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While we might not wear capes, Florida teachers are most certainly heroes for many, many reasons.

One of the most profound books I read about a decade ago was Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. The main thesis of the tome is that we should orient our lives around four key Enlightenment ideals: happiness, reason, reverence and hope; in doing so, we can find the moral clarity, courage, and conviction to live a life of heroism. As she explains here, however, she believes that the notion of the hero is fundamentally misunderstood in the 21st century due to the increasing shift toward a focus on victims and victimization during the 20th century.

In a more recent interview, Neiman states, “I think you can divide heroes into two: heroes who do something for other people and heroes who simply test the limits of human experience, who discover something, who explore something.” This definition certainly applies to any teacher in Florida on both counts; we do things for others, and we have explored and tested the limits of human experience in a classroom, especially considering all the various roles we must play for our students regardless of the egregious lack of resources at our disposal.

She then goes on to add that “There’s an element of risk. Being a hero still takes courage, even if it doesn’t take physical courage. There’s a perhaps even more important but connected element of self determination. A hero is a grown-up. A hero is someone who can think for himself and act to make some difference on some part of the world.”

Surely these basic yet clear notions of what constitutes a HERO, then, would apply to every single teacher working in the state of Florida. And by teacher I also mean any adult who plays a part along the continuum in which a student interacts with adults during the school day, from the bus drivers who pick them up, to the food service specialists who fill their bellies at the beginning of a new day, to custodians who chat with the kids while cleaning up during the lunches, to the guidance counselors, administrators, and teachers who spend the vast majority of their time around young minds and shape them for the better in innumerable ways.

All of us clearly want to do something for other people, and in this case specifically it is caring for the next generation and paying it forward by providing the best life lessons we can. In the end, besides parents, teachers easily spend the most amount of time around our children and have at least a modicum of influence upon them, which is why so many of the relationships we form with students end up lasting well beyond the time spent in the classroom.

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And yet it would seem as if the Florida Legislature as an institution is hell bent on destroying our profession in the name of efficiency, privatization, or some other ideological agenda that is not good for any human being involved in the process, most especially our children. We are vilified and vexed by VAM, stressed beyond belief at the thought of protecting our students in a school shooting as “first responders” (something even Ed Reformster Rep. Byron Donalds agreed upon earlier this year), and juggle an otherwise inordinate amount of various roles for the kids who need us every day.

And despite how we are treated by the Florida Legislature, we still show up.

We still get up each morning and go to work, day after day, again and again, because we know that what we do is far too important to let empty promises and platitudes from politicians stop us. The pay is terrible, the benefits continue to get more expensive, and the proposition of being a teacher in Florida becomes less and less economically tenable with each and every legislative session. We are tired of getting metaphorically-yet-repeatedly kicked in the teeth each year because clueless legislators who refuse to listen to the voices of the experts continue to pass laws that make our job much, much more difficult when they should be seeking to do the opposite. So much time, money, and effort are wasted jumping through frivolous hoops that do not improve the learning outcomes for the kids, and if only elected officials actually took the time to visit with teachers they would better comprehend the reality that they have created.

I don’t know about you, fellow teacher, but I’ve had enough. I don’t care if you work in a traditional public school, charter school, or private school. If you are a “teacher”–any caring adult who interacts with students on a daily basis–you should absolutely outraged that Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy yet is ranked 45th in public education spending and pays its teachers 48th.

Now is the time to reject the language of victimization.

Now is the time to display our courage and push back.

Now is the time to take a stand against Tallahassee.

Now is the time to become an even better hero.

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#WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

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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

 

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

Dear Fellow Floridian:

Click Play.

Like what you heard? Sharing is caring 😉

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

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

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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!

relationships

Contrary to Sean Combs’ claim that “it’s all about the Benjamins,” I would argue that life is all about relationships. As teachers, we have relationships with lots of people in our daily school lives, none more important than with our students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of my success as a teacher is due to the meaningful and lasting relationships I have fostered with my students, certainly much more so than any curriculum I may have imparted to them during our shared time together.

While I only worked as a new teacher mentor for a single year, the two most important pieces of advice I offered those who were just beginning in the classroom–whether fresh out of college or starting a second career–was: 1) be your most authentic self, as kids–especially high school students–recognize phoniness better than most adults; 2) get to really know your students as individual human beings. By taking a genuine interest in them, their journeys up to that point in life, and where they’re headed based on their goals and aspirations, teachers can forge a strong, important bond with that child. As I told my mentees, the rest will always come with time and work itself out provided that they put those two pieces of advice into practice.

