A Righteous Anger

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fullsizerenderNote: I was busy finishing this blog post last night while the protests raged in Charlotte. After posting, I scrolled through my social media feeds and saw that many of my white friends could not understand the depths of rage felt by those in Charlotte. To them I would say, the seeds are right here in this post. There is not a wealthy white school in America that would tolerate the conditions of the school my kids attend. Children are resilient but they don’t forget. They will remember how we treated them, Our public education system has let down generations of children of color. We need to acknowledge that, But the solution does not lie in taking power out of the hands of communities and putting it in the hands of private entities. We need to tend to our public schools. The situation in Charlotte saddens me, but we have the opportunity to make change right here in our communities. The choice is ours.

 

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m wide awake. I’m wide awake despite the fact that I didn’t get home until after midnight from working nine straight hours. I’m awake because despite everything our kids still don’t have the resources they need in their schools. My gut burns with anger towards the fight against charter schools and how we focus more on the supply than we do on demand. We celebrate our small victories in preventing the growth of charter schools, but are we really improving the system for all children? Are we making sure that all of our neighborhood schools have the resources they need? I’d argue no.

The charter school fight has been raging in Nashville for the last 5 years. It’s been fought passionately on both sides, and the conversation, to the credit of some dedicated advocates, has changed dramatically over the years. Like the rest of the country, Nashville once welcomed charter school expansion with open arms, it now voices a desire to keep them at arm’s length and instead support our traditional schools. It’s a transformation that I support; however, I question whether we’ve focused enough on improving our existing schools. Can we look parents in the eye and tell them that public schools are the best option and that there isn’t a need for alternatives? I’ve got my doubts.

I point to the war on drugs to further illustrate my point. Over the years we’ve sunk billions of dollars into combating illegal drug use. But we’ve focused almost exclusively on the supply end of things while ignoring the demand. We spend less and less on mental health issues. Poverty levels continue to grow. We celebrate financial success while the wage gap continues to grow. Yet we wonder why the drug trade still thrives. We are doing the same thing with our schools, expending 10 times the energy fighting the supply while all but ignoring the demand.

We all seem to be willing to work harder when there is a boogeyman to face. Charter schools make for a convenient boogeyman in the same way that the cartels do for the war on drugs – now before everybody loses their mind, know that I am not equating charter schools to drug cartels in any way but in their use as scapegoats. There wouldn’t be cartels in the illegal drug trade if there were no demand, and the same goes for charter schools in that there wouldn’t be charter schools if the demand wasn’t there. I do have to ask, though, what if the boogeyman is really us and our inability to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children? Case in point: have we expended as much energy in improving our schools as we have in fighting against their takeovers? Can we look at parents who are considering sending their children to a charter school and honestly say we’ve done everything to make the public option better? It is time to get beyond this single hot-button issue and focus on the inequities that exist in our schools.

We seem to focus so much on whether a person is on Team Privateer or on Team Status Quo that we lose sight of what’s actually happening. Charter school supporters are quick to defend their own against any charges of impropriety. And traditional school supporters quickly jump on any whiff of impropriety in charter schools while ignoring things that may be going wrong in their own schools.

Take Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), for example. We recently hired a brand new director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph, from Prince George’s County in Maryland, at a salary of $285k per year. A significant raise from the previous director’s salary. We all clapped ourselves on the back because he didn’t seem to be a reformer. But everything is not that simple. I recently put in a FOIA request for what has been spent since Dr. Joseph came to Nashville, and I found some pretty appalling things happening. Maybe the public and the school board have been too busy with other things to notice. But we ought to be asking questions, even if it’s unpleasant. Just because someone does some things that are okay, it doesn’t mean everything is okay.

Once Joseph began his tenure here, he proceeded to hire 4 “Chiefs,” 3 from out of state, at an annual salary of $185k each along with the use of a car. In order to attract a few other desirable hires, the pay schedule for Executive Officers was raised to $155k and there are 8 at that designation. If I’m reading the previous salary schedule correctly, EO’s should max out at $110k per year. To put things in context, the previous Number 2 person in the district, responsible for creating an academy model that has won national accolades, earned only $154k a year until he left the district in April. Just 5 months later and there are now 12 people making over that amount. Perhaps the district pay schedule was way out of line, but that is a significant difference, and if so, I’m not sure that it’s one that should be rectified in one year. Especially when teachers have been asked to be patient for so long.

