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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now is the time to reject the language of victimization.

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

Now is the time to take a stand against Tallahassee.

Now is the time to become an even better hero.

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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What more do you need to know?

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

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

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

TL;DR? Funding affects outcomes. Period.

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

Why are educators so afraid to stand up for themselves?

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

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

The fear of speaking out mystifies and perplexes me.

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

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

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

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Over/under on the number of days to respond?

For now, though, here are two simple options:

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

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

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A love of lifelong learning for far too many children…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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Rob Kriete, President of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLPE Spending
It all boils down to this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

CPI Screenshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not right.

And it must stop now.

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

Poor Pants
Every teacher in Florida

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

MB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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