Honorable Hillsborough County Public Schools Board Members:
I am the most unique candidate for Superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools. Unlike the rest of the applicants who undoubtedly have the conventional credentials, I offer a set of unrivaled intangibles that few can match. For instance, none of the candidates could possibly possess an empathetic understanding of what our students face on a daily basis in 2019; they have been out of the classroom for far too long, and it is the ability to listen and relate to our students that will best serve our next Superintendent. Though I may be seen simply as a classroom teacher of 16 years, my desire and capability to perform the job of Superintendent should not be underestimated.
Beyond the various subject areas I have taught, the work I performed as a new teacher mentor, or the public education advocacy in which I have engaged over the last four years, at the heart of my endeavors is the well-being and future success of the next generation. The children of Florida—and Hillsborough County, in particular—deserve a tireless champion who will always put them at the heart of his or her work, and I believe the board should look no further to find that champion. I want this job because I know I can make a positive difference in the lives of all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic background. Every day, I will wake ready to dedicate my effort and classroom-cultivated wisdom to fight for the education that our students deserve and should rightfully receive to truly prepare them for life.
Although I lack administrative experience in education, I spent five years in the business world, served on several boards and managed large budgets, and have been in leadership positions over the past 25 years in varying capacities. These attributes, along with my daily drive to relentlessly improve myself and others, allow me to perform at the highest levels while always being mindful of the big picture and long view. Moreover, as a lifelong learner who strives to give his best to any challenge, the deficit of experience can be overcome through constant, clear communication among our collaboration.
In the end, it would be in the best interest of the board to offer me an opportunity to interview based on the unique, informed, insightful firsthand educational perspective I possess. Between my public education advocacy work over the last several years and the outpouring of public support evident on the Letter of Confidence, I believe I can provide all of you with an educational vision for the future of the county I have come to love and call my home. So I will close with the question that was posed by Chair Shamburger during the Superintendent search board workshop this past October: “How can I help?”
I sincerely hope that when we meet next January we can have a robust conversation revolving around this question to provide a solution. Together.
Now in its third year, the November/Veterans Day podcast welcomes two former Army members who, after more than 20 years of service to our country, continue to serve the public as educators working for our JROTC program at Strawberry Crest High School. First Sergeant Lawshawn Lyas and Lieutenant Colonel John Ingraham have had a huge hand in the success of our program, but as they will tell you during this episode, it really is all about the kids, from who runs the program to why they choose to fill this unique role in our school, district, state and nation.
If you are a veteran of the U.S. military, thank you for your service to all of us. You are appreciated not only today, but each and every day. More importantly, if you live in the Tampa area, be sure to stop by the Golden Corral on 56th and Fowler to not only have a free meal, but to meet these two wonderful people and many of our cadets from SCHS.
Thank you for listening and enjoy the Veterans Day weekend, everyone!
P.S. – Like what you heard and want to hear more from our veterans who became educators? Be sure to check out the previous two episodes!
And since then the numbers have only gotten worse. The average teacher pay in Florida, for example, when taking the entire U.S. into account (including D.C.), is now 48th.
Funding? According to Diane Rado’s most recent article in the Florida Phoenix News, Florida ranks 45th.
TL;DR? Funding affects outcomes. Period.
How much worse can and will it get before there is an all out uprising?
Why are educators so afraid to stand up for themselves?
How can people be so afraid when school districts all around the Sunshine State are begging people to become teachers while the already massive teacher shortage continues to worsen?
How much abuse and disrespect will educators endure before they unequivocally state that enough is enough?
The fear of speaking out mystifies and perplexes me.
People on social media have told me to pipe down. That I should not be encouraging others to take a personal day. Well guess what? It’s a personal day that I can take off any time I want and will do dang well what I please with it, whether that is make the drive to Tallahassee and protest the outrageous treatment of our students and our profession or just sit around my house all day reading books. Regardless of what I choose to do in either of those scenarios I would certainly enjoy my time…but I have a funny feeling the former option would be far more productive use of said time on January 14th, 2020.
Some claim that I am being reckless in that I have not reviewed the penalties for joining in on a strike in Florida, and if you’d like to read the statutes yourself the two main chapters are 447 and 775. Even if this were “construed” as a strike–which I will argue all day long that it is NOT–it is a second degree misdemeanor and up to a $500 fine. As a highly decorated professional with a long track record of success, as well as an army of former students who would surely cry out at the injustice of such a lunatic play on the part of the district or state, I think I would be willing to take that fight any day. I can only imagine the Florida newspaper headlines if teachers start getting arrested for standing up and speaking out for their students and profession, and in the midst of terrible teacher shortage that worsens each year no less.
