It’s funny to think how much a single choice can affect one’s life. We don’t often recognize them in the moment they are made, but only in retrospect, often many years later when reflecting on how we got to a particular juncture in our life’s journey. For me, that choice was becoming a substitute teacher during the 2003-2004 school year. I was a graduate student working on an MA in Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, and I needed some extra money to make ends meet. I had already been teaching as a graduate assistant for over a year, and I was starting to discover that what I loved about teaching others was sharing what I had learned in my own past.
As I’ve said a number of times over the years, I never intended to become a teacher. Looking back on my career, what I now realize is that I am a deeply curious person who has always had a lifelong love of learning. If I had any success at teaching during nearly two decades in the classroom, it is primarily due to cultivating meaningful relationships with my students, as well as doing my best to inspire them to live their best lives as they left high school and moved into the real world. But that’s not to say the entire time spent with my students and colleagues was not fun. I would also unequivocally state that the time I spent teaching students of all levels, across three different disciplines, and learning so much from my peers and mentors along the way was worth every second of the last 17 years.
But taking leave last year effectively broke me. Like many others who had the time to reflect and re-prioritize life objectives during the pandemic, I decided to take part in the “Great Resignation,” which has seen many, many people walk away from their respective industries to find new work in other domains. Considering my wife and I are both teachers, we also thought it wise to diversify our income streams, especially in light of the financial turmoil our district is facing. There is so little money invested in education here in Florida that most educators have not had meaningful raises for years, and I highly doubt there will ever be any if I plod onward for another 13 years in this system as an educator.
To my colleagues past and present, whether at Durant, during my travels as a new teacher mentor, or at Strawberry Crest, thank you for being educators. Only those of us who work with students day in and day out know how challenging this job can be, especially if that meant staying in the classroom. The lack of resources and constant demands heaped upon our time has made the job inordinately difficult in the last five years or so, and I am afraid it will only continue to deteriorate. To every educator across Florida, I’ve said this before and it is worth repeating one final time: know your worth and get out while you can. It is amply evident that the state of Florida does not care about its educators. From the paltry pay to the insulting pension, Florida has—whether intentionally or not—created an education system that seeks to transform inspired young people into burned out veterans within 3-5 years. If most new teachers quickly leave the profession, they are not as burdensome on the district’s payroll and cost the state nothing in terms of retirement. While most teachers are afraid to leave the profession because they worry that “they don’t know how to do anything else,” I would encourage any educator to take stock of the myriad skills they have developed. Most of us are excellent communicators; can analyze data for trends and patterns; are astute and agile decision makers; empathize easily with others; as well as possess a whole host of other soft skills that would make us valuable to just about any employer. In the end, Florida has a lot of very talented people working in its ranks that could easily find a new career, and I personally think that the only thing that would get Florida to finally wake up is if most of the veteran educators suddenly quit en masse.
Finally, to my students, you were the reason I stayed for so long. You were the reason I woke up each day, excited to come to work knowing that I would be spending time with incredible young people who invigorated me, and pushed me to be my best when it came to learning, living, and loving. Thank you for letting me be my nerdy, weirdo self at all times. Thank you for sharing your lives, your passions, your dreams with me. Although I may not remember every single name, I remember and recognize most faces, even after many years apart. Personally, I believe life itself is an incredible blessing, and the relationships we forge with other human beings as we sojourn through this journey together are all meant to teach us something, to make us just a little bit better. I keep each and every one of you in my heart, mind, and prayers each day, and though we may never cross paths again I am honored and humbled to have been a small part of your life.
It’s common to say “never say never,” and the truth is that I may eventually be drawn back to the classroom due to my love of the students and sharing my learning. But I am taking this personal leave to try something new with the intention of never coming back. Although I feel broken in some way, the truth is the cracks had been growing for some time. Being an education advocate for the last 5 years has also hastened this, because trying to convince the powers that be that they are destroying the profession has been like shouting into a wind tunnel and all anyone can hear is the roar of the fan. For these reasons and so many more, I wish every Florida educator all the best…
Believe it or not, COVID-19 has thrusted education into the public consciousness and zeitgeist in a time when we need to discuss it the most. In the midst of these discussions, questions about equity and fairness are at the forefront. Both the mental and physical aspects of safety are being pushed to their limits in a time where a cough or a sneeze can become just as lethal as a bullet.
And yet the same outcome is occurring: nothing.
Being a teacher, educator, administrator, you name it, is not for the faint of heart. It’s a marathon of stamina and emotional reserves. You immerse yourself in relationships with a multitude of stakeholders, not even mentioning the 135 souls looking to you for guidance, support, and most of all: love. The closing of colleges of education at several universities is sad but not surprising. Pay aside, teaching is subjected to opinions from everyone….to the point where the passions of the Erin Gruwells, Ms. Frizzles, and Professor Keatings just vanish.
In these COVID times, the passion and energy should not be depleting. If anything, new methods and new material should be emerging. Quality project based learning should be the goal with a focus on career technical objectives. Technology should be opening the doors for more enhancements in education.
And yet the same headlines exist: legislatures slash education budget; teachers face increasing work loads with less funding; technology not accessible for every student.
The blame game continues. Policy still remains stagnant and all the while students are subjected to policies and procedures that made the 80s and 90s adequate in the classroom (I should know, I grew up during that time).
While we stand at the precipice hopefully staring into the horizon and seeking a new golden age of education, the only revelation that we have received is that everything old is still old again.
I never intended on becoming a teacher. The original plan was to go the university route and become a professor in formative Christianity. While working toward my MA in Religious Studies at USF, I started subbing to make a little extra money. Little did I know nearly 20 years ago that I would find my true calling in the classroom.
My inquisitive nature led me down all sorts of paths. Constantly curious and challenging myself to teach new subjects, I started in Language Arts, switched to Social Studies, moved to Mathematics, served as a New Teacher Mentor, and landed the dream gig with IB Theory of Knowledge. Across those years and disciplines, one ideal remained constant: the inherent dignity and worth of each and every child.
We are what we consume, and this is especially true when it comes to ideas. Our minds are largely shaped by our culture, our biases laid down long before we are aware. But we can combat some of the challenges these facts impose by acknowledging their existence and actively cultivating intellectual humility to overcome them. For me, personally, I’ve fed my mind a steady diet of philosophical works and the world’s sacred texts for the last 25 years, all of which has led me to become the human being and teacher I am today.
I may not know much about anything at all, but I do know this: life is sacred. We are here, now. Each and every day means something if we choose to see it as such. Everything can be pregnant with meaning if we focus on the larger picture of life. So when I walk into the classroom I have always carried these ideas in my heart and mind. My superpower as a teacher is and always will be to get students to believe in themselves, to understand that they, too, possess an inherent dignity simply for having been given the gift of this life. That they are worthy of love.
And above all else, know that you are worthy of love, and do your utmost to help others realize this too!
Namaste, Pax Vobiscum, and Much Love,
P.S. – I thought this poem (a parting gift from the SCHS IB Class of 2019) I keep on my work desk would be a fitting close to the sentiment of this open letter to my fellow educators here in Florida and beyond…
Are you men of your word? Because if you claim that you are, your empty promises and collective actions up to this point have demonstrated otherwise. Here are a few from the highlight reel:
7/22/20 Press Conference
This is the Year of the Teacher, right? It certainly doesn’t feel like it. In fact, the way we’re currently being treated, it’s more like Year of the First World Sweatshop Worker. For all the terrible analogous reasoning and examples that have claimed we are the same as Publix and Home Depot employees, the truth is that a sweatshop worker is the best analogy: cramped quarters; many bodies in the room; poor ventilation and sanitary conditions; lack of investment in both the physical buildings and the people who work within them; workers who have few if any choices about their employment conditions yet are forced to work to provide for their families, etc, etc, etc.
And whatever happened to all that “compassion and grace”? How do we reconcile these statements that you’ve previously made compared to your threat to fire educators during a massive teacher shortage, Commissioner Corcoran?
March = Compassion / August = Termination
It’s bad enough that both you and Governor DeSantis utter empty and meaningless promises, Commissioner Corcoran, but it is another thing entirely when you commit lies of omission on national television. The teacher shortage in the Sunshine State continues to grow by the day, and Florida ranks 43rd in public education investment and 47th in average teacher pay, despite your best propaganda efforts as seen below:
Though you trumpet this fake raise as something that will impact all, the money will be a pittance to most and there will most certainly be nothing left behind for the veteran teachers both of you are so desperate to push out of our workforce. Florida is woefully underfunded to meet the safety and health challenges presented by the novel coronavirus, and whatever little leftover funding remains will be dedicated toward meeting those needs. But the blood from this stone ran dry long ago, and it’s only gotten much worse since…
While both of you clearly have issues with making promises you have no intention of keeping, I am a man of my word. As a former New Englander with a rebellious disposition and love for civil disobedience when dealing with injustice, I am writing this to tell you or anyone else that “I’m your huckleberry” when it comes to challenging your threat, which is just more hollow blathering and bluster.
To that end, beginning Monday, August 31st, I will be calling in sick to work every day. I will be the dreaded “no-show” teacher you claim would be terminated. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching, because I will keep myself and my family safe by continuing to do my job on my own time and on my own dime. My students and their success are worth it despite Hillsborough County Public Schools denying my accommodation request, for which both of you should be held accountable. Trust me, each and every day I will be sure to record a short video to post on Twitter to publicly declare my defiance against yet another one of your vapid threats.
So go ahead. Fire me. I will still continue to show up and help my seniors earn their IB diplomas. My students and colleaguesare the reasons why I will stand up forall of us in Florida. Thousands of people have had their health accommodations denied and educators everywhere have once again had all of society’s woes heaped upon them, just as I predicted back in March. But neither of you clearly has any sense of shame, otherwise you would not be treating human beings who care for other people’s children this way. And until you do fire this veteran, highly effective two-time Teacher of the Year educator for taking a principled stand on behalf of others, I’ll keep showing up for my kids while constantly reminding you both of this classic line from Tombstone:
Billy Townsend is the only choice in the District 1 school board race who is committed to Polk County AND a better education system for all children across the state of Florida. Whether you are the parent of a student attending Polk County Public Schools, or an educator working within them, Billy will be a tireless champion of a better, more humane education system for all stakeholders.
As a fellow NPA who does not typically endorse political candidates, I admire Billy’s willingness to challenge the status quo rather than cave to political pressure from Tallahassee. Billy’s ability to consistently put people over politics, especially in his own county and community, also make his leadership a breath of fresh air in the stale political atmosphere of the Sunshine State.
Although there are many excellent pieces about Billy’s ideas on his website, this brief excerpt from an older piece clearly states his vision for the student and teacher experience within a classroom, believing in:
“…the radical idea of unshackling public schools from their stupid, soul-killing, industrial-era metrics of fact-retention. It advocates putting the classroom experience first. That’s exactly what I’ve campaigned on for six months. It’s what I’ve written about for years.
