Screen Time 2
Is too much screen time hindering language acquisition and creating behavior issues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLPE Spending
It all boils down to this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

CPI Screenshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not right.

And it must stop now.

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

Poor Pants
Every teacher in Florida

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

IMG_0297
Seth Federman, HCPS teacher and doctoral student at Florida Southern.

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Seth Federman, a product of Florida public schools who has studied at FSU, Harvard, and is currently working on his doctoral degree with a focus on mental health issues surrounding education, making this an important and timely follow up to last month’s conversation with Bianca Goolsby.

Seth first came to my attention when he asked to write a guest post for the blog, which was “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“. His second post, “PTSD and Teachers“, clearly resonated with many people considering how much people read, commented and shared. So when Seth asked to be on the podcast I figured this would be the perfect time to discuss what so often is never talked about–how teachers are often left to deal with their own stress and resulting mental health issues with few to no supports.

Please listen to and share this important conversation with others, especially fellow educators who may be struggling with these issues.

Seth also asked that I share the following articles, some of which are referenced during our discussion:

PTSD in Teachers: Yes, It’s Real!

The Challenges of Mental/Emotional Health for Teachers in Public Education

Teachers Attached by Students Show Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

Lessons-Marcus

Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.

For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus AureliusMeditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.

I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.

But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.

Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?

And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:

Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?

Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?

Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?

Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.

Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?

Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.

As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.

We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.

With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.

Yes, we understand the pressure from the state that you clearly won’t take a stand against despite how many times we ask, but a good number of us all suffer for it. So while you’re offering Richard Corcoran and his entourage sycophantic smiles and thunderous applause as he and his fellow charlatans dismantle public education one brick at a time, many human beings at our most challenging schools are living with the ramifications of you going along to get along…you know, trying to cook the books by keeping attendance numbers up by not suspending kids, having exam scores so low kids know they can Christmas tree them and pass, all so that the almighty school grades and the ever-increasing graduation rates continue to climb.

If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.

We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.

And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.

As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.

Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.

In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.

Thank you.

Marcus Coin

FirstResponder2
Aaron Feis, left, lost his life saving children; Scot Peterson, right, effectively did nothing.

Today is Valentine’s Day.

It is also the painful first anniversary of the tragic school shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and ended the lives of 17 people.

Three of those who lost their lives that day were educators who sacrificed their lives to protect their students.

Three teachers who cared deeply about our children and their future.

*****

We live in an era of mass shootings that show no sign of slowing down. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 85 school shootings that have killed a total of 223 people, including teachers and staff. On average that means there have been over four school shootings a year, with each of those killing just over three people per occurrence.

But here’s the thing…

How many traditional “first responders” died in all of those school shootings over the last two decades?

Zero.

According to the recently released Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, only one School Resource Officer (SRO) was wounded across those 20 years. Here are just a few notable quotes from the study’s findings:

“School personnel were most frequently involved in stopping attacks; school resource officers were less so.”

“High school attacks were stopped 11 times by administrators, teachers, and staff.”

“School administrators, teachers or staff members were sometimes among the first individuals killed.”

Chris Hixon
Chris Hixon, Navy veteran and teacher who died protecting students at MSD.

Educators may have been hired to teach the next generations that follow their own, but in an era of mass school shootings we have all become the real first responders. Even if a school is lucky enough to have an SRO or SSO (School Safety Officer), one person is not enough to stop a killing spree that will last only minutes at most. It takes administrators, teachers, and ESPs to work together and communicate when there are threats to student safety. Most of the time this vigilance is enough…and yet the average across the last two decades states that four times this year, it won’t be.

And the odds are that it will be school personnel who sacrifice their lives for the children, not the school resource officer.

This isn’t necessarily something that has only happened since Columbine either. Just a few days ago was the 31st anniversary of the first school shooting in the Tampa Bay region, which happened at Pinellas Park High School in 1988. Three people were shot by the young man amidst a scuffle in the lunch room: two were injured, one was killed, all were site-based administrators.

The reason these facts are being addressed is to highlight a simple fact: if educators are truly the first responders in a world of mass shootings that happen with some regularity at schools, the risks we take for our children and profession should be duly compensated.