 

Here is a chart of current salaries for the new Chiefs (the 4th Chief began her job after my FOIA request) and the Executive Officers, all of whom are making significantly more than their predecessors:

 

CHIEF – ACADEMIC OFFICER 7/1/16 185,000.00
CHIEF – FINANCIAL OFFICER 7/1/02 185,000.00
CHIEF – SCHOOLS 7/1/16 185,000.00
EXEC OFCR – SUPPORT SERVICES 8/26/92 159,120.00
EXEC DIR – TALENT STRATEGY 1/22/13 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – CHARTER SCHOOLS 7/1/16 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – EQUITY & DIVERSITY 7/1/16 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – HS 7/21/04 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – LEADERSHIP DEVELOP 6/1/10 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – MS 8/9/99 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – PRE-K & ES 7/15/13 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – PRIORITY SCHOOLS 7/1/16 155,000.00

Each of the chiefs are also supplied an automobile. In this case, a Chevy Tahoe. A vehicle with a price tag similar to the salary of an MNPS teacher with 7 years of experience and a Master’s degree. District officials, when questioned, claimed that these vehicles were previously used by other administrators in the past. Which would beg the question of who was using them because the previous director drove a Ford Edge and his Number 2 used his own car except on rare occasion. It is also extremely fortuitous that we had 5 Tahoes already in the fleet given that the “Chief” positions are all new positions. I’d say this opens a lot of questions about our fleet management. It appears as though some of these Chiefs may have returned their Tahoes to the fleet. If true I have to ask, why did they wait until people raised a fuss?

In contrast, when recently elected Nashville Mayor Megan Barry took office, she was told that it was tradition to supply the new mayor with a new vehicle of their choice. Mayor Barry politely declined a new car. The vehicle of her predecessor would be sufficient for her. I’ve written about how teachers didn’t get into education for the money. Administration shouldn’t be the pathway to work in education and get wealthy. Much is written about the salary gap between workers and CEO’s. In this case you are looking at salaries nearly 4 times the salary of average teacher and the director almost 6 times as much. I thought the teacher was the single most important in school factor in a child’s education. These numbers don’t represent that.

Much has been written about the outside money that tried to buy this year’s school board race. In fact, last week the Election Commission announced that there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation into Stand For Children and the candidates they supported in the election. Dr. Joseph’s response was to hire Jana Carlisle as the new Chief of Staff. She is from New York City and knows virtually nothing about Metro Schools. She worked to enact the charter school laws that were recently ruled unconstitutional in Washington by utilizing a flood of outside money – the very same tactics that were employed in Nashville. Despite voters and parents clearly saying they were against the policies that organizations like Stand for Children support, Dr. Joseph ignored those voices and offered Carlisle $185k per year, a car, and money to relocate from NYC to Nashville. Dr. Joseph argues that she is extremely smart. I’d argue that there are a lot of smart people in Nashville who don’t have ties to dark money.

Now I ask: what’s the difference between a charter school’s board of directors that ignores the community and a Director of Schools who does the same? We argue often about the manner that charter schools lock out the voices of those who they serve. How many times have we heard it argued that with an elected board, a parent who has concerns has a venue to voice those concerns? But if a community makes its opinion known and a school board director chooses to ignore it, what’s the difference? I don’t know that there is a bigger expression of a community’s voice than the results of an election. So if nobody’s listening to our voices, we’ve got a problem.

Dr. Joseph recently spent $200k on a StrengthsFinder training program for approximately 60 administrators who work in central office. StrengthFinders is a respected program, but I question its current value in light of the fact that the last MNPS budget saw English Learner programs and Literacy programs funded at a less than requested amount. Are we to ignore this large sum of money being spent – money that wasn’t budgeted for this reason – on leadership training while other more pressing issues like EL and literacy programs are underfunded simply because our new Director doesn’t support charter schools? Are we blindly giving him a pass here?

Last week, the new school boardroom makeover was unveiled. Leadership offices have also been remodeled. Meanwhile, my children’s elementary school does not have a playground and backs up to a construction site for the new school, which is scheduled to open next year.  Here’s what it looks like right now. Sure glad that board room got remodeled.img_0962img_0961After I’ve raised a considerable fuss, district leaders have promised to look into the situation and see what can be done. But we are already well into this school year, and why is meeting the basic needs of children contingent on me jumping up and down and hollering? Shouldn’t I be able to send my children to a public school secure in the knowledge that their basic needs are being met?

