No Chicken Soup for the Soul

A group of educators marched from Durham and North Raleigh to the State Capitol on June 14- 15, 2016, asking to meet with governor. Fourteen members of Organize 2020 were arrested on June 15, 2016 after blocking a street when the governor chose not to meet with them. These teachers believe that our students deserve more. Here are their reflections on the 23-mile march, the rally at the legislature and Capitol, and their arrests for civil disobedience.

By Anca Stefan, Durham Public Schools Teacher

June 30, 2016

They picked me up last.

They tied my wrists together behind my back, and scooped me up by the elbows.

When I was a child, I’d seen my grandmother pick up hens that way, gathering their wings into one hand, with speed and force, before she made them into soup for dinner.

There was no more space in the two vans they’d sent for us, so they pushed me into a separate police car by myself. My crime was that, along with 13 other educators from all across the state, I’d formed a human chain that, for 20 minutes at rush hour, cut diagonally through the intersection of Wilmington and Fayetteville Streets, in front of Governor McCrory’s office.

When the governor, again, failed to prioritize my students’ suffering, I blocked traffic in protest.

When, despite a well-publicized request, our governor disrespected our profession by refusing to meet with leading educators in a civil dialogue about the wellbeing of our state’s children, I stood in protest.

I stood in protest of the neglect Governor McCrory has continuously shown our children. Repeatedly refusing to address kids’ most urgent needs, and returning, unbothered, to campaigning for another term in office, was an unconscionable reality to me – so I refused to move.

I didn’t start in that intersection. Over the past 4 years, I’d spoken out many times about the alarming conditions my students have to fight their way through in order to learn. When I say our schools lack basic supplies, I mean paper – both printing paper and toilet paper – , whiteboard markers, working computers, science lab materials, equipment for art or gym class.

We don’t have textbooks in history class.

We don’t have textbooks in history class.

We don’t have textbooks in history class.

I’ve taught World and U.S. history without a textbook for the past 4 years.

My students can only receive medical care if they get injured Tuesday morning between 9 and 12 because we have a part time nurse.

My students need school counselors and psychologists to teach them how to process their emotions in healthy ways during the overwhelming time of their adolescence; they don’t need armed guards in uniform to throw them around and dehumanize them.

A week before the day Mr. McCrory had me arrested, I’d spoken to the press about the suffering of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of our students. I’d listed conditions of abject poverty, and of continued loss of resources, stability and security in the daily lives of our youth.

Alongside many other professional educators in my state, I’d asked for an hour of the Governor’s time, and promised that we’d march on foot from our classrooms to his office to prove our dedication to meeting with him and working together in the interest of our students.

We did exactly as promised.

60-some people of all ages, from all over North Carolina, took to walking along highways, in the high heat of mid-June, to meet with our Governor.

I walked next to incredible people – law-abiding, polite, compassionate educators and parents.

I walked beside a 23-year classroom veteran teacher.

I walked with a 14-year old former student.

I walked next to a dear colleague and her 12-year old son who marched every single mile his mother and his teachers marched and never once complained.

I walked beside many people who are so important in the lives of many younger folks, and I carried with me the names and memories of many of my students.

Along the way, cars stopped to thank us, churches opened their doors and blessed us with good food and beds overnight, friends called, emailed or texted us with words of support and gratitude.

None of that support and none of the richness we carried with us mattered to Governor McCrory at 5 on Wednesday. He didn’t come. He didn’t invite us in for a glass of water the way Southern hospitality would have anyone treat people who have journeyed on foot for 23 miles in the summer heat.

Instead, Mr. McCrory locked his doors before 5. We know because we knocked on every single one.

When they put me in the arrest car, my body was shaking.

I felt guilty for being nervous because, unlike so many others, I had a team — my child was cared for and safe, and they had not used force to subdue my body or spirit.

But I could not stop shaking. I could not stop my handcuffs from cutting into my twisted wrists. I could not stop from feeling like my existence was only a subject of good fortune — not a guarantee, not a right.

I felt the way I do at takeoff on a plane – that no matter my accomplishments, my intentions, my talents, the only thing that matters is gravity: if we fall, we fall, and there’s no defending against it, there’s no argument to be made for my life.

Inside the jail I was first to go through fingerprinting and searches.

The officer who processed me said that what I’d done sounded like the noblest thing anyone’s been arrested for. The officer next to him whispered that his mother and sister were both teachers, and he thanked me in their name. I teach their kids. We love the same people. And here we were, forced to stand on opposing sides of a wall, all of us feeling none of this was just.

I sat down next to two girls. They were my students’ ages. At 16 and 17, they had just finished their sophomore and junior years in high school, and they could’ve been my students.

We talked and they thanked us for standing up for them.

They were scared. They were alone. They’d been picked up for something stupid, they said, for something they were embarrassed to tell me about. They were humble and sweet, honest and young.

I asked them if they felt they had everything they needed to learn in their schools. One of them laughed at the question, the other hung her head, shaking it softly in resignation.

They told me how they can’t study at home because there are no textbooks, and they don’t have wi-fi. They told me how their teachers point them to the public library, but how nobody seemed to understand they didn’t have reliable transportation.

That’s why I’d gotten arrested – because these kids didn’t belong here. Because they were only here for being poor and Black in a state where their existence is only a subject of good fortune – not a guarantee, not a right. Their lives were being attacked, and they were being punished for believing what they’d been taught – that they didn’t matter, that they didn’t deserve. They had been given no chance to defend their lives, no chance to argue for the value of their lives.

They had been scooped up by the tips of their wings, with haste and force, and they’d been thrown into this place, to be made into nothing.

I saw them again, on my way to the the magistrate’s office in the jail. They were sitting next to each other, more tired and colder now, alone in that freezing room with metal benches, hungry and scared of being abandoned, unable to reach anyone who could come free them. I felt so helpless and so angry at my helplessness. These were my students, my kids, and I would block 100 intersections to get them the warmth and food and books that they deserve.