First responders, as they are traditionally defined (fire, police, sheriff), receive a retirement multiplier of 3.0 from the state of Florida, which they undoubtedly deserve. Therefore, if a firefighter, police officer, or sheriff’s deputy works for 30 years, the Florida Retirement System pays them a pension based on 30 years times the multiplier, meaning they receive 90% of their highest five years averaged together.

Scot Peterson, for instance, now gets to take home a monthly pension of $8,702.

But an administrator, teacher or ESP? Our multiplier is 1.6, just barely over half of what traditional “first responders” receive and deserve. The top of the pay scale here in Hillsborough is $66K, a far cry from the $101,879 dollars Scot Peterson received to ride around campus on a golf cart all day until the moment when he was actually needed and did nothing. Meanwhile, a teacher in HCPS with 30 years of experience would receive only 48% of his or her final salary, netting that person a monthly benefit of $2,640.

How is this fair?

Scott Beigel
Scott Beigel, the third teacher at MSD who died saving the lives of students.

Here’s the solution: at a bare minimum, all site-based school employees–whether administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, education support personnel…anyone who directly has contact with kids and could potentially stop the next school shooting–should have their retirement multiplier pushed up to 2.0 so that a 30 year career receives 60% of the highest five years’ average. Considering the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is routinely touted as one of the best in the nation with nearly 85% of future liabilities already covered, surely there must be a way for the Florida Legislature to increase funding to the program to raise the multiplier to 2.0

And if our legislators cannot or will not at least lift the multiplier, the least they could do to compensate our additional risk as the real first responders at schools is to give us back the 3% we’ve been forced to contribute to our own paltry pensions since 2011.

If you read this and are an employee at a school site in one of our 67 counties, or a public education advocate who thinks those who protect children deserve more, please call or email your legislators to ask them to raise our retirement multiplier.

Related: The Day After… – students share their thoughts and concerns, hopes and fears in class the day after the Parkland tragedy.

Related: I’m Angry – guest post by a fellow teacher describing the initial surge of anger she felt after what happened at MSD.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns… – brief write up containing data after surveying students and fellow faculty members–specifically those who are military veterans–about how they feel regarding arming teachers.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns: Redux – guest post by another fellow teacher with many important points legislators should consider when weighing the big picture of public education in Florida.

 

 

KNT Pic

The first guest post of 2019, Carol Cleaver’s words will undoubtedly be familiar to any of us who have been in the classroom. She shares part of the secret to her success as a teacher, and asks us to reflect on our own practice and what guiding directive(s) we may employ with our students. Feel free to comment below, on the Teacher Voice Facebook page, or on Twitter.

What Is the Guiding Directive for Your Classroom?

It’s Important

After 14 years of teaching, classroom management isn’t a huge problem for me- but of course, I didn’t start out so capably. I’ve always credited my successes in behavior management to a relentless commitment to my guiding directive. Early on, I chose one simple phrase that would guide every action that happens in my classroom. Creating your own guiding directive, and being consistent about it, is one of the best possible ways to ensure a well-managed classroom.

My first year of teaching, I landed in an 8th grade Science Classroom. Anyone who has taught middle school is aware of the constant trials and tribulations that beset this population of students. At no other time in their lives will they care so much about the way they are perceived by their peers. They will do almost anything to curry favor with popular kids, and at the same time, blend into the crowd. The focus on social status above all else often contributes to a lot of negative behaviors- gossip, name calling, showing off. I wanted to quell the stress I saw on the hallways of our school; but didn’t want to put off the kids by constant nagging and issuing judgment either.

I decided to employ a rule that I had learned in Sunday School. The rules for speaking are this:  “Is it Kind?  Is it Necessary? Is it True? It must be all three things, or you may not say it.”

I made myself a little poster, and carried it into my classroom. I spent a few minutes with each class period going over the rule. I spent the next week or so correcting them every time they got out of line. “Was that necessary?” or “That wasn’t kind, was it?” I committed to it, and came back to it, many times each day.  I made them repeat the rule out loud after me. Several times. The rule applied to everyone, and was non-negotiable.

In a few weeks, something amazing began to happen.  Students started correcting each other. I began to overhear phrases like “was that kind? Was it necessary?” from my students in their desks. I didn’t have to say anything- they were catching themselves. Nobody took it personally. They all knew that was the rule, and that it absolutely must be followed in my classroom. The “offender” would normally back track from what they were saying, without even arguing the point. On the rare occasion the point is argued, other students in the class will say to them “even if it is true- it has to be all three. You can’t say it unless it is also kind and necessary!”