Somehow, the fact that next year the kids will be getting a new school justifies them not having a playground this year. Initially, when I complained about boardroom renovation, I was told that the chairs in the old boardroom were uncomfortable and that people cringed whenever somebody tried to use the audio system. So those concerns get addressed, while 800-plus children, 97% of whom live in poverty and 71% of whom are English learners, attend a school with 23 portables that are inadequate by any measure and are packed in tight next to the construction site of their future school. Currently they have no playground. This is an unsafe situation, with many kids having nowhere to go during recess times. For many of these children, we have essentially taken them out of one refugee camp and dropped them into another. I love my kids’ school, but this shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.

I’ve also got to ask, in this shuffling around of money, obviously all these items were not included in the current approved budget, what is being sacrificed? I’m told nothing in classrooms. Maybe not, but I find it hard to believe none of it has come from programs that directly affect children. For example, all the elementary coaches and principals attended work sessions in which they were instructed in literacy instruction with methods that many believe run counter to Reading Recovery, which is what the district currently uses and what they specifically presented to Metro Council when asking for additional funding last year. This comes on the heels of money already having been cut from Reading Recovery and designated teachers being reassigned. There is something that doesn’t seem quite ethical about this. It all makes one nervous. In other words, if these new programs, perks, and positions were truly in the budget, then damn! We’ve got money to spend on some extravagances! But I think this is not the case. We’ve got real needs to attend to. But no one is attending to them. Seems like we are focusing more on the comfort of adults new to MNPS than the children of MNPS.

Right now some of you might be saying, “Damn Dad! You sound like those people promoting charters. What’s up?” Don’t get confused. I am as anti-charter school as anybody you will meet and will continue to fight their expansion, but I will not argue for the eradication of charter schools only to force children into schools that are grossly inadequate. I will not focus on the fight against charter schools while ignoring the fact that the amount of time spent on testing is growing. And mark my words – right now, Nashville, the amount of testing is going to grow even more; in fact they’ve already added an assessment that benchmarks nationally despite parents overwhelmingly saying there is too much testing. I will not write blog posts about the horrors of charter schools while teachers are afraid to teach because we haven’t fully fleshed out our discipline policies to both support the at-risk child and ensure safety for everyone else. I still believe that charter schools create an environment where some are rescued while others are left further behind. I’ll never support taking the education of our children out of a community’s hands and placing it in the hands of private entities or one that further segregates our society.

Here’s the truly maddening thing. The level of instruction at my children’s school – and across the district, for that matter – is top notch. I am amazed at the ability these teachers and administrators have to show up daily and overcome the obstacles put in front of them. The word heroic gets tossed around a whole lot these days, but as someone with a front row seat, I can attest they earn that praise everyday. All across the district, every day, I see and meet dedicated professionals doing heroic work despite making one-fifth of the salary of a Chief and not having a Tahoe provided to them to get to work each day. We don’t need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside consultants or on new cars or office furniture without ever observing a large number of these teachers in action. Observe them, talk to them, then invest in the things that matter most to our children, based on what you see in our district, not the one you were previously in.

The true shame of all this is that the average parent has no way of recognizing the effort our teachers and school-level administrators are putting forth. They see the inadequate facilities, the low test scores, the unsafe conditions, and the underfunded mandates, and they rightfully question whether district schools can adequately meet the needs of their children. I would charge that we are fighting against charters while pursuing policies that drive parents into pursuing those very options. That’s something I’m not comfortable with. We should apply the same level of diligence to ourselves as we do to charter school operators. One of the reasons I get so incensed by charter school operators is their propensity to drive Tahoes, make exorbitant salaries, and have their administrators work out of pristine surroundings while children are under resourced and toiling in inadequate facilities. So why should that be tolerated from public school officials?

When I raise these concerns to district officials, I do get some acknowledgement that, yes, I’m right, the optics are bad. Let me be clear here – it’s not the optics that are bad, it’s the practices. If we want to stop the privatization of our public schools, then our administrators need to not act like corporate CEO’s at the trough. I spent an entire summer helping to fight off the attempt by private entities to buy a school board election. And through hard work, we won. But what did we win? The right for public officials to conduct themselves as employees of a private corporation rather than caretakers of a public trust? I’m using Nashville as an example here, but I don’t doubt that parents in other districts could present similar examples.

It is vital that as we fight off corporate attacks on our public schools that we are not just focusing on the supply, but have an equally diligent focus on the demand. We need to make sure that we are not falling into the trap of rewarding perks to adults while children are asked to make sacrifices. We need to ensure that we are applying every possible resource to directly impact the educational opportunities for our children. We need to demand that ALL of our public schools are better then charter schools. We need to shift the focus from just MY child back to OUR children. Because if not, then I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to continue to fight against the proliferation of charter schools while we are ignoring the needs of our children. As Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Words to heed.

