage, guide, and nurture the potential and passion within every child? The educators working with kids in classrooms all over this state certainly want this for their students–and do their best to provide them despite the current barriers–why not take away all these tests and stressors so that we can flourish together?

Because if we don’t, the more we double down on this failed test and punish “accountability” scheme, the more the state of Florida–and by extension the entire United States–will get results like this…

IMG_0090

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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Rob Kriete, President of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

I remember talking to my mom about that and letting her know I wanted to be a teacher and the look on her face. It wasn’t that look of excitement. It was: “why would you choose to do something that is so hard, that pays so little, and has so little respect societally?”…

And I had to explain to her that I had to do it because it’s who I am, and teaching is important and that’s why I do it. And it matters. And so, that’s ultimately what led me here to become—and run for—union president. Because I believe that I want to make sure that every teacher gets that respect and has that ability to say, “Hey, I’m a teacher. I’m proud. Because what I do is very important for myself, my community, my school, and society overall.” – Rob Kriete

Rob Kriete spent his first 24 years in the classroom at the middle and high school levels. Last year, he appeared on the Teacher Voice podcast as a candidate for the presidency of HCTA; this year, he returns after one full year on the job. We sat down to discuss the learning curve of taking over the local for the 8th largest school district in the U.S.; what he is trying to accomplish moving forward this year; this past legislative session; why he became a teacher and so much more.

If you’d like to learn more about or join Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, you can click here. Thanks for listening and sharing with others, everyone!

Screen Time 2
Is too much screen time hindering language acquisition and creating behavior issues?

This is the latest guest post on Teacher Voice. Adapted from a longer comment about a recent article in The Atlantic (link below), these words come from Juan Rojas, a board-certified behavior analyst. Here are his comments and his complete bio is at the end.

I enjoyed this article and agree with many of its points. There are a few thing I’d like to add, for those of you interested in some of the reasons we are seeing lower performance in reading test scores and student achievement.

A longitudinal study was published in 1995 by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley that makes a lot of sense now. They began to follow 42 families in the 1980s. They wanted to look at the number of words spoken to children between birth to 3 years old across socioeconomic status (welfare, working class, professional), and how that relates to IQ at 3 years old and reading comprehension at 3rd grade. They found that welfare, working class, and professional families spoke to their children an average of 10 million, 20 million, and 30 million words, respectively. This appeared to also be correlated to IQ levels (more words spoken the higher the IQ) at 3 years old and reading comprehension (higher number of words the higher the reading comprehension score) at 3rd grade. This was not surprising, as families that are better off economically tend to have more free time to spend with their children than those working 2-3 jobs. However, they also found that those families with lower income that spoke to their children at comparable levels and quality to higher income families, had similar IQ levels and reading comprehension scores. So the number of words spoken to the children between birth and 3 years old (a very critical time period as children are beginning to learn vocal language) was more predictive of positive outcomes as well as protective from negative effects of coming from a lower socioeconomic status.

Now, let’s jump a couple of decades after this study to the present and see what is happening with technology and parenting practices before these kids even enter the school system. We are seeing more and more young elementary students with reading deficiencies across socioeconomic status, where it’s not just the Title I schools, but across the board. What has changed, biology? No. There has been a shift in society and parenting the last decade. The last couple of years we have seen the incoming kindergarten classes I call “the iPad generation”. The iPad came out in 2010, tablets became widely available about 2012, 5–6 years later we have incoming kindergarteners that have many been raised by the “electronic babysitter”. Just go to any restaurant and look around and see how many children, as young as 1, have a screen in front of them and nobody is talking to them, nobody is making relationships between these sounds we call words and the physical environment around them. At home, young children are given screens and that is their form of play, which does not teach variability, creativity, or cause and effect (other than the same swiping and tapping motion). Parents and early childcare providers simply do not talk to / interact with children at the same level or quality as before. This is not meant to be blame; this is simply an analysis of our reality and how that has empirically been shown to negatively affect young children.

This is likely having a very negative effect on the ability for young children to learn to read and comprehend. Children are coming into the school system already at a disadvantage. Compound the decrease in words spoken early in development with increases in behavior issues due to children not learning consequences early on—again coming back to the “electronic babysitter” (“here’s the iPad, just stay calm”, or “here’s the iPad so you can calm down”)—and we have a recipe for disaster. In a daycare or preschool it is not the same for an adult to sit in front of a group of kids and read a book; children need to be spoken to, interacted with, at a personal level, so they can make sense of the world around them.

Young children learn experientially. Just because they can read words doesn’t mean they can comprehend sentences. The recent decrease in social studies (kids can relate to real life) and science (kids can touch the meanings of the words through experience), lessens the crucial experiential learning component. They are memorizing written sounds, but can’t make sense to what they mean in the real world, possibly because 1) they missed an opportunity early in their development; and 2) they are not given the opportunity to experience the words once they get into the school system. The second option is not a blame on teachers; this is the reality of the system, where teachers are not given the opportunity to vary the material or to be as creative as they wish to be.

Now, as a society, it would be difficult to do something about the parenting component as there are many factors involved, and schools have no control over that. Parents are working more hours, grandparents are continuing to work into their later years, and more children have to be raised in daycares with limited 1:1 personal time between caregiver and the child. The hope we have is for school systems to bring back social studies, science, and art, and give teachers more flexibility, at least the lower grades, so that children can learn once again from experiential learning, the way they developmentally learn at a young age. Maybe that can mitigate the change in parenting and the fewer words that are spoken to young children.

Juan Rojas is a board-certified behavior analyst who graduated from Florida International University in 2013 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelors in Psychology. He then attended the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fl, graduating in 2015 with a masters in Professional Behavior Analysis. Initially, Juan worked with special needs children ranging from 3 to 21 years-old, focusing on verbal behavior and severe problem behaviors such as self-injury and physical aggression. Recently, Juan began to work with neurotypical students in K-12 across the State of Florida, focusing on students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as trauma and abuse, as well as provide coaching and support to their parents and teachers. 

If you’d like to write a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog, please email me directly at 1teachervoice@gmail.com or stop by the Facebook page to send a message!

FLPE Spending
It all boils down to this…

If you are an educator working in Florida wondering why you are paid so poorly, look no further than this chart above. The Sunshine State has the dubious distinction of being dead last in the United States when it comes to inflation adjusted spending on its students and their future.

This is not the first time raising the flag about this issue. Some primers on how we got to here can be read in The $8,358 Question; Thanks for Nothing; Tallahassee, We’ve Had a Problem…; About Those Stubborn Facts…; and Numbers Don’t Lie.

In a recent op-ed published in the Tallahassee Democrat, Patrick Gibbons of redefinED practically boasted about the “increase” of $4.8 billion dollars across 20 years of Florida  GOP-led education reform, noting that in 2019 dollars Florida spent $7267 per student in 1999 and will spend $7672 this coming year.

Really? Is that the best we can do for our kids? An average increase of $20.25 per student, per year?

While these numbers may be accurate, there is a larger issue with one of Mr. Gibbons’ premises: namely, that our spending on Florida’s children should be indexed to inflation. In reality, however, we were spending more than what inflation required, because in 1999 Florida ranked 27th in the U.S. when it came to per-pupil funding, yet now we have slipped down into the bottom ten states (it has floated between 42nd and 44th the past few years), with teacher pay also infamously reaching an all new low of 46th.

Prior to the Great Recession, Florida’s high water mark for per-pupil spending was 2007-2008. The final FEFP calculation for that year was $7,126.33. If we plug this into the CPI calculator, this is the result:

CPI Screenshot

This effectively means that we are still lagging inflation by $672 from what we spent on education just over one decade ago, which is why we should look at the actions of the Florida Legislature across that time span as a passive divestment in our students and their future.

There is a fine line between frugality and parsimony. The overzealous, ideologically driven need to continually roll back tax rates for homeowners year after year because people like former House Speaker turned Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran say “Hell no!” to additional revenue being generated from rising property values has financially hamstrung all 67 districts. It is the reason why 20 of those counties decided to tax themselves to cover the shortfalls from Tallahassee (for those who are unaware, all tax rates are decided by the Florida Legislature, not your local school board). And it’s also the reason for perhaps the ugliest chart that now exists due to their continual unwillingness to properly invest in our students and their educators.

Declining Salaries
Sorry to say it, Florida Legislature, but you OWN this mess

Two things are immediately remarkable about this graph: 1) the peak of teacher salaries comes around the time that the “Pay for Performance” debacle began (circa 2011). Many of us jumped at the chance to earn more money by sacrificing our tenure in lieu of an annual contract. Each year since it was instituted (in Hillsborough at least), the total of performance pay dollars has declined; 2) because the graph illustrates “inflation adjusted” salaries, what is really under the lens is purchasing power.

When the dollars provided cannot keep pace with inflation, the purchasing power of those dollars declines even faster. Think about it: when you need more money to purchase even less “stuff” (staff and services for students), this makes the lack of funding that much more pronounced, and is exactly why inflation cannot be discounted. This is why legislators can no longer give the canned response of “salaries are bargained for at the local level with school boards,” because it is ultimately they who decide how much will be given to the districts. It is they who must make this badly needed investment in all of us, most especially our students. Until they recognize the funding being provided is completely insufficient, we will continue to see pay disputes erupting all over Florida like the most current one in Orange County Public Schools. This short video effectively details why:

And in another sense the Florida Legislature needs to get ahead of inflation at this point, yet it will take tremendous bipartisan political courage and will. But our legislators must first see the value in what we do, and there is no better way of doing this than by showing up in their offices this summer. They need to see your faces and hear your voices. We must remember that education is one issue out of many and that, ironically, we must teach our legislators about the ramifications of the legislation they pass.

Case in point? Last week I had an engaging conversation with Representative James Grant-R (HD64) that lasted nearly an hour. Although we touched on several issues, the three principal issues I have been focused on are increased funding, reduced testing, and CMO industry regulation. During our chat, he was shocked when I told him my family would see our household income reduced by $14,400. Unfortunately, as I surmised when I asked the $7,200 question, I also told him that the majority of Florida’s teachers would be facing some sort of pay cut due to the new, terrible “Best & Bogus” program, which is worse than the original bonus scheme. At least last year every teacher who was rated effective or highly effective got something; now it appears that only 43% of teachers are eligible, with 41% of that group already working at an A rated school.

And this $2500 or $1000 is going to “retain” the state’s veteran teachers while it offers an insulting $4000 “recruitment” bonus to “content experts” in high needs areas yet have no pedagogical experience at all?

C’mon, Florida. We gotta do better than this…

If you are an educator, concerned parent, public education advocate, or anyone in general who cares about the dire lack of investment being made in our children and their future, please call, write, or visit your legislator. Tell him or her your story. Let our elected officials know how much this is hurting your family and exacerbating an already massive teacher shortage.

This is not right.

And it must stop now.

Otherwise all of this will undoubtedly get much, much worse…

Poor Pants
Every teacher in Florida

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

MB

Nathaniel Sweet, the former HCPS legislative intern, current Political Science major at the University of South Florida, and guest author of Shifting the Discipline Discussion, returns with this short reflection on differentiating between behaviors and, ultimately, what the fundamental challenge is behind behaviors at certain schools here in Hillsborough and across Florida.

I think that when we talk about our approach to student behavior, we need to make a distinction between different levels of behavior problems. If we’re talking about a student who gets in an altercation with a friend over some personal drama, or a student who’s trying their best but gets frustrated and acts out, those are textbook restorative justice cases. That’s all about developing grit, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution.

Cases like persistent discipline problems, or violence against school staff, or major destruction of school property–those are different issues entirely; they fall well outside of reasonable expectations for classroom management. However, I still think that it’s unwise to use suspension in these cases. Instead, I think we should re-think referrals, not in terms of suspensions, but in terms of a referral you’d get from your general practitioner to see a specialist. More on that in a second.

Like you mentioned in our last conversation, it seems like the worst behavior problems are concentrated at extreme ends of the income distribution. Some of the wealthiest kids feel like they’re invincible, while some of the poorest kids feel like they’re invisible. The former think they can get away with stuff no matter what, while the latter believe they’ll be punished and pushed out no matter what. Entitlement at one end, disillusion at the other.

And in some ways, they’re both right. Very few rich suburban white kids end up poor later in life regardless of what they do, and the inverse is true for poor urban and rural kids. Your home zip code is a much stronger predictor of whether you’ll get caught up in the criminal justice system than your actual propensity to commit a crime. All the while, the animating force behind these outbursts tends to be something deeper & outside of the classroom–after all, disruptive students are very much in the minority.