And then the real payoff came. I began to realize that because of my classroom rule, I had created an area free of gossip and drama. Students knew they could depend upon that. Anytime they came into my room with some bit of news like “did you hear about that fight?” or “you won’t believe what this other teacher did” they were immediately cut off with a reminder “is it kind or necessary for you to interrupt class with this? You must follow the rules for speaking in this classroom.” And they did.

Students began to relax in my classroom. They began to take risks and grow in confidence, because they knew that any type of negative talk would not be tolerated. Students also knew that I was someone who meant what I said, because I wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true. If they asked me a hard question, they knew I would tell them the truth.

Over the years I have been teaching, I have used this rule as my guiding directive for every single class I teach. I have taught grades 6-12, and have found that this rule works for all age groups. I don’t know if it’s because the rule is so good, or if I am so committed to it, but it works.  Some of the kids from that first year are past college now, and have found me to let me know that they “still remember the rules for speaking.”

What are you “famous” for to your students? What is it that you do that your students can depend upon, and will remember?

Thanks for reading, everyone! If you are an educator and would like to write a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog, feel free to message me through the Contact feature or send me an email directly to 1teachervoice@gmail.com

Fentrice Driskell
Fentrice Driskell, Democratic Candidate for House District 63

This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features Fentrice Driskell, a Harvard and Georgetown Law School graduate, partner at Carton Fields law firm in Tampa, and the Democratic candidate for House District 63.

Although she always knew that running for public office would be in her future, she did not realize she would run so soon. We discuss her impressive resume, why she’s running, and what she would like to do in Tallahassee. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in HD63.

Want to learn more about Fentrice? You can check out her amazingly alliterative website, Fentrice For Florida, of find her on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

IMG_2536

On this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast, I sat down and spoke with Henry “Shake” Washington, one of the two finalists who made it past the primary and into the general election on November 6th. Although Shake has already been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, I invited him on the podcast so that voters could hear from the man himself. We discuss his 42 year career with HCPS, why he decided to run for the School Board, and his vision for the future. Please listen to what he has to say and share with others!

If you’d like to learn more about Shake, you can visit his campaign website, Like/Follow his page on Facebook, or meet him in person at one of the many upcoming campaign events around Hillsborough County.

The above video contains my complete comments on the lack of taxation. Please watch for context for what is detailed below.

It is no secret that school districts all across the Sunshine State have been forced to squeeze blood from a stone by the Florida Legislature for over two decades, and especially since the Great Recession. As noted in the first “Numbers Don’t Lie” piece, Florida went from 27th in per-pupil spending in 1998 to 44th in 2018. Had we kept pace with inflation alone from 20 years ago, Florida would need to spend $9,913 per student. Instead, we currently spend $7,408.

But it’s far worse than simply not keeping pace with inflation. When Ernest Hooper and I were interviewing candidates at the Tampa Hob Nob a few weeks ago, HD64 Rep. Jamie Grant–by his own admission–stated that the three areas of the economy that have actually outpaced inflation were health care, higher education and K-12 education. This effectively compounds the problem, because not only has the Florida Legislature refused to make a meaningful investment in public education, their decision to be parsimonious has made the reduced spending power of those scant dollars that much more signficant (assuming his statement is true).

Hillsborough County is not the only county seeking tax referenda. It’s happening all over the state, which John Romano wrote about recently in the Tampa Bay Times. Going back to this past March, citizens of various counties are 12 for 12 in voting for some type of tax referendum to support their schools. Clearly voters are starting to understand that Tallahassee has gotten us all into these messes because of its ideological zeal for reducing taxes.

IMG_2267
The Great Taxation Paradox: No one wants to pay, yet we need the services they provide.

People who stand against the tax referenda do so for two principal reasons: 1) they claim “we’re taxed too much already”; 2) they believe Hillsborough County Public Schools has mismanaged its funds. Let’s examine these claims in detail:

“We’re Taxed Too Much Already”

Regarding the first claim, this is typical response from just about anyone when the subject of raising taxes is mentioned. The facts, however, do not support this claim. If anything, we are taxed too little in a state that is experiencing such rapid population growth. The lack of taxation is directly linked to: the unwillingness to investment in public education by the Florida Legislature, resulting in students and staff sweating in schools; the traffic congestion we get caught up in on a daily basis; why Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has one of the lowest deputy-to-citizen ratios in the state, etc. Simply put, there’s not enough money to go around.

