I’m going to go ahead and write Friday’s blog post tonight because, well frankly, I have the time. We spent this Thanksgiving at my wife’s parent’s house. The celebration this year was especially joyous as my mother-in-law is on the road to recovery after a severe health scare several months ago. Tomorrow I’ll take the boy to some Black Friday events and then we as a family will head to Henry Horton Park for some hiking, have lunch with family friends, with the afternoon reserved again for family. In other words, it’s now or never.
This past Tuesday was a microcosm of the way the year has been going for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The morning started with a staged affair between the MNPS School Board, Director of Schools Dr. Joseph, and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, where board members read from a script – excuse me, talking points – written by Board Member Will Pinkston informing the mayor of how marvelous things have been going. The day closed with reports of a key staff member in MNPS’s central office being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and a fight at Overton HS that resulted in 14 students being detained by the police. I suspect that somewhere in the middle of these events is where you’ll find the true state of MNPS.
Being that today is Thanksgiving and all, one of the items near the top of the grateful list should be that Nashville is fortunate enough to have the quality of people who work in our schools. There is a lot that is not working currently in MNPS, but our teachers and principals continue to find a way to serve our kids despite the obstacles. Teachers may be going home every night feeling frustrated and defeated, but somehow they find the strength everyday to provide meaningful experiences for students. Principals may feel like they are failing and questioning their abilities to lead effectively, but daily they are opening the doors to positive, life-altering experiences. It really is amazing.
If you look around MNPS, you’ll see some really amazing things happening. You’ll see that the Hunters Lane HS marching band is in Detroit this holiday season participating in The Best Bands in America Parade. You’ll see that Overton High School’s Cambridge program so impressed the head of Cambridge that he hopped on a jet from England to Nashville, just to observe for himself the great things that are happening. You’ll see West End Middle School teacher Cicely Woodard win the Tennessee Teacher of the Year award. You’ll see Maplewood High School teacher Jared Amato win the Penguin Publishing Teacher of the Year award as ProjectLit continues its expansion into other schools across the district. You’ll see how Croft Design Center Middle Prep is rocking project-based learning through its collaboration with the Nashville Zoo.
If you went over to Park Elementary School and observed a lesson utilizing our Reading Recovery resources, you would be amazed at the progress of some of our most at-risk readers. Tusculum ES held its first school-wide musical performance in six years, thanks to the new stage in the new building finally offering a space for them to perform. Cane Ridge and Pearl Cohn HS’s are both competing for state football championships. Community Achieves continues to make a difference in schools across the district, with schools like Inglewood ES and Whitsitt ES demonstrating just what is possible through the community schools model. And two students at Pearl Cohn HS recently won 1st place in the Student/Mentor Music Video category of the 2014 MY HERO International Film Festival.
I can keep going. The Hillsboro Globe, one of the only Associated Press-accredited student papers in the country, is training future journalists. Whites Creek HS’s Academy of Alternative Energy received a $10,000 grant from Duke Energy. Students at JT Moore Middle are creating works every bit as moving as professional artists. I hear that there has been really great work done through collaborative conferencing between the district and MNEA that will have extremely positive effects on teachers and therefore students. I could literally do this all day long.
These are all things the MNPS School Board could have shared with the mayor. These are things that they should be the most proud of. Instead they chose to once again talk about the Arbinger Institute training that the Board undertook last fall. They talked about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that they have put in place to evaluate each other and Dr. Joseph. They talked about updating the school board policies. They gushed about Dr. Joseph’s leadership, despite the fact that he’s never taken a point on an issue yet. They talked about suing the state over BEP funding. They talked about talking about students and teachers, but they never actually got around to talking about students and teachers.
After their presentation, Mayor Barry asked the board which of the things they’d each spoken about would have the biggest impact on achievement. There was a brief pause, everybody kind of looked around the room to see who would speak, and since it was his show, Will Pinkston commenced to speak about the extensive work that was being done on the evaluation process for individual board members. In other words, “Enough about me, let’s talk a little more about me.”