As I’ve said endlessly, I support a “private school” model for traditional public schools. Free teachers from meaningless standards. Emphasize depth of knowledge, not fact retention. Evaluate students by what they create and how they perform publicly. Develop citizenship through meaningful experience. I’m not saying that private schools do all of these things. I’m saying they can. They have the freedom to do it.” – Billy Townsend
Ending the era of “Test-and-Punish” Tallahassee style education should be the goal of every local school board member throughout the state of Florida. Billy Townsend is diligently working toward that aim, but he needs Polk County to put him back on the dais for the next four years.
A vote for Billy Townsend on August 18th, 2020, ensures he can continue this critical work on behalf of the students and educators of Polk County and beyond.
If you’d like to donate to Billy’s campaign, you can do so HERE.
Billy has also appeared on the Teacher Voice podcast on three different occasions, most recently immediately after January 15th’s “Rally in Tally,” which is the last on this list:
Teacher Voice – Episode 13 (still one of my favorite interviews). Here’s a quote: “I want people’s lives to get better. I want to grow the teaching profession. I want kids to enjoy and learn what they’re doing. That’s not happening in this corrupt model and the people who are responsible for it are owed a reckoning.”
Rather than unnecessarily expose myself to risk by addressing the board again, I decided to pen this open letter to the HCPS board members and submit it as my public comment for the record of the special called school board meeting taking place on Thursday, August 6th. Not only is this letter a plea for the board to unanimously vote to do the right thing, it is also a lament about how politically polarized we’ve become as a nation, which is both deeply distressing and disheartening.
Prefer to listen to the open letter? Click play:
Honorable Hillsborough County School Board Members:
We live in trying times and today you must make an important decision that will affect us all, regardless of our individual needs, desires and, yes, even choices. As elected leaders, you have been granted the consent of “We the People” to carefully consider the common good, balancing that ideal with our cherished individual liberty. The tension that teeters on the fulcrum between these two concepts has always existed and should be in balance, but our polarized political ecology as of late has clearly tipped the scale so far over that our county, country, and culture all suffer from the corrosive nature of hyper-individualism. Now, more than ever before, we must seek to unite again. Today, let Hillsborough County put people over politics so that we may move forward together.
Our second most sacred American historical document, The Declaration of Independence, contains the famous line concerning certain inalienable rights, and “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the order in which those three fundamental rights are listed. Does liberty come before life? Absolutely not. Life must come before liberty because it is a prerequisite for autonomy itself. This simple idea underscores how perplexed I and many of my fellow Americans have been about these claims regarding the use of masks, social distancing, and why we must offer enlightened individuals a choice to send their children to schools in the midst of a public health crisis. But if preservation of life is the highest good, the ultimate aim of what a democratic government is to provide to its citizens, why must some continue to elevate the idol of free choice over the lives of our children, our educators and their families?
Please do not misconstrue what is being said. As Americans, our liberty is dear to us all. But I hope to offer a brief lesson in ethics through two philosophical giants, one of whom is a champion of individual liberty and the author of one of my favorite essays, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Although this tract looms large in the minds of many disciples of freedom, Mill is also the philosopher who perfected an ethical approach known as Utilitarianism, which fundamentally argues in favor of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The other thinker is Immanuel Kant, arguably the most famous moral philosopher of the entire Enlightenment period, the very same fertile grounds on which our cherished ideals took root before being transported here by our Founding Fathers.
J.S. Mill is unambiguous in his assertions that individual liberty is the paramount good and that in all matters of one’s own body and mind, “the individual is sovereign.” He is the classic liberal who puts freedom above all else, except, like Thomas Jefferson, when it comes to potentially harming or killing others. In the introduction to On Liberty he states, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Furthermore, in the concluding chapter regarding the limits of authority of society over the individual, he lucidly claims “there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons beside himself.” Clearly, the conduct of those who are politically pressing to open during a pandemic undoubtedly affects others by threatening the health and lives of our broader community, meaning a vote for liberty over life is a moral failure.
Make no mistake, those who continue to tout their individual liberty over the common good and public health are wrong, ethically speaking, especially in light of how our foundational American ideals and values were firmly established on these same philosophical principles.
Beyond the utilitarian argument of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and lone moral prohibition of harming others in the utilitarian way of reasoning, we should also consider another ethical approach, Kant’s deontology. Also known as “duty ethics,” to comprehend the complex Kantian perspective it is perhaps best to think of a coin; the obverse being our “rights” and the reverse of the same coin being our “duties,” both of which are inextricably linked. For instance, if we have a right to property, others have an ethical duty to not steal that property from us. If we have a right to truth and transparency from our government and its elected leaders, then it has a duty to not lie or deceive the people. And perhaps most critically above all else, if we have a right to life, others have a duty to not kill or otherwise deprive any individual of his or her life.
On both of these ethical points I rest my argument with regard to keeping our schools closed for at least the first nine weeks. I will go so far as to state that anything short of a unanimous vote in favor of keeping our schools closed in order to maximize the preservation of life—especially in light of overwhelming evidence and the urging of our local medical community, the only group who has the knowledge and expertise to guide us through this challenging time—is a dereliction of your duty as a constitutional officer of Florida. Your supreme concern should be the safety of our students, staff, and remaining citizens of Hillsborough County. Any vote that dissents against common sense and the common good sends a strong signal that you, as an individual board member, will continue to put politics over people. A vote of dissent will also be an abject moral failure on your part, and I will never let you live it down.
Now more than ever our county, country, and culture need UNITY. We are supposedly the United States of America, but the reality says we are the Divisive Political Tribes of America. As an NPA who is a fiercely, independently minded moderate, I only want what is currently best for everyone. Unfortunately, this also means shared sacrifice for all, as we must temporarily put aside our individualism and freedom of choice for the common good and public health. Life precedes liberty; by voting to preserve the former, you guarantee the latter for our futures.
Below is a simple template email that you can copy, paste, and send to your principal. Feel free to make any necessary edits, but try to keep the email short and direct. Though they may not remain when copied and pasted, I have linked a few key pieces of information. Please see below the email for additional details or to download the Word Doc version of this email.
Dear Principal ______________,
I hope this brief message finds you and your family well during this unprecedented time. I cannot begin to imagine what has been asked of you by our district. Planning and scheduling two different options within one week must be an impossible task.
Due to the current CDC guidelines meeting the criteria for a high transmission area, I will be attending work remotely beginning tomorrow, (enter date). I am concerned for my health, as well as that of my family, neighbors, and the broader public. I hope you understand and respect this decision.
Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have both made assurances that educators who do not feel comfortable returning to the brick and mortar setting can engage in distance learning. I have made my request for an eLearning position, yet have not received confirmation. If you can confirm that I have received an eLearning position, please let me know at your earliest convenience; if you cannot confirm at this time, I will await my appointment. In the meantime, I will continue my own learning through professional development, focusing specifically on our new platforms to serve our students online.
I look forward to when the virus subsides and it is safe for all to return to our school.
P.S. – Feel free to edit how you see fit for your district.
P.P.S. – Here are a few key excerpts from the CDC guidelines regarding why our schools should remain closed until our COVID rates decline. Many continue to simply say “the CDC said…” yet have not read the specifics in the updated guidelines.
This letter to the HCPS School Board is written by Venus Freeman, a friend and veteran teacher colleague who, like me, teaches in high school. When I read this letter I felt it not only captured the emotional outpouring of educators I saw online after the special called board meeting of this past Thursday, but also articulated how unconscionably thoughtless and politically driven this “decision” was. Though the board will be meeting to decide our collective fates next Thursday, August 6th, there is an upcoming regularly scheduled board meeting this coming Tuesday, July 28th–please continue to email each of them your concerns and be sure to CC them toBoardPublicComments@sdhc.k12.fl.usso that they will be included as part of the public record.
Dear Members of the Hillsborough County Schools Board,
A story from WTSP on 7/23/202 asserts “Infectious Disease Experts Believe Schools Will Be the Epicenter for the Spread of COVID-19 This Fall.” The title alone tells the tale and explains what teachers have known since we ended the 2019-2020 school year, and what we have been certain of since Florida AND OUR DISTRICT became an epicenter for this disease. We have always understood that we did not have the resources to enact CDC guidelines for social distancing because even with unlimited funding, we do not have the teachers available to teach the increased number of classes that would be necessary to provide that social distancing. And frankly, with infection rates where they are, we should not be bringing students back into school buildings even if we could provide social distancing. I won’t rehearse the numbers for you, but I will remind you that Florida posted a new record for deaths both Thursday and Friday. With the numbers we are currently experiencing, there is simply no way we should be bringing students and adults back into school buildings because it’s not safe for anyone.
Important as it is, the need to implement eLearning for the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year is not the subject of this letter. My subject instead is how upset I am about the decision not to decide on that issue at Thursday’s meeting. The request to wait to make a decision after consulting with experts, and every vote that validated this idea, was completely disingenuous, and every teacher who was sitting on the edge of their seat yesterday waiting for a decision knows it. While COVID-19 is indeed a novel virus and we are still learning about it, everyone knows it is a highly infectious disease. Only someone living under a rock does not know that a classroom, with 30 or more people jammed into a confined space for extended periods of time, is precisely the most dangerous situation for spread of this disease. On our high school campuses, we routinely house more than 2,000 students, so every day potentially constitutes a super spreader event. We all know that there have been infections that occurred on campuses this summer, though the district has been less than transparent about these cases, and summer is the safest time on any campus for the spread of an infectious disease because summer is the time when there are the fewest people on campus. We already know ALL of these things, so there really was no need for experts at Thursday’s meeting, and there’s no reason why said experts could not have been consulted before the meeting or asked to attend if we wanted their comments in person. It’s not like the Board could not have predicted the subject coming up at the meeting.
You likely wonder, though, just why teachers—and I mean just about ALL of us—would be so upset by a simple delay. No big deal, right? WRONG. Firstly, many, many teachers I know have indicated that this has been the most stressful summer they have ever experienced because we have spent the entire time that we were supposed to be getting recharged for a new school year anxiously watching the news, waiting for some clear, detailed, concrete plan from our leaders, only to hear nothing for weeks and weeks and weeks, all while we watch infection rates and death rates climb. We have spent many sleepless nights this summer wondering what, if anything, we can do to protect our families, wondering if now is the time to retire, or what other options are available to us.
As if that weren’t enough, we are also trying to think about how we will provide instruction and trying to make plans for how we present our material because the single thing that is certain is that nothing will be “normal” this year, none of our tried and true practices can be relied upon in our current situation. But apparently, the Hillsborough County School Board is filled with people who think teaching requires no planning or preparation—apparently our school board believes teachers just walk into a building, stand up in front of children, and get started. While it’s disheartening enough to have members of the general public assume our work requires no actual work, it’s frustrating beyond belief to have the people who make decisions that affect our personal and professional lives every day do the same.
Your simple little delay, for frankly no good reason other than politics, costs us the entire first week of our pre-planning, precious time we should be using to prepare for the actual situation we will be facing. We CANNOT simply plan for BOTH online learning AND face-to-face instruction. Firstly, we do not have the time and secondly, these situations are so completely different we cannot formulate comprehensive plans for both. Training for these situations is dramatically different. How do we train for such entirely different situations simultaneously? Do we purchase supplies? Most teachers begin the school year with supplies for the year already purchased. But do we need to spend that money now?
