A RAMPANT FEVER

“How many people have never raised their hand before?”
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

“Don’t just teach your children to read…
Teach them to question what they read.
Teach them to question everything.”
George Carlin

 

It is pretty safe to say that Nashville has a bad case of Titan’s fever and Saturday night just raised the city’s collective temperature. Riding the incredible Derek Henry – the first player to ever record over 185 yards rushing in 3 straight games – the Titan’s ran the heavily favored Baltimore Ravens right out of their own house by the score of 28 – 12. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a football game that was that much fun. Only the Chiefs stand between the Titans and a trip to Miami for Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2. Let’s Titan Up!.

Unfortunately, Titan fever isn’t the only fever that’s running rampant through Nashville. It seems that MNPS’s principals are also feeling increasingly under the weather. This week saw another one resign from their leadership post due to health issues.

Over the weekend the staff of A.Z. Kelley received an email from their principal Heather Bethrum informing them of her intention to relinquish her position due to health issues. Bethrum is not the first MNPS principal to do so this school year, Erin Anderson of Oliver resigned her position just a couple months ago.

Both Anderson and Bethrum – through their own actions or outside factors – had lost the support of the majority of their staff. As a result, both schools suffered and needlessly lost talent. Talent that for months cried out for help from the district. Help that only materialized after things deteriorated.

Bethrum was hired by Dr. Joseph back in the 2017 – 2018 school year. She came to MNPS via the Indian River School District. Early indications were that she was a talented administrator. I’m not trying to be facetious or insensitive, and I hope both do what’s best for them, but two principals resigning mid-year due to health concerns raises a few red flags for me.

In the past, both teachers and principals viewed the school year as sacred ground. If you committed to a school and it’s students for a school year, you pretty much did whatever it took to complete that assignment. Unfortunately, it seems the rules are changing and educators are leaving mid-year with increasing frequency. I recently heard of one teacher who went as far as to notify a principal at 8 AM the morning of the first day back from winter break of their intent not to return.

On Friday at the MNPS School Board retreat, I listened as TSBA Tammy Grissom spoke on the growing teacher shortage – describing it as “national issue”. Making it a national issue always makes me nervous because it gives cover to ignore the local element in those attrition rates. Yes, it’s a national issue but what are we doing as a local entity to mitigate the situation. No matter how you slice it, the answer continually comes up as not enough.

Over the last several years there has been a great deal of focus on the importance of having a quality principal at the head of every school. There has been no shortage of research into what makes a “good” principal and many private companies have upped their bottom line by training principals in those attributes. What I haven’t seen a lot of research on is the importance of placing the right principal in the right school.

Over the past decade of watching school issues unfold, I’ve come to appreciate the art form that is principal placement. Experience has shown me that matching a principal’s skill set with the right school is every bit as important as the inherent skills possed by the principal. Unfortunately, I seem to be a minority in this observation as over the past 3 years I’ve repeatedly watched principals placed in what are obviously untenable positions and as a result, be labeled a bad leader.

In my opinion, that does everybody a disservice. I have witnessed principals that have struggled at one school be absolute rock stars at another. I’ve also seen the opposite.

It’s not just a level of tiers – high school, middle school, elementary – either, though that obviously comes into play. There are so many intangibles that come into play with leadership that it’s hard to isolate individual traits that will ensure success. Sure there are the basic skills – transparency, ability to communicate, honestly, preparedness – but the list shouldn’t stop there. There are intangible to every principal position that makes one candidate better equipped than another and it is up to district leadership to identify and address those intangibles.

A big part of leadership is putting people in positions where they can succeed. It’s also adjusting when it’s clear that they are not in the right place. Adjusting before the person has to be fired or quit is equally as important as providing support.  Anderson and Bethrum are not the only two principals who are struggling this year. They are only the latest two casualties of a system that is not responsive enough to the needs of our schools.

I have long argued that whenever an employee is fired or quits, it is as much on their direct manager as it is on the employee. The manager either failed to identify the traits needed to successfully do the job, failed to communicate the vision and goals of the job, or failed to offer proper supports and resources. As such, it’s important that a 360 evaluation takes place and focus is paid equally to management’s role in the employee’s departure in order to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Anderson and Bethrun are also not the only two health-related departures over the last 3 years, there have been several others. Being a principal is a highly stressful job – stress negatively affects personal health – and it’s imperative that attention is paid to the level of stress these building leaders are exposed to, in the same manner, that we have to pay attention to the amount of stress being placed on classroom teachers.