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Teachers Need Time

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teachersBack in the early aughts, I ran a local rock and roll club that had air conditioning problems. My entire summer was spent listening to people tell me that a) it was hot in the club, and b) their diagnoses of what I needed to do about it. Needless to say, I quickly grew tired of the conversation about air conditioning because a) I knew what the solution was: buy a new system that actually met the needs of the space, and b) for whatever reason, the owner was unwilling to invest in the solution, and therefore, all we were talking about was band aids instead of solutions. The recent discussions I’ve seen on the teacher shortage feel eerily similar to me.

Over the last several months, there have been several articles written on the current shortage of teachers, why they leave the profession, and how best to recruit and retain more teachers. A lot of smart people are putting their heads together and trying to figure out solutions. Most of the solutions, though, are based on money and creating more pathways for teacher leaders. In my humble opinion, both these ideas miss the point and actually contribute to what I see as greater societal problem, the devaluing of service professions.

Now before we go any further, let me invoke my standard disclaimer. I am not a teacher, nor do I play one on TV. Furthermore, I would never attempt to speak for teachers either. All I can do is relay the conversations I’ve been privy to with teachers and encourage policy makers to actually talk to teachers more. That doesn’t mean just holding another forum where you invite a bunch of teachers and then either get them to agree with your suppositions or pretend to listen while proceeding down a different track. It means really listening and not trying to counter their views with results from a survey that anybody paying half attention to can figure out is not an accurate reflection of what’s really happening. Because if they were accurate, why are we even having this conversation? That said, let’s proceed.

In every conversation I’ve ever had with teachers, either directly or indirectly, the biggest complaint has never been about money, lack of professional development, or lack of leadership roles. It has been overwhelmingly about time. Loss of instructional time. Loss of planning time. Loss of personal time. The ever increasing demand on their time. Virtually every negative conversation has been rooted in the lack of time and how it’s causing teachers to not be able to be as effective as they would like and that they just don’t know how they’ll be able to keep up.

I am not dismissing the importance of money. Lord knows salaries are entirely too low. But if you talk to teachers, how many were inspired to teach by the lure of financial gain? Overwhelmingly, the teachers I’ve come in contact with over the years entered the profession due to a strong desire to work with children. Most did not expect to make a lot of money, but the chance to work with children and make an impact on future generations was so overwhelming that they were willing to overlook the financial drawbacks in order to serve a societal need.

Let’s be honest, the service professions – teachers, police officers, nurses, fire fighters, first responders, etc. – will never be paid as much as they should be. It’s an age old argument. I can remember growing up and reading articles about the salaries of sports stars versus teachers. Someone once explained to me that the only way to make real money was to sell something. If you generate more revenue, you will receive more income. Life has borne that out for me. So the best those in the service profession can expect is some small raises here and there and maybe a few small bonuses. Raises that we will trumpet with huge fanfare, but in reality put less than $100 a paycheck extra in their pocket. If you’ve got a family, you know how quickly that money disappears. This is despite the essential roles these service professions play in society. I shudder to think what life would be like without those willing to make the sacrifice.

It used to be that we respected that sacrifice and allowed teachers to really utilize their skills. We trusted them to do what’s best for educating children. In recent years, though, we’ve been bitten by the accountability bug. Not only are we going to ask for teachers to sacrifice, but we are going to demand that they account for it. We are going to make sure that we do everything possible to find who the bad teachers and get rid of them. Completely ignoring that teaching is not just a science but an art form.

Think about it like this: I’m going to give you a dollar a day to perform a task for me. The task is something you love doing, it comes naturally for you, and so you easily accomplish it every day.

Then one day I decide that I need to make sure you are actually doing the job, and so I ask you to fill out a few forms every day. You are fine with that because I am paying you, they don’t take too long, and you are still able to focus on the task. As the weeks go by, I keep adding forms for you to fill out and you keep completing them, but it is now leaving you less and less time to get the task done. Because of all the forms that I now require, your performance begins to slip and there are some parts of the job you just aren’t able to complete. You bring this to my attention, but I just brush it off, saying, “These forms are extremely important. Perhaps you are not managing your time properly. I need you to fill out these forms so I can determine if you are utilizing your time properly.”

