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Leo Haggerty (left), Cara Martin-Howard (center), and Johnny Green (right)

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.

As always, thank you so much for listening! Please share with others, and if you haven’t already please sign the petition by going to https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

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Kam Rigney

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!

Just a thought from a tired teacher.

#seetheperson #seetheirgrowth

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 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

P.S. – Still haven’t signed/shared the petition? https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

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Have you signed and shared the petition? https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

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,

-Ryan

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 NOT be 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.

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One of the Stoic coins I often keep in my pocket to remind me of my purpose in this life.

This post originally appeared on my personal Facebook feed a couple nights ago and, based on the reaction and how much it has been shared, I thought it simply best to publish it here.

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.

Thank you so much for reading and please continue to sign and share the petition, which now has its own special link at https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

Dear Fam:

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.

BUT…

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.

Much love,

– Ryan

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This has been the coin I’ve carried since the beginning of the school year.

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.

RELATED: Lessons on Leadership from Marcus: An Open Letter to the HCPS School Board

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.

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FLDOE sure does love a good old fashioned half-truth…

Does Florida rank 4th in K-12 achievement according to Education Week‘s “Quality Counts 2019: Grading the States” report? Absolutely.

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.

The Whole Story

Again, how exactly do we reconcile these facts with those that clearly demonstrate we have a $1 TRILLION economy that is ranked 17th in the world, yet somehow manage to invest so little in our children and their future?

Even this recent report that was updated about two weeks ago has us ranked 45th in public education spending. How could the Florida Legislature have let this happen? Are its members so completely blinded by an overzealous ideological need to continually reduce taxes and restrict revenue generation to the point that we are now ranked dead last for inflation adjusted spending since the Great Recession?

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And don’t forget! We’re ranked 48th in teacher pay too!

Not only does this lack of funding directly, negatively impact every single school choice for 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…

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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:

dontbelievethehype

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Way to be, Florida…

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

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

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

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

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

House of Representatives Education Committee Members

Florida Senate Education Committee Members

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

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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

 

 

SpongeBob Split Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Band-Aids for Broken Bones

PTSD and Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now is the time to reject the language of victimization.

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

Now is the time to take a stand against Tallahassee.

Now is the time to become an even better hero.

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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Derek Thomas, English Teacher, Plant High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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