“A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
“It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings; we need to view one another as fellow Americans. And for that we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts – old and young, immigrant and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners.”
It’s oft been written that people are not fond of uncertainty, nor do they like change. In America, we’ve been raised to believe that we are all masters of our own destiny and capable of being anything we want to be. The current pandemic is taking those concepts and slamming them against reality like pool balls on green felt.
Yesterday, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee held a press conference to address issues with the ongoing coronavirus crisis. As part of this press conference, he recommended schools close until April 24. The press conference was followed up by a press release from Tennessee’s education commissioner Penny Schwinn.
“This is an unprecedented time for our country and state and we thank Governor Lee for his leadership in protecting the health and wellbeing of Tennessee’s students and teachers. We know school closures represent a significant disruption for families and students and the recommendation to extend them has not been considered lightly.”
“The Department of Education team will continue to work closely with our districts as they serve students and families during this time. We are committed to doing whatever we can to support our district leaders as they make the necessary decisions to ensure students can continue to access critical meal and other services, as well as receive high-quality academic instruction while they are out of school.”
“Even in the midst of these challenges, we have seen an incredible outpouring from districts, schools, and teachers going above and beyond to ensure students continue to have access to food and have the supports they need to continue learning. This is a huge testament to our resilience as a state and the dedication of our educators and leaders.”
School districts across the state quickly fell in line in voicing their commitment to adherence. Schools in Tennessee will be shuttered until the end of April at a minimum.
As that reality sets in, school leaders scramble and struggle to create normalcy out of an abnormal situation that has yet to stabilize.
It’s always been my opinion that one of the biggest struggles for leaders is the issue of control. Often control is mistaken for leadership. Instead of leading, leaders attempt to exert control over situations, people, and outcomes – unfortunately, we now find ourselves in circumstances that defy control.
This isn’t meant to be critical of commissioner Schwinn, her efforts to ensure that all children are fed are greatly appreciated, but that’s where she should have stopped making promises.
For the foreseeable future, kids are not going to receive “high-quality” academic instruction while they are out of school” and personally I don’t think they should.
We are in the midst of an ongoing traumatic event, as such, it is impossible to predict how it is affecting students, teachers, and families. To impose an agenda that focuses on anything but assisting in easing that trauma is insensitive and presumptuous.
What we are currently facing is not a clearly defined challenge that comes with a beginning and an end but rather a fluid ever-evolving situation of which we are experiencing new elements daily. Trying to act as if this is some normal situation in which a lack of formalized instruction is viewed as the primary detriment belies the challenges that students, teachers, and families are facing at home.
This crisis affects every individual differently.
Some have comfortable houses to hunker down in while others are confined to overcrowded apartments.
Some may have well-stocked pantries, while others are dependent on MNPS’s food deliveries.
Some may have hi-speed WiFi, while others only have access to a smartphone with an inadequate data plan.
In some households, parents may be trying to maintain employment while telecommuting while others in the household are struggling to deal with recent unemployment.
In some houses, nobody may be infected, while in others, family’s are dealing with sick relatives and a fear that sickness may turn into death.
We have a tendency to believe that our experience is the common experience, as I’ve said before that is seldom true. To think that by merely flipping a switch, students, families, and yes even teachers, can overcome these circumstances and plop down in front of a digital platform and perform at a high level is disingenuous, deceptive, and insensitive.
Over the weekend, the USDOE issued a fact sheet in an effort to create normalcy where none exists. The sheet seems to give permission to ignore the needs of children who don’t have access to technology, ELA kids, and those who require, and have been granted special accommodations,
At the outset, OCR and OSERS must address a serious misunderstanding that has recently circulated within the educational community. As school districts nationwide take necessary steps to protect the health and safety of their students, many are moving to virtual or online education (distance instruction). Some educators, however, have been reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education. This is simply not true. We remind schools they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities. Rather, school systems must make local decisions that take into consideration the health, safety, and well-being of all their students and staff.
I find this highly problematic on a number of levels. At the very least, depending on how the current lock down plays out, this has the potential to undo years of progress in closing the achievement gap. I’ve already seen social media posts with parents of special needs children expressing resignation that this year will result in their child falling even further behind their classmates. That shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.
