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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 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.

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

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

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

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cost, unfortunately, has been all too human.

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

Poker chips, large sum concept

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

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

ABCs

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

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

Exam Samples
Small sample of exam scales for core classes

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

 

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

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

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

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

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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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!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Student A   Student B   Student C   Student D   Student E

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

This is fine

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

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

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

07-08 Discipline Data

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

17-18 Discipline Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PTSD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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