Well, your performance continues to slide, so I decide that it is important to give you more training. Unfortunately that training comes during the time you are supposed to be performing the task I was paying you for. So you are either going to have to shortchange the job or come back later in the day when you are usually doing other things to complete it. You really like doing this job I was paying you for, so you make sacrifices to get it done. But you start to wonder is $1 a day really enough? With all the paperwork and training I’ve added, you are left with little time to do anything else. That’s when I decide to give you a nickel raise. Yep, a five percent increase.

At the same time, I realize I could get some high school students to do the job at 90 cents a day. I give them a little training, but you are such a wealth of knowledge that I am going to rely on you to take a leadership role and train them up. Asking you to assume a leadership role should be considered a sign of respect, even though it means you are spending less time doing the job you really love and that I originally asked you to do. Soon you are spending all your time on training these high school kids, going to training classes yourself, and of course, filling out forms about all of these things. In addition, there are tools you need to get the task done that I was not providing. You find yourself more and more investing your own money to secure those tools to complete the task.

Thus, a situation was created where you weren’t doing what you love to do, all your time was taken up doing things to prove you are completing the task, you were having to invest your own money on needed tools to the complete the task, and the pay wasn’t sufficient. You had friends of similar experience who were making $1.35 a day and were not nearly as stressed as you. You’re just not sure if you should continue in this line of work, even though you really do love completing the original task.

And that’s what we’ve been doing to our teachers.

Furthermore, we’ve shifted the conversation away from the true motivation of why people enter the profession to being one about money. In my opinion, this also changes the talent pool from which you are recruiting. You are not pulling from a group of applicants who feel the need to serve, but rather from one that sees money as being the prime motivation. Teach for America has already instilled a model where a young person can make some money now, but then utilize their experience into a higher paying future position. By changing the talent pool, we are leaving behind those who want to serve children and instead focusing on attracting those looking for financial gain. Doing so does not bode well for the future. We say it is all about the children, yet we continue to pursue policy that puts them secondary.

Lately there has been a push to develop more leadership roles in the classroom for teachers and that is a good thing to a certain extent, but we need to make sure that we are not downplaying the role of teacher who just wants to spend their career teaching. A number of years ago, my wife, a school teacher, took a leadership position in part because she felt the pressure of needing to do more. Two years ago, she returned to the classroom, and I can honestly say that she is 100% happier and a lot more impactful than she was in that leadership role. She maintains a team leadership role now,  but it is one that allows her to work with children daily and doesn’t take take her out of the classroom. I’m not downplaying the need for those who assume leadership roles; I’m just saying that for many, the desire is to work with children everyday. That desire should not be negated, but rather fortified.

Like the previously referred to air conditioning problem, I think the solution to retaining teachers is pretty clear but will require some investment. First of all, let’s let teachers be teachers. Talk to them and find out exactly what it is that is eating up instructional time, planning time, and collaboration time. If we can hire support staff to assume some of those duties, then we need to do so. If testing is eating up too much instructional time, then we need to adjust. Instead of simply demanding that teachers be mentors, we need to provide them time to actually mentor. We need to respect teachers and understand that most have already undergone extensive training to prepare for their jobs. Training should be easily applicable. More training with less time to implement is useless. We need to trust our teachers to do their jobs, and we need to give them the time needed to be effective.

In Tennessee in 2011, legislators removed teachers’ rights to collective bargaining and replaced it with collaborative conferencing. Since that time, Nashville teachers have worked without a contract. That translates to a lack of access to an updated employee handbook, minimum hours set but not maximum, and virtually no say in work place conditions. Currently, the Metro Nashville Education Association is soliciting signatures of teachers for the right to represent them and call for a collaborative conference to address these issues. This is an important step in the right direction, but still distressing in a lot of ways. Teachers should be consulted; they shouldn’t have to demand to be heard.

In closing, I’m certainly not going to downplay the need for salary increases. Money is important. But as a recent article in the Atlantic stated, “Just paying teachers more won’t stop them from quitting.” We need to do more. Satisfied teachers should be the number one tool for recruiting and retaining teachers. Giving teachers the time and respect they deserve as professionals would be a step in the right direction.

 

A Conversation With Nashville School Board Member Jill Speering

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jill sThis week, I sat down with Nashville School Board member Jill Speering. We met at the Sip Cafe to talk. Jill is a retired teacher who is a fierce advocate for literacy. Four years ago, her first election win came in a very close race. There is a certain gentleness that comes across when you talk to Jill that opponents often underestimate. Sometimes Jill uses this to her advantage. Opponents should not be lulled into thinking her a pushover. She will fight as hard as anybody for what she believes in, even if that means taking an unpopular position. People were worried that her reelection campaign would be close. They shouldn’t have. She won securing 58% of the vote in the process.