Mitch Perry’s excellent piece in The Florida Phoenix last month detailed why so many counties are seeking various school and transportation referenda and, most notably, linked this report that highlights two key facts that were addressed during my comments to the school board:

1. Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to “tax burden” (i.e. per-capita tax revenue generation).

2. Hillsborough County ranks 52nd out of 67 counties in Florida, which means we have the 15th lowest tax burden in the second lowest state in the U.S.

To say that “we are taxed too much already” is a preposterous statement that clearly ignores these facts and traffics in hyperbole when one considers the actual numbers.

HCPS Mismanages Its Funds

When it comes to the second claim about HCPS mismanaging its funds, it must be addressed in two parts. First, there are the optics of some of the board’s more questionable spending decisions over the last three years. Many critics often cite spending nearly a million dollars on the Gibson Report, nearly a million dollars for new school board offices/relocation of Human Resources from its original location to the Instructional Services Center, remodeling/refreshing the audio-visual equipment in the board room, etc. All told these items add up to perhaps $3 million across the last three years, which amounts to approximately 0.00033% of its total annual budget per year.

This is clearly a case of picking out a few trees while missing the entire forest.

Fiscal Stewardship
It took many painful cuts to get to this point, but Hillsborough citizens should be reassured that HCPS is doing its best with what little funding it receives from both state and local sources.

In truth, however, Hillsborough County Public Schools has done a great job of reigning in its deficit spending during the same period. This fact is all the more amazing when one considers the significance of this in light of continually declining purchasing power when dollars are adjusted for inflation. Many citizens of the county, for instance, may not realize that there has been a sharp reduction in “PECO” funding (Public Education Capital Outlay, the source that pays for installation and maintenance of HVAC systems, building and repairing schools, upgrading technology, etc) for several reasons:

1. At the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the Florida Legislature–the governing body that effectively caps the tax rates that can be applied by school boards–reduced the millage rate from 2.0 to 1.5. Despite the economy recovering and now thriving, Tallahassee has never raised the millage rate back to pre-recession levels.

2. In addition to the millage rate never being restored, outgoing Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, famously quipped “Hell, no” in 2017 when asked if the Legislature would leave tax rates alone and allow rising property values to raise additional funds for education. Despite the Senate being okay with such a sensible compromise, the Grover Norquist anti-tax zealots in the House held firm and rolled back the rates even more.

3. Much of the revenue generated for PECO comes in the form of utilities taxes, including landline telephones, which hardly exist outside of businesses any longer. Therefore, a lot less money is going into those particular coffers at the state level.

Put this all together and what we get is a perfect fiscal storm that looks like this chart.

Capital Funding History
And people wonder why there is no money to fix A/C or otherwise repair our schools

While no one ever likes paying taxes, I would argue that there is a cost of paying too little. Having lived in Florida for just over 20 years now, I have watched our schools deteriorate and our roads fall apart while simutaneously becoming more clogged thanks to two decades of rampant, unchecked sprawl that has had little oversight and even less funding devoted to overcoming these challenges. I would highly encourage anyone who is reading this and lives in Hillsborough County to share this information with friends/family and vote for both of these referenda so that our citizens no longer have to live with the disastrous decisions being made by the Florida Legislature.

Furthermore, especially when it comes to the school district referendum in particular, please bear the following in mind: 1) the referendum can only be used for capital expenses; 2) there will be an oversight committee comprised of six citizens who have no connection to the district and will oversee how the money is spent on projects; 3) for the average Hillsborough citizen, the additional tax will mean about 17 cents per day. Undoubtedly, there will be naysayers who still want to vote no for their own personal reasons regardless of these facts. To them I paraphrase Voltaire by saying we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our students, our schools, and our future depend on it.

Referendum Details
For more details, click here.

 

Support Public Ed

When the Teacher Voice project began over a year ago, another name under consideration was “Teaching Matters”. It was alluring due to the double meaning, but in the end Teacher Voice won out when asking family and friends for feedback. That said, the original essay I wrote is below, and in an election year it is even more imperative that we work to elect legislators and school board members who will support our students, our profession, and will invite us to be part of the conversation for how to improve public education for all stakeholders involved in the process.