Yesterday I scrolled through my social media feed and viewed pictures of students participating in formalized online classes while I also witnessed parents voicing their frustration with trying to balance work at home obligations with providing home school instruction for their kids. That’s not equity.
Just because parents demand it and they have access to the technology to make it happen, does not make it the right course of action. Trying to create normalcy at a time of transition will hurt as many kids as those it helps. Again, depending on the duration of the quarantine, the damage done could be insurmountable.
To be clear, I’m not advocating doing nothing. Creating a structure at home is extremely beneficial to some kids. A little reading, writing, arithmetic, a day never hurt anybody and most districts along with the TNDOE have supplied information on resources that could be helpful. But none of that should supersede making sure that additional challenges and inequities aren’t foisted on the already overburdened shoulders of teachers and students.
Here’s the other reality. Schwinn makes the commitment to providing kids the supports they need to continue their learning, a promise I’d like to hear repeated when kids return to school. Unfortunately in Tennessee, March and April learning is curtailed in favor of testing, be it preparation work or the actual testing.
For ELL kids, March means several weeks of WIDA testing. Between tornados and now the pandemic, many of these kids did not get to complete this years testing. This is a huge deal, because the exiting of ELL services is dependent on WIDA test scores. Exiting ELL services puts a student on an entirely different academic trajectory and makes increased options available. The failure to complete testing is especially problematic for kids in 5th and 6th grade, failure to exit puts them on an entirely different educational path.
While everybody scrambles to employ distance learning, I’ve heard nary a mention of this potentially disastrous situation. I’m confident that the people in MNPS’s EL office are trying to develop a solution, but I hope they are getting the level of support that this situation warrants. Instead of people focusing on creating inequitable distance learning policies, they should be ensuring that the easily dismissed are not forgotten.
A significant number of students were on a pathway to pass WIDA this year and as a result, prepared to embrace the educational opportunities that they would be newly qualified to receive. To deny them those opportunities due to present circumstances while we focus on distance learning, would border on the criminal as it would add to the substantial challenges these students already face.
WIDA testing serves as an example go how we must not let short term solutions impede future considerations. Not just with students, but across the board. This is an area that MNPS’s Director of Schools Dr. Battle has excelled in and I much appreciate her thoughtful leadership.
Throughout this time of uncertainty, Dr. Battle has attempted to balance short term solutions with an eye turned forward. At some point, true normalcy will return and in that light, it’s critical that in the attempt to create a temporary normalcy we don’t hamper our long term recovery. Unfortunately, not all of the district leaders have shared her big picture vision.
I keep hearing rumblings of principals asking that teachers log time spent working on school issues and email it in. I would ask, to what end?
It’s not like most teachers sat around pre-employment thinking, “What’ll I be, a plumber, and insurance salesman, or teacher? Hmmm…teaching means long hours, less pay than the others, and an endless supply mandates. Why I’ll be a teacher of course.”
Teaching spoke to something inside teachers. It appealed to their love of children and desire of service. We’ve beaten a lot of them but those core desires still remain intact. It is impossible to effectively manage people if you don’t recognize and respect their motivations.
You may find a teacher or two is taking advantage of the situation and treating it like a vacation, but those are the outliers. Let me assure you most are like my wife, whom I’ve come upon crying at least twice a day. They miss the kids, they miss the structure, they miss the daily discoveries.
They miss the kids that after months of struggle were now finally having things click into place, but since school is closed, they are at risk.
They miss the kids who push them daily in their quest for greater knowledge.
They miss the kids that have overcome so much to get here and are now at risk of falling backwards.
They miss the kids, each and everyone of them.
All year long we talk about the importance of social-emotional learning yet when faced with a traumatic event that calls for its utilization, we act as if it is some long-forgotten tale from the past and not a much-needed tool of the present.
This is not a time for mandates and accountability measures, but rather a time to support in order that others can be supported. This is not a time to start crafting plans for next year while having no idea what next year looks like, but rather to reassure people that all of this is temporary and that sometime in the relatively near future there will be a time to establish new normalcy.
