Take a moment and close your eyes. Can you visualize it? This is what Tallahassee–or any place in Florida–could look like with a massive grassroots uprising. The pictures above are of Phoenix when the Arizona Educators United #RedForEd movement stormed the capital, and this could be what Tallahassee looks like on the first day of the legislative session.

But how did we get here? And why the heck has it taken so long? Here’s a brief timeline:

Spring of 2018, numerous states begin to rebel against the status quo: ridiculously paltry funding, especially in southern states, has negatively impacted everything in education, from the resources available to provide supports and services to students, to the decline in meaningful raises due to little flexible funding being eaten up by rising costs for healthcare or categoricals.

During the midst of this uprising (and many, many times before), I started to publicly question why yet again the FEA was content to sit back and do nothing in the wake of unprecedented activism exploding all over the country: West Virginia began in late February and ran through March, and Arizona started organizing around that time and erupted in late April / early May. Although controversial when written, there were numerous comments by non-union members and frustrated rank and file members who believed back then that the time was upon Florida.

4/8/18 – A Question for Florida’s Teachers Unions: Why Can’t We Do More?

Seeing how effective these movements were (others happened in numerous other states, often popping up one after the other in OK, KY, CO, etc), the next post about the topic came about a month later. It outlined two possibilities for huge days of action that could be coordinated by FEA: 9/17/18, U.S. Constitution Day, which was proposed by retired teacher advocate extraordinaire, Donna Yates Mace, and 1/21/19, which was MLK Day this year and would have made for a powerful statement bringing everyone together to benefit all students and educators.

5/12/18 – Next Steps: Rally in Tally

After these two posts, I finally had the opportunity to ask the former president of the FEA, Joanne McCall, about the organization’s strategy to organize all educators across the state during her first podcast appearance. Was a rally in Tally in order? Nope. Just more hashtags and a “Me Plus Three” campaign to bring family and friends to the polls. Listen here if so inclined:

5/19/18 – Teacher Voice – Episode 21 (Joanne McCall)

Considering nothing ever came of these posts or discussions, I was encouraged by the fact that it was an election year for the FEA as well. Fed, Andrew, and Carole won convincingly, and I was hopeful that the FEA would take a new direction. Shortly after their win, I approached Fed and Andrew on the final morning of the Delegate Assembly and shared the idea of a massive rally in Tally, expressing my dismay that nothing had happened under the previous leadership team. I sent them my post via a group text and assumed this was something that could easily be accomplished in 3 months; after all, the students of the MSD/Parkland tragedy organized a massive movement in about 6 weeks.

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Screenshot of the text/link I sent to Fed, Andrew and Carole

Obviously, nothing happened…

2/4/19 – Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, a wildly successful non-partisan, parent-led Facebook group quickly gathers thousands of members and solicits input from said members. Five key demands are agreed upon by an incredibly diverse group including educators, parents, former students, and retirees, demonstrating the need for a massive overhaul to public education. These five points are ones no one would disagree with: 1) better funding/educator pay; 2) less testing for our students; 3) a return to true local control so school boards can do what is best for their constituents; 4) legislators who actually listen to constituent concerns; 5) no more train bills.

Part of this grassroots push was to also have a coordinated day of action on 1/14/20, the first day of the new legislative session. Marches were being set up in some counties, and in May of 2019 the Reconstruct-ED leadership even staged a small march with several hundred people in Martin County.

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Martin County March led by Reconstruct-ED

As momentum started to build within this network (now 9100+ strong), more and more people began talking about 1/14/20 as the day of action, including FEA leadership. Clearly a grassroots movement that included all stakeholders regardless of political leanings was just what the Sunshine State needed to raise the awareness of the issues we still face, but until we dominated the media and rose from the bottom of the polls we would get no real traction.