Why, Governor McCrory – why is it so controversial to argue that #StudentsDeserveMore ? Why do you paint us as dangerous when the only thing we want to do is teach our students so that they can learn?

What We Should Prioritize

A group of educators marched from Durham and North Raleigh to the State Capitol on June 14- 15, 2016, asking to meet with governor. Fourteen members of Organize 2020 were arrested on June 15, 2016 after blocking a street when the governor chose not to meet with them. These teachers believe that our students deserve more. Here are their reflections on the 23-mile march, the rally at the legislature and Capitol, and their arrests for civil disobedience.

By Bryan Proffitt, Durham Public Schools Teacher, President of Durham Association of Educators

June 23, 2016

My mama had to see my mugshot. It was hard on her. I imagine that one of the most basic hopes a mother has is the one where she never has to see her son’s mugshot. And if she does have to, I imagine she hopes her son looks a little less upset.

I thought about her when they took it. I thought about her and I thought about all of the people who would undoubtedly see it: My former students would see it. My educator colleagues would see it. Thousands of people I’ll never know would see it on the internet and TV.

I thought about all of those folks, and I thought about smiling. After all, I wasn’t struggling with what I had done. I had just been arrested because the Governor of the state I live in is committed to prioritizing:

• Ensuring that wealthy people get to keep more of their wealth

• Enabling corporations to poison our environment

• Legislating discrimination and the criminalization of human beings

• Privatizing our schools

 

And I believe that he should be prioritizing

• Fully funded schools

• A living wage for everyone

• Health care for all

• Clean air and water

• An end to the criminalization of and discrimination against my students, co-workers, friends, and family

I marched two days in the North Carolina summer heat to go see this Governor about what he’s doing to my kids and their communities and make some demands. I marched over 20 miles to meet the man who was denying my people what they deserve.

He refused to meet with us. He refuses to recognize the crisis our state’s young people are in. I, along with some of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to know, sat down in the streets to say that we’d had enough and that people needed to be woken up a bit.

I wasn’t struggling with my decision. Nope.

I also wasn’t struggling because of poor treatment. Most of the police officers we dealt with were professional and courteous. Some of them reminded me of a few of the School Resource Officers I have known and respected, and the internal contradictions they must wrestle with every day, as my co-arrestee and friend Dawn (who used to be a police officer) shared with us. Others were unnecessarily rude and provocative, but they were the exception. Many of them expressed sympathy and support for our fight (their kids, after all, are in our classrooms every day). I have no doubt that my profession, my whiteness, my cisgendered straightness, and my relative class privilege shielded me from the dehumanizing treatment that many of my students know all too well. So it wasn’t that. I had a team of folks in there with me. I had a team of folks holding me down on the outside.

I wasn’t overly concerned about my well-being.

A smile might have allowed for more effective communications strategies later. The reason I couldn’t muster it, however, is the same exact reason that I was in there in the first place.

As they loaded us into a police van, I could hear Freddie Gray’s body banging around in my head.

As we got to the station, I watched a 16-year-old who could have been any kid I ever taught being taken out of a police car, alone and scared.

As I watched my co-conspirators be taken into search rooms, I thought about the vicious sexual assault that NYPD officers committed against Abner Louima.

As I watched my friend Carrol, who needs a cane to get around, be asked to walk across a room on her own with no support until one of her team stepped in to provide it or demanded that the police do it, I thought about what it must be like to be there alone and have health problems.

As I watched my comrade Kristin nearly pass out until she got access to her inhaler, I thought about my former co-worker Vicki’s son, and how he died in jail because he couldn’t get medical attention.

As I talked with the funny kid who connected with everybody in there and reminded Woody, Donald and myself of a kid we have in at least every class, I thought about the tragedy of wasted potential.

As I sat in rooms filled with people, Black, Brown, and/or poor, I thought about:

• How my students Kaaylon and Jaronte probably would have landed here had they not been murdered.

• How the people who murdered them have probably landed there or will, or won’t get that far. And how they had been somebody’s students too. And how I have students who have murdered people.

• The time when J tried to stop a fight in my room, got mixed up with a cop, assaulted by said cop, and then taken off to jail for a case that he could never win if he tried.

• How I used to look at the daily mug shot reports in the online versions of the local paper, but I had to stop because seeing my kids’ photos every day became less grounding and sobering and more depressing and angering.

• My first week at Hillside when a fight I had broken up on my own between two girls ended with a 15-year-old screaming, bawling, and handcuffed through a face-full of pepper spray.

Jail wasn’t particularly hard on me. But it felt particularly hard to be in a place that eats up the lives of millions of Black, Brown, and/or poor people, many of whom I know and love. My body felt heavy with the pain and alienation of living in a society that says that some people get to have stuff, but most people don’t. Some people get to live good lives, but most people won’t. And some folks, who never had a shot from the beginning, will be warehoused for their whole lives because the people who run our society can’t imagine any function for most of us rather than the generation of profit for them. If you’re not doing that, they have to hold you somewhere and dehumanize you and contain you so that you won’t revolt.

So jail sucks. Or, rather, jails suck.

How about, instead of building more of them, we just give our kids the food, the shelter, the clothes, the nurses and doctors and counselors, the fun and laughs, the safety and knowledge, the skills, love, and opportunities to wonder and wander and learn self discipline that they deserve?

We have to win y’all. We just have to.

#educationnotincarceration #studentsdeservemore

P.S. We don’t win on one day y’all; this is slow organizing and long-term strategy and work. Please support the work of the Organize 2020 Caucus of NCAE by checking out this link and a) getting on our listserv, b) joining the caucus, and/or c) contributing financial resources.