Here’s our conversation:

Dad Gone Wild: I’ve just sat down here at the Sip Cafe with Jill Speering, who recently won a second term as a school board member. Congratulations, Jill.

Jill Speering: Thank you.

DGW: This is a comfortable place here. First time I’ve been here. I understand Sip Cafe was actually a kind of campaign headquarters for you.

JS: Right, it was. Sip Café is located at the heart of Inglewood. It’s a place where you instantly connect with community. You come in and you see photos, you see neighbors, many of whom are people interested in the school system. It was a great place for us to use as our campaign headquarters.

DGW: In our conversations, community has always been a big thing to you. You feel very strongly about the concept of community, and the building and maintaining of a community, and the role schools play in that community.

JS: Yes, absolutely yes. During my last term, I had a chance to go to Pond Gap Community School, and what I loved about that (visit) was the way the school was open for the community after school (hours). They were able to bring in the parents, and by knowing what the parents needed, they really had a finger on the pulse of what was going on in that community. They had a wonderful community garden, and when the parents came to volunteer, they were allowed to go back to the community garden and pick a bushel of vegetables to take home. They thought parents weren’t coming out to school functions because they needed to do domestic chores during that time, to do the washing and drying and such. So the school, along with the community, bought washers and dryers. This meant the parents could come in, drop off their laundry, get that going, and then attend a class on parenting skills or how to complete your income tax or how to purchase a home – the various needs that the community demonstrated they wanted. And it changed the community, it changed the school, and now there’s a waiting list for students to get into that school.

DGW: That’s pretty incredible. Let’s back track a minute here. You’re one of the few board members who is actually a former teacher. You taught for how many years?

JS: 35.

DGW: Impressive. All here in Nashville?

JS: No, 10 of those were in Sumner County, and actually a couple of those were in Albuquerque. My husband was in the military, so I taught a little bit in New Mexico, also a little bit in Georgia, but when I came back to Tennessee, I started in Sumner County and then I was able to get into Nashville schools.

DGW: That’s quite a few years. I’m always curious about where people find their callings. At what age did you realize you wanted to be a teacher, and how did you end up in that profession?

JS: (laughs) In teaching? This is a long story. Well, I grew up in a dysfunctional family and my father was military, retired military, and you know he liked to bark orders at us and thought that children were to be seen and not heard. It was that kind of home environment. But I had a wonderful loving mother. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who I absolutely hated, and she hated me. It was a miserable year for me and I had this mess going on with my father at home, and then I would arrive at school and I would throw up as soon as I got out of the car, just thinking about having to go into that school and spend the day with that teacher. I hated school. It wasn’t that way when I first started school. In first grade I couldn’t wait to get to school. So what happened between 1st grade (we didn’t have kindergarten in those days) and 5th grade that made me hate school? So my father was kind enough to put me in a different school the next year and when that happened, I went to a Catholic school. It was a very small school, and the teachers thought I was smart and they were kind to me. They made me feel welcome, and I fell in love with school again. So it was then that I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I didn’t want any child ever to live with what I lived through in school.

DGW: It’s amazing how different teachers can impact us. In 11th grade, I had a teacher who everybody thought was the worst teacher in the world. He was extremely strict, wore a bad toupee, spoke with a fake English accent, was sarcastic, and I actually loved him. I learned more from him than any other teacher, and his lessons still resonate with me. So it’s really interesting to me how a teacher can make such an impact on somebody’s life. Both bad and good. So after you retired as a teacher, what made you decide to run for school board 4 years ago?

JS: Well, a community representative came to me and said she was aware Mark North was not going to seek reelection, and a group of Madison residents were trying to think who might be a good school board representative. My name came up and so they called me and asked if I would consider running for school board. I really didn’t know what that would entail, but as I pondered it, I thought, well, I could make a difference in reading for children.  My experience with board members was they wanted to talk with teachers but then would easily dismiss any advice given. For example, I suggested that we needed a common definition of reading so that we could pick and choose the programs that work with what we believe reading is, and a board member said, “that will never happen.” But my first year being on the board, that’s exactly what did happen. In looking back on things, that’s what made me decide, Yes!  I want to run.  I can make a difference in the lives of kids!

DGW: I never knew that.