Never one to leave anything to chance, I decided to ask the Florida Commissioner of Education himself. I will update everyone if and when there is ever a reply.
For now, though, here are two simple options:
Take a personal day on 1/14/20. Do with it what you will, but for my part I’ll likely be in Tallahassee, hopefully on the steps to greet the legislators as they begin the first day of the new session. Whether I am a lone man or one of many thousands matters not to me, but I ardently hope I am not alone.
If you cannot risk taking a personal day for whatever reason, then at least join in on the post-work demonstrations that will take place locally all across Florida. If you haven’t heard of Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, it is a public group on Facebook replete with concerned stakeholders from all across Florida. Thousands of taxpayers, parents, educators, and public education advocates are planning marches with local leadership teams, and if you haven’t connected with yours, please reach out to them to find out who is helping your county.
Hope to see a massive turnout that turns major media attention toward Tallahassee, because a long overdue conversation with actual classroom teachers is just what our legislators clearly need!
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 Aurelius’ Meditations. 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.
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.
May 31st marked the end of my 15th year teaching in the state of Florida. What I have seen change in that time, mainly by legislators in Florida who have zero experience in the classroom, has largely been to the detriment of our most precious resources–our children and their future.
Considering we’re the 3rd most populous state in the U.S. with a one trillion dollar economy, this ranking is downright shameful.
But what’s more shameful–and far more insulting–is that teachers, the very people who work with our children on a daily basis, are never part of these conversations. At least not in any meaningful way. Sure politicians and district administrators may point to data for a lone annual survey that asked for our feedback, but it is no substitute for putting people in a room together and letting them generate ideas.
Over the last several years, there have been numerous people who suggested that I go into the administrative track, often telling me that I would be an excellent principal. Heck, I’ve even had people with highly informed opinions tell me that I have the potential to even be a great superintendent.
While I appreciate the words of confidence–and do agree with these people who share these suggestions–I cannot leave the classroom for a few reasons:
1) at nearly 44 years old, I fully realize that time is the most valuable asset I have. Being a classroom teacher means I work 9 months out of the year. Sure if we add up all the extra we do outside of school it probably is like a yearlong job, but the huge blocks of time off are restorative and rejuvenating. I wouldn’t be nearly as effective if I didn’t have so much time to work on myself personally and professionally.
2) when I was a new teacher mentor, as much as I loved the experience of helping newer teachers find their grooves, it only made me long for being with my own kids again;
4) perhaps most importantly, we simply need teachers who are innate leaders to help shape and craft policy at all levels, and if we are not invited to the table it’s about time we just pull up a chair, plunk ourselves down, and start sharing important ideas or perspectives that are often overlooked.
Here in Hillsborough County Public Schools, I’m just a number. Literally. But I am also one of 15,000 teachers, which means the odds would dictate there are many more “teacher-leaders” like me who love the close contact with kids and do not want to move into administration. Why are we not tapping into these resources? Why are we not leveraging our human capital in ways that allow us to maximize the positive changes we could bring to this district? Meeting with legislators who routinely nod at our concerns and then vote the opposite way will get us nowhere, but at least at the local level, regardless of what county or district, we can effect change if we are simply asked.
So let this be an invitation to any teacher who wants to help impact his or her local community. Show up at local school board meetings, ask how you can get involved, or provide suggestions. If enough of us do this, perhaps it will move the needle and get your local school board members to come back to the well of our experience and expertise. Here in Hillsborough, we should be organizing town halls for solutions-driven people who want to band together and help our students regardless of where they live or go to school. Two issues that immediately come to mind yet are undoubtedly intertwined are the lack of literacy in our youngest, most disadvantaged students coupled with the bad behavior that is reinforced through a lack of discipline.
So how do we move forward?
I believe two of the most crucial characteristics of the best, most effective leaders are when they admit these two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. Let’s face it, most people don’t like to say these things, but I am quite fond of saying both because they demonstrate a humble-yet-confident mindset seeking opportunities for learning and growth. By admitting we don’t have all the answers or that something we tried didn’t work out should give us pause for reflection. And all great leaders are great thinkers. They see the big picture and are always willing to take their egos out of the equation. These are the types of teacher-leaders we need at all levels helping everyone else pull together and get behind a vision for positive change.
Does this sound like you? Perhaps it is time for you to emerge as a local teacher-leader!
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