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days because of two messages I received almost back to back. Over the years, I have received many nice notes, letters, cards, and emails expressing gratitude for our relationship. And what I’ve learned in the first 15 years in the classroom is that we never know how our words and actions will resonate with our students, which is why I always do my utmost to be an exemplar of a life well lived. I was deeply honored and grateful, then, to receive this short essay on leadership from a graduate of last year’s class who is currently at the United States Naval Academy. While she could have written about virtually anyone and how that person exemplifies leadership, she chose me. Her words were truly humbling:

In my junior year of high school, I was required to take a course known as the Theory of Knowledge. This class was a introspective curriculum which mainly focused on self-reflection and relies heavily on the teacher’s interpretation and dedication to the class. It is in this class that I saw one of the purest forms of leadership within the teacher. Mr H. was new to the program and thus took on a large amount of responsibility in order to enable our success.

I would argue that the majority of my enjoyment within the class stemmed from Mr. H’s ability to spark an intense curiosity and passion within all of his students. It was not through overbearing demands, but rather a nurturing of individual abilities. One of the most important traits that I learned through H was to listen, even when you didn’t always know how to respond. Compassion never fails. The ability to sympathize and lend an ear can often be more powerful than one’s own words. As an especially exasperated high school student, H’s ability to listen to the complaints of fifty teenagers and still make everyone feel like an individual proved unique.

Besides listening, a good leader understands when intervening is necessary. Obviously, the public school system does not stand as the pinnacle of premier education. Unlike most people who just accepted the flaws of a large structure, Mr. H continued to seek new ways to reform and better the environment he was in. From interviewing other teachers on a podcast, to speaking his grievances at school board meetings, H understood the need to take a stand. This determination to better his community at a large scale and still treat people as individuals was contagious. Most often leadership is done first through example.

At the purest form H never stopped showing how much he cared. How much he cared about people, knowledge, work, and life. These traits have greatly impacted how I approach situations, as well as my interactions with others. Through him I saw someone devote themselves to others, which in the end, defines leadership.

Then, only a day later, another former student from my time at Durant tagged me on Twitter to tell me the following:

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Another random, timely gift from the universe

I responded to him to thank him for his kind words as well as to share that I do indeed remember him. By my rough estimation, I have taught over 3,000 students at this point in my career. I may not be able to remember all of their names (especially those that were from more than a decade ago), but I often recognize their faces despite the years that have passed. Regardless, these small blessings are one of the many, many reasons I love being a teacher.

My wife and I do not have children, and that is a big reason why we truly love our students as if they were our own kids. I believe that love infuses our classroom and the interactions we have with all students, which is why I consider the relationships we build with them so critical for their future success. Being a teacher is an important job, but being good toward other human beings who are sharing this sojourn with us through this space in time, who have been given the same gift of life that has been bestowed upon each of us, is the pinnacle of what it means to teach. Regardless of a student’s grade average or mastery of content, it’s how we treat them with an inherent dignity that will forever resonate with them. As Maya Angelou famously said, “…people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”

Let’s ensure that our students feel loved.

P.S. – And, as always, if you are one of my current or former students reading this, thank you for being a part of my life. All of you mean the world to me.

Love,

– H.

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SCHS IB Class of 2019 surprised me on my birthday last August by having me come down to the cafeteria before bursting into screams and singing Happy Birthday, none of which would have happened had I not loved these students.

 

Suit-Up

It would only be a matter of time before one of the school districts in Florida decided to file a lawsuit against HB7069, and Broward County was officially the first to do so last week.

Who’s next?

All districts across the state should join this suit for multiple reasons; here are just a few:

  • It violates the Florida Constitution, first and foremost. As noted during WEDU’s “Florida This Week” that aired last Friday (and certainly in numerous print publications over the last several weeks), bills that are passed by the Legislature should be a single subject bill. “Education” is far too broad, and each bill should deal with one aspect of policy only.
  • It undermines local control/usurps the autonomy of the school districts in a multitude of ways, the most brazen of which is the demand for traditional public schools to share their capital outlay revenues from the millage rates collected locally.
  • It interferes with Federal law regarding Title I spending by dictating those monies go directly to the Title I schools rather than the school district itself. In the past, the leaders of each district could decide how to distribute the Title I money for wraparound service programs, teacher salary-based incentives, etc; under the new law, the districts have been stripped of their administrative rights.
  • It is inequitable in its demands placed on traditional public schools. For instance, parents across the entire Sunshine State have been advocating for recess for the last several years and this bill mandates that all schools implement recess beginning next year…unless it’s a charter school.

The list could go on, but let’s not belabor the point: HB7069 is just one more way the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature dictates what happens in our communities at the local level.

And this has me perplexed for several reasons. Isn’t “local control is the best form of governance” the mantra of all card-carrying conservatives? Isn’t it considered anathema by conservatives to also “pick winners and losers”? By flushing charter schools with cash while offering nothing but unfunded mandates to traditional public schools, the Legislature has done just that. What about “corporate welfare” that the Republicans claim to despise? How does that square with the conservatism? It doesn’t. Frankly, none of the things this bill has wrought conforms to conservative ideals.

But you know who the real loser is in this legislation? Our students all across this state. The way we pit traditional public schools against charter schools gets us no where. It’s time for the Legislature do something useful such as closing the loophole that for-profit charter companies exploit year after year. It’s time for the Legislature to ensure that both traditional and charter schools are held to the same accountability standards. It’s time for there to be a substantial investment in education combined with an equitable distribution of funds to all schools.

