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Pretty much that simple.

Hey, everyone.

I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.

Don’t worry about them too much.

I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.

Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.

But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.

Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.

Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.

But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?

This is the perfect time.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Florida’s Education Commissioner, but as Richard Corcoran recently said in the Tampa Bay Times, “They’ll be learning every day. That’s a great thing.”

The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.

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Best. Quote. Ever.

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The most difficult aspect of working remotely, for me, at least, will be not seeing my students on a daily basis. I have been in communication with a number of them throughout the break, and each week we are not in school I will be writing a letter to them that will deal with “life” issues more than academic ones. I am posting them publicly in the hopes that they will also help others who are struggling through this difficult ordeal.

Hey, gang.

I realize that many of you are struggling with what is happening across the world and in our lives right now, and the first thing I wanted to you know is that this is perfectly normal. In speaking with a few former IB students over the past week, the one piece of advice I keep sharing is that “you will get through this.” For someone like me who is in my mid-forties, I have already lived through a number of large events that cause the world to pause and reassess its current cultural or economic trajectory (end of the Cold War, 9/11, Housing Collapse, etc). COVID-19, however, presents a slightly different wrinkle in that it is also forcing us to stay within our homes and keep distance from others, sometimes even those whom we love the most.

My first piece of advice is to be curious, not fearful. As Theory of Knowledge students, this is an exciting time to take the concepts studied in TOK and apply them broadly to the events of today’s world. Think about the claims being made by various entities, agencies, and individuals. Take time to consider how the various Ways of Knowing may impact how we receive and interpret emerging phenomena. While the juniors have not studied Areas of Knowledge yet, our first unit when eLearning begins will be the Natural Sciences and goes hand in hand with what is happening now; for seniors who have already completed the course, reflect on the other AOKs and how they impact our burgeoning understanding of the novel coronavirus. Ultimately, we are all witnessing the unfolding of a major event in history, which is why we should all be cultivating curiosity to stave off the fear and let it subside.

But how do we stave off fear? Fear is a natural reaction in times of great uncertainty, and I’m sure all of you remember that fear is one of the six primary emotions that have been evolutionarily hardwired into us all. But how do we turn fear–or any emotion–into curiosity? Through a simple three step process that begins with introspection, but the trick is to treat this process like a detective carefully investigating the scene of a crime.

  1. When you feel a sudden surge of emotion, recognize it but try not to react to it.
  2. With calm detachment, investigate what sensations the emotion generates in the body (e.g. tightness in the chest, lump in the throat, etc).
  3. Ponder what has allowed that emotion to rise within you–was it internal? Another thought (or cascade of thoughts) that brought up the emotion? Or was it external? The events of your day? The stress of the pandemic? Acknowledging the source itself will help the emotion subside, typically steadying the mind in the process.

Granted, this may be easier said than done for someone who has been meditating for over a decade, but this extended break from school is a timely opportunity to begin or continue to work on your own personal practice. (Can’t find the sheet on Edsby? Click Basic Mindfulness Practices here to download the PDF) Beyond the proven benefits such as increased focus, attentional stamina, and emotional regulation being extolled by neuroscience, developing a meditation practice will increase the self-awareness of one’s own mind, providing more personal freedom in the present moment because we can actively choose how to respond to our current situations.

In conjunction with further developing one’s self-awareness through introspection, the other reminder I wanted to share is from the wisdom of Stoicism. You may remember this very brief TED Ed video I shared in class that distilled the philosophy down to its central tenets and how these mental skills will prove invaluable moving forward in life.

As I’m sure you recall, Marcus Aurelius (no, that vector drawing in our classroom is not Childish Gambino) is my favorite Stoic philosopher and his Meditations is easily one of the most accessible and practical texts in all of philosophy. I would highly encourage all of you to read it during the extended break from school, as the wisdom contained therein will serve you well for the rest of your lives. As a leader who spent the last fifteen years of his governance in the midst of plague across the Roman Empire, his thoughts about how we are to face the uncertain or unknown really resonate now in our own time of outbreak.

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Daily Stoic has a great/short daily email for reflection. Click here to subscribe!

I will close this first letter by unequivocally stating that I am here for you. For the juniors, TOK will trundle onward and we will begin exploring the various Areas of Knowledge. For the seniors, I realize many of you are preparing for final exams and your pending graduation. But, at the risk of sounding like an irresponsible teacher, put your humanity and family first. Many of you have siblings to care for or other responsibilities that require your immediate attention. The current situation we face together is a far greater lesson that will truly prepare you for life, and employing the concepts you have learned or are currently learning is the real value in this moment in time.

