This 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?
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.