At present teachers are spending most of their day reaching out to their students in an effort to recognize and reassure. In addition, they are recommending books to read and other available resources. Some are holding unofficial Zoom chats or crafting school newsletters. Others are writing cards and emails to students. Several are working on songs and other works of art, in an effort to reach and teach students.
Some teachers are busy trying to create a version of home school for their own children. Some are making sure that their children aren’t becoming terrified. Some are simply resting in preparation for upcoming challenges.
All the aforementioned are appropriate and needed actions. The name of the game needs to be cooperations, not competition.
When the time comes to craft the new normalcy, it is going to require some heavy lifting. We are going to want people ready and rested, not frayed and exhausted from trying to present some fleeting impression of normalcy. In order for that to happen, now is the time to support and suggest, not to demand and measure.
It’s clear that Dr. Battle gets this, but she can’t be the only one. I have previously made the observation that Dr. Battle is poised to change the culture of MNPS, the only question that remains is, will we let her?
Will district leaders follow her lead or will they continue to implement the strategies that have long contributed to the district’s toxic culture. Will they buy into her nurturing nature or will they continue to bully and cajole in order to hold unto some perceived level of control? Will they embrace the future or cling to past strategies that only serve to hamstring district performance? What the future looks like will be dependent on those decisions. Dr. Battle has laid out a path forward, now others must decide whether they will follow it or not.
No amount of pretending will make this the new normal. Schools may reopen in late April or we may see an unprecedented loss of life between now and then. Nobody knows what tomorrow looks like, let alone three months from now.
That means in the meantime we need to heed the immortal words of the Kinks Ray Davies, “Stop! Hold on. Stay in control”
Taking action should never supersede taking the right action. Right now the only action is supporting and nurturing each other and ourselves. The next steps will become clearer further down the road when we have more information. Till then focus on taking care of yourself and others.
DOWN A REPORTER AND A TV JOURNALIST
Bittersweet new arrived this week as long time Tennessean Education Journalist Jason Gonzales announced that he would be leaving to take a position with ChalkbeatCO. Jason is from Colorado, so this is not unlike James Franklin leaving Vanderbilt for Penn State. His long term significant other, Emmy award-winning News5 journalist Blayke Roznowski, will be making the transition out west with him.
Jason and I didn’t always agree. I thought he ignored some major issues during the Joseph administration and empowered retired school board member Will Pinkston way too much. Ironically Pinkston used Gonzales’s announcement of his pending departure as another opportunity to spew his bile. Hopefully, one or two remaining friends of Pinkston are using this quarantine time to plan some sort of intervention in order to prevent his continued toxifying of Nashville.
Despite my occasional disagreements with Gonzales, my shared lunches with him are cherished experiences and memories. He worked hard while here and did his best to offer an accurate picture as he saw it, all the while treating everybody with as much respect as possible. That’s really all you can ask.
He will be missed in Nashville, and once Colorado gets him back in their grasp, they won’t be letting him go any time soon. So long my friend, and thanks for the fishes.
Apparently, mailers promoting the governor’s voucher program have been hitting the mailboxes of Nashville and Memphis residents. Reportedly they began arriving amidst school closings and before the budget was passed. The only comment I can make is…for shame. Pushing vouchers in the middle of a pandemic puts policy over people when it should be the inverse. Doing so provides the perpetrator with a reservation for a special place in hell.
As previously mentioned, MNPS has created a list of resources for students and families. It’s a comprehensive list that includes offerings for everyone. Thank you MNPS!
Louisiana is in the process of looking for a new state education superintendent. This is important for Tennessee because over the last decade what was implemented in LA was often emulated in TN. LA Educator Mercedes Schneider provides a thumbnail sketch on the finalists and surprisingly there is a glimmer of hope, along with cause for alarm.
Metro Schools will continue to partner with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee for family food box distribution. The Community Achieves staff will continue to coordinate with community partners to find opportunities to support families during the public health crisis. Families in need of food assistance should contact Second Harvest directly or call the United Way’s helpline at 2-1-1.
That’s it for now, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.
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