JS: During my first year on the board, Dr. Register invited me to work with a committee called the comprehensive literacy committee. At one point there were about 30 people on that committee, and we had a robust discussion of the definition of reading and over time, wrote a definition that we could all agree on– One we could all embrace.  When the Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen, took office. that was the first thing she did. She appointed a reading commission and she charged them to define reading. She called them together from all different parts of the state and they debated what reading is and they came up with a definition of reading that the state of Tennessee now uses.

DGW: That’s amazing. The simplest thing like that is often the most overlooked. In doing a lot of this research, I find it amazing that often we don’t define our terms, the biggest lack of definition still being, what’s the purpose of education?

JS: Yes, yes.

DGW: And I don’t understand sometimes how you can figure out where you’re going if you don’t even know the definition of what you’re looking for?

JS: Yes, absolutely yes.

DGW: Unfortunately, we don’t have time here to define the purpose of education, but let’s go back. You decided to run. You won by a narrow margin. So when you came on the board, what did you think that you would be spending most of your time doing?

JS: One of my fears before I came on the board was that the board talks about a lot of issues, not just reading, and could I really get passionate about all those issues? It surprised me how easy it was to become passionate about everything on the agenda. It all caught my passion. I thought I would be busy, but I had no idea how busy I would be because I wanted to hear what teachers thought. I wanted to hear what principals thought. I sought out those opportunities to hear from them, not only on Facebook and social media, but also lunches and other functions. I think the biggest thing was how time consuming it became because I was so passionate about education. I wanted to just study the issues and talk with people.

DGW: It’s refreshing to hear that because I always say we don’t talk to teachers nearly enough. I call it running a restaurant without talking to servers.

JS: Yeah, good analogy.

DGW: We never sit down and let them tell us what’s actually happening in classrooms and what they are facing on a daily basis.

JS: Yes, and teachers feel so isolated. They’re in that classroom trying to teach students by themselves. It’s different for high school teachers from what I understand, but elementary school teachers, they don’t even have time go to the bathroom.

DGW: As a spouse of an elementary school teacher who taught middle school for 8 years, yes it’s a completely different world. One of the things that I’m struck by is that there is a lot of conversation lately about retaining and recruiting teachers, and we talk about money and everything, like leadership pathways, but the one common refrain that I repeatedly hear from teachers is that they’re lacking time. They just don’t have instructional time. They don’t have prep time. Is that congruent with your experience and what you hear?

JS: Absolutely, and they don’t have time to talk to each other. Again, I’m thinking about the elementary level because that’s where my level of experience and expertise is. I would love to see a way, and many schools have been able to do this, where they dismiss school early on Wednesday afternoon and schedule professional development with the teachers. Teachers get an opportunity to share. We don’t provide opportunities for teachers to talk with one another. When teachers do get a chance to talk, it’s like 10 minutes at lunch. Teachers need time! This time is an absolutely vital issue that we have to figure out. One thing we have discussed in the past in our teaching and learning committee meetings that I have chaired over the last three years, is  the issue of time. If we had five days that we could add to the school calendar, paid days, and use those five days for professional development at the school level, giving teachers an opportunity to learn from each other , it would be extremely beneficial. Another thing we’re doing that is exciting to me, is a program we’ve started called the literacy partnership. We have schools that go through this training through Lipscomb University, and it’s taught mostly by Metro teachers, and it allows for the creation of a model classroom in the building. Then teachers who want to learn how to do a better job at balanced reading or writing or any literacy component, can go to their model classroom and watch that outstanding teacher. Then that teacher can go back to her classroom and try the particular strategy and get feedback from the lead teacher. So that is a way to not only make professional development meaningful for teachers but also a way for teachers to have an opportunity to talk with each other. And again, we need opportunities to talk and sort through ideas, to read and discuss research, and then relate the research to our daily classroom practice.  That’s what we can do through some of our professional development.

DGW: One of the things that Finland does that is worth of emulating is how they emphasize continuity. Teachers are often involved with a kid all the way through their school years. So they can say, well, in first grade he was like this, and the third grade teacher understands maybe how they got there and would have a better understanding of what the child responds to. I think we, by constantly churning teachers, are losing some of that. Losing potentially valuable institutional knowledge.

JS: Yes, and I’ve noticed that when I talk to parents.  They want to see consistency in the teaching staff. They want to see a consistent principal, and they want our continuity with our teachers. I was in a meeting the other day, and parents were bemoaning how many teachers had transferred from one of my middle schools.