Even more important than the vital planning and preparation time teachers lose to your delay, school guidance counselors in all of our schools, middle and high school especially, will have to go forward with changing the schedules for literally thousands of students as if face-to-face instruction is going forward. If we switch to eLearning for all, then they have to go change all of those thousands of schedules back. School administrators must go forward with setting their teachers up for eLearning for those who will fill those positions if face-to-face instruction goes forward and change their master schedules accordingly. Consider all this work at every school site around the district, work you have dismissed as nothing by your very decision, as if we don’t all have other work to do, as if it’s no big deal if we spend an entire week working on these projects, possibly only to find that it is effort entirely wasted. I don’t know how you feel about putting a week of your life into something only to have it rendered meaningless, but this is potentially the situation you are putting all these people in through your delay. A delay that has no justification except for a lack of courage.
Here’s the thing: there is absolutely no decision you can make that will absolutely keep everyone safe other than online learning for the first nine weeks. This virus is not going to magically disappear in the two weeks you have decided to waste. Teachers were frankly relieved to hear that the Board had elected to delay the start of classes because WE NEED THAT TIME TO PLAN. We’ve never taught in the middle of a pandemic before, except online at the end of last year, and if we have to do it again, we want to be better prepared to serve our students to the best of our ability.
So, essentially, you have set us up to fail yet again. Take away our ability to plan and prepare, then express disappointment and disapproval when teachers work harder than ever before (and we are normally very hardworking people) because our product wasn’t ideal. Well, if you want a high-quality product, you have to give us the time and the information we need to create that product. Contrary to popular belief, we do NOT simply walk into a classroom and start talking!
We teachers have spent this summer staying at home to stay safe, watching the infection rates climb, planning where we can by getting wills and other end-of-life documents in order. Just contemplate that reality for a moment: teachers have spent the summer getting their end-of-life documents in order as preparation to return to school! Because if you make us go back into brick-and-mortar buildings people will die, and there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be ME. Every teacher in this district has spent the summer with these thoughts as their constant companions. Think about the stress and anxiety that has caused for thousands of teachers across the 7th largest district in the country.
Other places where social distancing is easy are closed: county offices are closed, and those clerks and other employees are not sitting in enclosed spaces with over 30 people for extended periods of time! But teachers should walk back into classrooms gladly and just do their jobs. After all, it’s what we signed up for! No, not one single teacher I know joined this profession expecting to be told just to risk their lives every day, as if it’s a simple thing, as if our lives count for nothing. As if our work counts for nothing, as if our daily dedication, working many hours every day, every week beyond what we are paid for count for nothing. I wonder how you would feel if your life and the lives of your family members were treated as disposable.
Perhaps the School Board should remember that teachers are also their constituents, and we have lots of friends who are constituents, too, and we have long memories. Make a decision and give us the time we need to put together our plans to begin instruction online for the first quarter so we can make it as good as it possibly can be. Keep students AND teachers (ALL the adults in our buildings) and all our families safe.
For the last four years I have taught the capstone course of the International Baccalaureate Program, Theory of Knowledge. To be surrounded by amazingly talented and incredibly intelligent young people on a daily basis has fostered so much personal and professional growth, most especially in my own epistemic humility. On any given day I am bound to be asked questions that will be met with what what appears to be an uncommon answer in today’s day and age: “I don’t know.”
Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, armchair infectious disease specialists, backyard barbecue virologists, and yard sale epidemiologists have come crawling out of the web’s woodwork. Apparently all it takes is reading a few articles about herd immunity to become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, and then SHOUTING DOWN opponents in all caps to demonstrate why one’s opinion is more valid than the other’s.
Here’s a tip: don’t have an opinion on something that is well outside one’s “circle of competence”. But if an opinion must be held and declared, perhaps put an asterisk on it if there is no expertise to back it up.
Over the last four months, I’ve read about 25 books. All of them have taught me one thing: I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Like Socrates, the longer I live the more confident I become in my ignorance–my intellectual humility–not my knowledge. Considering the nature of the pandemic and the pronouncements I continue to see on social media and the web, here are two incredibly powerful pieces of knowledge that can help any person cultivate epistemic humility.
Annie Duke’s Thinking in Betsis an excellent read on decision-making when all the pertinent information is unavailable. The key takeaway I will share is this: human beings are evolutionally hardwired to believe what we hear. As Duke states it, we cannot afford a “false negative,” so for thousands of years when we heard a rustle in the bushes we looked, believing a predator was behind us. Most of the time we get “false positives”, just as our ancestors figured out it was wind-rustling the reeds and not the feared saber-toothed tiger.
But now think about what that fact means in relation to how crazy coronavirus conspiracies are spread by word of mouth before becoming manifest on the internet and proliferating wildly from there.
The other book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile(the author himself recommends this as a standalone, but I would encourage all to read the entire Incerto series). One of his most interesting ideas is akin the logical fallacy known as argument ad ignorantiam, but much better sounding when Taleb pronounces “the mother of all mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence.” Although he is specifically discussing iatrogenics in this context, we can see it in the flawed thinking of others. For instance, consider COVID naysayers in the world who claim the virus is a hoax because no one they know (absence of evidence) has gotten sick from it, equating this as “proof” (evidence of absence) for why the coronavirus is not real.
When taken together, these two ideas should make us very cautious to claim to know anything about what is going on with the pandemic. Annie Duke specifically offers a wonderful technique about how to challenge one’s own beliefs, which often go unstated: “Wanna bet?” When our family and friends casually say this phrase after we make a claim, it typically unnerves us and makes us think about how we came to believe what we said aloud in the first place. This mental pause is enough to make us reassess the belief and perhaps give it a quantitative ranking; the lower the percentage, the less likely the person is to be certain the belief is correct–and certainty is amassive cognitive challenge in and ofitself (the “I’m Not Sure” above is a nod to Duke herself).
So when you hear our elected leaders or even next-door neighbors claim that they will send their child to school despite the coronavirus, “knowing” that transmission rates are low among kids because they’ve read an article or two, ask them (if possible): “Wanna bet?” (the central question that drives inquiry in Theory of Knowledge is “How do you know?”) When thinking about whether or not to send Florida’s children to a brick and mortar setting, parents must make the ultimate bet because the wager is the lives of their children or their own lives if the kids bring the virus home to them.
I’m not willing to make or take that bet. Are you?
In the end, what we claim to “know”–especially regarding all things related to the coronavirus–should be suspect and constantly re-evaluated, both in light of new findings and an awareness of our inability to truly understand them beyond the literacy required to read the words on the page. Every single one of us is far more ignorant than knowledgable about what is happening, and perhaps that epistemic humility will have us all saying my favorite three words a whole lot more…
P.S. – If you are even remotely curious about Nassim Taleb, please read this wonderful recent profile from The New Yorker.He is the ultimate contrarian and made me realize that I am far more conservative/risk-averse than I ever imagined possible. Back in late January, he and a few other mathematicians were growing concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in China, and published a paper in a journal effectively stating that we should shut down the country, begin social-distancing, minimize movement, and wear masks to slow/stop the transmission and save our economy. As he now laments, “we could have spent pennies and now we’ve spent trillions.” Like me, he is no fan of all this debt, which we will ultimately have to pay for now that the “skin in the game” of corporations has been transferred from Wall Street to Main Street.
What began as a conversation between the two authors in 2014 evolved into a jointly published article in The Atlantic under the same name in 2015; if you’d like to get a taste for the book, the article can be accessed here, but it is a mere primer compared to the six explanatory threads that they review in the course of the book itself.
The book is largely focused on a number of emergent phenomena in our culture over the last 20-25 years and how these are intertwined in ways that helped produce these outcomes despite our best intentions in creating them. In essence, the shift in our parenting strategies beginning in the mid-1990s, combined with a number of other factors such as screen time / social media usage, “concept creep” within what the authors have dubbed “a culture of safetyism”, increasing political polarization, and other detrimental forces have led to an exponential rise in mood disorders (depression and anxiety in particular) among iGen (or Generation Z) and a number of other challenges arising out of an over-structured childhood.
Although the entire book is riveting for a host of reasons, the chapters on education were particularly alarming and yet wholly unsurprising for any teacher who has been in the classroom over the last decade (the first iGen students turned 18 around 2013) and could see the difference first hand between the later Millennials and the kids who started showing up on high school campuses circa 2010 or so. Here are three subheadings for sections in one chapter alone that will resonate with any teacher or parent who has been raising a child during the last 20 years, all of which the authors argue have been incredibly detrimental to our students and their abilities when it comes to thinking, settling disagreements with one another, etc, etc, etc.
Loss of Unstructured FreePlay
In essence, the average American born before 1985 had parents that allowed them to go outside on their own at roughly 6.5 years of age, give or take one year. This builds independence and autonomy in the child. Moreover, “kid societies” based on the democratic concept of free association was quite common, and children who played together engaged in creativity when coming up with novel games or learned about fairness through adjudicating their own disagreements. Virtually all iGen children grew up with a heavily structured childhood without these features, which has bred a lack of resilience and self-advocacy in many young people.
Childhood as Test Prep
The teachers who read that line alone need to look no further. We have known how much all the testing is pointing us in the wrong direction and doesn’t produce meaningful outcomes, which the authors review ad nauseam. Far worse than our kids not actually learning anything of value, the focus on testing actively erodes creativity and curiosity, dampens the desire to learn in general (because the incessant burden of studying for meaningless tests only stresses students out, creating a feedback loop), and leaves far too many of our future citizens feeling worthless because of a single–and BAD–measure.
Childhood as Academic Resume Building
For my fellow high school teachers, this is where it comes full circle. Due to the nature of the over-structured childhood, parents feel the need to push or plug their child into any and all extra-curricular activities that may help the student “succeed” by getting into the best colleges/universities. In effect, it is a laundry list of activities that typically give students no physical rest and only adds to the mental anguish of trying to keep up with everything.
* * * * *
In the end, there are a number of actionable steps we can take to address these challenges, but it will take every education stakeholder to read this book and encourage others to do so. As someone who has been teaching students about mindfulness meditation to help decrease stress, improve attentional stamina, and better regulate one’s emotional responses, I know first hand that these techniques work and would be beneficial to introduce at a young age before getting too deep into school and life. The authors actually list this as their second suggestion, with the first being to teach all students the basics of CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are a number of very real and incredibly practical steps that we could take to help our kids moving forward, but the first thing you or anyone can do is read this book, think seriously about its implications, and then share these ideas with others, especially policymakers who could implement these ideas as we begin to re-imagine what education could and should be for the future.
P.S. – If you’re not a book reader, I would highly encourage you at least listen to this episode of The Knowledge Project, which is perhaps my favorite podcast of all time. Although Greg is not part of the interview, Jonathan (the other co-author) covers the highlights of their research in this riveting 75 minute interview. Just click this link below:
Now that we’ve all survived our first week of “eLearning” together, the most salient feature that stands out in contrast from virtually everything else right now is the power of choice. Never underestimate this super power every single of one of us has, especially when it comes to shaping the direction and outcomes of our future.