July 2019 – After attending the FLBOE meeting with a few education advocates at Polk State (7/17), I was upset by the fact that the FEA continued to do nothing to mobilize or organize its members. Stephanie Yocum, a brand new president of her local in Polk, was there in addition to a few more members, but it seemed as if a huge opportunity had been squandered, which then prompted this email to FEA leadership (7/25).

FEA Open Letter 1

August 2019 – At my penultimate executive board meeting for HCTA, our president informs us that the FEA day of action has been planned for 1/13/20, which prompted me to whip my head to the left and blurt out “WHAT?!”, to which he replied with, “yeah, they said you might not be too happy about it.” I was floored. Not only had I personally been told 1/14/20, it had been the original grassroots date for many months and it seemed as if they were trying to usurp the burgeoning movement.

I also continued to post things like this on Facebook (8/3/19):

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10/15/19 – The week of the FEA DA I decided to write this open letter to FEA leadership as well as the presidents of all locals across the state. Some presidents from small or medium locals wrote back to me, also dismayed by the change in the date. All I asked is that the process be democratic and to let the gathered body actually vote on the day, but my letter may have precluded them doing just that, as a new business item was quickly introduced and its sole purpose was to confirm the date of 1/13/20.

FEA Open Letter 2

And here we are! In the midst of the confusion surrounding two dates, people keep asking which date. My answer? Why not both? Plans have already been laid for my wife and I to be in Tallahassee both days along with some friends, but I will still continue to advocate for 1/14/20 because there is so much more symbolism surrounding that day. The ceremony and pageantry of the State of the State and everything else that goes along with it is exactly needs to be disrupted, but that only happens on 1/14/20. Hopefully the FEA-led event on 1/13/20 will be a smashing success that helps build momentum, but considering how it will be seen as partisan (just ask Governor DeSantis who already made now infamous remarks) my fears from the second open letter are already starting to be realized…

Now the choice is yours. Even if you cannot make it to Tallahassee or other demonstrations that will hopefully be organized for 1/14/20, if enough of us take a personal day on 1/14/20 districts may have no other choice than to shut down due to a lack of subs or personnel needed to run the schools for the day. Now THAT would be a powerful message sent to Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and the Florida Legislature.

But make no mistake…it will take nearly “everyone” for this to work.

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

The latest edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features three of Hillsborough’s best ESPs, Leo Haggerty, Cara Martin-Howard, and Johnny Green. For those of you who are outside the school system and do not recognize the acronym, the people who work in these roles are referred to as Education Support Personnel or Education Staff Professionals, and every one of them has a critical role to play in supporting our students.

But make no mistake, these people are educators regardless of the specific designation we give them. In fact, as we discuss in this episode, any adult who works with children at a school house is an educator, whether it is the bus driver who greets the kids in the morning, the nutrition specialist who nourishes our students before they head to class, or the custodian who chats with them during lunch. And yet all of these people tend to make poverty level wages…

We discuss why it is so critical for ESPs to join their local, why their voice is a necessary component in the on-going public education discussion, how Tampa has raised the minimum wage to $15 and how the district will respond moving forward, as well as how each of these incredible educators has impacted the lives of students.

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

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Kam Rigney

Kam Rigney is a middle school Special Education teacher who works with students with profound cognitive disabilities.  She teaches six different subject areas, across three grade levels, in a self-contained classroom.  Kam believes that all voices matter, and all students deserve the opportunity to show how amazing they are, on their own individual level.  Kam facilitates District Wide Trainings for her peers within Pinellas county and has been acknowledged as a teacher expert.  Kam is the Vice President for the PTSA, the Secretary for SAC, and she is certified as a Best Practice For Inclusion facilitator.  She is also a new teacher mentor and a Lead Union Representative at her school.  She received her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies PreK-8, a M.S. in Special Education K-12, and a M.A. in English Language Learners K-12 from Western Governors University. 

We are experts in our field…

Anyone else feel like a team of supervisors that supervise another set of supervisors are diminishing our expertise?