When it comes to the poorest kids, then, I think that disruptive students need referrals in the sense that they’re sent to three resources: a) a counselor, to help them unpack their feelings about school and why they act out; b) a social worker, to uncover the bigger problems they face that might be driving their behavior; and c) an ombuds, someone who they can trust and rely on to advocate for them in creating a plan to get them back on track.

Critical to this framework is that it recognizes the seriousness of the student’s misbehavior without inherently criminalizing or pathologizing them. It approaches the student with curiosity rather than presumption, hopefully helping to re-build trust. Of course, that can only begin to happen if district leaders work with teachers and school employees to demand more funding from Tallahassee, but it always goes back to funding and leadership anyway, doesn’t it?

As a broader matter, I think that there’s a strong role for educators to play in movements advocating for policies that combat income inequality and child poverty. Rich kids wouldn’t feel like they were above the rules if we didn’t have an economy that concentrates such a huge amount of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

More importantly, however, we wouldn’t need to invest so heavily in wrap-around services like healthcare, nutrition, and mental health for low-income kids if those things were guaranteed as rights by state and federal governments. We wouldn’t need to worry about homeless students if cities and agencies guaranteed affordable housing, either through subsidy or public provision. We wouldn’t need to worry about students coming to school unprepared or without supplies if their parents had stable full-time work that paid a living wage.

To put a finer point on it, maybe the solution for helping poor kids learn is just to make them less poor.

As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog or appear on the podcast to discuss the issues, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!

Heidi 1
Dr. Heidi Maier, elected Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools

Dr. Heidi Maier’s original dream job did not involve becoming an educator.

Luckily, however, in a flash of insight on a local college campus one early June morning many years ago, she realized that becoming a teacher and helping “her kids” (of which she is now mother to approximately 43,000 of them) was what she was meant to do. In this engaging conversation, Heidi and I discuss her rise from elementary classroom teacher, to early education college professor, to deciding to run for Superintendent of Marion County Schools during a casual conversation with friends. Sharing some of the recent successes and challenges in Marion, Heidi and I also discuss local control through textbook adoption; fending off challenged books in school libraries; and how much students are stressed out by all the testing yet continue to make gains.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Heidi Maier and Marion County Schools, click here. As always, thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast. Please share if you know others who may be interested and enjoy your week!

Ramification
One of my favorite polysyllabic words in the English language, “ramification” has such a specific, nuanced meaning: unwelcome and unforeseen consequences stemming from an event or cause.

As any economist will often say, everything has a cost. Even things that appear to be “free” in one sense or another have costs, often ones that we do not think about beforehand.

Just over two decades ago now, under the direction of then-Governor Jeb Bush, Florida legislatively effected the A+ plan, ushering in an age of sham school grades that tell us nothing more than a neighborhood’s relative level of affluence. The ramifications of what has grown to become Florida’s  “test and punish” model of public education are still not widely recognized by elected officials who have fallen prey to a false idol–data.

IMG_3525Data, while useful, has a corrupting influence due to its ability to be manipulated, which is clearly what the Florida Legislature has done to continue the ruse for so long. To outside interests such as businesses and would-be future citizens who only see “data” without the proper context or history, the cherry-picked points pronounced by legislators ignore the bigger picture and at what cost these data were produced.

The cost, unfortunately, has been all too human.

When we reduce human beings to numbers, whether Lawson IDs, VAM scores, pass rate percentages, or any other metric, we marginalize the inherent dignity of that living, breathing, human being.

This is not right and it must stop. But it will take bold action on the part of all leaders throughout the Sunshine State to stand up and push back against such a demoralizing and dehumanizing way to “prepare students for life.”

No one will deny that this is happening all across the state of Florida, but Hillsborough County Public Schools is a perfect case study for what happens when we double-down on terrible ideas that erode the dignity of our students and educators.

Since 2015, HCPS has had a bold strategic plan that included the idea of 90×20, which largely meant raising our then-current high school graduation rates from 76% to 90% by the year 2020, a noble goal to be certain. But a 24% increase in a five year period? Surely it’s not possible, right?

Wrong.

All things are possible when the FLDOE is constantly helping all Florida districts have similar increases because it is in the state’s interest to control the narrative of “success” happening across virtually all 67 districts. Did students suddenly become smarter? Did educators suddenly become much better teachers? Or have unseen state assessment measures such as the FSA merely been rigged to foster this false narrative?

IMG_2957My money is on the smoke and mirrors of this entire sham system and how political panderers in most districts are compelled to go-along-to-get-along by cooking the books, from lower and lower exam grades to so-called “credit recovery” factories, all in the name of helping kids cross that stage and receive a diploma. The result? Entire cohorts of Florida’s “graduates” cannot properly read, write, or do math, as evidenced by the 2017 report from FSU’s Center for Postsecondary Success that clearly demonstrates 70% of students entering 2 year community colleges, as well as 50% of their peers entering 4 year universities, require remediation in reading, writing or math. If that’s the case, then how could they have sufficiently demonstrated these skills well enough to graduate from high school?

Poker chips, large sum concept

But the human costs and other associated ramifications of HCPS’ “All-In” mentality and subsequent doubling down on these spurious data points has only exacerbated many of the persistent problems happening all over Florida. From the worsening teacher shortage to the manufactured demand for charter schools that sends students and parents fleeing their traditional neighborhood school due to the bad behavior and lack of discipline, our school districts have had their hands tied behind their backs by this so-called “accountability” system that has only wrought suffering. All of this is interconnected in myriad ways and has fostered these big-picture problems.

If we take a deeper dive into the HCPS strategic plan, for instance, this single chart of ABCs effectively demonstrates how these inextricably linked causes are directly responsible for much of why our school district–like virtually any other here in Florida–has hundreds of instructional vacancies. Quite simply, no one wants to teach any more because the profession has become an almost untenable career choice for many reasons.

ABCs

Attendance is a critical component of the school grade system, so districts are incentivized to keep students coming to school regardless of how badly they behave or perform academically.

Behavior is directly connected to this because administrators are now reluctant to discipline students for two reasons: 1) enough documented behavior incidences would require students to be suspended, thereby reducing said student’s attendance record and potentially jeopardizing the school grade; 2) the conflict of interest created by area superintendents or district administration, which effectively encourages site based administrators to downplay behavior/discipline issues because keeping the numbers low helps with their own evaluations. The downside to this, however, is that these decisions tacitly tell the students they can act out with impunity and that teachers have no authority or autonomy, thereby perpetuating a cycle of leniency reinforcing bad behavior.

Exam Samples
Small sample of exam scales for core classes

Course Performance? What is a C even worth any more? On the majority of our district semester exams a student needs to answer fewer than half the questions in order to earn a “C”. And while we never are shown the scales to the FSA, I’d imagine much of the same dynamic is at play to further perpetuate this false narrative of Florida’s increased public ed performance.

 

The human costs to these ABC’s are seen in the frustrations of new teachers like Bianca Goolsby who walked away due to the toxicity of her school environment. The costs also affect veteran teachers such as Seth Federman who was bullied by his principal for his “lifestyle” and, like many other teachers and ESPs, struggles with inordinate amounts of stress surrounding the constant testing, push for questionable metrics, worries about VAM, and many other quiet injustices silently suffered by those in the classrooms all across the district and state. And yet still more and more tasks and their associated pressures are heaped upon us while rates of mental health issues such as PTSD continue to climb in the classroom–both for students and teachers–none of which is acknowledged by virtually any of our education leaders.

Ultimately, students and teachers are trapped in a dead-eyed system that continually erodes the creativity of children and autonomy of educators, all while the vast majority of seemingly clueless district leaders across the state smile and applaud the metaphorical burning of Rome that is bent on the destruction of the vestigial remains of humanity found within Florida public education.

We can and must do so much better for those who work with our children every day.

If district administrators and locally elected school board officials don’t start to push back now, to take a stand on behalf our students, teachers, ESPs, and site based school personnel who are living with the ramifications of the A+ plan and/or 90×20, the powers-that-be, especially the Florida Legislature, should expect a whole lot more of this…IMG_3524

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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Seth Federman, HCPS teacher and doctoral student at Florida Southern.

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Seth Federman, a product of Florida public schools who has studied at FSU, Harvard, and is currently working on his doctoral degree with a focus on mental health issues surrounding education, making this an important and timely follow up to last month’s conversation with Bianca Goolsby.

Seth first came to my attention when he asked to write a guest post for the blog, which was “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“. His second post, “PTSD and Teachers“, clearly resonated with many people considering how much people read, commented and shared. So when Seth asked to be on the podcast I figured this would be the perfect time to discuss what so often is never talked about–how teachers are often left to deal with their own stress and resulting mental health issues with few to no supports.

Please listen to and share this important conversation with others, especially fellow educators who may be struggling with these issues.

Seth also asked that I share the following articles, some of which are referenced during our discussion:

PTSD in Teachers: Yes, It’s Real!

The Challenges of Mental/Emotional Health for Teachers in Public Education

Teachers Attached by Students Show Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

Lessons-Marcus

Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.

For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus AureliusMeditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.

I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.

But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.

Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?

And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:

Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?

Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?

Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?

Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.

Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?

Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.

As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.

We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.

With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.

Yes, we understand the pressure from the state that you clearly won’t take a stand against despite how many times we ask, but a good number of us all suffer for it. So while you’re offering Richard Corcoran and his entourage sycophantic smiles and thunderous applause as he and his fellow charlatans dismantle public education one brick at a time, many human beings at our most challenging schools are living with the ramifications of you going along to get along…you know, trying to cook the books by keeping attendance numbers up by not suspending kids, having exam scores so low kids know they can Christmas tree them and pass, all so that the almighty school grades and the ever-increasing graduation rates continue to climb.

If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.

We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.

And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.

As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.

Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.

In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.

Thank you.

Marcus Coin

CTC

This guest post was written by Nathaniel Sweet, a University of South Florida student majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education. He spent this spring semester working as a legislative intern for the Hillsborough County School Board, and he sent this to me via email. It has been published with his permission, and I hope that you read and share his perspective with others. We will need many, varied voices sharing possible solutions once the difficult discussions about what needs to be addressed in HCPS begin.

I wanted to offer some items for consideration in terms of the discipline problems that the Hillsborough school district has been facing. Obviously, I’m not a classroom teacher, and it’s certainly not my place to judge what teachers decide are the working conditions they need, especially if they work in a Title I school. They’re the professionals, so I’d trust their judgement more than anybody, especially when it comes to day-to-day issues of classroom management.

But I wanted to try to shift the conversation around these issues, because I think the district’s discipline problems go deeper than their handling of referrals. I personally believe that initiatives like SEL, PBIS, and restorative justice are absolutely important reforms, but that the district’s implementation of these programs has been ham-handed and insufficient. Time and time again, it seems like teachers are required to incorporate new and contradictory requirements into the classroom, without a reduction in other obligations and without the necessary groundwork on the district’s part.

A truly effective restorative justice program requires more than a few units of PD and a hard requirement to reduce referrals. It takes an institutional lift, and a comprehensive roll-out across multiple cohorts of students. By the time a student with discipline problems reaches the secondary level, those habits are set pretty firmly. It’d take a lot of time, resources, and focus to get one of them brought into a restorative justice framework, resources that our schools just don’t have. To me, it seems like the most viable way get it right is to work comprehensively and start early. Instead, the district moved under outside pressure to pass the buck onto teachers and principals.

Make no mistake, I think that disproportionate discipline, particularly against low-income students of color, is a nationwide problem and a serious driver of the school-to-prison pipeline. Implicit biases among teachers and administrators likely plays some role. After all, we live in a country where racism and classism are our cultural base temperature–an inescapable artifact of our history. But focusing exclusively on implicit bias shifts the burden onto individual educators, when the biggest factors driving these outcomes are systemic. It’s a direct consequence of bad policy.

Take, for instance, the role of high-stakes testing. It’s obviously in the interest of teachers and students that kids are well-behaved in the classroom. But the pressures of high-stakes tests amp this up to eleven. Suddenly, the teacher’s livelihood (and the school’s very existence) is on the line, and that means maximizing the amount of time devoted to the standards. Whereas additional time could previously be used toward something like SEL, now there’s a very strong incentive to push disruptive students out of class.

This same high-stakes testing culture, alongside defunding at the state level, forces districts into a defensive crouch. Long-term questions fall to the wayside and systemic changes become impossible, because the most important questions become the current year’s test scores and the next year’s budget. Any additional policy changes will be highly reactive instead of proactive, and will likely be under-resourced.

