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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cost, unfortunately, has been all too human.

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

Poker chips, large sum concept

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

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

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

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

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Small sample of exam scales for core classes

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

 

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

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

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

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

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we move forward?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Julie Hiltz, NBCT
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Joshua Newhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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