“When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.”
“That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.”
On Monday, Tennessee’s governor Bill Lee extended his stay-at-home order until the end of April. That means another 2 weeks of people remaining in their homes only venturing out for essential trips to the grocery store or the pharmacist. It’s an order that people have been following with varying degrees of compliance. But even those that are strictly adhering to the executive order are beginning to chafe after weeks of isolation.
Humans are social creatures. We like routines and schedules. We collectively continually struggle to exercise control over both Mother Nature and fate itself. The French writer Voltaire once commented, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.” or as he is more commonly quoted, “If God didn’t exist, man would feel the need to invent him.”
Scholars have debated for centuries what he meant by those lines. To me, they’ve always reflected our desire to seek an explanation for the inexplicable. Words that play out now more than ever.
Mike Tyson used to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well over the last 6 weeks the coronavirus has been continually punching us in the mouth and signs point to that continuing for the foreseeable future.
Aa long as the punches are falling there will be no normalcy. We can’t go to the back pages of the novel and read the ending either. The story is still being written.
We have no idea what life will look like next year. We have no idea if the virus will be in our rearview mirror, or if the calendar will be routinely broken up by heightened periods of social distance practices brought on by new flare ups. We have no idea what the economy will look like, we can try and guess at the losses, but those will stay remain just that, guesses.
With everything in constant flux, our emotional and mental states are continually under attack. Every one of us is filled with increased anxiety, fear for the future, and is searching for a balance in a world that is shedding realities at an alarming rate.
Think back to just 6 weeks ago. Could you have envisioned a world were supermarkets shelves are depleted of essentials? Where shoppers wear masks to protect themselves? A world where you couldn’t hug loved ones? In the past, when families gathered participants were often admonished to put away their devices, now we find family members huddled around computers just to snag a glimpse of each other.
The point is, what we perceive as reality is in perpetual and rapid evolution right now. An evolution that is being dictated by a virus over which we have no control. Trying to create normalcy out of such a rapidly changing environment is a fool’s errand. In the near future, our perception of normalcy will be broken and reconstructed several times over. Our ability to adapt will become more important than ever.
Instead of focusing on creating castles on ever-shifting sands, we need to focus on the things we have the most control over – how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. Realize that some days will be exceptionally productive and some days you’ll just be maintaining. When I first started working from home, I was in a constant state of high-anxiety. It took me almost a year to allow for the ebb and flow of life to reassert itself.
We need to focus on maintaining and strengthening those relations that give us strength and comfort. Pick up the phone and call someone, just to let them know you are thinking about them. Write a letter to a friend to let them know what they mean to you. Don’t be afraid to reach out and share if you are feeling, scared, lonely, or angry. Hell don’t be afraid to reach out if you are feeling happy, confident, or joyous. Support yourself and others through daily contact.
Keeping ourselves healthy and whole is more important right now than establishing routine, certainty, or…normalcy. Rest assured, there ain’t nothing normal about any of this.
SCHOOLS CLOSED FOR YEAR
On the heels of extending his stay-at-home orders, on Wednesday Governor Lee announced his recommendation that schools close for the remainder of the year. By the end of the day, most schools across Tennessee, including MNPS, indicated that they would heed his advice. And just like that, the school year evaporated.
The move was not without anticipation, but something about the confirmation made it all the more depressing. I don’t think it can be understated how much teachers care about their students, and the students about their teachers. The sudden rendering of these relationships is cause for a great deal of trauma, on both sides, and should have been treated with a lot more care and supports in place.
Despite having weeks to plan for an inevitable occurrence, too many questions were left lingering. As expressed by the Bellevue Middle School Facebook page,
Well. It is sad news to share, but we won’t be back together this school year. There are a lot of questions like:
How do we get our stuff out of our lockers?
How do we turn in textbooks?
Can we get our instruments?
Will we have 8th grade promotion?
When will we get 3rd quarter report cards?
And so many more….
She went on to reassure students that administrators were hard at work crafting answers to those questions and more, but the question remains, why were answers not readily available.
Dr. Battle, who is doing a commendable job under the most adverse conditions imaginable, sent out an email that in one paragraph calls schools off while promising further degrees of accountability,
Beginning April 27, families can expect to see stronger engagement and a more structured learning environment across all district-run schools. This enhanced learning environment will not include required graded materials or attendance that counts towards a student’s record, but it will involve more accountability and tracking of student outcomes in the interest of developing personalized plans for the success for each student.
Huh? School is officially over, but 3 weeks before it would have naturally ended we are going to start grading practices? Because that’s what “more accountability and tracking of student outcomes in the interest of developing personalized plans for the success for each student” is – grades.
Even worse, the communication states that the administration has a plan, but will wait until Friday to deliver it.
If there is indeed a plan, and I have no reason to believe there isn’t, details should have been delivered on Wednesday. What invariably takes place now, is that while waiting for the official plan, stakeholders will create their own plans and I guarantee you they won’t seamlessly align with the plans of the district.
In my eyes the problem is, as I mentioned earlier, that we are continuing to try and serve two masters. We keep trying to craft the new normal when we should be casting our eyes forward.