That, in a nutshell, is the biggest challenge that MNPS currently faces. There is too much focus on the boardroom and not enough on the classroom. Beyond a handful of members, there are not enough people involved in a meaningful manner who have an understanding of what actually happens in the classroom. Dr. Joseph himself has never demonstrated a firm grasp of understanding exactly how his policies translate in the classroom. This disconnect has serious consequences for MNPS and is a serious contributor to the current toxic culture. That’s the elephant in the room. MNPS has a toxic culture and the good that is happening in the district is in spite of leadership.
Somebody at Tuesday’s meeting made a comment about having an honest conversation. You know when somebody says that, it is almost always a sure sign that you are not about to embark on an honest conversation. And what followed was anything but an honest conversation. There was no talk about the number of students receiving digital instruction due to a shortage of teachers. There was no mention of the number of students attending schools in dire need of capital improvements. There was no talk about a literacy program that runs counter to what we know works when it comes to teaching children to read. There was no talk about a formal plan for parent engagement still struggling to get off the ground. There was no talk about approaching management of human resources with a deficit mindset because nobody in leadership had actually taken the time to forge real relationships with the people doing the work every day.
Educating children, like most things in life, is all about relationships. Relationships between administrators and principals. Relationships between principals and teachers. Relationships between teachers and students, teachers and families. Relationships between schools and communities. Without these relationships, it doesn’t matter how many programs you implement, how “good” the board is, nor how many KPI’s you use to evaluate. It’s in the development of these relationships where Dr. Joseph and his team have fallen short and the board has failed to insist upon.
Relationships take time to develop. It’s a lot like tending a garden. You don’t plant seeds and then instantly reap the harvest. You water, and fertilize, and weed, and tend to, and eventually, if you do it right, your seeds will bear fruit. There is no rushing the process or taking shortcuts. Your returns will usually equal your investment. It’s hard to make the kind of necessary investment when you are laboring under a mission statement centered around being the “fastest growing.” Do farmers ever advertise the fastest growing vegetables, or is it alway the best vegetables you’ll find anywhere?
At some point we are going to have slow down and focus on what happens in the classroom. We are going to have to actually inventory the state of our district. We are going to have to actually define our terms. What does equity mean? What does advanced academics look like for all schools? We throw around this phrase “2 out of 3 kids aren’t reading on grade level,” but we never really examine what that means or if it is even a true statement. According to the recently sent home MAP results, my second grade son is reading at a level slightly behind national norms. Does that mean he’s failing? His mother and I don’t think so. His teachers don’t think so. In working together, we are all actually quite pleased with his progress. Yet that doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative, or should I say agenda.
If we were having an honest conversation, we would acknowledge that MAP, and other assessments, are merely a snapshot of where kids are at that particular moment. We would put an emphasis on relationships over accountability. We would start looking at what we can take off teachers’ plates so that they could better do their jobs. My fear is that by the time we have that conversation, we will be emulating retail stores touting huge sales that reduce prices by 30%, when the reality is that over the last month they raised prices by 40%. If we are having an honest conversation, we will acknowledge that our poorer kids’ low attendance rates are linked to our inadequate facilities and that both contribute to low test scores. If we ever decide to have an honest conversation, people won’t need to read pre-written talking points because they’ll be speaking from the heart.
There are a couple things I think need to be said in regards to the events that closed the day on Tuesday. I don’t want to say too much about the sexual harassment complaint that was filed because it is currently under investigation. Guilt or innocence need to be ascertained. What does not need to be ascertained is that Mr. Carrasco behaved in some manner, intentional or unintentional, that made not just one woman, but several women, so uncomfortable that they felt a need to come forward and file a complaint.