It took civil rights complaints to institute PBIS, and now that the district has made facial changes to keep critics satisfied, they have a strong incentive to wait until the next crisis to do anything different. It would be easy to blame district leaders for this holding pattern, but the truth is that this is the incentive structure our state and federal government have created: anything other than money and testing is a secondary question.

Meanwhile, at the classroom level, it’s apparent that teachers are expected to fulfill completely contradictory goals. We make it difficult to suspend disruptive students, yet we leave in place the incentives to push them out. We add additional requirements for things like SEL, yet we still expect teachers to devote full time to the standards. We want students to be well-behaved and interested in course content, yet we make curricula extremely regimented and boring. We set up an already pointless game of standardized tests, impose requirements that make it harder for public schools to compete, and then punish public schools for the ensuing results.

At the end of this pipeline is an underclass of burnt-out teachers and disenfranchised students. In the presence of high-stakes tests and in the absence of proper funding, at-risk students have nobody to give them the time of day, even as overworked teachers and counselors try their best. From an early age they’ll stare down the barrel of a life marked by poverty and prison, calling into question the value of school altogether. The testing culture and zero-tolerance will condition them from elementary school to view learning as irrelevant and school authorities as hostile.

And yet, because the policies are set, the budgets are thin, and the test scores are essential, the only reform that districts can muster is forcing those kids to sit in a class they don’t want to attend, while making it impossible for the teacher to engage them. We’ve allowed the “education reform” movement to turn students and teachers against each other, when true learning requires them to work together.

The solution is not to go back to pushing kids away. It’s to move forward in bringing kids in. To that point, restorative justice and high-stakes tests simply cannot coexist, period. Restorative justice is about empathy, cooperation, and shared responsibility. High-stakes “accountability” is about exclusion, competition, and blame.

Again, this is just the perspective I’ve developed from my own learning and experience, but I think it offers a pretty comprehensive view of the problem. Certainly teachers, principals, and district leaders have some level of responsibility in these issues, but time and time again their hands are tied by systemic problems, most of which come down from Washington and Tallahassee.

If you enjoyed these insights from Nathaniel Sweet, you can find him often posting in the Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook forum on Facebook. As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

 

Leadership
There are leaders in classrooms all over the state of Florida–why are we squandering our human capital when it comes to our teachers?

May 31st marked the end of my 15th year teaching in the state of Florida. What I have seen change in that time, mainly by legislators in Florida who have zero experience in the classroom, has largely been to the detriment of our most precious resources–our children and their future.

Sure we could be like them and point to ginned up statistics, smile, clap and cheer, but for any person with a remotely discerning intelligence and an eye on the big picture, it is easy to tell this is all smoke and mirrors to delude potential/future Floridians to move here. At the end of the day, the highest ranking for our K-12 public education system was the recent one in U.S. News and World Report, which indicated Florida ranked 27th.

Considering we’re the 3rd most populous state in the U.S. with a one trillion dollar economy, this ranking is downright shameful.

But what’s more shameful–and far more insulting–is that teachers, the very people who work with our children on a daily basis, are never part of these conversations. At least not in any meaningful way. Sure politicians and district administrators may point to data for a lone annual survey that asked for our feedback, but it is no substitute for putting people in a room together and letting them generate ideas.

Over the last several years, there have been numerous people who suggested that I go into the administrative track, often telling me that I would be an excellent principal. Heck, I’ve even had people with highly informed opinions tell me that I have the potential to even be a great superintendent.

While I appreciate the words of confidence–and do agree with these people who share these suggestions–I cannot leave the classroom for a few reasons:

1) at nearly 44 years old, I fully realize that time is the most valuable asset I have. Being a classroom teacher means I work 9 months out of the year. Sure if we add up all the extra we do outside of school it probably is like a yearlong job, but the huge blocks of time off are restorative and rejuvenating. I wouldn’t be nearly as effective if I didn’t have so much time to work on myself personally and professionally.

2) when I was a new teacher mentor, as much as I loved the experience of helping newer teachers find their grooves, it only made me long for being with my own kids again;

3) as a lifelong learner and massive nerd, I don’t think I could ever top my current job as an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge teacher. It’s difficult for me to put into words how much I enjoy being around these incredibly bright, talented, and motivated young people. Though they often tell me I’m the most impactful teacher they’ve ever had, my common refrain to them is that I’m the one who is getting the better end of the bargain. There’s only one of me, but there are over a hundred of them, each one adding so much meaning and value to my life and career;

4) perhaps most importantly, we simply need teachers who are innate leaders to help shape and craft policy at all levels, and if we are not invited to the table it’s about time we just pull up a chair, plunk ourselves down, and start sharing important ideas or perspectives that are often overlooked.

Here in Hillsborough County Public Schools, I’m just a number. Literally. But I am also one of 15,000 teachers, which means the odds would dictate there are many more “teacher-leaders” like me who love the close contact with kids and do not want to move into administration. Why are we not tapping into these resources? Why are we not leveraging our human capital in ways that allow us to maximize the positive changes we could bring to this district? Meeting with legislators who routinely nod at our concerns and then vote the opposite way will get us nowhere, but at least at the local level, regardless of what county or district, we can effect change if we are simply asked.

So let this be an invitation to any teacher who wants to help impact his or her local community. Show up at local school board meetings, ask how you can get involved, or provide suggestions. If enough of us do this, perhaps it will move the needle and get your local school board members to come back to the well of our experience and expertise. Here in Hillsborough, we should be organizing town halls for solutions-driven people who want to band together and help our students regardless of where they live or go to school. Two issues that immediately come to mind yet are undoubtedly intertwined are the lack of literacy in our youngest, most disadvantaged students coupled with the bad behavior that is reinforced through a lack of discipline.

So how do we move forward?

I believe two of the most crucial characteristics of the best, most effective leaders are when they admit these two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. Let’s face it, most people don’t like to say these things, but I am quite fond of saying both because they demonstrate a humble-yet-confident mindset seeking opportunities for learning and growth. By admitting we don’t have all the answers or that something we tried didn’t work out should give us pause for reflection. And all great leaders are great thinkers. They see the big picture and are always willing to take their egos out of the equation. These are the types of teacher-leaders we need at all levels helping everyone else pull together and get behind a vision for positive change.

Does this sound like you? Perhaps it is time for you to emerge as a local teacher-leader!

TV Help
Are YOU ready to be an agent of change?

 

Bianca
Bianca Goolsby, MBA, Brand Strategist and now former HCPS Jennings Middle School teacher

As of today, Bianca Goolsby no longer works for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Approximately two weeks ago her blog post was published as a guest column in the weekend edition of the Tampa Bay Times. The piece generated a lot of discussion on social media with many, many teachers from schools all across the district and state lamenting the lack of discipline in Florida’s schools. As noted in my own blog post, although suspensions are clearly on the decline, students and teachers alike are suffering the ramifications that include a self-perpetuating cycle of emboldened misbehavior met with leniency.

I will warn listeners of this episode that what you hear may disturb you. Bianca clearly pulls no punches about what is wrong with her school and how she tried to generate a conversation for how these issues could be met head on in a proactive manner, only to receive lip service with no follow up–if she even got an answer at all. I spent much of the conversation listening as she poured her heart out, occasionally speaking with tears in her eyes while conveying the concern and love she has for her students.

Please listen and share this important conversation with others. Bianca’s words are a powerful testament to the challenges numerous teachers face on a daily basis, and underscore the need for a long overdue conversation for how we can address these challenges head on. And, if you can make it, please join Bianca, myself, and others at the next HCPS School Board meeting at 3:30 pm on Tuesday, June 11th at the Temple Terrace Town Hall.

If you’d like to read some of Bianca’s former students’ stories she talks about during the podcast, you can click the “Student” links below:

Student A   Student B   Student C   Student D   Student E

Goolsby-Alege Email
The email sent to Yinka Alege that Bianca reads during the podcast.

This is fine

About two weeks ago, Bianca Goolsby publicly declared her resignation from Hillsborough County Schools. Though reactions were swift and strong, her words provided the impetus to a much needed conversation among teachers, ESPs, and community stakeholders.

If we asked teachers at some of the most challenging schools in our district, many would share her perspective and know that the events Bianca describe are an all too common occurrence at a number of our schools. And for those who would doubt the veracity of her claims, the data from her peers clearly back up the assertions she makes. But what about at other schools across HCPS?

Numerous anecdotes from fellow teachers at other sites lament how bad behavior has become at their schools. It seems that in the last 6-7 years especially, the words and actions of the most unruly students have only grown steadily worse while the actual repercussions for these students seems to have an inverse correlation. Here’s what the data has to say:

07-08 Discipline Data

A decade ago, there were 191,965 students enrolled in Hillsborough. Out of those students, 7% (about 1 out of every 13) served an out-of-school suspension, and roughly 16% of all students (close to 1 in 6) were sent to in-school-suspension.

17-18 Discipline Data

Last year, however, when the district enrolled 211,959 students, there was a slight decrease to OSS, with only 5.7% of students staying home for various reasons; in-school suspension had a drastic decline down to just under 7%.

While all of this data is publicly available here, it would be interesting to dig into these numbers to see the actual length of suspensions. When I first started teaching 15 years ago, fighting was a zero tolerance issue. The aggressor was sent home for 10 days, and the other combatant received 5 days. Now principals have to beg their bosses just to give a kid two days out of school for very serious offenses.

So have students gotten better over the last decade, or are school districts throughout Florida simply not reporting incidences so as to reduce the number of them on paper?

All of this combined ultimately strikes at the heart of the issue–when students receive little to no consequences for their actions, they are emboldened. We now live in an age in which teachers themselves are physically attacked by students, which is an indictment against our entire culture that also shows how little we respect teachers as caring adults who only seek to serve our students in the community.

Bianca shared many details during our conversation yesterday, and they echoed many of my wife’s experiences in Renaissance schools during her first 12 years teaching. In her final year at one particular inner city middle school, she was attacked by a 6th grader who was swinging his backpack at her (she was luckily only hit with straps) while stomping through the classroom breaking things including a favorite picture frame that included our wedding photo on her desk.

He was “talked to” by administrators, but otherwise received no consequence. Destruction of public property and attempting to injure a teacher = “don’t do it again” finger-wagging.

What the district needs to focus on–especially at the secondary level where these issues pose real challenges to the learning environment–is to develop a uniform discipline policy that has immediate consequences that scaffold upward depending on frequency and/or severity. At my school, for instance, our principal still does old fashioned “lock outs”; when students are tardy, he gets on the intercom and asks students who are not in the classroom to come to the elevator. From there, an administrator gives the kids a red pass to notify the teacher as they return to class, and the student in question picks up trash the very same day at lunch. After a couple lunch details, it escalates to ISS. The result? We had 59 total disciplinary incidences last year, whereas many other high schools had well over double that amount.

There’s also an issue of “disappearing referrals,” a seemingly all-too-common occurrence in certain challenging environments. Whether the principals at these schools perceive pressure from downtown or if they have been actively given orders to delete discipline referrals from the system is unknown. But many teachers have reported this practice of either acknowledging the referral way too late so that the consequence is completely decoupled from the action, by never doing anything with them at all, or, in some cases, having these deleted from the system altogether.

This has become a massive issue that needs to be rectified. Rather than “gaslighting” whistleblowers such as Bianca Goolsby, we need to all work together to devise a plan that is fair to all parties involved. While there was clearly a need years ago to adjust disciplinary measures due to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Hispanics being suspended, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we are bordering on sheer pandemonium at some schools. All students need to be in school, and trying to keep kids in school by suspending them less is noble but clearly has had unintended consequences.

We need to address this issue rather than hide from it. The unruly behavior at some of the most challenging schools is certainly hastening the flight to charters in our area, and more parents will probably avail themselves of the new scholarships to attend private schools if they can. Why? Because bad behavior is still not tolerated in these places, and students who disrupt the learning or potentially harm others are kicked out altogether. The sooner we begin open and honest conversations involving the entire community for how we can serve Jennings or any struggling school in Hillsborough, the better it will be for everyone affected by these negative behaviors.

Dre Graham Lead
Dakeyan “Dr. Dre” Graham (left), Band Director and Music Teacher at King High School; Dre, accompanied by his student escort, Brehnan, when accepting the HCPS TOY award.

From the moment I witnessed Dakeyan “Dr. Dre” Graham accept his award at the Excellence in Education awards this past January, I knew he had to be a guest on the podcast. I reached out to Dre and timed our conversation to coincide with Teacher Appreciation Week, and during the interim we all learned that he is now one of the five finalists for the entire state of Florida.