If learning is supposed to a joyous exercise, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to make schools joyful places?

CHANGES IN NON_NEGOTIABLES

At last week’s principal meeting, the guidelines for next year’s school-based budgets were rolled out. This year there are a few changes.

In the past, it was required that every school have an LTDS, in other words, a literacy coach (which by the way MNPS is reverting back to that title). It was also required that every school has a gifted and talented specialist as well – we call those AARTS and they guide gifted and talented education throughout the school.

This year it is not mandatory that every school has a literacy coach, though each school must designate a point person for literacy. If that person is not the coach, a stipend must be paid to the designee to serve in that role.

This move has been met with mixed feelings. Many principals like it because it gives them flexibility, and to be honest, not all coaches were effective. Others feel that by removing the non-negotiable status from coaches in turn you deemphasize literacy instruction.  I think both arguments have merit, but there continues to be an elephant in the room that we fail to address.

The job description for literacy coaches has always been a little vague and the district has done little to ensure that principals are utilizing them in the way the district envisions. It’s not uncommon to find literacy coaches spending their time serving as test proctors, substitute teachers, defacto administrators albeit without the authority, and any number of other jobs that make a school function but don’t actually contribute to higher literacy outcomes.

Coches have routinely been placed in a position where they are perceived by teachers as being the eyes and ears for both central office and building administrators. As a result, it is difficult to acquire the needed trust in order to be effective. To be fair, some literacy coaches have embraced the role of a compliance officer, which also hurts the position across the board.

I would argue that a more clear definition of duties and expectations coupled with ensuring that coaches are used in the prescribed manner would go further toward producing greater literacy than making the existence of the position a negotiable or non-negotiable.

Furthermore, MNPS over the last 3 years – due to poor leadership and shifting responsibilities – has lost many talented literacy experts. As a result, the current pool is a little short on talent and experience. Focusing on rectifying both of those elements would also go a long way towards instilling confidence in the position.

The third ingredient would be a clear literacy plan that has lots of “how” and “why” and not just “what”. At the recent board retreat, it was brought up that much of what MNPS does going forth is contingent on the state’s current adoption of ELA materials process. I think that’s a legitimate concern due to some of the TNDOE’s recent remarks around literacy development.

The ENCORE positions are a whole another can of worms. The problems with gifted education are well known throughout the district – 2/3 of the district’s students are Hispanic or Black, yet less than 1/3 of the gifted program are Black or Hispanic students. In our schools with less economically disadvantaged students, ENCORE designation has taken on social status. It’s not uncommon in those schools to have classrooms with 21 kids and 18 qualify for ENCORE. Meanwhile, schools with more economically disadvantaged kids struggle to have 18 kids identified in the whole school.

First of all, in my opinion, there needs to be a clearer definition between what qualifies as “gifted” and what qualifies as “really smart”. Despite being two completely different things, strategies for serving both are often intermingled, to the detriment of both.

The TNDOE defines gifted as follows,

“Intellectually gifted” means4 a child whose intellectual abilities, creativity, and potential for achievement are so outstanding that the child’s needs exceed differentiated general education programming, adversely affects educational performance, and requires specifically designed instruction or support services. Children from all populations (e.g., all cultural, racial, and ethnic groups, English learners, all economic strata, twice-exceptional, etc.) can be found to possess these abilities.

Based on that definition, it follows that one school should not have a disproportionate number of identified students compared to another based on the number of EL students or economically disadvantaged students served. The district simply needs to do a better job of identifying those students that qualify.

A couple years ago the district employed a multi-screener screener that increased substantially the number of students identified. The following year that screener was abandoned based on cost. Let’s be honest, there is an impression that “gifted” students will do well no matter what, so little emphasis is placed on the importance of identification and service of gifted children. That has to be changed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, one failing of MNPS’s gifted and talented program is that they’ve never done a great job of communicating their value. As a result, there is a lack of appreciation of the services provided and the program often serves as a political football. The truth is ENCORE teachers, despite a trimming of the pool much like what’s transpired with literacy coaches, are among the best in the district and serve a vital function.