Although the senior class is in a different position compared to the juniors, both groups can harness the power of choice, first and foremost, by deciding how you choose to see life in this current moment: will the pandemic and subsequent quarantine lead to tremendous personal growth because you have framed these challenges as an opportunity? Or will you choose to see yourself as a helpless victim of circumstance who is powerless?
No one can deny that there is much that is currently beyond our control at this point. We must contend with the situation as it continues to emerge. But there is a freedom that comes in exercising how we choose to react to the events of our days, beginning with choosing a cheerful attitude at the outset to help stabilize our minds for whatever may arise later on.
Personally, I start off with a brief gratitude ritual that I have been saying to myself upon waking for many years now. With each breath, I recite part of a mantra that begins with “I am grateful for this life,” and continues with “I am grateful for this new day”; “I am grateful to wake up once again next to Erin”; “I am grateful for this breath”; culminating with “I am grateful for all the bounty and blessings this day will contain.”
By actively choosing to internally recite these words to myself, I establish the attitude I want to have with me as I go about the day. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, I walk around with a smile strapped to my face most of the time because I am grateful to simply have another day in this life. Even in the midst of the pandemic, my spirits have not dampened precisely because I have continued to choose how I see the world and recognize that, even in times of great uncertainty, every day is still another opportunity to grow and improve as a human being.
As we all move forward this week, take some time to think about the choices you’ve been making, especially in how you frame your current experience(s). In speaking with dozens of you across last week, I know that this time has been a struggle for many. But I also believe in you and your ability to thrive despite the current circumstances, and by choosing to believe in yourselves you will be setting yourselves up for further future success.
P.S. – In my discussion with a number of seniors, we talked a great deal about choices and personal development. As luck would have it, the most recent episode of The Knowledge Project featured John Maxwell, the famous leadership coach and consultant. This is an engaging discussion for anyone who is interested in developing one’s leadership capacity by developing four key traits, one of which is “attitude”:
“Attitude gives you no advantage during good times because, during good times, everybody has a good attitude. When things are going my way, my attitude is fine. But it’s when the adversity comes and the challenges come, that’s when my attitude becomes what I call the difference-maker.” – John Maxwell
I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.
Don’t worry about them too much.
I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.
Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.
But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.
Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.
Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.
But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?
The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.
And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.
In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.
The most difficult aspect of working remotely, for me, at least, will be not seeing my students on a daily basis. I have been in communication with a number of them throughout the break, and each week we are not in school I will be writing a letter to them that will deal with “life” issues more than academic ones. I am posting them publicly in the hopes that they will also help others who are struggling through this difficult ordeal.
I realize that many of you are struggling with what is happening across the world and in our lives right now, and the first thing I wanted to you know is that this is perfectly normal. In speaking with a few former IB students over the past week, the one piece of advice I keep sharing is that “you will get through this.” For someone like me who is in my mid-forties, I have already lived through a number of large events that cause the world to pause and reassess its current cultural or economic trajectory (end of the Cold War, 9/11, Housing Collapse, etc). COVID-19, however, presents a slightly different wrinkle in that it is also forcing us to stay within our homes and keep distance from others, sometimes even those whom we love the most.
My first piece of advice is to be curious, not fearful. As Theory of Knowledge students, this is an exciting time to take the concepts studied in TOK and apply them broadly to the events of today’s world. Think about the claims being made by various entities, agencies, and individuals. Take time to consider how the various Ways of Knowing may impact how we receive and interpret emerging phenomena. While the juniors have not studied Areas of Knowledge yet, our first unit when eLearning begins will be the Natural Sciences and goes hand in hand with what is happening now; for seniors who have already completed the course, reflect on the other AOKs and how they impact our burgeoning understanding of the novel coronavirus. Ultimately, we are all witnessing the unfolding of a major event in history, which is why we should all be cultivating curiosity to stave off the fear and let it subside.
But how do we stave off fear? Fear is a natural reaction in times of great uncertainty, and I’m sure all of you remember that fear is one of the six primary emotions that have been evolutionarily hardwired into us all. But how do we turn fear–or any emotion–into curiosity? Through a simple three step process that begins with introspection, but the trick is to treat this process like a detective carefully investigating the scene of a crime.
When you feel a sudden surge of emotion, recognize it but try not to react to it.
With calm detachment, investigate what sensations the emotion generates in the body (e.g. tightness in the chest, lump in the throat, etc).
Ponder what has allowed that emotion to rise within you–was it internal? Another thought (or cascade of thoughts) that brought up the emotion? Or was it external? The events of your day? The stress of the pandemic? Acknowledging the source itself will help the emotion subside, typically steadying the mind in the process.
Granted, this may be easier said than done for someone who has been meditating for over a decade, but this extended break from school is a timely opportunity to begin or continue to work on your own personal practice. (Can’t find the sheet on Edsby? Click Basic Mindfulness Practices here to download the PDF) Beyond the proven benefits such as increased focus, attentional stamina, and emotional regulation being extolled by neuroscience, developing a meditation practice will increase the self-awareness of one’s own mind, providing more personal freedom in the present moment because we can actively choose how to respond to our current situations.
In conjunction with further developing one’s self-awareness through introspection, the other reminder I wanted to share is from the wisdom of Stoicism. You may remember this very brief TED Ed video I shared in class that distilled the philosophy down to its central tenets and how these mental skills will prove invaluable moving forward in life.
As I’m sure you recall, Marcus Aurelius (no, that vector drawing in our classroom is not Childish Gambino) is my favorite Stoic philosopher and his Meditations is easily one of the most accessible and practical texts in all of philosophy. I would highly encourage all of you to read it during the extended break from school, as the wisdom contained therein will serve you well for the rest of your lives. As a leader who spent the last fifteen years of his governance in the midst of plague across the Roman Empire, his thoughts about how we are to face the uncertain or unknown really resonate now in our own time of outbreak.
I will close this first letter by unequivocally stating that I am here for you. For the juniors, TOK will trundle onward and we will begin exploring the various Areas of Knowledge. For the seniors, I realize many of you are preparing for final exams and your pending graduation. But, at the risk of sounding like an irresponsible teacher, put your humanity and family first. Many of you have siblings to care for or other responsibilities that require your immediate attention. The current situation we face together is a far greater lesson that will truly prepare you for life, and employing the concepts you have learned or are currently learning is the real value in this moment in time.
You are ready. Cultivate curiosity. Believe in yourselves. Rise to this occasion in the same way you have risen to previous challenges. As Marcus notes above, whatever the future may bring you will be able to handle.
And always remember that each day is a blessing and gift.
P.S. – Juniors, anything I post on social media I will also share on Edsby; Seniors, I will share more frequently through Remind now that I no longer have you in class. Much of what I will be sending along is for your own personal enrichment and better prepare you for the life that lay ahead. Want a great place to start? Check out one of my favorite podcasts, The Knowledge Project. Listen to this amazing episode about the power of habits, happiness, resilience, and how much of these are dependent on the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world.
P.P.S. – Need additional positivity in your life? Check out my first blog, Letters of Encouragement to Nobody in Particular. Although any of the letters can be read as stand alone piece, many of them are thematically related to the previous or next letter. Enjoy!
Today is the tenth anniversary of my first foray into education advocacy. At the time I wondered if I was a teacher or a scapegoat because, in the midst of the Great Recession, it seemed as if educators were getting the blame for every single thing. Against this backdrop, the first merit pay/accountabaloney bill, SB6, was moving through the legislature and during lunch I scrawled these words on an Office Depot memo pad out of frustration the very same day I had proctored the FCAT.
Now that we stand on the precipice of another economic recession, and with COVID-19 forcing all of us online in a grand experiment that may fundamentally disrupt our education model forever, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds. As always, I am ever the optimist and a curious lifelong learner who sees a number of positive possibilities for what this pandemic can teach us all–most critically, the need for all stakeholders to lean on one another to help all of Florida’s children succeed.
The complete op-ed text is below. I wrote it as a “letter to the editor” and had no idea it would make the front page of the Opinion section in the Sunday edition of the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Only when my phone started ringing that morning did I realize it had been published. The picture above is the lone copy I saved and now hangs in 824.
Am I a teacher or a scapegoat?
I’ve been wondering about that a great deal lately. It seems that every society has them, usually commencing with the recognition of some societal ill.
In the past decade, that malady has become education–in particular, teachers. Apparently, we’re solely to blame.
The phrases “professional development,” “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher accountability” are harped on by pundits and politicians outside the profession.
In what other public-servant sector do we demand such accountability? Do we blame police officers for arriving at the scene of a crime too late? A firefighter for not saving a home from the flames?
Certainly, these public servants do their best. We don’t single them out as the lone variable when life goes awry.
Or how about accountability for our politicians who kowtow not to the demands of their constituents but to the dollars of lobbyists and special interests who truly run this “democracy”?
State Senator John Thrasher, sponsor of Senate Bill 6, is seeking to pile even more accountability on our shoulders while basing our performance as teachers on nothing more than statistics. Well, I have an interesting statistic of my own: 1.7 percent. As individual teachers (speaking of high school and one 50 minute class period), our students spend 1.7 percent of their time with each of us in one calendar year. If one were to include only waking hours, the number becomes 2.6 percent.
Taken from a collective standpoint, students spend 14 percent of their time in one year with the classroom (again, the number rises to 18 percent if we consider sleep).
Whether it is crime, dropouts, graduation, FCAT, reading proficiency or any other rate or percentage being pinned on our profession, the truth is we take 100 percent of the blame though we comprise only 14 percent of each student’s time.
It is time for accountability to be spread out evenly.
As teachers, we cannot control the 86 percent of the time our students are not within our classrooms or any other of the variables (COVID-19?). Accountability should begin with the student and be buttressed by the parent. It should continue with the teachers, guidance counselors and administrators while in school.
In a perfect world, accountability should be part of a continuum — an unbroken chain in which we all play a part. It is foolish and delusional for politicians and parents to believe we are a panacea for these social ills.
Real progress will begin when our society stops blaming and starts helping. Only through cooperation of all parties involved in the academic progress will it be possible to right the ship of education in the United States.
Senate Bill 6 is progressing in the Senate. I am urging all of you who care enough about our educational system, our collective dignity as professional educators and, most importantly, our students, to engage in your civic duty by writing or calling your state legislators and voicing your concerns about the bill becoming law.
Not much has changed in the decade since this was written. Educators have been put through the ringer in any number of ways, and taking our learning online will be a challenge for many for various reasons. The most essential thing to put at the forefront of our minds during this crisis, however, is our shared humanity. We are all human beings facing an exigent and existential threat, and if we are going to help our children succeed it will require the “continuum” I mentioned above, even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional confines of a classroom.
Another excellent guest post from friend, fellow teacher, and contributor, Michelle Hamlyn.