I became a teacher for the purest reasons. I wanted to impact students the way I was by some awesome teachers /coaches…

I am definitely working in a population that I was never a part of growing up, let alone even saw when I went to school…

Oh how times have changed.

I am really good at what I do, many of us are!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

I shouldn’t hear so many teachers are ready to leave this profession.

I shouldn’t have to question my ability to do what I do by someone who has never done my job or has openly said “I don’t want to do your job”.

Don’t give me test scores.

Don’t shove down my throat what gains are needed to improve a school score.

Walk in my room and see what they can do!

Ask me, let me show you the data, I’ll show you how far they’ve come.

See the social skills they’ve gained.

See the amazing ways they’ve progressed.

Ask their parents to sit down and tell you the difference a year, or two, or three in my classroom has made.

Don’t give me a number, because I teach incredible humans, not a statistic!

Just a thought from a tired teacher.

#seetheperson #seetheirgrowth

This lament by Kam caught my eye the other day in Florida Teachers Unite! on Facebook. Always on the lookout for guest posts, so if you believe you’d make a good contributor or know someone else who may want to write a guest post, please send an email to 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

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

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

Below is the statement I read to my fellow Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association who sit on the Executive Board. I will no longer hold any leadership roles within our local teachers union, and there is more to be said after the statement.

Before the adjournment of this meeting for the Executive Board of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, I, Ryan Haczynski, am tendering my resignation for any and all leadership roles I currently hold. I can no longer afford to have a seat at this table or represent my fellow members at Strawberry Crest High School. I hope that you, my fellow executive board members, hear me out for my reasons why, and respect the decision without further deliberation by the gathered body seated before me now.

It has become rather evident to me that by speaking out as I have been—specifically asking people to take a personal day on the first day of the legislative session, January 14th 2020—it is beginning to cause concern for both district and union leadership. Though I have been personally told by the HCPS School Board attorney that I would not be fired by the district, I assume that I still run the risk of additional penalties from the state; I cannot confirm this, however, as Commissioner Corcoran has not answered a single time despite three separate inquiries. Additionally, at the September Rep Council, the only time I ever broached the idea of 1/14/20, all of you—in addition to at least another 100 HCTA reps—witnessed the immediate censure from our president, specifically stating he could not endorse such a call to action.

From that moment onward, this decision has become increasingly clarified. Rather than potentially jeopardize my fellow brothers and sisters or even our organization itself, my self-imposed exile from all leadership meetings and decisions will isolate and indemnify our union from my words and actions. And make no mistake, both will continue as I attempt to awaken the sleeping giant that is the teacher workforce of Florida, regardless of what personal cost I must pay to speak out on behalf of our students, our colleagues, and the profession itself.

As many of you know, I did not belong to this union for the first decade of my career. But I finally joined out of gratitude for the new pay scale in conjunction with what started in Tallahassee under the Rick Scott administration. While I will gladly relinquish my leadership roles in HCTA, I believe it is my right to choose my continued membership. Though I will be sidelined from helping steer HCTA into the future, I will still monetarily and philosophically support this union hall and its mission. I have come to love Hillsborough County and all of you too much. It has been an honor, privilege, and blessing to work on such an ethnically and politically diverse board that is a microcosm of our own county in many ways, and I thank you for allowing me to serve during the time I have. I wish you all the best as you move forward without my input, knowing that our union is in good hands. In the end, this is the best decision for all of us.

Namaste, Pax Vobiscum, much love, and in solidarity with you and every educator throughout the Sunshine State,

-Ryan

And that’s that. If anyone believed in the past that my positions in union leadership protected me, I have cast them aside. As I mentioned in the previous piece from my Facebook post, I will NOT be silent in the face of this abject moral failure on the part of the Florida Legislature to properly invest in our students and their future.

I speak out because I can, therefore I must.

I speak up for those who can’t.

I speak on behalf of those who won’t.