The Measuring Stick of Education

A group of educators marched from Durham and North Raleigh to the State Capitol on June 14- 15, 2016, asking to meet with governor. Fourteen members of Organize 2020 were arrested on June 15, 2016 after blocking a street when the governor chose not to meet with them. These teachers believe that our students deserve more. Here are their reflections on the 23-mile march, the rally at the legislature and Capitol, and their arrests for civil disobedience.

By Lisa McCool-Grime

Durham Public Schools Teacher,  High School Dir. of Durham Assoc. of Educators, Member of Organize2020

June 23, 2016

My son’s father served in the military for 11 years. When I met him in 2000, I was a teacher to math students at Fuquay-Varina High in Wake County. I loved it. But I also loved him, so when he joined the military in 2003, I joined him as he moved from base to base for the next decade plus. When he left the military in 2014, we wanted to put down roots for ourselves and our son, so we settled near family in Durham and I returned to teaching math students, this time at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.

With that move, we went from living as a three-person, one-income household funded by taxpayers via the military to living as a three-person, one-income household funded by taxpayers via public schools. Changing that one word from “military” to “public schools” was quite the stark contrast. For example, we gave up no-deductible, nocopay, comprehensive health care. My son, at age 4, had to go to the emergency room when he took a stick to the eye. An eyelid surgeon stitched up his eyelid and we paid that surgeon two more follow-up office visits, but not a single cent. Neither my teacher’s salary nor my health benefits could cover such an accident today. Actually, neither my teacher’s salary nor my benefits can meet the needs of our family of three at all. We lived well on one income in the military. Now that I am a teacher, we cannot make ends meet without other sources of income.

State tests take all the living and learning that happens in our classrooms throughout the year and reduce that to a single number of “proficient” students. So too, we could take my lived experience of different standards of living, quantify it and reduce it to a single data point. Some folks might then want to claim that single data point is a measure of how poorly our culture values teachers. But my lived experience tells me that the truth is much more complicated. For example, I receive the same kinds of thanks and praise when people learn I am a teacher as my son’s father did when he was military. Many of my lived experiences suggest our culture believes that teaching is a noble profession, that teachers offer a valuable service. To better understand my decrease in standard of living, we must hold wealth’s measuring stick out and look at the far end. There you will find a good number of my students whose family members work as many if not more hours than I do, but bring home less money with no health coverage and no thanks for their work from the community at all. One of my brightest seniors this year worked 40 hours per week outside of school to contribute to her family’s income because her mother was sick and could not. Neither her potential to learn the math nor my ability to teach that math made any difference, because she was so exhausted she often didn’t make it to school and when she did, she fell asleep. If we want to better understand my decrease in standard of living, we must also look at our jails which house so many of our children. In the detention center after my arrest, in every room that I sat, I sat jailed with jailed children.

Every day of the school year I sit with young people at the hard end of wealth’s measuring stick. Young people who, if judged by their fierce resilience, would surpass me by far. Young people I am privileged to know and love. I am learning from them that their lived experiences reveal what the data is actually pointing to: we have failed as a culture to value the lives of our poor students and students of color. The struggles that public school teachers face making ends meet–these struggles are just the collateral damage in the systemic devaluing of my student’s lives. If you truly want to support teachers in their work, you must love and support their children and their children’s parents. You must provide for their health and wellness.

McCrory talks of raising teacher pay but stands in the way of our students’ and their parents’ access to Medicaid. He wants to sock away the surplus while school nurses are split between buildings, while school resource officers far outnumber school social workers, while my son’s first grade classroom has over 20 students and no teacher assistant. We are calling him on this. We marched 23 miles to make clear to those in power that our students deserve so much more than our state currently provides for them. And when I say, “those in power” I mean McCrory and other elected officials, but I also mean the public at large. Because what we discovered when we arrived at the capitol with our plan for raising per pupil expenditure and expanding Medicaid was that McCrory did not care enough about us or our students to even greet us. But we also discovered that you, the public at large, did care. You met us with food and shelter at resting spots during our march. You asked us questions and wished us luck. You honked your support and drove alongside us. You not only greeted us along the route we took, but you took the streets with us to clear traffic in protest so that 14 of us could safely lock arms and remain in the street as the symbol of our collective insistence that students deserve more, that we as a body of people are also powerful and that we intend to use that power to get the resources our students need.

While McCrory tries to paint those 14 of us as fringe, his constituents continue to show their support for our message and our plan. He would do well to listen to his constituents. While McCrory slanders us by claiming that we are working for Roy Cooper, he reveals how divorced he is from the way that true public service functions. I work for my students. I walked for my students. I stood blocking traffic and took arrest for my students. The governor’s job is to work for us—the public at large, who stands with public school teachers and their students–and we will hold anyone in that office now or in the future accountable to our children. They, unquestionably, deserve that.

#studentsdeservemore

Public Education: Is it the Great Equalizer?

Jessica Benton, Wake County Public School Teacher

June 18, 2016

When I first started teaching, I was under the impression that public education was the great equalizer. That with a sound education, my students had more choices about how they wanted their lives to play out. All they needed was to stay focused and learn, and the world would be theirs. After 11 years in the public school system, I began to realize that wasn’t that simple.

Some schools had more because the folks living in those neighborhoods had more. Some kids had more because their families had more. Some families had more because the world we live in thinks that they are entitled to more. It began to dawn on me just how unequal our equalizer really was.

We have been saying it over and over. Our students deserve more, but what does that really mean? We have to understand that our students’ lives don’t end at the classroom door.

Some of our kids are not getting what they need when they leave our school buildings. Their parents are working multiple jobs just to get by, so that means less time helping with homework and projects and catch up. Some of my kids are not receiving the healthcare they need, and they literally stay sick from October to March. My kids of color live in a world that criminalizes them and their families based on the color of their skin, even in 2016. Some of our kids are even being yanked from school bus stops and detained because of their immigration status. Some of our kids are being subjected to highly polluted air and water because the poverty they’re living in doesn’t protect them from toxic living environments. And y’all, 49 people were just massacred in Orlando, FL because of their sexuality. And I am not talking pie charts and statistics here. I am talking about real people and real stories.