Within a few minutes of meeting for the first time to sit down and record our conversation, I immediately sensed what others–especially his students–love about him: affable and authentic, Dre’s passion was palpable. We both laughed and smiled a lot during this podcast episode; we discuss his rapid rise over the last few months, how much his mentor and my colleague, Cheri Sleeper, nudged him into the profession, and how important the arts are in educating the whole child. Enjoy the conversation!

Scroll down to see the video of Dr. Dre being surprised when it was announced he is one of the 2020 finalists for Florida’s Teacher of the Year. As always, thanks for listening, everyone!

IMG_3299
Under the Friday Night Lights: Cheri Sleeper (left) looks on with her then first year mentee, Dre Graham (right); this is the image Dre discusses during the podcast.

Loma
Florida teachers just took another one on the chin from the Florida Legislature

Remember the tail end of last year when Rep. Chris Latvala, the chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee, went on record stating, “I don’t anticipate the type of bills that will dramatically change the education system, as we’ve done the past few years”?

He couldn’t have been more dead wrong.

SB7070, introduced just days after session began, sailed through the process and was recently touted as a crowning legislative achievement by Governor Ron DeSantis‘ office. Setting aside the fuzzy math being used by our legislators that was recently covered in the Florida Phoenix, the legislation wrought numerous changes that only minority special interests and lobbyists wanted to see pass.

Whether it’s arming teachers, using the public’s money to provide private school vouchers to religious schools, subverting the will of local voters, or just flat out ignoring the wishes of Florida’s majority, the Florida Legislature did what it does best–pass legislation no one wants or is asking for.

Destroyed
YAY! We finally passed completely unconstitutional legislation to ensure that convicts and crackheads can teach kids about how dinosaurs were our pets 5000 years ago!

Instead, teachers all across Florida got a legislative session that will only exacerbate the current teacher shortage and make everything much worse for the tens of thousands of educators all across the state, let alone the millions of students who will be impacted by these disastrous decisions.

Despite the return of phrases such as “historic funding increases” in the news and on the DeSantis press release, the truth is that even with this new FEFP total that is close to $7700, it would still be nearly $1000 shy of an inflation adjusted $7126 per-pupil amount from more than a decade ago, something that has been discussed at length here and elsewhere.

But guess what? Costs have risen and the increases will barely cover expenses.

There’s a reason why 20 out of 20 counties/school districts across Florida voted to tax themselves to cover the financial shortfalls from Tallahassee, and it’s precisely because these citizens realize the value of our public schools and the funding they require to keep up with routine maintenance, technology upgrades, or salary enhancements to local teachers and ESPs. And how does the Florida Legislature react? By trying to co-opt the windfall and force districts to share the funds with charter schools, many of whom are for-profit managed and will simply siphon off much of that money to their bottom lines.

Meanwhile–and as if the Florida Legislature hasn’t done enough to tilt the playing field already–an issue that has largely flown under the radar is that for the last several years the Florida Legislature has continued to give more and more of the PECO dollars to the charters, even after already forcing the districts to share revenue with a provision in HB7069 two years ago. Back then, traditional schools received $50 million, and charters received $50 million. And while that may seem equitable, it’s a lot less money when we consider the fact that there are over 3600 traditional public schools and just over 600 charters statewide. Last year, they gave traditional schools $50 million, and provided charters with just over $140 million, even though they have schools that are only 5-6 years old on average. This year? Well they just went ahead and gave them all of the PECO dollars, a cool $158 million.

So guess where cost overruns outside of categorical spending will come from? The BSA, or Base Student Allocation. But while everyone is cheering the $75 increase–which amounts to a 15,857% increase over last year’s 47 cents, a number I’m honestly surprised the governor, FLDOE, or legislators haven’t put on billboards yet–many forget that with the increased costs much of this will be eaten up and not go toward salaries. Here in Hillsborough, for instance, that portion of the budget would mean a $16.5 million dollar increase if every single student attended a traditional public school. They don’t, which means the number is smaller. Yet even if it were that number, it costs our district $17 million per year just to ensure step movement on our regular pay scale.

IMG_3006
Oh! Every teacher in Florida needs a sizable raise? Silly us! We thought you asked us to CUT your pay, you know, because you’re making too much already.

And that massive loss of gross earnings that nearly 10,000 teachers were fearing? Yeah, that happened too. Only the Florida Legislature could take a really bad idea and make it SO much worse. Setting aside the faulty premise of the previous Best & Brightest program, there were two beneficial aspects:

1) to some extent, it was within the teacher’s control to be rated highly effective (although many have noted the wide disparities in these ratings across districts throughout the state) and to then either have the scores from years past or–like my wife and I did–simply retake the test to get the requisite scores. Ultimately, it was largely about taking initiative and demonstrating individual excellence;

2) even if the scores were not there, virtually all teachers across the Sunshine State got something. If rated “Effective,” last year teachers would earn $800, and “Highly Effective” received $1200. The proposed House version of the updated program this year would have scrapped the scores and given all E rated teachers around $1100 and all HE rated teachers a bonus of $2300. Unfortunately for all of us, the Senate version was adopted, and that one is chock full of terrible ideas for how to “reward” teachers…

A one-time $4,000 recruitment bonus for new hires who are considered “content-experts” (Yet have never taught?! Sort of like the fresh out of college kids who got $6K because of test scores, right?!).

An “anybody’s guess” bonus attached to cockamamie schemes that are largely beyond the control of any given teacher at a school that now has to move up 3 percentage points over the two previous year’s school grade data (Yeah, good luck getting that…here’s your lottery ticket).

A “recognition” bonus of who knows how much based on the “how-much-of-the-previous-two-categories-did-we-spend-money-on-let’s-use-the-leftovers-for-that” plan. And oh yeah, the principal will decide. Nothing like putting him or her in a bad place or having teachers hating each other because they weren’t chosen.

In the end, this was another lousy legislative session for teachers and students all across Florida, regardless of how legislators try and spin this hot mess. There are several veteran teachers who have personally told me they are walking away after this year is over, and until the Florida Legislature actually starts listening to the people who serve our children on a daily basis things will never get better, and we’ll all be seeing more posts like Jonathan Carroll’s on Facebook.

Thanks for the pay cut, Tallahassee!

PTSD

This month’s guest post is the second by Seth Hopkins-Federman, the teacher and current doctoral student who wrote “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“.

It was a headline many weren’t expecting nor were aware of. One day scrolling through Facebook I happened upon an article titled: PTSD and Teachers. I looked at it with a puzzlement—isn’t PTSD usually associated with combat veterans or those involved in high impacting trauma? The inconvenient truth is now teaching as a profession is listed under the causes of PTSD.

In reviewing the research of teachers with PTSD, the findings are limited but the reports and studies that have been done are eye opening to say the least. As I last wrote, mental health professionals were seeing an increase of depression within educators but a truly disturbing statistic is that teachers diagnosed with PTSD has risen since the early 2000s, but the data is inconsistent due to the fact teachers are afraid disclosure will lead to job loss. The main culprits? Student and administrator behavior.

It’s becoming an everyday occurrence where you will see a video pop up of a student attacking or berating a teacher. The experience leaves behind scars that may not be just physical. Many teachers report being assaulted, emotionally abused, and left without the tools to deal with the trauma. But perhaps the most confounding statistic was the PTSD caused by fellow teachers and administrators. While we may view Horrible Bosses as a cautionary tale of corporate greed and power mongering, the research shows that a leader’s actions can have a profound effect on whether or not a teacher continues his or her career. It begs the question: how has adopting a business culture in a career centered around fostering relationships harmed the people in the profession?

As a writer, you’re often told not to put yourself in the story; however, this does hit home as I suffer from PTSD from a childhood trauma. While the details may sound like they’re from a Lifetime movie, it has taken years to properly deal with the triggers and furthermore understand the place the trauma has in my life. But notice how I said years. Some case studies show that teaching induced PTSD is never given the true assistance it needs. Teachers report that the recovery time allotted is usually told to be a day or overnight. We have to be the experts when dealing with student trauma, right? It’s unrealistic to expect that an employee can turnaround on a dime in regards to dealing with these events. This area of research is still relatively new but given the rise of cases and the recent influx of social media examples, we may soon be dealing with a new part of the teacher shortage epidemic.

Are you an educator looking to share your perspective? Teacher Voice welcomes guest posts on any topic/issue related to our profession. If you’d like to write a post, please email it to 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

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Julie Hiltz, NBCT
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Joshua Newhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Considering the last Teacher Voice episode featured some of my friends who are fellow literature lovers, I thought we should expand the conversation to other bibliophiles. Ever since I was a young child, I’ve always had a soft spot for librarians/media specialists. In fact, I almost pursued my MLS degree while at USF, but the classroom beckoned and I never looked back. Having worked with a number of teacher-librarians over the years, I thought it strange that these people are not considered teachers by those who are outside public education. So I sat down with friends Julie Hiltz and Josh Newhouse, two media specialists here in Hillsborough County, to discuss their critical roles in the #HubOfSchool, the #TeachingIs social media awareness campaign to help the public understand exactly what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century, and a few other issues.

Thank you so much for listening! Please be sure to share with other teacher-librarians or anyone who doesn’t know what it is like to work in this essential role at a school.

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It’s 2019, we’ve got a booming economy, and I’m about to take a 13% pay cut.

According to Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, last year just over 9200 teachers in Florida qualified as Best and Brightest Scholars, the teachers who were both rated highly effective and had 80th+ percentile scores on the SAT or ACT. Between the $6,000 for the “scholar” designation and the $1,200 bonus for being highly effective, the net $7,200 represented an increase of over 13% to my base pay of $54,000.

At no point, however, in any of the announcements from either Governor Ron DeSantis or Senator Manny Diaz, has there been any mention of grandfathering in the previous recipients. Instead, it would seem nearly 10,000 teachers working in the Sunshine State–which already ranks 45th nationally in terms of pay–are about to take a substantial pay cut.

To be blunt, these bonus schemes are a horrible way to increase teacher recruitment and retention in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage, especially considering one never knows how long they will last. But teachers are desperate to earn more money however they can, and that is the primary reason my wife and I leapt at the chance to take the ACT in the fall of 2016 when I returned to the classroom after spending time as a new teacher mentor. We both passed the necessary benchmark and have received the money for the last few years, but now it would seem we might potentially see a loss of $14,400 between the both of us.

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What’s worse, we both feel responsible for encouraging many of our friends and coworkers to take the test, only to know that they too will face devastating pay cuts if the Florida Legislature’s latest version of Best and Brightest does not earmark money for those who have previously earned it. After all, the way HB7069 had written future dates and expanded criteria into the legislation seemed as if these bonuses were here to stay, with many (if not most) of the recipients planning their finances around these dollars coming in perpetuity.

Shame on us all for forgetting that this is Florida.

But let’s be honest, Best and Brightest was never a good idea. There is zero correlation between how well a person teaches and his or her scholastic aptitude. My original SAT scores from when I was 16 never would have qualified me for Best and Brightest, but at 41 when I sat down to take the ACT on that fateful Saturday morning, I was highly motivated to perform my best due to the economic incentive. Did passing the test help me become a better teacher, though? Absolutely not. Beyond the money, the only thing the test gave me was a sense of accomplishment for attaining my personal goal of scoring in the 99th percentile.

Yet here we are again, pitching a new cockamamie version of Best and Brightest program to help 45,000 lucky teachers with even more fickle metrics beyond their control such as a one point uptick in school grades. It seems glaringly obvious that these bonuses are largely concocted to circumvent collective bargaining / local control of funding by individual school districts, as well as to avoid having these dollars calculated into our paltry pensions from FRS. And just to add insult to injury, the state even goes so far as to direct the local districts to pay their portions of the payroll taxes from the lump sum, in effect taxing teachers twice.

The Florida Legislature needs to do much better than this. In the midst of statewide teacher shortage, our elected officials should start by taking all $400 plus million and sharing it with all education professionals who work with students regardless of whether or not they are in the classroom. ESPs, guidance counselors, media center specialists…anyone who has direct contact with kids on a daily basis deserve so much more than what they currently earn, especially when we take into account that Florida ranks 37th in terms of affordability (it’s the 13th most expensive state in which to live). While Senator Rader introduces bills each year to raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000, his idea is routinely ignored by his fellow legislators. Instead, we will probably continue to see more bonuses such as Best and Brightest, and if the Florida Legislature obstinately continues down this road, the least it could do is not penalize previous recipients by significantly cutting their current earnings.

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The declining mental health of teachers is an often ignored piece of the puzzle when it comes to why so many leave the profession or so few choose to enter the classroom.