But before the Legislature can get back to work, let’s have every school district band together to join this suit and send a message.

 

Knowledge Illusion Cover
Think you “know” things? Think again.

Socrates once famously quipped, “I know nothing.” It is for this self-effacing statement that the Oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest person in all of Athens.

And the older I get, the more I comprehend why he said such things.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am a huge nerd and a voracious reader. While I don’t foresee myself writing book reviews of everything I read, I will occasionally pass along something that I think could benefit everyone. The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach is one of those books.

My current teaching assignment, Theory of Knowledge, is the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, and I LOVE teaching the class. It is primarily driven by reflection and dialogue, and I get to work with bright and inquisitive young minds who share a love of learning. Though the curriculum delves into various Areas of Knowledge (e.g. Natural Sciences, Mathematics, History, Ethics, etc) and how they interact with Ways of Knowing (e.g. Sense Perception, Reason, Language, Emotion, etc), it is essentially a high-level critical thinking course that examines the nature of knowledge, what knowledge is as a human construct, and how knowledge has changed over time. Perhaps most importantly, it tasks the learner with a central question around which the entire course revolves: how do you know?

This excellent little book, then, is effectively a primer on the subject matter dealt with in a course such as Theory of Knowledge. In the opening pages, the authors ask a simple question: how does a toilet work? They use this as an example of how the vast majority of what we think we know actually exists outside of our own heads and that, ultimately, knowledge is communal in nature (hence the subtitle). Much of the rest of the book details how our brains were never really designed to “know” much, and how that false sense of “knowing”–mostly predicated on an outmoded view of the brain that essentially sees it as a hard drive that stores information and carries out instructions–gets us into all sorts of trouble in our daily lives.

But why read it? Because it gives both pause and perspective. We unfortunately live in a highly polarized political climate, and if we all take a deep breath and realize that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do, perhaps we can have honest conversations with one another. Perhaps we can ask better questions rather than simply make assertions based on scant evidence. Perhaps we’ll be actually willing to listen to the other person’s positions. Perhaps we’ll actually have opinions that can be augmented (GASP!) when new information is presented. Perhaps we’ll have less hubris and more humility, something that all our pundits and politicians could certainly use.

I’ll be 42 soon. I don’t plan on imbibing hemlock at any point in the foreseeable future. But with each passing day I understand Socrates’ pithy statement more and more…

Hawking Quote

P.S. – You can read a more in-depth review here or you can purchase the book here.

 

 

 

VAM Formula
The VAM Formula

If you’re a teacher in Florida, you know all about VAM. Back in 2009, teacher accountability became all the rage, and by the legislative session in the spring of 2010 members of both the House and Senate were putting forth various bills to measure teacher effectiveness. SB6 sponsored by Senator John Thrasher was the first to emerge fully formed, and it was the first that I am aware of to propose the use of VAM, or the “Value Added Model.”

I am a teacher, not a widget. I don’t come off an assembly line, and neither do my students or their learning gains. We are human beings, so I immediately took umbrage with a term we often associate with products we buy, sell, and consume. I was so upset, in fact, that I wrote a letter to the editor of the now defunct Tampa Tribune, and it was featured on the front page of the Opinion section that Sunday. If you’d like to read it, click here, as the words I wrote are still relevant today.

Even though HB7069 is a train wreck…er, train bill, one of the *VERY FEW* good pieces of the legislation is that school districts can now opt out of using VAM as part of the teacher evaluation process. Though it unfortunately takes the Florida Legislature years to realize they’ve implemented bad policy, I’ll give them credit for finally acknowledging it, even if they only did so tacitly by burying something like this in a giant bill.

If you read the post on Facebook that took you to Jeff Solochek’s piece about VAM being eliminated in Citrus County, you know that one of the School Board members, Thomas Kennedy, advocated for its removal (thank you, sir!). Perhaps most importantly, Solochek notes that “other districts are also preparing similar moves.” I sure hope that means here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

I’ve always thought VAM was suspect for lots of reasons, the least of which was the dismissive way teachers in our district were told by top brass that “you’d need a PhD in Mathematics to understand it.” Nothing like opaque and vague formulas to determine your worth as a teacher, I guess.

The truth is, I never liked VAM for one simple reason that every teacher will agree upon: teaching is more art than science. It’s more how you connect with kids and the relationships you build with them, not how well they do on a standardized test. When you add in the fact that VAM is inequitable in its application (is it fair to judge a P.E. Coach by the school’s overall reading scores?) and that many kids pencil-whip tests because they know the curves are so ridiculously generous, what does that number really even mean?

Nothing.

VAM has never been anything but a charade that has caused consternation for teachers everywhere throughout the state of Florida. Let’s lobby our individual districts to get rid of this mathematical chicanery for good.

VAM Formula Fixed
Here’s how the VAM formula should really read