For the entire fifteen years I’ve lived and taught in Florida, it seems the Florida Legislature has had it in for teachers. Teachers have dealt with tenure disappearing, increased standardized testing, and new evaluation systems. We’ve lived through multiple performance pay shenanigans, including the asinine Best & Bogus, arbitrary and continually moving cut scores, and constant disrespect. We’ve watched as shady charters use funding traditional public schools desperately need, only to close amid scandal after scandal. We’ve seen voucher misuse and abuse, to the detriment of some of our neediest kids.
And we’re still here.
Because we’re actually pretty good at waiting. (After all, we’re the people who sometimes have to wait all day to use the bathroom.) We wait for our students to think before they raise their hand to answer a question. We wait for the “light bulb” moments. We wait for the college acceptance letters with our high school students. We know human growth takes time.
Those of us veteran teachers who have been around for a while also know that in education, there are cycles and arcs. We know the pendulum eventually swings back in the opposite direction. So we’ve become pretty good at waiting.
All of this is lost on the Florida Legislature. They believed that if they could just prove the narrative that public education is failing, it would be quick and easy to privatize education. And then the money would roll in for them and their cronies. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated teachers’ “wait time” abilities. Grossly underestimated them.
Because no matter how many times they’ve changed the cut scores or the iteration of the standards or the version of the test, most of us have stayed. And taught our students how to play the game. Yes, you were taught to start your essay with a question, but this year you can’t start with a question. Absolutely, you’ll get a reference sheet with formulae on it. Sorry, you’re going to have to memorize the formulae this year. It’s enough to make a person’s head spin, but we’ve persevered.
As have our students.
So now they’ve come out with what is truly ridiculous. The new standardized test administration rules. These rules should have every public school parent in the state calling or emailing their legislators . Because the rules are even more asinine than a bonus based on a test the teacher took when they were seventeen. Make no mistake, the legislature will tell you it’s in the interest of fairness and a level playing field. As if they know what one looks like.
The new test administration rules forbid the following:
Waking a sleeping child.
Verbally encouraging a student.
Telling a student to go back and check their answers.
Asking the students if they’re sure they’re done or if they’ve answered every question before submitting the test.
Reminding students to write down (before the test begins) a formula or mnemonic device that will help them remember something.
Giving out mints or water.
There is absolutely nothing about any of these things that is truly in the interest of fairness. Seriously, telling a student, “It’s okay, you got this” is unfair? Letting them get a drink of water during a two-hour window of sitting in front of a computer makes a student infinitely smarter than “little Jimmy?” What’s next? Telling them they can’t use the bathroom during that two-hour window?
Most of the teachers I’ve communicated with that know of these new rules are beyond flabbergasted. Some are disheartened; some are rebellious. But all are shaking their heads in complete and total disgust. Because we know that this is just one more ploy in a long-standing ruse that just isn’t ever going to be true.
And in the meantime, our kids are paying the price.
Want to help? This petition recently started circulating online, demanding that the FLDOE reconsider these new “rules” that have been issued to educators who will work as testing proctors this spring.Please CLICK HERE to sign and share with others today!
“[He’s] a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.” – Marina Pilcher, former chief of Hillsborough’s juvenile probation program.
My next door neighbor and friend, Wali Shabazz, has been advocating on behalf of the African American community–and young males in particular–here in Tampa for over 30 years. Though he readily admits that he has no control over the color of his own skin, he has “all the control over my excellence as a human being, and that needs to be more of our focus in the 21st century.” During this wide-ranging conversation about his advocacy work, we discuss the cultural changes that have shaped the African-American community since the 1960’s; how his program scaled up with a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation; as well as the work he has done here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.
If you’d like to learn more about Wali and his work, below is list of articles that have profiled him and his work over the years. Wali specializes in Cultural Integrity Training for teens and adults, Group Sensitivity Training for educators, as well as individual coaching. He can be reached directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling him on his cell phone (he also provides this in the podcast) at 813-363-6385.
Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to share with others who may be interested!
Below is the first page explaining the ethics complaint filed against Representative Melony Bell today. If you’d like to see everything including the timeline and screenshots, click the link at the very bottom. Click this link here to read the column from the Washington Post.
To Whom It May Concern:
The following is a statement of facts—including a timeline of events and pictures that
document said events—regarding the unethical behaviors of Melony Bell-R, HD56 that
transpired on January 21st through the morning of January 23rd.
During a public meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on January 21st, while examining HJR157, Rep Bell said the following:
“I’m a believer in Home Rule…but we have a school board member in Polk County, and
I’ll go on record, who most likely needs to be removed and the governor has not
removed him (emphasis mine)…Time after time, he just disrupts the whole School
Board and teachers and the association. With term limits, I could see, this is probably
going to be the only way to remove him from office.”
The “school board member in Polk County” is duly elected Billy Townsend, District 1. It seems both unethical and downright undemocratic for a sitting state legislator to call for the removal of another elected official from office simply because of a difference of views. Mr. Townsend has done nothing wrong and has the support of thousands of citizens all over Polk, both from within the confines of the education establishment and beyond.
This is a summary of the first charge of unethical behavior; it amounts to falsehoods being spread by Representative Bell, potentially undermines the democratic rights and votes of the 140,000+ citizens who elected Mr. Townsend, and could be considered slanderous and defamation of character, both of which go beyond the purview of ethics and are, in fact, illegal.
The second charge of unethical behavior stems from how I was censored on social media. As noted in the Washington Post article that is included beneath this opening statement, you will read about numerous court cases from across the country concerning elected officials who operate on social media and that, by providing a public forum, cannot censor dissenting viewpoints, which is exactly what happened to me when I expressed my dismay at her comments about Mr. Townsend. In the following pages, I have included evidence of said censorship, and I hope that you take all due action to deliberate this matter and censure Representative Bell for her careless and slanderous remarks, as well as to ensure that she no longer censors other dissenting viewpoints from appearing on her Facebook page or any other social media platform she may use as an elected official.
For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.
Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.
Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.
Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.
As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.
But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.
We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.
In preparing for the #RallyInTally today, I reached out to Polk County School Board Member, fellow advocate, and friend, Billy Townsend. We both planned to be here and knew we should record the first Teacher Voice podcast of 2020 as a discussion about today’s events and whatever else came up organically in our discussion. I will warn everyone that this is a hot take, recorded shortly after the rally wound down, and we pull no punches about what’s to come if we are to turn this thing around to benefit every child in Florida. Please be sure to give it a listen and share with others!
For roughly two weeks I have taken a social media sabbatical. The swirling madness that is constant (and quite often, negative) interactions via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can be so toxic and draining, and I needed to just shut it all down and retreat into reading and reflection.
What I really pondered the most is how much effort I expended during 2019, with the latter half of the year feeling like a whirlwind that brought few moments of peace. Only when I truly slowed down and took the time to review my advocacy efforts did it really hit me that I am not my best when I stray too far from center. I was constantly overextending myself. The closing months of 2019 saw me sleeping little, people constantly asking me “Are you okay?”, and generally feeling like I was behind in all that I was trying to accomplish with each day. I did my best, but by the time the winter break arrived I was ready to just pull the plug on my public education advocacy altogether.
Everything in life has a cost, and I now realize that I must take a significant step back in my advocacy efforts moving forward. I need to do this to better balance my time among my students in the classroom, my own learning, and my home life, all of which were diminished in some sense by my seemingly overzealous defense of our students and profession.
The focus in 2020 will be “The Year of the Advocate.” In an effort to lighten my load, I am hoping that this is the year that Teacher Voice, as originally envisioned, will become a platform for other voices and not simply my own. There were some wonderful guest contributions in 2019, and I hope to get those more regularly moving forward. Although I may write posts occasionally, I will probably save what little I will have to say in 2020 for the Florida newspapers that are willing to publish my pieces as op-eds. When it comes to podcasts, however, they will resume monthly in a couple of weeks, and they will alternate between public education advocates who already hold and/or are seeking elected office, whether at the local or statewide level, and parent advocates in the broader community who represent groups or issues involving public education here in the Sunshine State.
Thank you to all who have supported me since I started this project two and half years ago. Although this is not the end of Teacher Voice, the prolific posting on the blog will no longer be the norm unless many guest posts start rolling in (ideally, I would like to publish pieces bi-weekly–any takers?). Podcasts will be published roughly in the middle of each month, and I can be contacted through this website or directly at email@example.com if you’d like to submit an article. Hopefully, the better balance between my personal and professional lives and activities will allow me to be the best advocate possible for all of Florida’s children and my fellow educators.
P.S. – FLFIRE will continue in 2020. Although it never took off the way I had envisioned it would (failing = learning), we are hoping to re-launch officially on 1/14/20 and use the momentum of the new legislative session to continue to build our grassroots network for future actions.
Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Hereand I’m Angryare highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…
As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.
It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.
How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)
What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?
More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?
With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.
I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.
I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.
But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.
And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.
Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”
Honorable Hillsborough County Public Schools Board Members:
I am the most unique candidate for Superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools. Unlike the rest of the applicants who undoubtedly have the conventional credentials, I offer a set of unrivaled intangibles that few can match. For instance, none of the candidates could possibly possess an empathetic understanding of what our students face on a daily basis in 2019; they have been out of the classroom for far too long, and it is the ability to listen and relate to our students that will best serve our next Superintendent. Though I may be seen simply as a classroom teacher of 16 years, my desire and capability to perform the job of Superintendent should not be underestimated.
Beyond the various subject areas I have taught, the work I performed as a new teacher mentor, or the public education advocacy in which I have engaged over the last four years, at the heart of my endeavors is the well-being and future success of the next generation. The children of Florida—and Hillsborough County, in particular—deserve a tireless champion who will always put them at the heart of his or her work, and I believe the board should look no further to find that champion. I want this job because I know I can make a positive difference in the lives of all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic background. Every day, I will wake ready to dedicate my effort and classroom-cultivated wisdom to fight for the education that our students deserve and should rightfully receive to truly prepare them for life.
Although I lack administrative experience in education, I spent five years in the business world, served on several boards and managed large budgets, and have been in leadership positions over the past 25 years in varying capacities. These attributes, along with my daily drive to relentlessly improve myself and others, allow me to perform at the highest levels while always being mindful of the big picture and long view. Moreover, as a lifelong learner who strives to give his best to any challenge, the deficit of experience can be overcome through constant, clear communication among our collaboration.
In the end, it would be in the best interest of the board to offer me an opportunity to interview based on the unique, informed, insightful firsthand educational perspective I possess. Between my public education advocacy work over the last several years and the outpouring of public support evident on the Letter of Confidence, I believe I can provide all of you with an educational vision for the future of the county I have come to love and call my home. So I will close with the question that was posed by Chair Shamburger during the Superintendent search board workshop this past October: “How can I help?”
I sincerely hope that when we meet next January we can have a robust conversation revolving around this question to provide a solution. Together.
While some may question my ability to become a superintendent of schools with only 16 years in the classroom, I believe I have an incredibly compelling argument for why I would make an excellent instructional servant-leader. Granted, this will only happen if I were provided the opportunity to interview before the HCPS School Board. Even if not chosen, the interview would still be worthwhile because I could share my vision for what needs to be prioritized among the challenges facing our school district, with the literacy of our youngest and most vulnerable students being at the pinnacle of that list.