DGW: As a parent, you want to form a partnership. I have been very blessed; both of my kids have had the same kindergarten and now the same first grade teacher, so I don’t have to even look over anybody’s shoulder. When I drop them off for school, there are no worries. There’s a comfort level and developed trust level. That would not be possible with heavy turnover, and that’s a serious drawback.

JS: It is, it is, and I hope that that’s going to change.

DGW: It would be nice. My kids go to a high-needs school, so it doesn’t have to be a luxury for just our wealthier schools. Now let’s talk about your decision to run again for the board. Was that an easy decision, hard decision? What kind of conversation was that?

JS: Well, I had decided that I was not going to run again. And then the closer it got to the end of last year, maybe at Christmas time, I started thinking, oh, I’m not finished. There’s more to do. If I just had four more years, how far could we take our literacy initiative? Our comprehensive literacy initiative was only in 20 schools last year, so I thought if we’ve accomplished this much in four years, what could we accomplish in another four?  And just think…I was just getting my feet wet my first year on the board. The first year I was learning what a board member does, and now that I’ve gotten pretty solid in board working relationships, what could I accomplish with four more years with my love of literacy? That was the big turning point for me. By Christmas, I had decided I was definitely going to run.

DGW: It’s interesting, too, because people were worried a little bit about you because your first election was so close, and there was a lot of money spent against you, so they worried whether you’d be able to get reelected. It turned out that they shouldn’t have been worried because you ended winning 58 percent of the vote. That’s a pretty big margin.

JS: (smiling) Yes, yes.

DGW: It’s pretty amazing. What do you attribute that to?

JS: I think I have a reputation of being accessible to the parents. They see me in meetings. They see me at schools. They see me at PTO meetings, and they see me with the principals. When we made the principal announcements, I was right there. I think parents and teachers know that I am accessible and knowledgeable about education. I really believe that’s what did it for me.

DGW: I agree with that. I also think you outworked your opponent. I remember driving down this road and seeing nothing but your campaign signs, and thinking yeah, she’s out there, working it. So you’ve got four more years. I’m assuming literacy is going to be a primary goal, but what else?

JS: I would love to see more community schools. I’d like to see community schools advanced, especially in Madison. Inglewood is doing pretty well. Goodlettsville is doing pretty well. Madison is really having issues because of the high poverty, and I think we could do some tremendous things with our community schools. As the chair of the teaching and learning committee, I’m working on two field trips for November. One is to go to Pond Gap Elementary School and look at their community school model, and see what we can bring back. I’d like to learn as much as possible and not just have me see it. Monique Felder, Chief Academic Officer at Metro Nashville Public Schools, is going to go with me, and we’re going to take some administrators and some teachers, so that’s exciting,

DGW: Very exciting.

JS: The second field trip we have is to go to Atlanta, Georgia, to see the Ron Clark Academy.

DGW: I am not familiar with that.

JS: Ron Clark was the national Teacher of the Year many years ago and he was on Oprah’s TV show, and then he wrote a book. As a matter of fact, he’s written several books, and I have read all of these books. Then there was a story written about his life, and it was made into a movie. Now he has a school in Atlanta where teachers come to observe and learn in a model classroom environment. Children from diverse backgrounds attend and their tuition is paid through educators paying to observe and learn at the Ron Clark Academy. Pretty phenomenal.

DGW: Oh very cool, wow.

JS: And I saw him speak a few years ago in person, and it was so powerful. He exemplifies what I think we need in education, which is joy in learning.

DGW: That’s the biggest thing to me. I think it is a mistake when we focus everything on the data for data’s sake. I’ve told my kids’ teachers that I don’t care about levels; levels will work themselves out. What I care is that they fall in love with learning because if they fall in love with learning, everything else will fall into place.

JS: The sky becomes the limit.

DGW: Well, the last thing I want to say is that in listening to you describe going on these field trips and your passion for literacy, I have to chuckle, because in this last election, you were labeled as somebody who just wanted to support the status quo. It doesn’t sound like that is accurate at all. It sounds like there’s change going on constantly.

JS: Yes, absolutely yes. I think in the last election there was a lot of misrepresentation from my opponent about who I am and what I support.  At one point, my opponent apologized for the negativity generated through her campaign. She said she really didn’t support that. I appreciated her apology, but there was a lot of misinformation. That was unfortunate, but obviously it didn’t work.

DGW: No, you won and now you have four more years.  Thank you for your time Jill.

JS: Yes we do. And thank you.