I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of days pondering exactly what I was going write for this first blog post of the new year. The first order of business is to apologize for the technical issues with last weekend’s poll questions. I wish I had an answer on what went wrong, but alas, I have no answer. Just a prayer that it’ll work again. It’s a shame the poll didn’t work because the few answers that I did receive were trending in a very interesting direction. So much so that we may revisit those questions again this weekend.
Today is the first day of school for Metro Nashville Public Schools. Nashville, like much of the country, is under a deep freeze. Yesterday, teachers went back to work, and reports started to filter out about schools lacking heat and water. Parents, rightfully so, began to question whether or not schools were adequately prepared for children returning to class. The district, per usual, tuned out the noise until about 4pm yesterday when they released a press release where the first line was “You don’t need us to tell you – it’s cold outside.”
No… I don’t need you to tell me it’s cold out, but I do need you to convince me that you are prepared to keep my children safe if they show up. One look at the MNPS Facebook page and you get the sense that not many parents are convinced.
A close reading of the district’s press release raises more questions than answers: “Over the break, we remotely monitored indoor temperatures and potential issues. Crews have worked on these issues and will continue to do so until resolved. With this extreme cold, even if functioning properly, the heating units may not keep the buildings as warm as usual and buses may experience mechanical issues tomorrow.” What exactly is remote monitoring? Obviously, based on this statement, problems are not resolved, so how widespread are problems, and what exactly are they? It would be nice to get a clearer picture.
Also missing from the statement is any form of empathy or acknowledgement of parental concern. We talk about social emotional learning for kids ad nauseam, yet the district is incapable of producing a communication piece that utilizes the basic tenets of SEL. I particularly love the closing: “You can help to prepare students for the cold weather by dressing with warm layers and covering any exposed skin with gloves and hats.” News Flash… those students you are referring to… before they are “students,” they are my kids, and I prepare them for weather conditions every day of their lives. You might want to keep that in mind when communicating with me.
There is a tendency by northern transplants to write off weather complaints in Nashville as soft. “Up north,” they proudly declare, “We go to school in 8 foot drifts.” Well, not so much in Baltimore, where the teacher’s union called for schools to close due to low temperatures and inadequate heating.
I’m not going to comment on whether staying open or closing is the right decision. That’s a conversation that could go back and forth for eternity. But I do have what I feel are some pertinent observations that I’d like to share.
My biggest concern with all of this is the apparent inability of the district to learn and improve on past situations. Schools are supposed to be learning labs. Modeling is one of the most effective forms of education. Higher level critical thinking is a highly desirable educational outcome. So how are we, as adults, modeling critical thinking for students?
This is not the first time the district has faced bad weather challenges. The road to today is littered with bad weather-related decisions. Hell, we were just here last year. Last year’s decision lingered over the remainder of the school year and led to Dr. Joseph being corrected at a principal’s meeting by a local weatherman when he once again tried to defend the district’s actions.
If it was me, I would have looked at the situation, realized the amount of ill will it generated, and developed a plan to ensure things went better the next time. It needs to be recognized that it is as important to win the conversation as it is to make the right decision. How do you win the conversation? By owning the situation. By acknowledging people’s concerns. By being transparent. By having a plan and repeatedly communicating that plan. If the plan goes awry, acknowledge the shortcomings and promise to do better.
Winning the conversation generates goodwill. Goodwill generates support. Support means that all of those consultants and programs that have been purchased have a chance at success. The mission statement of “Being the fastest improving district in the country” is inane in its own right, but without support, it’s impossible.
If you need an example of how to effectively communicate a plan of action, look at Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and Nashville’s strategy for assisting the city’s homeless population during this run of exceptionally low temperatures. The plan is everywhere. You can’t hop on social media for five minutes without receiving a message on what steps the city is taking. The message is clear, concise, and repeated often.
There is a reason why Mayor Barry has an approval rate over 70% despite some very serious challenges. Perhaps instead of talking about new funding during their many talks, Dr. Joseph could ask for a few communication tips. Maybe the Mayor would let Joseph borrow Sean Braisted for a bit, as he seems to have this communication thing figured out and probably wouldn’t misremember nor block teachers.
Twitter is tailor made for delivering real time information. Former Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, wrote the book on the effective usage of Twitter during times of crisis, by repeatedly tweeting out information relaying instructions and how the city was responding. He not only communicated what the city was doing, but also that he was an engaged leader actively addressing citizens’ concerns. I realize not everybody utilizes Twitter, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t utilize the tool, and those who don’t use Twitter are often informed by those who do.
I do have to ask, where is Dr. Joseph in any of this conversation? I haven’t read or seen a single statement from him. People are quick to attribute nefarious motivations to those who dare question him, but I don’t feel that it’s an unfair expectation for him to be visible and actively leading in these circumstances. He can write an email asking me to donate money to the Nashville Public Education Foundation, yet he doesn’t have time to address parental concerns about the effects of adverse weather on our schools? To me, that feels like misplaced priorities.
I see folks making the defense that it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision and that no matter what you do, you won’t make everybody happy. First of all, it’s not about making everybody happy; it is about ultimately doing what’s best for kids. Secondly, that’s not an excuse for doing nothing. I realize that it is an extremely difficult situation, but that’s why the rate of pay for the Director of Schools is 300K. If this stuff was easy, we could pay him a whole lot less.