So when we say students deserve more we’re really saying that it is going to take more than just education to get our kids where they need to be to live self-directed, fulfilling lives. Lives that they deserve like any other. They need healthcare, protection from criminalization, clean water and air, economic stability and education. And it’s going to take all of us, including Governor McCrory and the General Assembly, to get our kids these truly basic needs.

And I am sorry. I know teachers are not paid nearly enough to make it themselves. I know our teachers deserve more too, but just talking about teacher pay raises isn’t enough. That’s only one piece in a much larger problem. We need to be demanding more for ourselves and our families. We are a team. We are that village we so often like to refer to that’s raising these kids. And our students deserve more.

I just marched from Durham to Raleigh with over 50 educators, parents and students. Twenty miles over two days to meet with McCrory and ask for the more our students deserve. We have been asking for three things: 1) to expand Medicaid immediately, 2) to fully fund our schools, and 3) to repeal HB2. I know this doesn’t cover everything. This isn’t everything our students need, but it’s a good place to start.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we have all been asking for more. This is not our first request. How many of you have written an OP-ED? How many of you have called or emailed your legislators? How many of you were lobbying today for more? And what has it changed? We are still fighting to no avail. We’re drowning.

As teachers, we don’t get to give up. We don’t have that option. When our students deserve more, we find ways. But we’ve been dipping into our own pockets, giving our own time, expending our own energy to get more for education and nothing has changed. And it’s clear the political leaders are not listening. The time has come for us to be heard. I don’t know about you, but I am done being ignored while I sit back and watch my students and their families struggle.

It’s time we make our leaders listen. It’s time to be heard. Let’s see if they can hear us. Repeat after me in your biggest teacher voice: Students deserve more. Students deserve more.

*Speech given June 15, 2016 at the Students Deserve More Rally in Raleigh, N.C.

Teacheritis: Are You or Your Children At Risk?

Button-ForSaleby Nancy Snipes Mosley, Wake County Teacher

Symptoms

Teacheritis is a common ailment that afflicts millions of teachers in the United States every year.

  • The most common symptoms are fatigue, headache, raw nerves, forgetfulness, diminished social activity, and intolerance to apathy/BS/ignorance/whining.
  • Many teachers also experience teeth grinding, sore feet and back, fluctuating body temperature, and recurring dreams (forgetting to call in for a sub when you are out sick, not having your lesson plans ready on the first day of school, your students refusing to do anything you ask them to do, etc.)
  • In rare cases, some teachers also develop obsessive behaviors like constant hand sanitizer use, re-reading emails 10 times before hitting send, and counting how many papers are left to grade every two minutes.

Causes

Teacheritis can be caused by a number of physiological and environmental factors.

  • Your risk of chronic teacheritis is higher if you are a new teacher, a teacher with young children, or a teacher who is close enough to retirement to start counting down the years.
  • Teachers with a history of anxiety and depression are more susceptible to teacheritis, as are those with family or medical concerns. 
  • There also seems to be a correlation between teacheritis and the number of workdays lost to inclement weather, frequent changes in state curriculum and testing policies, and stagnant pay.
  • Teacheritis is not contagious, though someone with prolonged exposure to senioritis or adolescent hormones may develop symptoms. Students should use caution when interacting with a teacher suffering from teacheritis, as there have been some reported cases of evil eye and uncontrollable sarcasm. Afflicted teachers will need to take measures to ensure this condition does not cause stress on their partners and children.
  • There may also be a component of Seasonal Affective Disorder involved in teacheritis since it seems to be worse in the fall, winter, and spring and better in the summer.
  • Triggers of an acute teacheritis episode may include events such as: a student misrepresenting you to their parent or administrator to deflect taking responsibility for their own actions, parents enabling their child to be disrespectful and/or irresponsible, 18-year-olds complaining that you don’t play enough games and give them video guides, or a meeting of colleagues where everyone is touchy and defensive because you can’t agree on how to solve the achievement gap or handle the phone cheating epidemic.

Diagnosis

Teacheritis is usually self-diagnosed, though some teachers need to be alerted by a family member or colleague who detects symptoms. Students often misdiagnose a teacher suffering from teacheritis with diseases such as Not Being Chill or Getting Old. A teacher who becomes sick easily or is extremely fatigued, anxious, depressed, or obsessive-compulsive should seek prompt medical attention, as there may be other issues that will get worse if neglected.

Treatment

  • Proper rest, nutrition, and exercise will alleviate the physical symptoms of teacheritis. The most commonly prescribed treatment for teacheritis is stress management – cutting back hours, going to bed earlier, taking a true lunch break. Teachers sometimes resist this course of treatment because they cannot figure out how to meet all of their professional obligations if they take more time for themselves.
  • Some teachers self-medicate by eating, drinking margaritas, or binge-watching shows to relieve the pain of teacheritis, but the relief is temporary and there can be adverse effects like weight gain or setting a bad example for your kids.
  • Other more radical and costly therapies include providing teachers sufficient time, resources, and support to manage all the demands and expectations of students, parents, administrators, and colleagues. Unfortunately, teachers who request this treatment are often denied and this can actually make the condition worse if they feel powerless or hopeless about the situation. 
  • Teachers who have spiraled from teacheritis into something more serious like workaholism or depression may need to try therapy or a support group that helps them learn to suppress negative feelings like guilt and try a different mindset that could promote recovery.
  • One of the most effective ways for a teacher to reduce the symptoms of teacheritis is to focus on the positive: All of the students who tried their best, showed maturity, engaged themselves in critical thinking, were sincere and honest, had positive attitudes, admitted when they were wrong, made you laugh, and gave you hope for the future. The parents who said thank you, the colleagues that helped you make a tough decision, the administrator that encouraged you to set limits and take care of yourself. The family that loves and supports you unconditionally.