While riding up an escalator up to the next level at a mall nearly 30 years ago, my father turned to me and asked me a question: what do you want to do when you grow up? It took me by surprise when he said these words, and I didn’t have an answer at the ready. So I thought about it for a minute and said, “I think I want to be a teacher.” He frowned a bit and told me that I was too intelligent, would be wasting my time and talent, and concluded with “You should think about going into business.” His response left me more than a little perplexed, especially considering he was married to a teacher himself.

Many years later, I never intended to be a teacher. After finishing my B.A. and while working on my M.A., I was pondering whether to go to law school to earn a J.D. or to continue my graduate studies and earn a Ph.D. and become a university professor. But none of that ever happened because I stepped into a classroom as a substitute teacher and never looked back. It only took me a few weeks before an epiphany struck me in a way that all but solidified my career choice—teaching matters.

Teaching matters is a simple yet profound idea, and one upon which we can all agree despite the current political climate here in Florida and across the U.S. What person would disagree with this notion? Aren’t we all teachers in our own way? We teach our children lessons long before they ever set foot in school, and long after they graduate. We teach them by what we say and, far more critically, by how we act. Surely, then, we can all agree on the importance of teaching.

Teaching is so much more than a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, though—it’s also about inspiring students to pursue their dreams, encouraging them to give their best effort at all times, providing emotional support when their lives are experiencing turmoil, instilling an insatiable inquisitiveness in their minds to ensure they will be lifelong learners, and caring deeply about each and every single one of them as individual human beings who are worthy of dignity simply for having been born—and none of these things that teachers do can ever be measured by a VAM score.

Teaching matters, ultimately, because we care about our kids, our future.

Teaching as a chosen profession, however, is on the decline, especially here in the Sunshine State. I don’t need to quote recent headlines about the national teacher shortage, or about how our legislators are flummoxed by how to address the challenge, or about how Tallahassee has been squeezing blood from a stone and leaving every school district in the state financially hamstrung due to the insufficient funding for education. And while I could offer numerous potential solutions to our legislators about drawing “the best and the brightest” minds into the profession and keeping them here—such as raising the salaries of teachers from the lowest quintile in the U.S. to at least the national average, which itself already lags behind the average of all college graduate salaries by 20 percent—I’ll offer only two that won’t even cost the legislature any money at all: 1) respect the profession; 2) let us help by sharing our expertise.

Many of our legislators are evidently fond of maligning teachers: we’re lazy, or evil, or whatever other negative, sweeping generalization they’d like to heap upon us on any given day. Would our legislators say such things about our police officers, firefighters, social workers, or other public servants who have dedicated their lives to a career that strives to help individuals and our society as a whole? If our representatives and senators want to solve the riddle, it begins first and foremost by acknowledging the that teaching matters and that the tens of thousands of educators who walk into classrooms are worthy of their respect for all that we do for our kids and our future.

Equally as important, legislators should be tapping into our expertise. Virtually all of them have never been in the classroom, yet they act is if they know what’s best for our students. The general consensus about what constitutes being an expert is having at least 10,000 hours of experience in any given field, which means approximately 11 years of teaching if we were to only count time spent in front of students. If we were to include all of the hours spent outside the classroom that are dedicated to developing lesson plans, grading assignments, maintaining records, attending faculty meetings, engaging in professional development, earning additional certifications and advanced degrees, the number would probably drop to 5 years. Thousands of us undoubtedly fit this criterion, and I’m confident many would be willing to lend a hand to provide insight into the challenges our educational system faces.

I don’t think that our legislators are going to suddenly respect us or ask us for our informed opinion any time soon, however, which is why this open letter serves as a clarion call to every teacher in our state and beyond. We need to do what we do best, which is teach. But not only must we teach our students, we must teach our legislators about the issues we’re all facing. We can do this by sending emails and letters while they are in session and, perhaps more importantly, starting to build relationships with the legislators representing our individual counties by requesting face-to-face meetings to have engaging discussions and exchanging ideas.

We all know that teaching matters. It’s time to work collaboratively to do what’s best for our kids and our future.