You are ready. Cultivate curiosity. Believe in yourselves. Rise to this occasion in the same way you have risen to previous challenges. As Marcus notes above, whatever the future may bring you will be able to handle.

And always remember that each day is a blessing and gift.

Aurelius Quote
My all-time favorite Aurelius quote

P.S. – Juniors, anything I post on social media I will also share on Edsby; Seniors, I will share more frequently through Remind now that I no longer have you in class. Much of what I will be sending along is for your own personal enrichment and better prepare you for the life that lay ahead. Want a great place to start? Check out one of my favorite podcasts, The Knowledge Project. Listen to this amazing episode about the power of habits, happiness, resilience, and how much of these are dependent on the narratives we construct about ourselves and the world.

P.P.S. – Need additional positivity in your life? Check out my first blog, Letters of Encouragement to Nobody in Particular. Although any of the letters can be read as stand alone piece, many of them are thematically related to the previous or next letter. Enjoy!

 

 

Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

Seneca
Seneca, pondering Stoic ideals

For roughly two weeks I have taken a social media sabbatical. The swirling madness that is constant (and quite often, negative) interactions via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can be so toxic and draining, and I needed to just shut it all down and retreat into reading and reflection.

In the first nine days, I managed to: 1) read 3 complete books (Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson are both excellent and highly recommended) and start on a current fourth; 2) journal nearly every day; 3) sit still–in addition to my daily meditation practice–to really reflect on what was accomplished during 2019; 4) and, most importantly, gave my undivided attention and wholehearted presence to those with whom I interacted during those days, especially my beautiful best friend and wife, Erin.

What I really pondered the most is how much effort I expended during 2019, with the latter half of the year feeling like a whirlwind that brought few moments of peace. Only when I truly slowed down and took the time to review my advocacy efforts did it really hit me that I am not my best when I stray too far from center. I was constantly overextending myself. The closing months of 2019 saw me sleeping little, people constantly asking me “Are you okay?”, and generally feeling like I was behind in all that I was trying to accomplish with each day. I did my best, but by the time the winter break arrived I was ready to just pull the plug on my public education advocacy altogether.

Everything in life has a cost, and I now realize that I must take a significant step back in my advocacy efforts moving forward. I need to do this to better balance my time among my students in the classroom, my own learning, and my home life, all of which were diminished in some sense by my seemingly overzealous defense of our students and profession.

The focus in 2020 will be “The Year of the Advocate.” In an effort to lighten my load, I am hoping that this is the year that Teacher Voice, as originally envisioned, will become a platform for other voices and not simply my own. There were some wonderful guest contributions in 2019, and I hope to get those more regularly moving forward. Although I may write posts occasionally, I will probably save what little I will have to say in 2020 for the Florida newspapers that are willing to publish my pieces as op-eds. When it comes to podcasts, however, they will resume monthly in a couple of weeks, and they will alternate between public education advocates who already hold and/or are seeking elected office, whether at the local or statewide level, and parent advocates in the broader community who represent groups or issues involving public education here in the Sunshine State.

Thank you to all who have supported me since I started this project two and half years ago. Although this is not the end of Teacher Voice, the prolific posting on the blog will no longer be the norm unless many guest posts start rolling in (ideally, I would like to publish pieces bi-weekly–any takers?). Podcasts will be published roughly in the middle of each month, and I can be contacted through this website or directly at 1teachervoice@gmail.com if you’d like to submit an article. Hopefully, the better balance between my personal and professional lives and activities will allow me to be the best advocate possible for all of Florida’s children and my fellow educators.

P.S. – FLFIRE will continue in 2020. Although it never took off the way I had envisioned it would (failing = learning), we are hoping to re-launch officially on 1/14/20 and use the momentum of the new legislative session to continue to build our grassroots network for future actions.

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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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Marcus Coin
One of the Stoic coins I often keep in my pocket to remind me of my purpose in this life.

This post originally appeared on my personal Facebook feed a couple nights ago and, based on the reaction and how much it has been shared, I thought it simply best to publish it here.

Some people have questioned my motivations since I began the Teacher Voice project. All that I can say is I went to the University of South Florida intending to double-major in Philosophy and Mathematics and graduated with a Religious Studies and Classics degree instead. Everything in life shapes us somehow, and my reading and reflection has a great deal to do with who I am now as well as who I aspire to be in the future.