Prognosis

There is no cure or vaccine for teacheritis; even after teachers quit or retire they can experience residual pain. However, with the proper support and treatment many teachers learn to manage the condition so that it does not prevent them from creating a positive learning environment, growing professionally, achieving personal health, and being there for their families.

We Need a Paradigm Shift in Education

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By Angie Scioli, Wake County Teacher

I remember learning the word “paradigm” for the first time in college.  The presenter showed us a visual puzzle that was totally perplexing.  He gave us a single word that allowed us to shift our perspective and look at the problem through a new “lens”, and “click!”  – all was clear!

We need a paradigm shift in education.

In my last two articles, I wrote about how education is and is not like business.  While that was a worthy mental exercise, I hope to convince you that we need to throw that whole “lens” out and use a different referencing institution when we think about schools: family.  

In simpler times (think hunter gathering / farming economies), education was mostly handled in the family unit (here’s how you hunt, here’s how you preserve food, etc.)  It was only with exploration and  industrialization that we began outsourcing the education of children to formal schools.  Increasingly, and yet strangely, our schools have come to resemble businesses more than families.  We think of parents as consumers, student as products, and we seek to quantify what “value – added” outcomes students will demonstrate by matriculating through an orderly, standardized, age-based processing system.

That system worked well for an industrial economy, but in a post-industrial context, the limitations of this approach are becoming evident.  Increases in technology, communication and transportation have created a population that demands more individualized and efficient ways of learning.  At the same time, we are struggling to close an “achievement gap” and deal with students who are difficult to educate because they are absent, don’t speak English, have experienced trauma, or suffer from food insecurity and/or homelessness.  

What would a family mindset look like in education?

You don’t take an exhausted child to Disney World.  It doesn’t matter how engaging and entertaining the setting, there will be a meltdown.  Parents know they must first make sure a child’s most basic needs are met:  they are fed, they are rested, they feel safe.

We bring exhausted, hungry, scared kids to school every day.  We’ve convinced ourselves that if their teachers are entertaining enough, or if the subjects are interesting enough, that they will magically forget about their aching tooth, their rumbling stomach, or their anger about what they have seen too soon.

We must first attend to students’ most basic needs, emotional and physical, before we can proceed with the wonders of learning.  We need more therapists, we need wrap around services that provide basic health and dental care, and we need social workers.  We must show kids that they are valued, and that school is a place they can come to find safety, nutrition, peace of mind and care.  And we must do these things first, as no environment, even Disney World, can overcome a child’s basic needs.

A second key aspect of family is acceptance and negotiation.  I sometimes look around at family gatherings and think what an odd and random family assortment we make.  My classroom is the same.  We are rapidly becoming a very diverse nation.  A random mix of students show up on day one, and we struggle from that day forward to accept, accommodate and negotiate to make our time together as productive and affirming as possible.  But that progress is built on a foundation of mutual respect, acceptance and encouraged by the fact that we are “stuck” together.

Navigating both of these contexts requires a sizable serving of emotional, social and soft skills.  It involves communication, anger, expectation and conflict management.  I’ve been aided by studying EQ (emotional intelligence) models, mindfulness, constructs of gender and race, and personality types.  As a result, I’ve learned how these skills are of increasing importance to our professional and personal satisfaction, but they are not explicitly taught in school.  Meanwhile, more and more of us are burying our faces in electronic devices and ingesting a steady diet of digital media.  Entertaining for sure.  Preparation for real life and relationships?  Hardly.

We need to make relational studies a central element of being an educated person in this society.  We need to make isolation less common, strengthen the social fabric of our communities, and make the long-term relational health of “our” kids our highest priority.   Schools and families can and should unite in that vision.  

The final elements that are key to family are commitment and stability.  Long term investment in an institution leads stakeholders to make different decisions – they tend to pursue their own self- interest less, and consider the health and viability of the whole.  Currently in education reform, we are pursuing policies that create “free agents” out of teachers.  With the end of tenure, the rise of charter schools and ideas like differentiated pay, we are suggesting to teachers that they might switch into a business / corporate mindset and simply pursue their own self interest.  Teachers will be one of the last categories of workers to break out of their “institutional” mindset and join the grand “talent shuffle” that is so common in other fields.  These reforms are touted as ways to get rid of weak teachers, but I wonder if many people have considered what fundamental shift it is creating among all teachers.

We need to pursue policies that will attract the best teachers we can to the classroom, and we need them to stay there, at that school if at all possible, for a very long time.   It took me about ten years to become a good teacher – to know my subject, to understand the developmental level of my students, to understand the community context of the school.  It takes considerable time to build trust and understand the personalities of your colleagues so you can collaborate and know where they are coming from.  Teachers that are committed to a specific school sit in meetings with a different mindset – they are invested in the decisions that are being made.  They buy spirit wear in the school colors, their reputation and the school’s are entertwined.  They teach siblings, they get to know families – they  care deeply.  And students can see that, they sense that, and that is a very different dynamic than the one we are creating through most educational reforms today.  Students want to know that their teachers are invested in the long-term well-being of the school family, just as they seek stability and commitment from their parents.  

So, we need to pick up a new set of lenses to see our schools.  Let us set down the business frames, and pick up the family mindset.  Let us remember the primary job of our schools:  to nurture children, to help them come to know themselves and others so they might better understand the world they are inheriting, and let’s be sure they are in the hands of committed adults that have their long-term interests in mind.  Loved, nurtured, accepted and secure people can figure out most problems together.   Strong families always do.