And I speak up most importantly for the kids who are human collateral in this entire test-and-punish system; we don’t have children of our own and so I personally believe we must care for the children of others simply due to how we feel about the entire human family.

If this means I will eventually be arrested by the state, so be it. If it means I must sacrifice my teaching certification, I will put that on the line as well. Whatever the cost, I will pay it gladly. In the end our kids, their future, and our profession are far too important to the very fabric of our culture and country.

On a final note, these two quotes have been on my mind a great deal lately, and I hope that you choose to join me in taking a day off on 1/14/20 so that we can all take a stand together. I’m sure I will be saying a lot more between now and then…

“Cry aloud / bold and proud / of where I’ve been / BUT HERE I AM.” – TOOL, “Invincible”

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. HERE I STAND, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” – Martin Luther, famous quote from his defense during the Diet of Worms.

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Executive Chef Paul Bonanno and several culinary students serving at this year’s Excellence in Education award ceremony for Hillsborough County Public Schools

“I tell them food is the thing that connects us all. It’s a universal language. It is what cultures are centered upon…and I make that point the first day with the kids. This is something we all share.” – Chef Paul (more pics can be found below)

When I started the Teacher Voice project over two years ago, Paul Bonanno was the first coworker at Strawberry Crest High School that I asked to be on the podcast. At the time it was difficult for him to commit for numerous reasons, chief of which we never even discussed during the episode–he was the boys’ head coach of our state championship winning swim team. Eventually the moment arrived, though, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. From our mutual love of cooking to how Paul truly “prepares students for life” by focusing on the effort and work-related skills they will need for the future, this podcast was truly worth the wait.

Please listen and share with others. With the focus finally shifting back to balance out career prep pathways with those seeking college prep programs, this conversation highlights how much value these kinds of kids and programs bring to our communities upon graduation. For instance, one of my former freshman Geometry students, Chase, who is referenced during our conversation, went on to become one of Chef Paul’s right hand students as a senior; now he is working as a pastry chef at Wright’s Gourmet, one of the most famous establishments in Tampa.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Behind the scenes in the commercial kitchen of The Upper Crest Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Way to be, Florida…

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

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

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

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

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

House of Representatives Education Committee Members

Florida Senate Education Committee Members

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

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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

 

 

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What more do you need to know?

These were the numbers I shared with many people, many times this past summer, including the FLBOE members themselves.

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.

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Over/under on the number of days to respond?

For now, though, here are two simple options:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Every Florida Legislator Should Feel For Letting It Get This Bad…

Dear Fellow Floridian:

Click Play.

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Have an awesome weekend, everyone!

*Correction* – in 2014 there were three A-rated districts (not four); the 800% increase has resulted in 24 “A-rated” districts currently in 2019.

P.S. – Don’t forger to download, display and share your #InfographicOfShame!4544F7E3-3701-41B7-A509-9F2CD4445295

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Rob Kriete, President of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

I remember talking to my mom about that and letting her know I wanted to be a teacher and the look on her face. It wasn’t that look of excitement. It was: “why would you choose to do something that is so hard, that pays so little, and has so little respect societally?”…

And I had to explain to her that I had to do it because it’s who I am, and teaching is important and that’s why I do it. And it matters. And so, that’s ultimately what led me here to become—and run for—union president. Because I believe that I want to make sure that every teacher gets that respect and has that ability to say, “Hey, I’m a teacher. I’m proud. Because what I do is very important for myself, my community, my school, and society overall.” – Rob Kriete

Rob Kriete spent his first 24 years in the classroom at the middle and high school levels. Last year, he appeared on the Teacher Voice podcast as a candidate for the presidency of HCTA; this year, he returns after one full year on the job. We sat down to discuss the learning curve of taking over the local for the 8th largest school district in the U.S.; what he is trying to accomplish moving forward this year; this past legislative session; why he became a teacher and so much more.

If you’d like to learn more about or join Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, you can click here. Thanks for listening and sharing with others, everyone!