All behavior has a root; our dealings are not unmoored and random. Women do not just wake up one morning and think, “Today’s the day I’ll throw my professional life into turmoil and open up my personal life for intense scrutiny.” Something happened, most likely over a prolonged period, that led these women to a point where they felt like they had no other alternative, and we owe it to them to discover what that was. There is no upside for a woman in making these accusations. Often they will be painted in an unflattering light, their motivations will be questioned, and they will be forced to endure a long period of emotional turmoil.
Ask Anita Hill about what it meant to bring accusations against Judge Clarence Thomas back in 1991. Ask the women who have come forward about Judge Roy Moore or Senator Al Franken how enjoyable it is to voice a complaint. I’m willing to bet that none of them will paint it as a highlight of their life. I’m willing to bet that they will admit to often wishing they’d just never said anything. But think about what the world would be like if they never did. Think of how little would have changed without their courage to step forward with the truth.
People are shocked about the number of women who have come forward of late and they try to dismiss both the validity and the pain associated with their complaints. I’m not shocked nor dismissive. Let’s have one of those long overdue, honest conversations. It’s going to require a little self-evaluation.
To men of my generation, women were often viewed as objects. It was often denied, but that was the reality. I have never been personally accused of sexual harassment or misconduct, but I’m not without guilt. How many times over the years did I tell a female friend to “just let it slide”? How many times did I write off a fellow man’s aggression towards women as simply the actions of a “player”? How many times did I make jokes or comments about a woman’s anatomy and treat it as my right to do so? That’s not okay. It’s way past time we start having these conversations and we all acknowledge our roles.
These conversations are part of a necessary purge in order for us to evolve as a culture. I know as a young man, society constantly reinforced the image of women as being sexual playthings. Just look at our idols. Whether it was Mick Jagger or Teddy Kennedy, Steve McQueen or Joe Namath, their sexual prowess was an element of their hero status. Because of the mass of women who have come forth, we are being forced to re-examine our thinking, and that can only make the world a better place.
The flip side of the narrative is that it was long engrained in women that boys are ruled by their sexual appetite and that a little crossing of the lines was not only to be tolerated but expected. After all, how harmful was a slap on the ass, or a comment about your breasts, and if there was an expectation of more, the woman had a choice, right? But did she really?
We have all heard the claim that women who accuse men of sexual harassment are “men haters.” I call bullshit. Who hates men more, women who are willing to write them off as simpletons incapable of controlling their base urges, or those who hold them to higher expectations?
I hope that MNPS understands that not all education takes place in the classroom. Young men and women will be watching to see how both the accusers and the accused are treated. They will be taking cues on how they should behave in the future. Some social mores may be reinforced, while some hopefully will be broken. Let’s not forget our obligation is to provide the best education possible in preparing students for life, and that includes modeling a template for future relationships and conduct.
I’ll close things out with comments on the fight at Overton HS. Fighting in schools is a national problem. A story in Pennsylvania about teachers working in fear just went national this week. NYC has been wrestling with the implementation of restorative practices for several years. It is clear that this is not merely a school problem, but a societal problem. It seems to me that at Tuesday’s meeting, when Mayor Barry asked the board and Dr. Joseph what they need, an honest answer would have been help with student discipline issues. But that wasn’t in the talking points, and we weren’t having an honest conversation. Maybe someday, but until that day, I just pray that conversation doesn’t come after a child or teacher loses their life. Because fights are a lot like honest conversations – once engaged, you never know what the end result will be.
Let’s see if I can’t come up some decent poll questions.
For my first question, I’d like to ask what is your favorite MNPS story for the year so far. I’ve come up with some I thought of, but feel free to write in yours.
Second question, for Thanksgiving dinner… turkey, ham, fish, or something else?
Last question, if you had a chance to brief the mayor on the state of things… what would you tell her? Again I put down some ideas, but feel free to write in your own.
Hope every one has a fantastic holiday! If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I try to promote as many of the things sent to me as possible, but I do apologize if I fall short. I have started using Patreon. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well. Have a great Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you on the flip side.