The second guest post of 2019 is finally here! This is a brief bio of the author:

Seth Hopkins-Federman’s career as a teacher started as a way to make sure he wasn’t a starving actor. Through the years, he has taught English and Reading at several different levels and has presented at both state and national conferences. He has finally found a way to substitute his love for the stage with a profound and passionate love for the classroom. He is currently working on his doctorate in Education Leadership with the goal of becoming a striving force in education reform or finding a way to successfully pay off all of the student loans.

It’s not like you haven’t seen the meme splashed all over the walls of Facebook:

A parent is eagerly trying his best to get a loved one to school. After the frequent tries he finally exclaims, “but you have to…because you’re a teacher!”

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Jokes aside, the social emotional piece that is missing from our schools lies not only with the students but with the teachers as well. In the past decade, social health services for teachers have seen an increase of 40% intakes since the implementation of Common Core and higher accountability measures related to evaluation. While it hasn’t been confirmed, there are new suggestions in the data that teachers have been more prone to suicidal thoughts than dentists who are regularly thought to be the profession with the highest suicidal thought capacity. In reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it doesn’t take a scientist or psychologist to see something is not being met. The question is why aren’t we talking about it?

In doing my research, I have found that teachers aren’t necessarily leaving the profession for the common reasons we think. In a review of some of the major strikes in the 2000s, most teachers said pay wasn’t the base need. Instead, it was respect and validation. Can this truly be matched with a pay increase? Research suggests it might, but it deals more with the organizational culture and the approach to how problems are dealt with. We all know that the teachers’ lounge is where we go to kivelt (as my grandmother would say) about our students. But the conversations go from kivelting to beotching (as my second graders in Brooklyn would call it). The conversation doesn’t move to productive solutions just constant complaining. So who’s to blame? Or better yet: why do we need to blame?

It education is going to continuously fall into the cycle of broken bones mended by Band-aids, we have to recognize that our Band-aids are blame accusations and not proactive solutions. Districts need to recognize that class sizes are marring actual learning, school leaders need to be transparent about the way school discipline works, and teachers need to learn more about deescalating than aggravating. This all comes back to a simple social need that all sides are forgetting: validation. Let’s all validate the obvious: this is a tough time to be in education. The phrase lose-lose is unfortunately becoming way too common place in decisions by any stakeholder. Research suggests that if education is to improve, the blame game needs to stop and validation needs to begin. If we can’t begin that cultural shift, it doesn’t matter the test scores or suspension rates, public education will soon see it’s broken bones evolve into organ failure and, ultimately, death.

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Rob Brown (left), Art Roberts (center), Me (right): three nerds who love literature and teaching.

To use the current lingo of the kids, this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is LIT! Considering this is episode “42”, I knew I wanted to sit down with my great friends, Art and Rob, who are English teachers at my school. We talk about why we love literature, its value in today’s day and age, as well as some of our favorite authors and poets. Please listen and share with other teachers or fans of literature in general.

Thanks again for listening, everyone, and have a great week!

P.S. – Here’s the article from The Atlantic I reference in the event it piqued your interest: “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

And here’s the brief clip with Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, about how and why we must change our education system to focus on what makes us uniquely human:

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Aaron Feis, left, lost his life saving children; Scot Peterson, right, effectively did nothing.

Today is Valentine’s Day.

It is also the painful first anniversary of the tragic school shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and ended the lives of 17 people.

Three of those who lost their lives that day were educators who sacrificed their lives to protect their students.

Three teachers who cared deeply about our children and their future.

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We live in an era of mass shootings that show no sign of slowing down. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 85 school shootings that have killed a total of 223 people, including teachers and staff. On average that means there have been over four school shootings a year, with each of those killing just over three people per occurrence.

But here’s the thing…

How many traditional “first responders” died in all of those school shootings over the last two decades?

Zero.

According to the recently released Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, only one School Resource Officer (SRO) was wounded across those 20 years. Here are just a few notable quotes from the study’s findings:

“School personnel were most frequently involved in stopping attacks; school resource officers were less so.”

“High school attacks were stopped 11 times by administrators, teachers, and staff.”

“School administrators, teachers or staff members were sometimes among the first individuals killed.”

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Chris Hixon, Navy veteran and teacher who died protecting students at MSD.

Educators may have been hired to teach the next generations that follow their own, but in an era of mass school shootings we have all become the real first responders. Even if a school is lucky enough to have an SRO or SSO (School Safety Officer), one person is not enough to stop a killing spree that will last only minutes at most. It takes administrators, teachers, and ESPs to work together and communicate when there are threats to student safety. Most of the time this vigilance is enough…and yet the average across the last two decades states that four times this year, it won’t be.

And the odds are that it will be school personnel who sacrifice their lives for the children, not the school resource officer.

This isn’t necessarily something that has only happened since Columbine either. Just a few days ago was the 31st anniversary of the first school shooting in the Tampa Bay region, which happened at Pinellas Park High School in 1988. Three people were shot by the young man amidst a scuffle in the lunch room: two were injured, one was killed, all were site-based administrators.

The reason these facts are being addressed is to highlight a simple fact: if educators are truly the first responders in a world of mass shootings that happen with some regularity at schools, the risks we take for our children and profession should be duly compensated.

First responders, as they are traditionally defined (fire, police, sheriff), receive a retirement multiplier of 3.0 from the state of Florida, which they undoubtedly deserve. Therefore, if a firefighter, police officer, or sheriff’s deputy works for 30 years, the Florida Retirement System pays them a pension based on 30 years times the multiplier, meaning they receive 90% of their highest five years averaged together.

Scot Peterson, for instance, now gets to take home a monthly pension of $8,702.

But an administrator, teacher or ESP? Our multiplier is 1.6, just barely over half of what traditional “first responders” receive and deserve. The top of the pay scale here in Hillsborough is $66K, a far cry from the $101,879 dollars Scot Peterson received to ride around campus on a golf cart all day until the moment when he was actually needed and did nothing. Meanwhile, a teacher in HCPS with 30 years of experience would receive only 48% of his or her final salary, netting that person a monthly benefit of $2,640.

How is this fair?

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Scott Beigel, the third teacher at MSD who died saving the lives of students.

Here’s the solution: at a bare minimum, all site-based school employees–whether administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, education support personnel…anyone who directly has contact with kids and could potentially stop the next school shooting–should have their retirement multiplier pushed up to 2.0 so that a 30 year career receives 60% of the highest five years’ average. Considering the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is routinely touted as one of the best in the nation with nearly 85% of future liabilities already covered, surely there must be a way for the Florida Legislature to increase funding to the program to raise the multiplier to 2.0

And if our legislators cannot or will not at least lift the multiplier, the least they could do to compensate our additional risk as the real first responders at schools is to give us back the 3% we’ve been forced to contribute to our own paltry pensions since 2011.

If you read this and are an employee at a school site in one of our 67 counties, or a public education advocate who thinks those who protect children deserve more, please call or email your legislators to ask them to raise our retirement multiplier.

Related: The Day After… – students share their thoughts and concerns, hopes and fears in class the day after the Parkland tragedy.

Related: I’m Angry – guest post by a fellow teacher describing the initial surge of anger she felt after what happened at MSD.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns… – brief write up containing data after surveying students and fellow faculty members–specifically those who are military veterans–about how they feel regarding arming teachers.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns: Redux – guest post by another fellow teacher with many important points legislators should consider when weighing the big picture of public education in Florida.

 

 

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The first guest post of 2019, Carol Cleaver’s words will undoubtedly be familiar to any of us who have been in the classroom. She shares part of the secret to her success as a teacher, and asks us to reflect on our own practice and what guiding directive(s) we may employ with our students. Feel free to comment below, on the Teacher Voice Facebook page, or on Twitter.

What Is the Guiding Directive for Your Classroom?

It’s Important

After 14 years of teaching, classroom management isn’t a huge problem for me- but of course, I didn’t start out so capably. I’ve always credited my successes in behavior management to a relentless commitment to my guiding directive. Early on, I chose one simple phrase that would guide every action that happens in my classroom. Creating your own guiding directive, and being consistent about it, is one of the best possible ways to ensure a well-managed classroom.

My first year of teaching, I landed in an 8th grade Science Classroom. Anyone who has taught middle school is aware of the constant trials and tribulations that beset this population of students. At no other time in their lives will they care so much about the way they are perceived by their peers. They will do almost anything to curry favor with popular kids, and at the same time, blend into the crowd. The focus on social status above all else often contributes to a lot of negative behaviors- gossip, name calling, showing off. I wanted to quell the stress I saw on the hallways of our school; but didn’t want to put off the kids by constant nagging and issuing judgment either.

I decided to employ a rule that I had learned in Sunday School. The rules for speaking are this:  “Is it Kind?  Is it Necessary? Is it True? It must be all three things, or you may not say it.”

I made myself a little poster, and carried it into my classroom. I spent a few minutes with each class period going over the rule. I spent the next week or so correcting them every time they got out of line. “Was that necessary?” or “That wasn’t kind, was it?” I committed to it, and came back to it, many times each day.  I made them repeat the rule out loud after me. Several times. The rule applied to everyone, and was non-negotiable.

In a few weeks, something amazing began to happen.  Students started correcting each other. I began to overhear phrases like “was that kind? Was it necessary?” from my students in their desks. I didn’t have to say anything- they were catching themselves. Nobody took it personally. They all knew that was the rule, and that it absolutely must be followed in my classroom. The “offender” would normally back track from what they were saying, without even arguing the point. On the rare occasion the point is argued, other students in the class will say to them “even if it is true- it has to be all three. You can’t say it unless it is also kind and necessary!”

And then the real payoff came. I began to realize that because of my classroom rule, I had created an area free of gossip and drama. Students knew they could depend upon that. Anytime they came into my room with some bit of news like “did you hear about that fight?” or “you won’t believe what this other teacher did” they were immediately cut off with a reminder “is it kind or necessary for you to interrupt class with this? You must follow the rules for speaking in this classroom.” And they did.

Students began to relax in my classroom. They began to take risks and grow in confidence, because they knew that any type of negative talk would not be tolerated. Students also knew that I was someone who meant what I said, because I wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true. If they asked me a hard question, they knew I would tell them the truth.

Over the years I have been teaching, I have used this rule as my guiding directive for every single class I teach. I have taught grades 6-12, and have found that this rule works for all age groups. I don’t know if it’s because the rule is so good, or if I am so committed to it, but it works.  Some of the kids from that first year are past college now, and have found me to let me know that they “still remember the rules for speaking.”

What are you “famous” for to your students? What is it that you do that your students can depend upon, and will remember?

Thanks for reading, everyone! If you are an educator and would like to write a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog, feel free to message me through the Contact feature or send me an email directly to 1teachervoice@gmail.com

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“I feel strongly that people need to speak up because silence is a tacit approval.”

The first official new podcast of 2019 features Lois Horn-Diaz, the 2017 Teacher of the Year for Polk County Schools. With her wide and varied background, Lois taught children in many ways for over 30 years in public education. We sat down at the beginning of the month to discuss how she became a teacher, what it was like to win Teacher of the Year honors for an entire district and meet others from around the state, and why she is such an outspoken critic of what public education has become in the last 15 years. Please listen to this engaging conversation, be sure to share with others, and use your own voice to speak up on behalf of all children and educators across the Sunshine State.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Carol Lerner, retired educator and the chair of POPS Manasota

This podcast is long overdue. Recorded last summer, I sat down with Carol Lerner to discuss her organization and advocacy yet never published this episode due to prioritizing political candidates leading up the election. The content, however, makes this an ideal podcast to listen to and share with others, especially with the 2019 legislative session just around the corner.

On this episode, Carol discusses the aims of the POPS Manasota organization; provides an excellent overview of the pernicious influence of corporate charter management companies, specifically Academica; walks the audience through the tax credit scholarship program that diverts would-be tax dollars away from the state’s general fund and toward private schools with no accountability; and closes out our chat with how much “dark money” is influencing school board races, particularly in Sarasota county.

If you’d like to learn more about POPS Manasota or join its cause if you live locally in Manatee or Sarasota, you can Like or Follow their Facebook page, follow along on Twitter, or reach out to Carol directly by emailing popsmanasota@gmail.com.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn how much “dark money” is being used to infiltrate local school boards to further along the privatization efforts by the corporate charter companies and their legislative lackeys, watch this highly informative video below.

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Contrary to Sean Combs’ claim that “it’s all about the Benjamins,” I would argue that life is all about relationships. As teachers, we have relationships with lots of people in our daily school lives, none more important than with our students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of my success as a teacher is due to the meaningful and lasting relationships I have fostered with my students, certainly much more so than any curriculum I may have imparted to them during our shared time together.