Make our schools more like strong families, and they will serve us, and our future, well.

State Legislators: Put the “Business Hammer” Down

By: Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

This quote encapsulates how education policy is framed in North Carolina. Why are business leaders and our state legislators taking the lead on education policy? More troubling still: why is teachers’ input seen as superfluous?

Our state legislators, as part of a part-time legislature, are predominantly entrepreneurs and professionals. They bring those valuable perspectives to policymaking, but their experience proves a liability when they apply such principles to education.

It is dangerous to blindly accept the assumption that businesses are the proper referencing institutions for developing public education policy. While there are some ways in which education is like a business, there are significant ways in which it is not. Knowing that nuance makes all the difference in policymaking that is effective in classrooms.

This article is the first in a three-part series.  Here, I will explore how schools are not like business, in the second article I will explore how they are like businesses, and in the final article I will explore why we need to return to an alternative and superior referencing institution for nurturing children – the family.

Successful businesses control their supply chain. Starbucks desires the production of only the best coffee, and therefore requires the freedom to reject some sources of coffee that are substandard.  Public schools do not have that ability; they take every child, whatever their abilities and challenges might be. The most critical period in a child’s development lies between the ages of 0-3 yet public school does not begin until age 5. Schools cannot simply reject those coffee beans which were not grown under the perfect conditions required by Starbucks. Schools do not have control over the most important teachers children ever have – their parents. Since parents vary widely in their skills and abilities, children vary drastically in their skills and abilities. However, the single standard to which we hold our teachers is not nearly so flexible. We don’t ask Starbucks to magically produce top-rate coffee from any source. Yet we frequently ask teachers to produce world-class educational outcomes in every student, no matter the supply stream.

Using business as the reference model for education also sets up dangerous expectations in parents and students. By reinforcing that paradigm, parents and students come to have a set of possibly-helpful, mostly-counterproductive “customer service” expectations. I am the first to recommend that if parents have concerns about the way their child is being educated, then they should consult with the teacher. I have become a better teacher because of such contact.  It didn’t always feel good, but it made me think and act differently. However, a background assumption of business models remains that “the customer is always right.” We increasingly see a default expectation that teachers should custom-tailor instruction to meet an individual student’s individual preferences. I have students who say, “I’m a visual learner, and I just don’t get the way she teaches.” While I understand that students as consumers want the path of least resistance, we are increasingly coming to understand the importance of students experiencing frustration, developing coping habits, and demonstrating grit. The idea that learning should not be stressful and should seamlessly result from teacher input ultimately robs the student of the notion that there is one person ultimately responsible for their learning – them. Also, how will the “customer service” model of learning transition to the workplace or to family life? What shall our kids do when their role in life is not to be catered to, but to serve others? Will our children be equipped for that role reversal?

Business models that focus on production of a predetermined “product” are also dangerous.   For example, it has become commonplace for elected officials to mock educational endeavors that do not directly prepare students for work. It was W.E.B DuBois who said:

“If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life”

We may want to tightly control our “production line” and pop out programmers, accountants, and engineers by the dozens, but human creation is not quite that compliant as a raw material. We tenaciously refuse to all march to the same drummer. Education is really more of a mining endeavor, and a child is a natural resource that has treasures to be developed and refined. It is the job of education to mine and shine, not break and make. Attempts to rigidly standardize educational outcomes, to produce a single student “product,” are counterintuitive, dehumanizing, and short-sighted.

Competition in the business world can yield efficiency and cost savings. Want to get that sales team motivated? Give a prize to the member of the team with the highest sales numbers! However, in education, competition results in waste and inefficiency. For example, any merit pay system that encourages teachers to compete to “stand out” above other teachers threatens collaboration and leads to “silo-ing” that prevents the sharing of good ideas and best practices. A better model is one that gives teachers a shared school wide goal that they can collectively aspire to and work together to achieve. We did this with the “ABCs of Education” model from 1996-2012. That model paid teachers bonuses when the whole school met growth goals. That ended in 2013. The state had to quit paying bonuses in 2009 because so many schools were exceeding growth. Schools demonstrating growth became victims of their own success.

These are just a few examples of how framing education through a “business” lens can be myopic and misguided. That model could only work if were to control our supply stream, if servicing our “customers” were actually in their long-term interest, if the human mind and heart were more satiated by work alone, and if good teaching were less reliant on collaboration. However, make no mistake, market forces are at work in our schools. More on that next time, and then a quick turn to “home” – and how family should be the ultimate paradigm through which we see education.

In the meantime, some advice for state legislators: Put that hammer down.

 

Administrator Returns to Teaching and Discovers Heartbreaking Reality

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Button-ForSaleJennifer Lowery

Former Teacher Assistant, Teacher, Asst Principal

Charlotte Mecklenberg Schools

I was born a teacher.  My mom often recalls her memory of being a substitute in the elementary school where my brother and I attended.  She walked by my classroom and saw a line of students at my desk waiting for my help. At that point she knew teaching was in my future.

She was right. I worked as a teacher assistant in CMS for two years and then taught elementary grades for five years.  I absolutely loved it.  Sure, there were afternoons of tears because I was overwhelmed, or tired, or wondering if I was meeting all of the social and academic needs of my students.  But I thrived because I had support.  I had a teacher assistant, who did time consuming clerical tasks which spared me from spending hours working during my free time. My administration trusted me to use good judgment.  Each decision did not require validation with an artifact.  Parents supported my classroom, and so did my district. I enjoyed teacher workdays, some with professional development but some with classroom time for me to catch up on so many things that piled up during the week. I was named First Year Teacher of the Year, and I achieved National Board Certification. I wasn’t the greatest teacher on the planet, but I was certainly no slouch.