Remember that critical thinking thing I mentioned earlier? Here’s a chance to model it. Either decision could be the right decision provided you’ve looked at the possible objections and created contingency plans to address them. Parents worried about childcare? Get together with community centers and work on possible plans to utilize those centers. Worried about kids not eating if they are not in school? Get together with local charitable organizations and develop a plan of action in the event of schools needing to be closed. The decision is not simply an open or closed situation.
On a side note, I do take issue with social issues playing such a large role in the decision involving school closures. I am extremely sympathetic to the challenges our kids in poverty face, but this is one more instance where schools are expected to address issues that should be addressed by society. Schools are designed to educate kids, not solve issues related to poverty. Unfortunately, as a society, we’ve become all too comfortable dropping the need for affordable child care, feeding and clothing of children, and to some extent, children’s health on the already strapped shoulders of our schools. It would be like me hiring you to sell widgets and evaluating your performance based on the number of widgets you sell and then expecting you to spend 4 hours a day cleaning the offices. I doubt you’d sell as many widgets as the guy who does nothing but sell widgets all day, and therefore you wouldn’t be seen as a very effective widget salesman.
At some point we as a society have to recognize our responsibility to our most needy citizens. We have to realize that poor doesn’t equal lazy. Poor doesn’t equal unintelligent. We have to recognize the inherent inequities in our society and work together to level the field. If education is a primary means to that, then how about we allow schools to focus on education and not on providing affordable childcare and the feeding and clothing of children?
We love to talk about inequity, yet we continually fail to provide a working definition. In perusing the social media comments on potential school closings, one of the primary suggestions was that if you didn’t feel a school’s facilities were safe for your child, you should just keep them at home. How does this solution not foster and add to the existing inherent inequities? Which parents will keep their kids home? Which kids will be forced to attend? Will those kids forced to attend take note of those not at school? What message will this communicate to those children? We have to think deeper about what inequity means and the potentially unintentional consequences of our actions.
My last observation is if you read all the comments on social media, you get a deeper appreciation for how diverse an urban school district really is. There are comments that reflect my beliefs and then there are some that express views that are completely foreign to me. I am always amazed that despite these completely disparate views, schools are able to carve out a lane that serves the majority of our kids. The trick is to widen that lane and perhaps recognize when it’s not best serving kids. That can only happen through open engagement and communication, neither in abundant supply. It should be noted that school board member Christiane Buggs has put the question to her Facebook readers and received a wide spectrum of replies, and she deserves commendations for doing so. More of this is needed.
Here’s another quick leadership tip: know your troops. On December 27, MNPS leadership sent out a Save the Date email to teachers about the next round of Educator Voice Sessions. The first one will take place… wait for it… Monday! The ones in other quadrants will be held on the 10th, 11th, and 13th. Apparently, district leadership is laboring under a few misconceptions. They assume all teachers actually look at email during break and that teachers only plan a week out at a time and therefore don’t need much advance notice. The other misconception is that these first three days of school will be so smooth that teachers will be ripe for another photo op.
Times were not included in the initial email. I think you have to go out to the cemetery, turn around three times while chanting, “All is well,” and then an owl will deliver a note that will self destruct in 30 seconds after revealing the scheduled time. In all seriousness, teachers, if you can, please attend, and while in attendance, please share your thoughts on the literacy plan and discipline policy. In talking to you, those are the two biggest issues I hear about and others need to hear what I hear.
Did you know that it’s now illegal to use your cell phone in a school zone? Starting January 1, talking on a cell phone while driving in an active school zone is no longer allowed. Let the countdown to my first ticket begin. No way am I sitting in a 30-minute car line without checking Twitter.
The MNPS School Choice Festival is coming up on January 10th. Personally, I am no fan of the school choice process, but I do recognize that many parents find the festival extremely informational.
Tennessee State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen feels positive about how education in Tennessee went last year. Do you agree?
If you’re looking for something to feel positive about, I encourage you to follow IT Creswell Middle Arts on Twitter. No shortage of positive things coming out of that school.
I have a great deal of respect for Waverly-Belmont Principal Susan Blankenship. I suspect you will too after reading the latest edition of #MNPSVoices.
If you haven’t started reading the Hillsboro Globe yet… I’d make it your New Year’s Resolution.
There is a growing awareness of the correlation between attendance and academic performance. Communities in Schools is at the forefront of offering solutions. That’s former MNPS communication specialist Hank Clay leading the charge.
Blogger and educator Nancy Bailey has 101 wishes for children in 5 words or less… here is to hoping most come true.
When it comes to literacy, it seems that Nashville Classical is doing some solid work. Kudos to them. I wonder if they could get a ProjectLit book club going. I’d come.
The Metro Office of English Learners is partnering with Nashville Community Ed in offering MNPS educators a 6-week courses covering basic Spanish.
Nashville Rise will be holding its First Annual 2018 Parent Engagement Kick-Off Event on January 20 from 10:30 am – 12:30 pm. Mark your calendar.
That’s it for now. Stay warm. 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.