Thank you so much for reading and please continue to sign and share the petition, which now has its own special link at https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

Dear Fam:

I love teaching. Can’t imagine doing anything else during my working years, but everyone keeps telling me to run for office. Don’t think I’m there yet, mainly because I cannot imagine a workday without kids in my life. It wasn’t in the cards for Erin and me, which is why I think we love our students as if they were our own children. Plus, as a lifelong learner and restless nerd, I don’t think I would survive being around more adults when I learn more and stay relevant by being around amazing students each and every day.

BUT…

I have a massive favor to ask of all of you. As an NPA who tries hard to be centrist on every issue, I am sick and tired of living in a state (and country, at this point) that consistently puts politics over people. We all suffer for it, and we all deserve so much more from our elected officials, most especially our children.

As some of you know, I have become increasingly outspoken about the state of education here in Florida through my project Teacher Voice. I really can’t explain my advocacy beyond a heartfelt feeling for kids and how we, as the “adults,” should be leaving a legacy that provides them with the brightest future possible.

Make no mistake—we are NOT doing this here in the Sunshine State.

When I moved here in 1998, Florida was 27th in public education funding and 29th in average teacher pay. Still below the national average, but not terrible.

Now? Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy that ranks 4th in the U.S. and 17th on the globe—how on earth could we have fallen all the way to 45th and 48th for these same stats respectively?

Politics over people, that’s how…

Having spent the last 25 years of my life with my face in philosophy books and sacred texts from around the world, I cannot help but speak out on behalf of my students and profession. I am compelled on principle to speak truth to power regardless of personal risk. I do not care. This cause is far bigger than me or any single person.

This is about kids. This about their future.

For too long, intelligent, passionate, dedicated educators have been sidelined, ignored, and marginalized. For too long we’ve had politicians who micromanage our daily existence despite knowing ZERO about what we do or how we care about our students in SO many ways that go well beyond “instruction”.

It is time for this to end. It is time for our “leaders” to talk to teachers.

I know this is long and a risk in an age of TL; DR (too long; didn’t read), but if you are a former student, a friend new or old, a family member—or some random stranger who happened to run across this post because I made it public, I hope that you will please help me—help every educator in the Sunshine State—to have a seat at the table. Our voices are crucial for helping fix this completely broken, inhumane, data-driven, test-stressed BS that now passes for education. But I—we—need your help to get us to the table.

I started this petition yesterday morning and it has almost 2500 signatures already (now nearly 5K!). But we need to make this go viral. I’d love to put 10K+ on this thing within a week before sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis. Can you help by reading, signing and sharing this petition?

Thank you in advance for helping all teachers across Florida!

And far more importantly, thank you for being a part of my journey. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for each and every day I get in this amazing life, mainly because of the relationships I have with all of you.

Much love,

– Ryan

Sympatheia
This has been the coin I’ve carried since the beginning of the school year.

P.S. – For the last 5-6 years or so, I’ve really taken a deep dive into Stoicism. I’m not one for labels in general, but if anything has helped me survive the vicissitudes of the legislative nightmare of Tallahassee the last several years, it has been a constant reminder that what they or anyone else does is beyond my control. What is in my control is my response, my attitude, my perspective. If you don’t know much about Stoicism (it often gets mischaracterized because of how the word is employed culturally now), check out this short TED Ed Talk on YouTube.

RELATED: Lessons on Leadership from Marcus: An Open Letter to the HCPS School Board

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Derek Thomas, English Teacher, Plant High School

From the moment I began the Teacher Voice project just over two years ago, one of the first people who immediately came to mind as a guest was Derek Thomas, a local English teacher whom I never met yet felt a connection to because of his positive tweets. Much like myself, Derek struck me as a person and teacher who values relationships with his students over virtually every other aspect of being in the classroom with kids.

But he’s also one heck of a writing teacher, and as someone who also reads a great deal of student writing in my role with the IB program, I wanted to discuss how he gets kids to grow as writers and, ultimately, communicators. This conversation, then, largely revolves around those two ideas and I savored every moment of this talk, both in the moment and while listening to it again before publication. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.

Thanks for listening, everyone! Enjoy the first back week with your students!

P.S. – Although this is not one of the tweets I read at the end, I intentionally skipped this one in the feed because I thought it would be a great post script/first day message from Derek. If you are on Twitter and need a burst of positivity relating to the kids or classroom, you can follow him @derekjathomas

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