While I only worked as a new teacher mentor for a single year, the two most important pieces of advice I offered those who were just beginning in the classroom–whether fresh out of college or starting a second career–was: 1) be your most authentic self, as kids–especially high school students–recognize phoniness better than most adults; 2) get to really know your students as individual human beings. By taking a genuine interest in them, their journeys up to that point in life, and where they’re headed based on their goals and aspirations, teachers can forge a strong, important bond with that child. As I told my mentees, the rest will always come with time and work itself out provided that they put those two pieces of advice into practice.

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days because of two messages I received almost back to back. Over the years, I have received many nice notes, letters, cards, and emails expressing gratitude for our relationship. And what I’ve learned in the first 15 years in the classroom is that we never know how our words and actions will resonate with our students, which is why I always do my utmost to be an exemplar of a life well lived. I was deeply honored and grateful, then, to receive this short essay on leadership from a graduate of last year’s class who is currently at the United States Naval Academy. While she could have written about virtually anyone and how that person exemplifies leadership, she chose me. Her words were truly humbling:

In my junior year of high school, I was required to take a course known as the Theory of Knowledge. This class was a introspective curriculum which mainly focused on self-reflection and relies heavily on the teacher’s interpretation and dedication to the class. It is in this class that I saw one of the purest forms of leadership within the teacher. Mr H. was new to the program and thus took on a large amount of responsibility in order to enable our success.

I would argue that the majority of my enjoyment within the class stemmed from Mr. H’s ability to spark an intense curiosity and passion within all of his students. It was not through overbearing demands, but rather a nurturing of individual abilities. One of the most important traits that I learned through H was to listen, even when you didn’t always know how to respond. Compassion never fails. The ability to sympathize and lend an ear can often be more powerful than one’s own words. As an especially exasperated high school student, H’s ability to listen to the complaints of fifty teenagers and still make everyone feel like an individual proved unique.

Besides listening, a good leader understands when intervening is necessary. Obviously, the public school system does not stand as the pinnacle of premier education. Unlike most people who just accepted the flaws of a large structure, Mr. H continued to seek new ways to reform and better the environment he was in. From interviewing other teachers on a podcast, to speaking his grievances at school board meetings, H understood the need to take a stand. This determination to better his community at a large scale and still treat people as individuals was contagious. Most often leadership is done first through example.

At the purest form H never stopped showing how much he cared. How much he cared about people, knowledge, work, and life. These traits have greatly impacted how I approach situations, as well as my interactions with others. Through him I saw someone devote themselves to others, which in the end, defines leadership.

Then, only a day later, another former student from my time at Durant tagged me on Twitter to tell me the following:

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Another random, timely gift from the universe

I responded to him to thank him for his kind words as well as to share that I do indeed remember him. By my rough estimation, I have taught over 3,000 students at this point in my career. I may not be able to remember all of their names (especially those that were from more than a decade ago), but I often recognize their faces despite the years that have passed. Regardless, these small blessings are one of the many, many reasons I love being a teacher.

My wife and I do not have children, and that is a big reason why we truly love our students as if they were our own kids. I believe that love infuses our classroom and the interactions we have with all students, which is why I consider the relationships we build with them so critical for their future success. Being a teacher is an important job, but being good toward other human beings who are sharing this sojourn with us through this space in time, who have been given the same gift of life that has been bestowed upon each of us, is the pinnacle of what it means to teach. Regardless of a student’s grade average or mastery of content, it’s how we treat them with an inherent dignity that will forever resonate with them. As Maya Angelou famously said, “…people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”

Let’s ensure that our students feel loved.

P.S. – And, as always, if you are one of my current or former students reading this, thank you for being a part of my life. All of you mean the world to me.

Love,

– H.

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SCHS IB Class of 2019 surprised me on my birthday last August by having me come down to the cafeteria before bursting into screams and singing Happy Birthday, none of which would have happened had I not loved these students.

 

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Happy New Year!

I hope that you and yours enjoyed the holiday season and spent it surrounded by family and friends. School is now only a few days away and I wanted to share a brief update about the Teacher Voice blog and podcast as we move forward into 2019 and the second half of the current school year.

As is my usual habit, I spend a great deal of time during the winter (and summer) break reflecting on how I can improve as a teacher and, more importantly, a human being. Many of the books I read the last few weeks also led to much introspection about the quality of my life at the current moment and how it could be improved. One of the many realizations that I came to during the last couple of weeks is that I have devoted entirely too much time to Teacher Voice.

One of the most common questions that fellow teacher friends asked me during the first year and a half of the Teacher Voice project was some variation of how do you do it all? To be honest, “doing it all” had a cost, the biggest of which was a loss of time that I typically devoted toward self-care and self-betterment. In the first year and a half I wrote over 70 pieces for the blog and published over 40 episodes of the podcast, but I was sleeping less and found myself increasingly struggling to give my absolute best to those who matter most as a teacher–my students.

In an effort to restore my sanity and get back to basics, I am significantly scaling back what I will be doing on Teacher Voice. At most, I will write no more than two posts per month, and I will only publish one podcast during each month. Furthermore, I want 2019 to be the “Year of the Teacher,” mainly because I felt that the second half of 2018 focused exclusively on guests who were running for public office that would impact public education. Though I immensely enjoyed the conversations with those candidates, I’d like to share the voices and perspectives of those who are most often ignored by our elected officials–the educators themselves.

But here’s where you can help, fellow educator! I would still like the Teacher Voice project to become what I originally intended: a sounding board for those who are in the profession to share their perspectives and ideas by writing guest posts for the blog or being guests on the Teacher Voice podcast. Does this sound like you, dear reader?

There is still one podcast that I have yet to publish from last year, and I hope to have it published by next week. The first teacher guest podcast was recorded a few days ago, and that should follow later this month. But if you would like to write a guest post for the blog or appear on the podcast yourself, please use the “contact” feature at the top of the page or email me directly at 1teachervoice@gmail.com.

Thanks again for your interest and support of the Teacher Voice project!

– Ryan

P.S. – Be sure to Like or Follow the Teacher Voice Facebook page if you haven’t already. While I will not be creating as much original content moving forward, I will still share relevant public education news on that platform. You can also jump directly into the conversation by following me on Twitter as well.

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As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words…

With the recent release of the MSD Commission’s report, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri made headlines when he publicly performed an about-face on his position regarding arming teachers. On the heels of Gualtieri’s announcement in support of having teachers packing in the classroom, Polk School Board Member and vocal critic of the Florida Legislature, Billy Townsend, wrote this compelling piece loaded with reasons as to why this notion is a terrible one.

Upon seeing Billy’s publication, Julie Hiltz, NBCT, a fellow friend of public education and colleague here in Hillsborough County, had the following to say on Twitter. In an effort to have others read and share her words, I asked Julie if her statement could be published as a guest blog post here on Teacher Voice. Please read her words and share them with others on social media or, better yet, compose an email to your local legislators in both the House and Senate, asking them to stop ignoring the will of the people who overwhelmingly told polsters this past spring that they do NOT want teachers armed around their children.

So much is wrong with this idea of arming teachers I don’t know where to start. But since I have a chance to piggyback on this thoughtful, well researched piece I’m going to take my shot.

This is idea is not just stupid, it’s impractical.

1. There is a legitimate teacher shortage, as well as shortage of paraprofessional staff. It’s been that way for a decade. Lack of personnel ripples from the traditional classroom into all facets of school work and increases stress, trauma, and fatigue for students and staff.

Those stressors increase the likelihood of “bad people doing bad things” and decreases the likelihood of “good people doing good things.” We adults try but it’s exhausting and we frequently fail. Ask my kid how much patience and energy I bring home to him.

2. Even if you fully staffed every existing traditional classroom and support position you’re still undermanned. So many districts have had to cut those “extra luxuries” like mental health support, nurses, behavior specialists, teacher aides, and yes- librarians.

Who exactly in most schools still has a job where they would even qualify by statute to be armed? My kid’s in Pasco Schools and they cut librarians years ago. I truly believe the lack of a certified librarian does more harm to more kids than “not enough weapons” on campus.

3. Assuming you have all your traditional classroom AND support teacher and paraprofessional positions filled you’ve now created a situation where you’re sending a message that some lives are worth more than others. Charge in, custodians and librarians!

I work with kids and adults most hours of the day but as the librarian expected to be a first responder I’m, what… disposable? An acceptable potential loss? A stop gap? And I know I won’t be paid hazard pay or otherwise compensated because it’ll be “other duties as assigned.”

4. If the Florida Legislature wants me to act like a first responder than they’ll have to change the law to treat me like one. Stop taking 3% out of my paycheck for retirement, exempt me from jury duty and protect my home address, and stop requiring my Union to recertify annually.

5. Most schools districts are against the plan. They’ve voted (and revoted) as representatives of their constituents to not arm teachers. Apparently that’s not good enough for the Florida Legislature. Again.

If history is any indication of how this will go down, Tallahassee will make a law requiring the program and the citizens of the state will have to push a ballot amendment to counter that law because most of Florida doesn’t want it either. (See class size amendment)

6. That’s not the job you hired me for. You hired me to support literacy and technology. You hired me to create a safe environment for learning and both personal and professional development for kids and adults. You hired me to connect people with resources- material and human.

I don’t even fully do that. I haven’t been able to for years. I have to close my library for testing or class coverage. I have to sit in mandated trainings instead of planning or teaching with colleagues. I have to monitor student behavior in shared spaces and mediate conflict.

I have find a way to stock my shelves with books to support new curriculum (Common Core/FL Standards anyone?), engage students in reading relevant texts for personal growth and enjoyment, and replace well worn classics & favorites on a budget that hasn’t changed since 2001.

So, no. Stop coming at me with “you need to carry a gun to protect the children.” I’m already doing that the best I can. I’m protecting them from the fears and frustrations that abusive testing brings. I’m protecting them from giving up on themselves when everything gets hard.

I’m protecting my students from being hungry, being cold, being lonely, being bullied, being judged too harshly for reading a book that’s just for fun, being afraid to ask for help or being seen as weak for their compassion. I’ve got enough to keep me busy.

If you are a classroom teacher, you know exactly where Julie is coming from; if you are someone who has never been in the classroom, this gives you some small semblance of an idea of what it is like to wear so many hats/have too many jobs that they eat away at the core mission of what educators are here for. Even as I wrote in the original post back in March, when polling my own students, site administration, and even the military veterans I work with on daily basis, the overwhelming opinion was NO teacher should be armed or asked to carry a gun on campus, regardless of what kind of background checks and training he or she may have completed.

 

Ahira-Then-Now
Ahira Torres, former U.S. Marine and current HCPS elementary teacher

After interviewing Scott Hottenstein last year for a Veterans Day edition of the podcast, I wanted to speak to another veteran this year to begin an annual tribute to the men and women who serve our community and country, first as members of the military, then as public school teachers.

This year I reached out to Ahira Torres, a former U.S. Marine and current 5th grade teacher who commanded the attention of the audience about a year ago at a local school board meeting when she spoke. The United States Marine Corps celebrates its 243rd birthday this weekend, as that branch was founded on November 10th, 1775. We chatted about why she became a Marine, the values that particular branch of the military instilled in her, and how those values and experiences are infused within her classroom and the way in which she teaches.

Thank you so much for listening to this Veterans Day edition of the Teacher Voice podcast. Please share with others, especially those who have served in our armed services and then continued their public service as educators.

Here’s a short clip of Ahira speaking at that school board meeting nearly one year ago.

 

DeSantis
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican Gubenatorial Candidate

Although I already wrote a piece titled “All I Want for Midterms” that encourages others to vote for Andrew Gillum as a check against one-party rule, I read this comment on Facebook and thought it is an excellent overview of what has happened to public education during the last 20 years of GOP rule. Therefore, if you are a teacher who has already voted for Ron DeSantis or, more importantly, if you are about to vote for him on Tuesday, fellow teacher Kim Cook would like you to remember the following:

For those of you who are saying you won’t vote for Gillum, please consider the following:

The Florida legislature and governor’s office has been Republican for 20+ years. In that 20 years, we have seen nothing but bill after bill with the sole intent of destroying public education. The vast majority of those bills have been signed into law by the governor. Here is a review of the legislation:

1. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush introduced the FCAT in order to track student “progress” ignoring the fact teachers are entirely capable of assessing their own students.

2. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush then started using FCAT results to grade schools, falsely equating low socioeconomic schools with “bad teaching.”

3. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush linked passing the third grade FCAT with retention and the 10th grade FCAT with high school graduation–despite research that clearly demonstrated this would be detrimental to students and communities.