Below is a “letter of confidence” written by my friends and colleagues in the Language Arts department at Strawberry Crest High School. In years past, this was a way for an entire staff to stand behind one of the assistant/vice principals whom the faculty believed should become the next principal of the school. This letter, however, is for any HCPS employee, parent or student to sign, and it will be included in my application package.
Thank you in advance for your support!
The instructional staff, ESP, students, families, and stakeholders of Hillsborough County Public Schools, with a high level of confidence, recommend Ryan Haczynski for an interview for the position of Superintendent. We believe Mr. Haczynski is well-known to the School Board.
Mr. Haczynski is an award-winning teacher who has taught students in almost every content area, trained his colleagues and mentored new teachers, as well as been a staunch advocate for public education. He served on the Hillsborough Classroom Teacher Association’s Executive Board and as a senior building representative. We are aware Mr. Haczynski does not fit the conventional applicant profile for this position; however, he represents the voice of this district’s workforce, students, and families. What he offers is something no other traditional applicant can bring to the table: real-time, relevant, on the ground viewpoint and experiences concerning every facet of education from people, to finances, to human resources. He embodies the heart and purpose of school: teaching and learning, two essential key understandings that are necessary for leadership in education.
Please review the level of support behind Mr. Haczynski and bring him to the table for an interview.
Instructional staff, ESP, students, families, and stakeholders of Hillsborough County Public Schools
Education should not be political. But for the last two decades in Florida, it has been.
As a democratic society and the collective stewards of the generations that follow in our wake, we realize that a balanced, high quality education that prepares a student for life is what we all desire. Tallahassee, however, has made this next to impossible for a variety of reasons, from the chronic underfunding of the last decade to the overtesting of our children. Parents and educators alike feel helpless in the face of a constant legislative onslaught that breeds bad ideas, foists unfunded mandates upon local districts, and routinely ignores the concerns or expertise of either group that works with our students each and every day.
Even worse, our students are suffering. Whether the chronic stress of being constantly assessed or the demeaning way in which they are reduced to a single metric, our children are being dehumanized for the purpose of data collection. Furthermore, they are terrorized by all-too-frequent shooter drills that keep them anxious and on high alert, even when not crouching in the complete dark trying to remain motionless and breathe silently. Most students openly share these frustrations with caring adults in schools who also feel powerless. Ultimately, we are trapped in a system that has become inhumane. Is this what education has become in the 21st century?
Our children deserve much better than this. Now is the time to take a stand.
You are receiving this letter today because we are asking all of you to make a basic choice: Will you stand with teachers or Tallahassee? Will you side with parents or privatizers? Will you choose students or suffering?
To have a $1 trillion dollar economy yet rank 45th in public education spending is deeply shameful. The destabilization these draconian budgets have brought must be decried by us all. The lack of resources is felt at every turn, from providing wraparound services to our most vulnerable children and their communities, to paying all educators a wage that allows them to fully support their families without additional stress or jobs. But how do we accomplish this?
FLFIRE is a grassroots coalition comprised of concerned stakeholders seeking to send a message to the Florida Legislature that puts people over politics, educators over entrenchment. We need to radically reshape our education system to make it more inclusive and humane for every person involved, beginning with the student and buttressed by every caring adult who works alongside the child. By issuing this resolution your school district can demonstrate solidarity with citizens all across the Sunshine State who currently support this growing movement. Our students and their future require a robust and on-going investment to provide the necessary resources for an education that truly befits the whole child and allows her or him to flourish as a lifelong learner.
Take a moment and close your eyes. Can you visualize it? This is what Tallahassee–or any place in Florida–could look like with a massive grassroots uprising. The pictures above are of Phoenix when the Arizona Educators United #RedForEd movement stormed the capital, and this could be what Tallahassee looks like on the first day of the legislative session.
But how did we get here? And why the heck has it taken so long? Here’s a brief timeline:
Spring of 2018, numerous states begin to rebel against the status quo: ridiculously paltry funding, especially in southern states, has negatively impacted everything in education, from the resources available to provide supports and services to students, to the decline in meaningful raises due to little flexible funding being eaten up by rising costs for healthcare or categoricals.
During the midst of this uprising (and many, many times before), I started to publicly question why yet again the FEA was content to sit back and do nothing in the wake of unprecedented activism exploding all over the country: West Virginia began in late February and ran through March, and Arizona started organizing around that time and erupted in late April / early May. Although controversial when written, there were numerous comments by non-union members and frustrated rank and file members who believed back then that the time was upon Florida.
Seeing how effective these movements were (others happened in numerous other states, often popping up one after the other in OK, KY, CO, etc), the next post about the topic came about a month later. It outlined two possibilities for huge days of action that could be coordinated by FEA: 9/17/18, U.S. Constitution Day, which was proposed by retired teacher advocate extraordinaire, Donna Yates Mace, and 1/21/19, which was MLK Day this year and would have made for a powerful statement bringing everyone together to benefit all students and educators.
After these two posts, I finally had the opportunity to ask the former president of the FEA, Joanne McCall, about the organization’s strategy to organize all educators across the state during her first podcast appearance. Was a rally in Tally in order? Nope. Just more hashtags and a “Me Plus Three” campaign to bring family and friends to the polls. Listen here if so inclined:
Considering nothing ever came of these posts or discussions, I was encouraged by the fact that it was an election year for the FEA as well. Fed, Andrew, and Carole won convincingly, and I was hopeful that the FEA would take a new direction. Shortly after their win, I approached Fed and Andrew on the final morning of the Delegate Assembly and shared the idea of a massive rally in Tally, expressing my dismay that nothing had happened under the previous leadership team. I sent them my post via a group text and assumed this was something that could easily be accomplished in 3 months; after all, the students of the MSD/Parkland tragedy organized a massive movement in about 6 weeks.
Obviously, nothing happened…
2/4/19 – Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, a wildly successful non-partisan, parent-led Facebook group quickly gathers thousands of members and solicits input from said members. Five key demands are agreed upon by an incredibly diverse group including educators, parents, former students, and retirees, demonstrating the need for a massive overhaul to public education. These five points are ones no one would disagree with: 1) better funding/educator pay; 2) less testing for our students; 3) a return to true local control so school boards can do what is best for their constituents; 4) legislators who actually listen to constituent concerns; 5) no more train bills.
Part of this grassroots push was to also have a coordinated day of action on 1/14/20, the first day of the new legislative session. Marches were being set up in some counties, and in May of 2019 the Reconstruct-ED leadership even staged a small march with several hundred people in Martin County.
As momentum started to build within this network (now 9100+ strong), more and more people began talking about 1/14/20 as the day of action, including FEA leadership. Clearly a grassroots movement that included all stakeholders regardless of political leanings was just what the Sunshine State needed to raise the awareness of the issues we still face, but until we dominated the media and rose from the bottom of the polls we would get no real traction.
July 2019 – After attending the FLBOE meeting with a few education advocates at Polk State (7/17), I was upset by the fact that the FEA continued to do nothing to mobilize or organize its members. Stephanie Yocum, a brand new president of her local in Polk, was there in addition to a few more members, but it seemed as if a huge opportunity had been squandered, which then prompted this email to FEA leadership (7/25).
August 2019 – At my penultimate executive board meeting for HCTA, our president informs us that the FEA day of action has been planned for 1/13/20, which prompted me to whip my head to the left and blurt out “WHAT?!”, to which he replied with, “yeah, they said you might not be too happy about it.” I was floored. Not only had I personally been told 1/14/20, it had been the original grassroots date for many months and it seemed as if they were trying to usurp the burgeoning movement.
I also continued to post things like this on Facebook (8/3/19):
10/15/19 – The week of the FEA DA I decided to write this open letter to FEA leadership as well as the presidents of all locals across the state. Some presidents from small or medium locals wrote back to me, also dismayed by the change in the date. All I asked is that the process be democratic and to let the gathered body actually vote on the day, but my letter may have precluded them doing just that, as a new business item was quickly introduced and its sole purpose was to confirm the date of 1/13/20.
And here we are! In the midst of the confusion surrounding two dates, people keep asking which date. My answer? Why not both? Plans have already been laid for my wife and I to be in Tallahassee both days along with some friends, but I will still continue to advocate for 1/14/20 because there is so much more symbolism surrounding that day. The ceremony and pageantry of the State of the State and everything else that goes along with it is exactly needs to be disrupted, but that only happens on 1/14/20. Hopefully the FEA-led event on 1/13/20 will be a smashing success that helps build momentum, but considering how it will be seen as partisan (just ask Governor DeSantis who already made now infamous remarks) my fears from the second open letter are already starting to be realized…
Now the choice is yours. Even if you cannot make it to Tallahassee or other demonstrations that will hopefully be organized for 1/14/20, if enough of us take a personal day on 1/14/20 districts may have no other choice than to shut down due to a lack of subs or personnel needed to run the schools for the day. Now THAT would be a powerful message sent to Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and the Florida Legislature.
But make no mistake…it will take nearly “everyone” for this to work.
Now in its third year, the November/Veterans Day podcast welcomes two former Army members who, after more than 20 years of service to our country, continue to serve the public as educators working for our JROTC program at Strawberry Crest High School. First Sergeant Lawshawn Lyas and Lieutenant Colonel John Ingraham have had a huge hand in the success of our program, but as they will tell you during this episode, it really is all about the kids, from who runs the program to why they choose to fill this unique role in our school, district, state and nation.
If you are a veteran of the U.S. military, thank you for your service to all of us. You are appreciated not only today, but each and every day. More importantly, if you live in the Tampa area, be sure to stop by the Golden Corral on 56th and Fowler to not only have a free meal, but to meet these two wonderful people and many of our cadets from SCHS.
Thank you for listening and enjoy the Veterans Day weekend, everyone!
P.S. – Like what you heard and want to hear more from our veterans who became educators? Be sure to check out the previous two episodes!
Rucsandra Bitere, or Roxy for short, is in her 3rd year teaching 9th grade English in Orange County, Florida. She is the Poetry Club sponsor, a member of her school’s FAC, a Stanford Hollyhock, Education Fellow, and her team’s PLC leader. Roxy graduated from the University of Central Florida with her English Education degree.
While she has her degree, Roxy strongly believes that teaching is a profession in which the learning is never truly done. Teaching is a craft, a craft that one must constantly work on in order to fully reap the benefits of this profession. Those benefits being able to connect with your students and foster meaningful relationships.
I live by two words, so much so that I’ve tattooed them onto my body for safekeeping, ‘Reflect’ and ‘Rebirth’. My poetry club kids would tell your there’s a poem in these words. That, they wield such power, I would really need to unpack their meaning then tie them back up into metaphors. And they have a point, I constantly reflect on everything I do especially in the classroom. I think many teachers do this.
A past lesson and how it can be improved. An interaction with a student that may have gone better. A really interesting text that perfectly connects to what you were already authentically discussing in class, so you move around your calendar in order to make space for this genius material.
Reflection leads to growth, or in my poetic brain, a rebirth. A thoughtful and purposeful change into a better version of yourself. That’s what I had at the end of Quarter 1 this 2019/2020 school year. However, this rebirth was grounded in sour awareness and tedious data work.