I was accepted and completed my Master’s in school administration thanks to the NC Principal Fellows program, and served as an assistant principal for two large CMS high schools.  Administration was challenging.  Days never went as planned, many hours spent focused on resolving conflict or force-feeding teachers the latest district initiative that I didn’t really believe in. I was not a particularly good administrator.  I tried to follow the lead of those who seemed to know the right buzzwords, but I did not have the skill or desire of self-promotion.  After fulfilling my required years of service, I returned to the classroom.

What a difference five years made. Trust and creativity were replaced with added levels of bureaucracy.  Now I had multiple “administrators” to “support” me.  I noticed a stronger emphasis on meetings, taking up time during planning that used to be reserved for actually planning lessons or – GASP – take a breather or a bathroom break.  With each passing year, the expectations became tougher. With a broken heart, in December 2015 I closed the door on a 17 year career.

Why leave after so many years?  It had nothing to do with salary or perks. I was no longer empowered.  I was not given true support.  My time and expertise were not valued. Every day my planning period was consumed by a meeting.  Every single day.  And this does not include meetings one or two days a week after school.  The last year I taught I did not have duty-free lunch.  So this resulted in my coming in an hour or two early, and leaving just as late to get everything done that could not get done during the day.  I worked at least 12 hours a day, and many of those hours were intense with the high poverty students I was serving.

All those meetings?  Mostly worthless.  Analyzing terrible questions and answers to the latest common assessment that was not created by teachers, but by a district person clicking standards from a test bank.  Forcing lessons into a template dictated by the school or the zone, without any regard to what I could do on my own. Justifying parent communication, collaboration with mentees, every single breath that I took had to be documented and validated. I was “rewarded” with a grant that had additional meetings and paperwork attached. Meanwhile I had no time to go to the bathroom during the day.

Despite my test scores being some of the highest in my zone, I was called to task for my lesson plans not matching what was observed.  I reminded the administrator of his own requirement – lesson plans written two weeks in advance (so that multiple administrators could review them). But data I had gathered more recently required that I change my plans.  I was still chastised for not amending the plans so that administrators, facilitators, intervention specialists, social workers, multi-classroom leaders, discipline administrators, and any other number of “support staff” could see what I was doing at any given moment.

I was supposed to spend hours filling out data trackers with numbers, because numbers have replaced student names, personalities, dreams, and unique qualities. I received direction and mandates from people who had never taught my curriculum or grade level.

Determined to survive, I attempted the bare minimum.  I tried to arrive and leave at the bell. But I am a rule follower and this did not last long.  I began to pray for how to make my life better.  I could not sustain 13 more years of headaches, clenching my jaw while I slept, high blood pressure, no empowerment and general unhappiness. So I left, in the middle of the year, amid criticism from many who did not understand.

I left behind some fantastic colleagues. They are struggling, even the veterans.  Having the summer off (even though many teachers work in some capacity every summer) does not justify piling on work and not giving teachers a moment during the day to regroup. According to NCpolicywatch.org, teacher turnover in North Carolina was at a five year high in 2014-2015.  I have contributed to the 2015-2016 figure and know of several colleagues who have resigned and will add to it as well.

I will always be a teacher at heart. Although my spirit was broken when I left, it was the best decision I have ever made.  My quality of life has improved and I don’t feel like a failure every day.  Unless things change drastically at the state and local levels, my story will become one that is more and more common.  It is my hope that by speaking out, voters and decision-makers will wake up and take action, and more “born teachers” will stay, and flourish, in their classrooms.  

More Democracy Won’t Fix Education

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By Angela Panel Scioli

Believe it or not, our democracy is more democratic than it has ever been. That is the problem.

Alexander Hamilton was a real guy before he was a hit on Broadway. Were he alive today, he would be amazed by our naïveté. Majority rule is not a problem if the majority is well educated and can think critically about the complicated issues of the day, demand specific policies that will address those issues, and assess the reliability of sources regarding the candidates and issues.  But an angry majority lacking those skills makes for a frightening specter. Right, America?

Our Founding Fathers were a fairly privileged lot. They built the American democracy with a keen awareness that the vast majority of the population was not properly educated. They knew an uneducated majority could be swayed by simple speeches, manipulative media and fear. To insulate the fledgling democracy against that threat, they made sure the “mob” had very limited direct influence on our institutions of government. The sole body directly elected by the common people was the House of Representatives. The Senate was appointed by state legislatures, the electoral college carefully guarded the presidency, and judges were appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The uneducated majority might vote, but their actual influence would be minimal.  

Around 1900, Progressives sought to make the democracy more . . . democratic! They passed the 17th amendment allowing for the direct election of senators by the people. Primaries, caucuses and state laws turned the electoral college into more of a rubber stamp. After the contentious 1968 Democratic Convention, the party conventions were also “democratized” to allow for more participation.  

The good news? Our democracy is more democratic than ever before in history! And many think it should become even more so. And that’s the bad news. We are putting the (democracy) cart before the (public education) horse. We have allowed for shocking levels of inequality in our schools, to the degree that a court case, the Leandro case, made the courts the feeble guardians of our most vulnerable youth. We have cut per pupil spending in real dollars, cut supplies and support staff, and irreparably damaged the teacher preparation pipeline. We have created a grading system that assigned 682 public schools in NC a grade of “D” or “F”  but did not offer those same schools additional resources or support.  

And our latest idea? Replace the public schools altogether. We are looking to emulate Tennessee’s Achievement School District program. Through the ASD, the state runs the “failing” schools or allows a private charter company to do so. Gary Henry, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, testified to a legislative committee that students in charter schools did not do any better than other low-performing schools. Tennessee’s former ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, determined that the charter concept cannot be transferred to neighborhood schools; he realized that charters cannot magically overcome generational poverty. Apparently, experience is an efficient teacher.  

Not only is this outcome a tragedy for the students attending these failing schools, this growing “education deficit” is a very frightening reality that already threatens our democracy.  