4. The Republican legislature and Jeb Bush linked school grades to money–awarding “A” schools with more money and “F” schools with less.

5. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott connected student test scores to teacher evaluations, otherwise known as VAM.

6. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott imposed a tax on educators by requiring them to contribute 3% of their salary to their pensions; however, that 3% goes into the general fund, NOT the pension.

7. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott changed the pension plan by requiring new hires to choose between the defined benefit pension and the 401k plan within the first nine months of their careers. Any educator who doesn’t choose by the required date automatically goes into the 401k plan, undermining the financial health of the defined benefit pension.

8. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed a law that decertifies any teacher union that falls under 50% membership, making that district’s contract and salary schedule null and void. Unions for first responders were exempt from the law (they are mostly men who vote Republican after all).

9. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation creating the “Best and Brightest” program. B&B bypasses providing the money to districts so that it can be put into salary schedules. The B&B money is considered a bonus, so it doesn’t count towards teachers’ pensions. The money also cannot go to “non-instructional personnel”–educators like media specialists (I teach ALL day every day, but nope, I’m not eligible), guidance counselors, deans, etc.

10. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation that allows voucher schools; thus, tax dollars go to private, often religious, schools, that do not have the same accountability measures as public schools. They have expanded the program just about every legislative session.

11. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott have created laws to turn over public schools to for-profit charters. We have an entire district in Florida that is now a “charter” district.

12. Many Republican members of our legislature own or have a vested interest in charter or voucher schools and testing companies, yet they pass legislation that pads their wallets.

13. The Republican legislature and Rick Scott passed legislation that requires school districts to harden schools, yet didn’t fully fund the program. They also allow “non-teaching personnel” like me, the school librarian, to carry guns.

14. The Florida legislature fully intends to continue to destroy our pension bit by bit. My state senator, Keith Perry, admitted this. He told us that the state had no business running a pension program.

15. From Ceresta Smith: The Republican legislature and Rick Scott made Bright Futures Scholarships harder for non-whites to receive as they upped the bar on standardized tests, which provide advantage based on class and race.

16. The Florida legislature and Rick Scott took professional service contracts (sometimes referred to as “tenure”) away from teachers hired after July 1, 2008.

Most likely, our legislature will continue to be Republican dominated. If we don’t have a Democratic governor to veto the legislation that will continue to destroy public schools, destroy our salaries, and decimate our pension, we are sunk. I don’t know about you, but I’m counting on my pension in retirement. I don’t know what we’ll do if it’s not there, or if the state tries to pay us off with a lump sum, as other states have done.

If all Gillum does is veto destructive legislation, he’s still better than having DeSantis who will rubber stamp every horrible anti-public education bill the legislature sends him.

Thank you for reading. Please be sure to share with other teachers who still have not voted, and encourage them to vote for Andrew Gillum, even if only for pragmatic reasons. As noted in my own piece, although he would not have been my first choice, I still supported him because one party rule never works in the long run. We must bring some semblance of balance back to Tallahassee, and we can start doing so by electing a Democratic governor who will need to seek common ground and compromise with our GOP-led Florida Legislature.

Spyglass
When you look into the future of education, what do you see?

Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.

But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.

Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.

Yesterday morning, I ranted a bit about this on my personal Facebook page, and here are a few key passages:

Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.

What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?

Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.

While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.

Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.

Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):

As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”

Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.

Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.

What do you think the future of education has in store for us? Share your thoughts below or comment on the Teacher Voice Facebook page.

Andy Warrener
Andy Warrener, NPA Candidate for House District 64, along with his daughter and son

The latest episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Andy Warrener, the NPA/Independent candidate in a three way race for House District 64 that covers northwestern Hillsborough and parts of Pinellas county. I specifically wanted to chat with Andy about public education issues and the rest of his campaign platform because, like me and about 1/3 of all Floridians, he does not belong to a political party.

Beyond the issues, we also have a substantive discussion about why he is running without party affiliation, why so many people are choosing to leave their previous party, and how the growing number of independent voters are starting to coalesce around grassroots organizations such as Unite America. Please listen and be sure to share with others, especially those who live in HD64!

If you’d like to learn more about Andy and his campaign, you can visit his website FloridaForAll or Like/Follow his page on Facebook. Be sure to hurry, though; early voting is in full swing and election day is Tuesday, November 6th!

P.S. – Andy also supports the Strengthen Our Schools initiative and was even the person who suggested the term be 10 years (rather than 15 or 20) so that it might be more palatable to Hillsborough County voters. Here is a clip of his speech from the August 24th special board meeting. The referendum can be found at the very end of the ballot; please vote YES!

For my entire voting life, I have never belonged to either major political party. There are parts of both platforms that I appreciate, but the political fracturing that began with Newt Gingrich and the subsequent polarization that has crippled our country and the parties themselves during the last 25 years has only cemented my belief that we should all be putting people over party politics.

Clearly I am not alone, as those who are choosing to leave their party affiliations or registering for the first time without a declared party are growing, and political independents now outnumber both those who identify as Democrat or Republican. It’s also the reason grassroots groups such as Unite America, whose slogan is “country over party”, are trying to organize fellow political moderates/centrists in an effort to bridge the divide that has opened up between the two major parties.

As an independent voter, I have voted for people on both sides of the aisle. This year, however, I voted for more Democrats than at any point in the 20 years I’ve lived here in Florida. In fact, the only Republican I voted for on this year’s ballot is Chad Chronister, the sheriff of Hillsborough County. As a Social Studies teacher who has lived under one party rule in two states (first in Rhode Island under a Democratic majority, then in Florida under the GOP for the last two decades), I will unequivocally state that one party rule never works–it always leaves segments of the population feeling underrepresented and unheeded.

My votes this year are an attempt to be pragmatic and bring balance back to our state government, especially in light of how Florida’s closed primaries disenfranchise all NPA voters. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano noted that we are only one of nine states that uses a completely closed primary system, which in turn fosters “a rabid form of group-think during the primary season.” And whereas independents would have been more likely to support more moderate candidates and perhaps change the shape of the general election, instead we are left with choices that are on the fringes of the left and right respectively.

The first time I saw Philip Levine speak in person, he said something that resonated with me: “I’m not left, I’m not right, I’m forward.” As someone who wants a candidate that can build bridges rather than burn them, I thought Levine’s entrepreneurial spirit and experience as a business developer and owner would draw moderate, business-minded Republicans, while his tenure as Miami Beach mayor that brought many progressive reforms would have made inroads with Democrats.

But my ballot only allowed me to vote for judges and school board members…

That’s not to say that I do not like Andrew Gillum; I like him a great deal: he’s charismatic, knows the issues, and has had a solid campaign platform since day one. And most importantly to me and millions of other public education advocates all across the Sunshine State, Gillum has a laser-like focus on public education and the lack of funding that has brought the system to its knees after 20 years of Republican rule.

FEFP
Since 1998, this has been the GOP-led Florida Legislature’s directive.

While this has been written about numerous times (About Those Stubborn Facts; Numbers Don’t Lie), the most salient fact everyone should know is that in 1998 when the GOP took full control of our state government, Florida ranked 27th in per-pupil spending; 20 years later, Florida has fallen to 44th in the U.S. Back then, Florida spent $6,443, but to have kept up with inflation our current level of funding would need to be $9,913.

It’s now $7,408, over $4,000 below the national average.

And it’s not just public education. Florida ranks dead last in the entire country when it comes to investing in public services, despite the fact that we are the third most populous state with a one trillion dollar economy. In fact, by just about every single metric possible Florida has gotten worse on rankings lists during the last 20 years of Republican reign. Unless you’re part of the richest 1% of Americans (and Florida has a high concentration), a major stakeholder in a large corporation, or a politically connected individual, things have only gotten worse for you.

If you are a “values voter” who has voted Republican in the past out of personal conviction, you have done so to your own economic peril, especially if you work in public education in any way. I am not advocating voting for Democrats because I believe wholeheartedly in every aspect of their platform; instead, I do so out of sheer pragmatism and a need to bring balance back to our state government so that it will be more responsive to the needs of its people rather than an entrenched establishment that only cares about the special interests that fill its campaign coffers.

I believe in compromise. I believe in seeking a middle ground when it comes to policy making decisions.  I believe in representation that is truly responsive to the citizenry. And I believe the only way we are going to get back on track is by electing Andrew Gillum as our next governor and hopefully getting close to even in the Florida Senate. While the House is too lopsided to bring parity in one fell swoop, especially in light of the gerrymandered districts in which we all live, any seats that are picked up will benefit us all. Florida is a great state and could be so much more. Let’s all vote to ensure we have a balanced government starting Wednesday, November 7th.

P.S. – If you’ve read this far and also live/vote in Hillsborough, please support our schools by voting YES on the Strengthen Our Schools initiative that I wrote about previously in Why We Must Pass Both Tax Referenda: The “Numbers Don’t Lie” Redux and Hidden Benefits: The Virtuous Cycle of Economic Activity in Hillsborough County. Our students and staff deserve so much more than the Florida Legislature has given us!

Christmast Morning
Hopefully this will be my reaction when I read the results of this year’s elections the next day.

Fentrice Driskell
Fentrice Driskell, Democratic Candidate for House District 63

This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features Fentrice Driskell, a Harvard and Georgetown Law School graduate, partner at Carton Fields law firm in Tampa, and the Democratic candidate for House District 63.

Although she always knew that running for public office would be in her future, she did not realize she would run so soon. We discuss her impressive resume, why she’s running, and what she would like to do in Tallahassee. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in HD63.

Want to learn more about Fentrice? You can check out her amazingly alliterative website, Fentrice For Florida, of find her on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

Debbie Katt
Debbie Katt (far right), Democratic Candidate for House District 57

The latest edition of the Teacher Voice podcast turns away from school board races and back toward the state level, featuring Debbie Katt, a software engineer from the Valrico area who is campaigning for the HD57 seat vacated by Jake Raburn-R.

Among the priorities Debbie would like to address in Tallahassee, public education funding is the top of her list. We also discuss her vision for sensible gun control; a regional approach to investment in the Tampa Bay area’s transportation infrastructure; how funding for the arts has been decimated in recent years, and the negative financial impact that brings to other local businesses. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in House District 57.

As we discussed during the podcast, if you’d like to learn more about Debbie or her platform you can visit her campaign website. Debbie is also on Facebook and Twitter if you’d like to connect with her on social media.

Thanks again for listening and supporting the Teacher Voice podcast, everyone!

P.S. – Sorry for the background noise in the first half. Apparently librarians get real rowdy once they go on break in the staff lounge…but I guess that’s to be expected after being quiet all day!

My father was a business man before he retired. He understood the value of investment, especially in the companies for which he worked or outright owned. And while it may be a platitude, he drilled into me the concept of “you gotta spend money to make money.”

After living in Florida for over 20 years and witnessing the growth in Hillsborough County, I am amazed at what we have accomplished with the little tax revenue we’ve generated over that time. As our population grew and the economic base expanded, it has largely been a wash. But the last several years we have had a Florida Legislature willing to cut services to the bone, especially public education, all in the name of saving pennies for families.

The time has come for the citizens of Hillsborough to band together, pass both referenda (schools and transportation), and make a real investment in our local community.

Regardless of how any individual feels about either of these sales tax increases, the truth is it will cost each of us–on average–about 50 cents per day to pass both. All told, this will generate well over $400 million dollars per year between the two, the vast majority of which will be immediately reinvested in our local businesses and create a virtuous cycle of economic activity.

In the video above, I spoke about how the infusion of capital outlay money for the school district means that those dollars will largely go to local contractors to install new HVAC units, repair roofs, build new schools, paint old schools, upgrade technology, etc. When the district spends that money locally, those companies in turn can then reinvest in / grow their own companies by hiring more employees and giving them raises, which those employees will then inject their wages back into our local economy, thereby collecting more additional tax revenue which can be used for additional projects that require spending more money, and over and over…hence the virtuous cycle.

It is evident that many people from all walks of life and both sides of the aisle are realizing that this is an opportunity to invest in Hillsborough County in ways we haven’t seen for a long time–if ever. Beyond having the Tampa Bay Times already endorse both the transportation referendum and school referendum, even more telling is having groups such as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and pro-business conservative Republicans such as Ken Hagan back the sales tax increase to support schools.

Business leaders know that this investment in our community is long overdue. They realize that the potential for a virtuous cycle of economic activity is one of the many hidden benefits that are being overlooked by naysayers. Investing in our students and schools, as well as our transportation infrastructure, will only continue to lure more people and businesses to Hillsborough County, expanding our entire economic base and generating more momentum in the virtuous cycle.