It was the last Thursday in Quarter 1 and I found myself driving to my childhood home in South Florida. My grandma was hospitalized the day before for a blood infection and my mom needed me to be home to help my grandpa, who has severe Alzheimer’s and is diabetic, around the house. I left my kids with two tasks: to complete the district wide Quarter 1 assessment in the computer lab, and then to finish any missing work they had so I could grade it over the weekend.
Finally, after two days of running between hospital and home, checking in on one grandparent and making sure the other received his insulin, I had a day, Saturday, to work on school stuff. All Saturday morning, I graded missing work and afterwards I was going to send out emails to parents of students who had a D or an F in my class. The emails were to notify parents of their student’s grade and to remind them that the final day to submit work was that upcoming Monday. I thought this was an important and thoughtful gesture on my part. Me going the extra mile for my students and their parents.
What I was met with was not something I anticipated.
A parent emailed me back not long after the initial email that I sent, telling me I was lazy and that I should grade her son’s work. That she knows he has completed everything, and that if I didn’t grade his work soon she would talk to the School Board about me.
Even now, recounting the memory, still sends me through so many waves of emotions. Anger. Frustration. Sadness. I had just gone out of my way to grade every missing assignment before my grades were due, on a Saturday, while my grandma is in the hospital. Then I sent you a reminder email, on a Saturday, to let you know your student’s grade and the last day I was accepting work. On a Saturday. I just couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
But then it hit me. Teachers are held to a much higher standard than other professions. Teachers are socially expected to do so much more for significantly less. This notion is so ingrained in our social fabric that while I was in college I would get laughed at for ‘wanting to be poor’ when I got my degree.
So I got mad, then I cried, and then I got back to work. I made several changes to my class for the start of Quarter 2 and in doing so I also made changes to how I go about the time I work on my craft.
I started to log all of my hours I work outside of my contract time. Contract time at the high school level at OCPS is from 7:10-2:40. I began documenting everything, from time stamps to what I was doing. The results are heartbreaking. During the first week of Quarter 2, I worked over 19 hours outside of my contract time. 19 hours. That’s 19 hours of unpaid, full on work that I am pouring into my classes and students. That’s 19 hours of time I take away from my family, friends and self care. That’s 19 hours worth of money that I will never see.
Teachers work so much more than anyone cares to talk about because it is already considered a norm that we will do it. We’ll do the work regardless, it’s expected of us at this point. We’ve got to push back in order to get what we rightfully deserve–a long overdue raise.
The latest edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features three of Hillsborough’s best ESPs, Leo Haggerty, Cara Martin-Howard, and Johnny Green. For those of you who are outside the school system and do not recognize the acronym, the people who work in these roles are referred to as Education Support Personnel or Education Staff Professionals, and every one of them has a critical role to play in supporting our students.
But make no mistake, these people are educators regardless of the specific designation we give them. In fact, as we discuss in this episode, any adult who works with children at a school house is an educator, whether it is the bus driver who greets the kids in the morning, the nutrition specialist who nourishes our students before they head to class, or the custodian who chats with them during lunch. And yet all of these people tend to make poverty level wages…
We discuss why it is so critical for ESPs to join their local, why their voice is a necessary component in the on-going public education discussion, how Tampa has raised the minimum wage to $15 and how the district will respond moving forward, as well as how each of these incredible educators has impacted the lives of students.
Kam Rigney is a middle school Special Education teacher who works with students with profound cognitive disabilities. She teaches six different subject areas, across three grade levels, in a self-contained classroom. Kam believes that all voices matter, and all students deserve the opportunity to show how amazing they are, on their own individual level. Kam facilitates District Wide Trainings for her peers within Pinellas county and has been acknowledged as a teacher expert. Kam is the Vice President for the PTSA, the Secretary for SAC, and she is certified as a Best Practice For Inclusion facilitator. She is also a new teacher mentor and a Lead Union Representative at her school. She received her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies PreK-8, a M.S. in Special Education K-12, and a M.A. in English Language Learners K-12 from Western Governors University.
We are experts in our field…
Anyone else feel like a team of supervisors that supervise another set of supervisors are diminishing our expertise?
I became a teacher for the purest reasons. I wanted to impact students the way I was by some awesome teachers /coaches…
I am definitely working in a population that I was never a part of growing up, let alone even saw when I went to school…
Oh how times have changed.
I am really good at what I do, many of us are!
It shouldn’t be this hard.
I shouldn’t hear so many teachers are ready to leave this profession.
I shouldn’t have to question my ability to do what I do by someone who has never done my job or has openly said “I don’t want to do your job”.
Don’t give me test scores.
Don’t shove down my throat what gains are needed to improve a school score.
Walk in my room and see what they can do!
Ask me, let me show you the data, I’ll show you how far they’ve come.
See the social skills they’ve gained.
See the amazing ways they’ve progressed.
Ask their parents to sit down and tell you the difference a year, or two, or three in my classroom has made.
Don’t give me a number, because I teach incredible humans, not a statistic!
This lament by Kam caught my eye the other day in Florida Teachers Unite! on Facebook. Always on the lookout for guest posts, so if you believe you’d make a good contributor or know someone else who may want to write a guest post, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
Below is the statement I read to my fellow Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association who sit on the Executive Board. I will no longer hold any leadership roles within our local teachers union, and there is more to be said after the statement.
Before the adjournment of this meeting for the Executive Board of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, I, Ryan Haczynski, am tendering my resignation for any and all leadership roles I currently hold. I can no longer afford to have a seat at this table or represent my fellow members at Strawberry Crest High School. I hope that you, my fellow executive board members, hear me out for my reasons why, and respect the decision without further deliberation by the gathered body seated before me now.
It has become rather evident to me that by speaking out as I have been—specifically asking people to take a personal day on the first day of the legislative session, January 14th 2020—it is beginning to cause concern for both district and union leadership. Though I have been personally told by the HCPS School Board attorney that I would not be fired by the district, I assume that I still run the risk of additional penalties from the state; I cannot confirm this, however, as Commissioner Corcoran has not answered a single time despite three separate inquiries. Additionally, at the September Rep Council, the only time I ever broached the idea of 1/14/20, all of you—in addition to at least another 100 HCTA reps—witnessed the immediate censure from our president, specifically stating he could not endorse such a call to action.
From that moment onward, this decision has become increasingly clarified. Rather than potentially jeopardize my fellow brothers and sisters or even our organization itself, my self-imposed exile from all leadership meetings and decisions will isolate and indemnify our union from my words and actions. And make no mistake, both will continue as I attempt to awaken the sleeping giant that is the teacher workforce of Florida, regardless of what personal cost I must pay to speak out on behalf of our students, our colleagues, and the profession itself.
As many of you know, I did not belong to this union for the first decade of my career. But I finally joined out of gratitude for the new pay scale in conjunction with what started in Tallahassee under the Rick Scott administration. While I will gladly relinquish my leadership roles in HCTA, I believe it is my right to choose my continued membership. Though I will be sidelined from helping steer HCTA into the future, I will still monetarily and philosophically support this union hall and its mission. I have come to love Hillsborough County and all of you too much. It has been an honor, privilege, and blessing to work on such an ethnically and politically diverse board that is a microcosm of our own county in many ways, and I thank you for allowing me to serve during the time I have. I wish you all the best as you move forward without my input, knowing that our union is in good hands. In the end, this is the best decision for all of us.
Namaste, Pax Vobiscum, much love, and in solidarity with you and every educator throughout the Sunshine State,
And that’s that. If anyone believed in the past that my positions in union leadership protected me, I have cast them aside. As I mentioned in the previous piece from my Facebook post, I will NOTbe silent in the face of this abject moral failure on the part of the Florida Legislature to properly invest in our students and their future.
I speak out because I can, therefore I must.
I speak up for those who can’t.
I speak on behalf of those who won’t.
And I speak up most importantly for the kids who are human collateral in this entire test-and-punish system; we don’t have children of our own and so I personally believe we must care for the children of others simply due to how we feel about the entire human family.
If this means I will eventually be arrested by the state, so be it. If it means I must sacrifice my teaching certification, I will put that on the line as well. Whatever the cost, I will pay it gladly. In the end our kids, their future, and our profession are far too important to the very fabric of our culture and country.
On a final note, these two quotes have been on my mind a great deal lately, and I hope that you choose to join me in taking a day off on 1/14/20 so that we can all take a stand together. I’m sure I will be saying a lot more between now and then…
“Cry aloud / bold and proud / of where I’ve been / BUT HERE I AM.” – TOOL, “Invincible”
“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. HERE I STAND, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” – Martin Luther, famous quote from his defense during the Diet of Worms.
Some people have questioned my motivations since I began the Teacher Voice project. All that I can say is I went to the University of South Florida intending to double-major in Philosophy and Mathematics and graduated with a Religious Studies and Classics degree instead. Everything in life shapes us somehow, and my reading and reflection has a great deal to do with who I am now as well as who I aspire to be in the future.
I love teaching. Can’t imagine doing anything else during my working years, but everyone keeps telling me to run for office. Don’t think I’m there yet, mainly because I cannot imagine a workday without kids in my life. It wasn’t in the cards for Erin and me, which is why I think we love our students as if they were our own children. Plus, as a lifelong learner and restless nerd, I don’t think I would survive being around more adults when I learn more and stay relevant by being around amazing students each and every day.
I have a massive favor to ask of all of you. As an NPA who tries hard to be centrist on every issue, I am sick and tired of living in a state (and country, at this point) that consistently puts politics over people. We all suffer for it, and we all deserve so much more from our elected officials, most especially our children.
As some of you know, I have become increasingly outspoken about the state of education here in Florida through my project Teacher Voice. I really can’t explain my advocacy beyond a heartfelt feeling for kids and how we, as the “adults,” should be leaving a legacy that provides them with the brightest future possible.
Make no mistake—we are NOT doing this here in the Sunshine State.
When I moved here in 1998, Florida was 27th in public education funding and 29th in average teacher pay. Still below the national average, but not terrible.
Now? Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy that ranks 4th in the U.S. and 17th on the globe—how on earth could we have fallen all the way to 45th and 48th for these same stats respectively?
Politics over people, that’s how…
Having spent the last 25 years of my life with my face in philosophy books and sacred texts from around the world, I cannot help but speak out on behalf of my students and profession. I am compelled on principle to speak truth to power regardless of personal risk. I do not care. This cause is far bigger than me or any single person.
This is about kids. This about their future.
For too long, intelligent, passionate, dedicated educators have been sidelined, ignored, and marginalized. For too long we’ve had politicians who micromanage our daily existence despite knowing ZERO about what we do or how we care about our students in SO many ways that go well beyond “instruction”.
It is time for this to end. It is time for our “leaders” to talk to teachers.
I know this is long and a risk in an age of TL; DR (too long; didn’t read), but if you are a former student, a friend new or old, a family member—or some random stranger who happened to run across this post because I made it public, I hope that you will please help me—help every educator in the Sunshine State—to have a seat at the table. Our voices are crucial for helping fix this completely broken, inhumane, data-driven, test-stressed BS that now passes for education. But I—we—need your help to get us to the table.