As Thomas Jefferson said, “We must attend first to the education of the common people [so] on their good sense we may rely”.  In North Carolina, we have not heeded that advice.  We have sacrificed our public schools on an altar of speculation, and we are finding many reformers to be “charter”latans who make great promises but can’t deliver.  Our democracy, if this election is any indication, is not far behind.  We must recommit ourselves to the fact that our public schools are the most important institution for the success of our democracy.

And then, unlike in the past, our education deficit won’t require a democracy deficit.

 

A Year in Two Different Worlds

by Katherine Meeks, Wake County Public School Teacher

Since the 1999 court case that required Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to end busing because the schools had “eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination,” the district has primarily assigned students to schools closest to home. This practice results in extreme socioeconomic disparity between schools, which CMS attempts to counteract by spending more money on the low income schools.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) was nationally recognized for socio-economic school integration, and, before that, racial integration. Although this practice has since ended, many of the effects linger.

In the 2013-2014 NCDPI School Report Cards 40% of CMS schools were rated an “A” or “B” compared to 50% in WCPSS.  29% of CMS schools were rated a “D” or “F”, compared to just 11% in WCPSS. According to a 2015 New York Times report, Mecklenburg County currently ranks second to Baltimore for “big counties worst for income mobility for poor children.”

This is the story of my experiences teaching at two vastly different schools and the systemic problems of socioeconomic inequalities I witnessed:

  1. CMS: 90% free and reduced lunch; extremely low performing; rated “F”
  2. WCPSS: 20% free and reduced lunch; high performing; rated “A”

At the first school, we were flooded with monetary resources, technology, and additional school personnel. To serve 900 students, we had 5 administrators, a school resource officer, 2 security associates, 2 behavior management technicians, 2 in-school suspension teachers, 2 “Communities In Schools” staff, 3 instructional facilitators, a full time beginning teacher coordinator, a CTE coordinator, 2 counselors, and a social worker. We had a technology device for every single student. Class sizes were lower than average. Despite these supports, I worked 12 hours a day to complete the most basic parts of my job and working conditions were far below what I would consider professional. I witnessed an unfathomable amount of violence and on more than one occasion felt personally unsafe. There is a culture of fear for everyone involved: fear of theft, fear of violence, and fear of multiple kinds of abuse. When teachers were absent, students were most often covered by stretching current staff because substitutes did not want to work in the unpredictable and sometimes hostile environment. On these days, teachers gave up their planning period and worked unpaid overtime at home. When I didn’t have to cover other classes, I spent most or all of my planning period writing discipline referrals, calling parents (often unsuccessfully), finding a translator to call parents, and wrestling with the copy machine. Yet as hard as we worked, we perceived, at best, miniscule improvements to students’ lives.

Now, I spend my planning period almost exclusively planning engaging lessons. I feel appreciated and I see the difference I make. I’ve only written one discipline referral and covered one class this year. In a year at the first school I spent over 180 hours performing daily non-instructional duties necessary to maintain order and help keep students safe. This year I expect to spend just 53 hours on such duties. There were similar discrepancies between required attendance at after school events. When I talk with another teacher that left the first school the same time I did, she describes her feelings of guilt that prevented her from leaving earlier as “masochistic.”

Many believe that we need to attract more highly qualified teachers to low-income schools – I disagree. I worked with highly-qualified, brilliant and passionate teachers and administrators who were relentless in their efforts to achieve student growth. The real problem is keeping any teachers at all. Research shows low teacher turnover increases student performance. Turnover at the first school was around 50%. Less than one year later, of the administrative staff, only the principal remains. My quality of life and sense of professional achievement at the first school was so low that I doubt I would have stayed for any monetary incentive.

In Part 1 of This American Life’s “The Problem We All Live With,” Ira Glass talks with Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times investigative reporter, about dozens of strategies school systems like CMS are using to help failing schools. “What she noticed was that it never worked. I mean, like, never. The bad schools never caught up to the good schools. And the bad schools were mostly black and Latino. The good schools were mostly white. And sure, there might be a principal here or a charter school there who might do a good job improving students’ scores, but even there, they were just improving their student scores. The minority kids in their programs were still not performing on par with white kids. They hadn’t closed the achievement gap between black kids and white kids.”

So if all these programs aren’t working, what does work? Nikole continues “I find there’s one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half… [school] integration… But instead, since 1988, we have started to re-segregate. And it is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again.”

Her research aligns with my experience. But integrated schools aren’t just better for students – they’re better for teachers too. Integrated schools are significantly better at retaining teachers long-term as well as educating all students.

I couldn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to be educated in an integrated system until I worked for a segregated one. Unfortunately, in the six years since the end of socioeconomic integration, WCPSS is trending towards segregated schools. The 2014-2015 NCDPI School Report Cards look more like those of CMS.

In Part 2 of “The Problem We All Live With,” Chana Joffe-Walt describes the community engagement necessary to achieve school integration. “There are only a few places in the country that have seriously committed to school integration over a long period of time. Louisville, Kentucky is one; Wake County in North Carolina; those are the biggest. And in each case, something like this right here has occurred: a public reckoning seems to be a required step; some sort of long process by which the gap between two unequal systems is made very clear to the people who are not paying attention.”

I share my experiences not to disparage the valiant efforts of low-income schools but rather to bring awareness to the larger systemic problem. I share because the personal time it took me to write this article did not exist a year ago. I share because my heart breaks to watch WCPSS travel down the path towards segregated schools and because I’ve seen where that path leads. It’s time for a public reckoning. We know from anecdotal evidence and quantitative data that separate is not equal and does not work. Our teachers deserve safe and professional working conditions. Our students – all of them – deserve a safe learning environment and a high quality education.
Add my voice – an informed witness from the front lines – to the growing chorus. Wake up, Wake. Pay close attention. You are headed the wrong way.