Please join me and many others in voting YES on November 6th to support our entire local community here in Hillsborough County.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about how to help our students and schools, please visit the website for the parent-led coalition, Strengthen Our Schools, or check out the HCPS information page. You can also learn more about the All For Transportation referendum here.

Previous Related Posts: About Those Stubborn Facts…; Numbers Don’t Lie; Why We Must Pass Both Tax Referenda: The Numbers Don’t Lie Redux

Virtuous Cycel
Let’s Create a Virtuous Cycle of Economic Activity in Hillsborough! Vote YES on 11/6 for both

Karen Perez
Karen Perez, Mental Health Counselor and HCPS School Board Candidate, Countywide District 6

Continuing the back-to-back episodes for the Hillsborough School Board Countywide District 6 race, this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Karen Perez, the other finalist who made it past the primary and into the general election on November 6th. Karen and I sat down earlier this week to talk about her career as a mental health counselor, why she is running for school board, and what her priorities will be if elected. Please listen to what she has to say and share with other voters!

If you’d like to learn more about Karen, you can visit her campaign website, check out her page on Facebook, find her on Twitter, or meet her in person at one of the many campaign events around Hillsborough County.

IMG_2536

On this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast, I sat down and spoke with Henry “Shake” Washington, one of the two finalists who made it past the primary and into the general election on November 6th. Although Shake has already been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, I invited him on the podcast so that voters could hear from the man himself. We discuss his 42 year career with HCPS, why he decided to run for the School Board, and his vision for the future. Please listen to what he has to say and share with others!

If you’d like to learn more about Shake, you can visit his campaign website, Like/Follow his page on Facebook, or meet him in person at one of the many upcoming campaign events around Hillsborough County.

The above video contains my complete comments on the lack of taxation. Please watch for context for what is detailed below.

It is no secret that school districts all across the Sunshine State have been forced to squeeze blood from a stone by the Florida Legislature for over two decades, and especially since the Great Recession. As noted in the first “Numbers Don’t Lie” piece, Florida went from 27th in per-pupil spending in 1998 to 44th in 2018. Had we kept pace with inflation alone from 20 years ago, Florida would need to spend $9,913 per student. Instead, we currently spend $7,408.

But it’s far worse than simply not keeping pace with inflation. When Ernest Hooper and I were interviewing candidates at the Tampa Hob Nob a few weeks ago, HD64 Rep. Jamie Grant–by his own admission–stated that the three areas of the economy that have actually outpaced inflation were health care, higher education and K-12 education. This effectively compounds the problem, because not only has the Florida Legislature refused to make a meaningful investment in public education, their decision to be parsimonious has made the reduced spending power of those scant dollars that much more signficant (assuming his statement is true).

Hillsborough County is not the only county seeking tax referenda. It’s happening all over the state, which John Romano wrote about recently in the Tampa Bay Times. Going back to this past March, citizens of various counties are 12 for 12 in voting for some type of tax referendum to support their schools. Clearly voters are starting to understand that Tallahassee has gotten us all into these messes because of its ideological zeal for reducing taxes.

IMG_2267
The Great Taxation Paradox: No one wants to pay, yet we need the services they provide.

People who stand against the tax referenda do so for two principal reasons: 1) they claim “we’re taxed too much already”; 2) they believe Hillsborough County Public Schools has mismanaged its funds. Let’s examine these claims in detail:

“We’re Taxed Too Much Already”

Regarding the first claim, this is typical response from just about anyone when the subject of raising taxes is mentioned. The facts, however, do not support this claim. If anything, we are taxed too little in a state that is experiencing such rapid population growth. The lack of taxation is directly linked to: the unwillingness to investment in public education by the Florida Legislature, resulting in students and staff sweating in schools; the traffic congestion we get caught up in on a daily basis; why Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has one of the lowest deputy-to-citizen ratios in the state, etc. Simply put, there’s not enough money to go around.

Mitch Perry’s excellent piece in The Florida Phoenix last month detailed why so many counties are seeking various school and transportation referenda and, most notably, linked this report that highlights two key facts that were addressed during my comments to the school board:

1. Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to “tax burden” (i.e. per-capita tax revenue generation).

2. Hillsborough County ranks 52nd out of 67 counties in Florida, which means we have the 15th lowest tax burden in the second lowest state in the U.S.

To say that “we are taxed too much already” is a preposterous statement that clearly ignores these facts and traffics in hyperbole when one considers the actual numbers.

HCPS Mismanages Its Funds

When it comes to the second claim about HCPS mismanaging its funds, it must be addressed in two parts. First, there are the optics of some of the board’s more questionable spending decisions over the last three years. Many critics often cite spending nearly a million dollars on the Gibson Report, nearly a million dollars for new school board offices/relocation of Human Resources from its original location to the Instructional Services Center, remodeling/refreshing the audio-visual equipment in the board room, etc. All told these items add up to perhaps $3 million across the last three years, which amounts to approximately 0.00033% of its total annual budget per year.

This is clearly a case of picking out a few trees while missing the entire forest.

Fiscal Stewardship
It took many painful cuts to get to this point, but Hillsborough citizens should be reassured that HCPS is doing its best with what little funding it receives from both state and local sources.

In truth, however, Hillsborough County Public Schools has done a great job of reigning in its deficit spending during the same period. This fact is all the more amazing when one considers the significance of this in light of continually declining purchasing power when dollars are adjusted for inflation. Many citizens of the county, for instance, may not realize that there has been a sharp reduction in “PECO” funding (Public Education Capital Outlay, the source that pays for installation and maintenance of HVAC systems, building and repairing schools, upgrading technology, etc) for several reasons:

1. At the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the Florida Legislature–the governing body that effectively caps the tax rates that can be applied by school boards–reduced the millage rate from 2.0 to 1.5. Despite the economy recovering and now thriving, Tallahassee has never raised the millage rate back to pre-recession levels.

2. In addition to the millage rate never being restored, outgoing Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, famously quipped “Hell, no” in 2017 when asked if the Legislature would leave tax rates alone and allow rising property values to raise additional funds for education. Despite the Senate being okay with such a sensible compromise, the Grover Norquist anti-tax zealots in the House held firm and rolled back the rates even more.

3. Much of the revenue generated for PECO comes in the form of utilities taxes, including landline telephones, which hardly exist outside of businesses any longer. Therefore, a lot less money is going into those particular coffers at the state level.

Put this all together and what we get is a perfect fiscal storm that looks like this chart.

Capital Funding History
And people wonder why there is no money to fix A/C or otherwise repair our schools

While no one ever likes paying taxes, I would argue that there is a cost of paying too little. Having lived in Florida for just over 20 years now, I have watched our schools deteriorate and our roads fall apart while simutaneously becoming more clogged thanks to two decades of rampant, unchecked sprawl that has had little oversight and even less funding devoted to overcoming these challenges. I would highly encourage anyone who is reading this and lives in Hillsborough County to share this information with friends/family and vote for both of these referenda so that our citizens no longer have to live with the disastrous decisions being made by the Florida Legislature.

Furthermore, especially when it comes to the school district referendum in particular, please bear the following in mind: 1) the referendum can only be used for capital expenses; 2) there will be an oversight committee comprised of six citizens who have no connection to the district and will oversee how the money is spent on projects; 3) for the average Hillsborough citizen, the additional tax will mean about 17 cents per day. Undoubtedly, there will be naysayers who still want to vote no for their own personal reasons regardless of these facts. To them I paraphrase Voltaire by saying we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our students, our schools, and our future depend on it.

Referendum Details
For more details, click here.

 

Lare, Joanne, Luke 2

This week’s episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is the follow-up special edition featuring the other slate of officer candidates for leadership of the Florida Education Association. Joanne McCall, Lawrence “Lare” Allen, and Luke Flynt are running for President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer respectively. As with the previous podcast, the candidates share their histories and why they are running, their vision for the future of FEA, as well as why teachers and ESPs should join their locals. Please listen and share with others, especially those who will be delegates at the FEA DA next month.

If you’d like to learn more about Joanne, Lare, and Luke, you can visit their website, and follow/interact with Joanne (@joannefea), Lare (@LareAllen83), and Luke (@laflynt) on Twitter.

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Backside of the Leadership! Vision! Integrity! Mailer
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Front of the Leadership! Vision! Integrity! Mailer

 

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About a week ago, ABC Action News caught up with the Florida Department of Education’s Commissioner, Pam Stewart. The reporter in the video had been trying to get an official comment regarding the on-going saga of teachers who are losing their jobs due to not being able to pass one of Florida’s teacher certification exams.

Bear in mind, however, that many of these teachers have already demonstrated their skills in the field, had been rated “Effective” or better, had developed a rapport with the students they serve…yet were let go nonetheless.

This truly is “must see television”:

To provide some context, ABC Action News has been investigating this issue for about a year and a half, starting in March 2017. They had updates to this story in July of that same year, May 2018, again this past July, and culminating in this report from last week.

The shortest version possible of what has happened is this: in 2015 Pearson debuted new tests and pass rates quickly plummeted. Many teachers discuss their struggles with the mathematics portion of the General Knowledge Test, despite the majority of these teachers not even teaching math. Ever.

The one year I worked as a new teacher mentor coincided with the new, more challenging tests, and it was almost always the General Knowledge Test that was holding back first and second year teachers. One of my mentees, for instance, couldn’t pass the essay portion of the GK. She hailed from Puerto Rico, taught Spanish, was adored by her students, yet had to pass a meaningless portion of a test that had no real bearing on her ability to teach Spanish.

Compounding this problem is the statewide (national, really) teacher shortage. More and more “new” teachers are people who are making the transition to a new career, not a young person entering the profession from college. If someone hasn’t used their math skills in 10 or more years, they will have eroded significantly.

And, again, if a person is hired to be an art (or any subject not related to math) teacher, should she need to be able to do the following?

Test Questions
Sample Questions from the GK test, courtesy of Jeff Solochek and the Tampa Bay Times

In the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, one would hope that the state would offer some temporary reprieve on some of the testing requirements, especially the General Knowledge Test that seems to be the biggest barrier to staying in the profession. What’s more curious is that Florida does this to no other profession. No one who is going to take the bar exam to be a lawyer has to also take this test. It seems logical that if a person can earn an undergraduate degree such as a B.A. or B.S., s/he has the basic skills necessary to work in any professional domain.

Eliminating the GK test would not necessarily mean it is easier to become a teacher. A person still would have to pass the Florida Teacher Certification Examination and a Subject Area exam, and rightly so. A candidate should be able to know and understand the laws that govern the profession, the ethical obligations they hold as teachers, and demonstrate mastery in the content the educator will teach to students.

But having to prove you went to college 10 or 20 years after the fact by taking and passing the “General Knowledge” test? Absurd.

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(Sweet Incredible Hulk GIF that wouldn’t embed. You know you want to click the link.)

Other questions arise with this approach as well:

When these teachers who have already been deemed effective during their first few years lose their jobs, who replaces them? Who will connect with those students? A long-term substitute? Pam Stewart realizes that teachers aren’t growing on trees, right?

Why do only traditional public school teachers have to pass all these tests to earn their certification? Charters and private schools can hire people with no credentials, yet the FLDOE will kick good people to the curb because they have rusty math skills?

In the end, Commissioner Stewart’s horrible handling of this reporter is telling in three ways: 1) she’s hangry, and you wouldn’t like her when she’s hangry; 2) the FLDOE clearly does not want to discuss this issue, with her even going so far as to offer a deflective answer about turnaround schools; 3) she clearly has never, ever–not once–understood nor empathized with the plight of teachers and ESPs all across the Sunshine State who routinely sacrifice their lunch time for their students on an almost daily basis.

But, hey, like the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recently wrote, “No wonder there’s a teacher shortage in Florida

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Carole, Fed, and Andrew
Carole (left), Fed (center), and Andrew (right) are looking to “Transform Action Into Power”

This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features three guests that comprise one of the election tickets running to become the leaders of the Florida Education Association. Fed Ingram, Andrew Spar, and Carole Gauronskas are running to be the President, Vice President, and Secretary-Treasurer respectively. We sat down earlier this summer at the AFT Convention for them to share why they are running, their vision for the future of the FEA, and why teachers and ESPs should join their local unions. Please listen and share with others, especially those who will be delegates at the FEA DA next month.

If you’d like to learn more about Fed, Andrew, Carole and their candidacy, you can Like/Follow their campaign page on Facebook, and follow/interact with Fed (@fedingram), Andrew (@VUEPresident), and Carole (@cgauronskas) on Twitter.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Backside of the #GoForIt Campaign Card
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Front of the TAP / #GoForIt Mailer