It’s impossible for me to predict the impact of these budgetary changes made by Dr. Battle. My overall sense is that it is probably a good starting point and if there is a follow up that addresses the other needs, these could be positive moves.

Of course, it all could be a moot point if Dr. Battle fails to secure the permanent position and a new director comes in and completely changes things again. Once again, creating more instability.

That’s kind of the conundrum that we live in these days. We are now far enough removed from Dr. Joseph’s tenure that it is crystal clear that changes need to be made, but as interim, making those changes is an extremely difficult proposition for Dr. Battle. Thank god board chair Anna Shepherd recognized the conflict and is moving the board to expediently provide a remedy.

QUICK HITS

Education writer Peter Greene has some very valuable advice for teachers, especially those questioning their impact. Teaching is hard work and results are not always immediately seen and it’s not uncommon for those in the classroom to become overwhelmed and dispirited. Greene has a number of things that teachers need to remember in those trying times. He’s a veteran of 39 years in the classroom, so he knows of whence he speaks.

Many MNPS teachers are reporting issues with their first paycheck of the year. Problems include, but are not limited to, deductions, vacation time, and rate. It’s not going to make anybody feel better but most of the issues are a result of Metro Governments’ conversion to the R12 system. All Metro employees are affected by the current system issues. The pay raise itself will be reflected in January 24th’s paycheck. MNEA continues to be on top of the issues and more information can be found on their Facebook page.

State Representative John Ray Clemmons is continuing to use his superpowers for good. He plans to introduce a bill this state legislative session that would ban schools from taking actions against students who can’t pay for their lunches or those with lunch debt. “What this bill would do is protect the children and ensure that they are being fed and not discriminated against. This is ultimately an anti-bullying, anti-discrimination piece of legislation,” said Clemmons. This is something we can get behind. Hopefully, the third time is the charm, as Clemmons has brought this bill forward twice before and it failed to pass.

The deadline to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is Feb. 1- complete the application online at fafsa.gov. Reach out to your school counselor with questions.

On Friday the MNPS School Bord began to outline what next year’s budget may look like. I’m encouraged this year because board chair Anna Shepherd is indicating that she plans to push the board to bring a budget that reflects what the school district needs, as opposed to recent years when the budget was based on what the Mayor indicated they could have, “We weren’t brave enough to bring (Council) a fully-funded budget last year because, quite frankly, they all would have a stroke.” Let’s see how this plays out, it’s worth noting that this aligns with recent recommendations from the Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce Reportcard committee.

Did you know Diane Ravitch has a new book coming out? She’s also going on a book tour. I’m hoping that if I keep plugging the book she’ll send me a complimentary autographed copy. A boy can dream, right?

SURVEY SAYS

All right…I readily admit last week’s survey questions weren’t the strongest and I’ll try to do better. Let’s look at the results though.

The first question asked, Do you think charter schools in the ASD should be turned over to state charter authority for governance? 36% of you believed they belong under local control while 16% indicated that the charter authority might be the best place for them. Me…I’m just hoping the TNDOE comes up with and communicates a coherent plan. Yea, my expectations may be a little high.  Here are the write-ins,

Local control and some serious regulatory lawmaking is needed 1
Who’s finding them? 1
How does the money work for LEPs if we give charters to the state charter autho. 1
Charters are a scam. Selectively choosing your students creates ALCs elsewhere!! 1
Shut them down 1
Who is paying the tab???

Question 2, was what movie trilogy would you like to see completed? Yea…I know…the number one answer was Bad Moms with the soon to be opening Bad Boys coming in second. Here are the write-ins,

Bill Purcell’s third term 1
no opinion 1
hope a lack of step raises doesn’t become a trilogy. Mayor better raise taxes! 1
Which ever short book Peter Jackson can turn into a 10-12 hour trilogy. 1
No opinion

Last question, will you be participating in the upcoming school choice process. Not surprisingly, 67% of you said not in the least, with only 12% for the affirmative. Here are those write-ins,

Done with that hot mess. 1
My kids are in private school but we do tbe lottery every year in case 1
Two more teachers at my school ‘chose’ to leave our building this week. UGH!!! 1
If I had a child in school, you bet! 1
My son is already attending one of those detested charted schools. 1
Doesn’t apply to me 1

That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support throughout the year. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do.

You can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

 

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