I started this petition yesterday morning and it has almost 2500 signatures already (now nearly 5K!). But we need to make this go viral. I’d love to put 10K+ on this thing within a week before sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis. Can you help by reading, signing and sharing this petition?
Thank you in advance for helping all teachers across Florida!
And far more importantly, thank you for being a part of my journey. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for each and every day I get in this amazing life, mainly because of the relationships I have with all of you.
P.S. – For the last 5-6 years or so, I’ve really taken a deep dive into Stoicism. I’m not one for labels in general, but if anything has helped me survive the vicissitudes of the legislative nightmare of Tallahassee the last several years, it has been a constant reminder that what they or anyone else does is beyond my control. What is in my control is my response, my attitude, my perspective. If you don’t know much about Stoicism (it often gets mischaracterized because of how the word is employed culturally now), check out this short TED Ed Talk on YouTube.
For the last week and a half or so, Governor Ron DeSantis, Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and the entire FLDOE have been crowing about cherry-picked stats. This brief post is meant to disabuse you of these half-truths and peel back the onion layers a bit more in the report that these people are touting.
But everyone should know that ranking is largely based on a single snapshot of 4th grade NAEP test-takers, many of whom have had the additional year to prepare thanks to Florida’s terrible third-grade retention policies and practices. Polk School Board member Billy Townsend wrote about how fraudulent all of this gaming of statistics has truly become; it is obviously a ploy to dupe voters and would-be future Floridians to move here thinking the education system is putting out a quality “product” (so many people in power like to speak about our youngest human beings as if they are widgets on an assembly line).
The reality of Florida’s public education ratings and rankings, however, is much more complex. All told, when we factor in the other metrics that no one–whether the FLDOE, the FLBOE, or prominent Ed Reformers in the Florida Legislature such as Senator Manny Diaz–will acknowledge or is talking about, Florida still ranks in the bottom half of America.
Not only does this lack of funding directly, negatively impact every single school choicefor parents and their children, it also creates ripple effects on local economies because educators–typically the largest workforce in any given Florida county–have not had meaningful raises in years, to the point where our paltry pay is being decimated by inflation.
How can any legislator be okay with what has happened? How can any elected official scoff at the cries of the very people who serve the next generation of Florida’s citizens by actively choosing to work with children despite the terrible working conditions and pay?
Say it with me again: Abject. Moral. Failure.
Educators all over the Sunshine State deserve better than this in myriad ways. We deserve the respect of our communities and so-called leaders. We are the very people who perhaps play the second most important, nurturing role with a child beyond the parent, if simply by virtue of how much time they are in our care. Most of all, we need more than this kind of empty bluster from our state-level elected and appointed officials. We don’t need you preening like peacocks over meaningless data that you are not even honest enough to completely share. We need you to stop and realize that you need to talk to the experts who are in the classrooms with kids every day.
As of this moment, I am drawing a line in the metaphorical sand. I’d like every parent, student, educator, school board member, superintendent or anyone else who cares about kids and the legacy we will leave behind for future generations to RISE UP. I am personally compelled on principle to push back, but after re-reading this…
Now I feel doubly compelled due to the oath I have taken on behalf of being a teacher, especially the above section in addition to Section 2(a)1., which is about our obligation to students. It states (the individual/teacher): “Shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student’s mental and/or physical health and/or safety.”
It would seem that the entire Florida Education Model would qualify as “harmful conditions” at this point. So where will you stand? With the go-along-to-get-along gang? Those who are only clearly interested in power for its own sake rather than genuinely serving the interests and needs of children? The choice is yours. But whatever you do, when it comes to reading any of these FLDOE pronouncements, as my man Chuck D from Public Enemy would say:
“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.
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.
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:
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 “email@example.com; for your Senate member, it’s “firstname.lastname@example.org.” 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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
For now, though, here are two simple options:
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.
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!
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
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?
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.
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.
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.)”
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…
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.
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…
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!
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.
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 email@example.com or stop by the Facebook page to send a message!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!
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!
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.
Data, 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?
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?
My 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?
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.
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.
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…
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:
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 Aurelius’ Meditations. 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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Thanks!
This will be the final post of the Teacher Voice blog and podcast project that I began in the middle of 2017. I started speaking at school board meetings in Hillsborough County and elsewhere around the state the year before in an effort to educate the public about the looming crisis in public education. I have no doubt in my mind that my education advocacy also led to me walking away from the profession, because all of the research only made me sad and angry.
Plus, if we’re being completely candid with one another–regardless of lack of investment in our students and their educators–the entire system is backwards and broken, pointing toward a past we left behind long ago…
You are all that ever mattered to me. Many, many times over the years of my teaching tenure, people told me to quit. Said I was too smart. Wasting my time. Could be making more money. None of that mattered to me because I loved being around the kids. I never meant to be a teacher. I don’t have a degree in education. I’m just a lifelong learner / nerdy guy who loves to share what he’s learned. And what did I learn the most that I passed along to all of you, my students? Probably what I wrote here, one of my favorite posts over the years. In essence: everyone wants to be seen, heard, recognized, encouraged and loved. I did my best to make sure you felt those things during our time together. If I failed you in this capacity, I am genuinely sorry…but know that I tried my best every day to instill and nurture a similar constant curiosity and love of learning in each of you.
No matter how long we worked together, I appreciate you and your impact on my own progression in the profession. When I started back in 2004 I had many wonderful mentors and years later many have become lifelong friends. By the time I was walking away I felt as if I had become the mentor to many in turn, and so at least I feel as if I paid it forward in the 17 years I was with HCPS. It is unfortunate that I had to leave you behind, but for my own sanity it had to be done. Know that I think of you and all educators every day, and I salute those of you who carry on in the face of great adversity.
Having said that, though, I am dead serious when I encourage any educator who saw that video or reads these words to QUIT. It was bad enough when the state continued to undermine public education by not investing any money into it, but then COVID happened and the money printer went into high gear, touching off record inflation that remains sticky and unlikely to ever revert to the mean. At the same time, veteran teachers who have toiled away for a decade or more barely make $50K and new teachers walking through the door have a guarantee of $45K.
Between the lack of meaningful raises and rampant inflation, pitiful teacher salaries have been decimated.
Nothing shows how little the state/your district cares about the veteran teachers who have knowledge and experience than this cockamamie scheme that has been the killer blow to our profession. This is exactly what the state wants: a burn-and-churn workforce that comes in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to change the world out of some noble yet naive passion. These young teachers quickly realize the work is endless, they have no support or resources, and eventually leave for something that is far easier, more lucrative, and carries zero emotional baggage–all before they are vested in FRS.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but many kids are absolutely out of control in the classrooms, even at the best schools. There are not enough adults to properly supervise kids, and the explosion of smartphone usage and how it has become normalized by our society means most kids are already tuned out by the time they get to school. We have parents worried about a single book in a library that is probably collecting dust, meanwhile kids are all trying to do the latest TikTok dance with their friends or exchanging highly explicit content with them via random airdrops, text messages and/or DMs on social media apps. And even if kids are caught in the act of doing something wrong or bad, it’s often brushed under the rug or if there is any consequence it is minimal at best. Students routinely cuss out each other and teachers openly, and there is never any repercussion. Due to the influence of social media (again, not books), many students are shockingly sexually active at a very young age (talking 6th grade here…and in affluent neighborhoods where moms would be clutching pearls if they knew). Unless you are absolutely sure this is not one of your own children, it would be worth sitting him / her / them down to have a long, honest discussion about their friends, social media use, and what it is like in their classrooms at school.
I cannot convey with words how difficult this job is, nor how much more difficult it has become in the last 5 years or so. Unless you have lived it yourself, it is hard to understand how badly our profession is treated. In short, we have an education system that is administered by politicians with an agenda, not educators who know what’s best for children. For instance, we have a governor who is walking contradiction. He wants freedom in all things provided it’s his version of freedom. You can go down an entire list of absurdities, from him telling people they should be free to not wear masks, only to blast high school students when they exercised their freedomofchoice to wear a mask. Or how about how he’s constantly attacking higher education for indoctrination and being run by so-called “elites” yet this is coming from the mouth of a guy who graduated from Yale and Harvard Law. Or when he’s carrying on about how parents’ rights are fundamental when it comes to the decisions they make for their children/students but gets riled up when parents don’t do what he thinks is the right thing. The craziest thing to me is this crusade against books. If DeSantis knew anything about child psychology, he’d be taking a list of all the books he wants them to not read and explicitly endorse reading them, because then no tween or teen would want anything to do with them. Again, what happened to “freedom”? How can any educator feel safe to discuss ideas or have an exchange of views via dialogue in a classroom? Can parents not monitor the child if he or she is reading one of these banned books? Most of us read them or discussed the ideas contained therein and we all turned out fine.
Then you also have all the corporate welfare and crony capitalism like I reference above in the video. When the Commissioner of Education is getting a six figure salary from the largest for-profit charter operator in the state, is anyone really surprised by all these voucher laws that just divert funds to pad the bottom line of these charter schools which offer the same exact crap as the public schools anyhow? Corcoran and Diaz alone have been scamming the public for a decade…
The entire education system is irreparably broken if we’re all being honest. It is a commodified, monetized race to the bottom in which the biggest losers will be the poorest students. They will continue to attend the last remaining public schools because all we’re really doing is warehousing children so that parents can go to work. And then they will simply be lost because of how impossible it will be for them to climb out of the socio-economic downward spiral.
So why should you quit if you are a Florida teacher? It’s simple. You have virtually unlimited upside. The state has divested so heavily from education and made it so miserable to teach that the shortage has become extreme. Why is this important? It gives you the freedom to take risks, especially economically, because you know you can always come back to teaching as a last resort. There are tons of opportunities out there, many of which will rely on the same suite of soft skills that you have developed during your time in the classroom. Whether it’s project management, technical writing, corporate training, or virtually any number of options you could pursue, there are jobs out there that will pay you much better, treat you with respect as a professional hired to do a job (not micromanaged into oblivion by stressed out administration), and allow you to work only when you are scheduled to do so.
And all without the tremendous emotional baggage that comes with teaching.
Will you miss it? Yes. Probably every day. I know I do. I will forever cherish the moments I spent creating magic between the bells. The kids carried me through nearly 20 years. But I couldn’t put up with the utter lack of respect from people who have no clue what it’s like to be a teacher in general, let alone stay a teacher in this forsaken wasteland of public ed that is the Sunshine State.
So I said it several times in my final speech, and I may as well say it one final time…
I will be leaving the blog and its contents (as well as the Facebook page) up until late May when I will no longer renew the lease on the site. Like all things, it will fall into the sands of time and I will be completely done with using my time and energy on education. I hope that our paths cross in other avenues of life, but this chapter will forever close soon enough.
Teacher Voice is seeking guests to either write short posts (500 word limit) about current education issues or to discuss them in person for the biweekly podcast. Interested? Fill in the form on the Contact page or email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org