I seldom agree with Education writer Robert Pondiscio, but his latest piece nails it,
Start with the obvious: To throw all or even most of our efforts into remote learning is “shoe bomber” planning, responding to the last attack instead of anticipating the next one. Twenty-one states have already closed schools for the remainder of the year. It is a fantasy to believe that we can stem the effects of months without real school by ginning up instructional capacity on the fly in unfamiliar forms in the midst of a public health crisis. By all means, distribute devices and attack the digital divide. Signal to apprehensive students and parents that education must go on, keep kids attached, and strive for normalcy. Schools that have found ways to continue high-value instruction deserve attention and praise. But let’s not gull ourselves into thinking this is some sort of durable solution. It’s an emergency response, nothing more.
Amen, at this juncture it’s important that we start focusing on planning the start of the new school year. While what happens in May is not unimportant, it can’t take precedent over being prepared for August, September, October, November, December, and the rest of the 2020/2021 school year.
Wrap up this school year with as much closure as possible. As part of that wrap-up, I would recommend trying to find a means of creating a district-wide event that allows teachers and students an opportunity to reconnect and bid farewell to each other over the summer. It’s poor practice to pay homage to relationship and then just sever then without acknowledgment.
On a personal note, a five-year relationship with Tusculum Elementary School just came to an unceremonious end for my family. The role that Tusculum and its teacher played in the lives of children’s development can not be understated. Yet now it’s over as my youngest moves to Oliver and we are provided no opportunity to thank those teachers and administrators and say a final good-bye to classmates he will never see again. It’s traumatic and should be recognized as such.
Other loose ends also need tieing up. In wrapping up this school year, we should error on the side of benefitting the student. Among the TNBOE’s recently passed emergency rules is one that freezes student grades on the March 21 deadline unless a student has an opportunity to increase scores through distance learning. It is a ludicrous rule and shows clear favoritism towards students enrolled in private schools, charter schools, or those who attend schools in smaller wealthier districts. The pandemic should not be utilized as a means to further inequities.
As noted by Paul von Hippel of the University of Texas at Austin, parents “are even more unequal than technology.” The child spending these weeks sequestered at home with two college-educated parents with flexible work schedules and the bandwidth to supervise and contribute to learning will get more help and enrichment than a single parent with three children and a high-school education. “We’ve known since the 1966 Coleman Report that families are much more unequal than schools,” von Hippel wrote in Education Next. “We’re about to see what happens when we turn up the volume on families and turn it down on schools.”
Candice McQueen, the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education who now leads the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) offers a prescription that all districts should be filling. She sees multiple possible plans for next year,
“We’re back in brick and mortar; we are fully virtual for some period of time; or we’re in some hybrid approach. Leaders need to take a blank sheet of paper now and say, ‘What would we do in each of these scenarios?’ Let’s staff and hire differently for what we think we will need. And let’s give people the right job description, training, and support for what we need them to do.”
I wholeheartedly concur. District leaders should be compiling plans based on 4 or 5 possible scenarios. Are students back in brick and mortar full time? Do we engage in a hybrid model – 3 days brick and mortar, 2 days distance learning? Do social distancing protocols call for splitting up daily attendance by grade level – in the wake of the recent tornadoes, Wilson county schools have already experimented with this scenario? Do we have school in brick and mortar fashion for one month followed by a month of distant learning? What other scenarios are possible?
Each plan needs to be reviewed and added to weekly until we get a better picture of what the future holds. But it all begins with a robust inventory. What resources do we currently have? What resources will be needed? What trainings are required? When will those trainings be conducted? By whom? And so on.
I further agree with Pandiscio’s warnings,
De-emphasizing what can be done to advance learning right now have brought howls of derision in some quarters, particularly when the perception exists that districts would prefer no learning to inequitable instruction. But the decision is more sensible and defensible when considering how little can be reasonably accomplished under emergency circumstances versus the prodigious foreseeable challenges that lie ahead. Plans to make up for lost time require urgency, but should avoid complexity and stay well within the talents and capacity of existing staff. Adding complexity to a teacher’s job and stealing time away from the urgent task of remediation should be set aside.
Closing schools for the year was a painful move but the right one. Not it’s imperative that we don’t suffer that pain for naught. Let’s shift our focus to getting it right for next year.
Not only did schools end with a pfft this year, but so did the 27 year career of MNPS administrator Tony Majors. Faced with a Metro audit that confirmed he had a conflict of interest and had used his position with MNPS to benefit that conflict – RBI Basebal – Majors chose to retire instead of face disciplinary action.
Over those 27 years, Majors did a lot of good, both as a principal at Glencliff HS and as a key central office figure. However, he was also instrumental in crafting a discipline policy that has proven extremely ineffective and has been a major contributer to high turnover rates for metro teachers over the past two years. It’ll be interesting to see what’s next for Majors.
At this point, there is no word on how his pension will be affected by his sudden retirement.
Remember when I told you to keep an eye out for the Florida Virtual School expansion? Lo and behold, the state of Alaska didn’t listen and in the middle of the night they signed a half-million-dollar contract with VSF for distance learning opportunities. Currently there are 80 students enrolled in the program but expect that number to grow.
The contract comes after a conversation between Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Bush is the creator of the education reform group, Chiefs for Change which counts TN Commissioner Penny Schwinn as a member. Keep an eye out Tennessee.
PET executive director JC Bowman has written a letter to Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that is filled with a number of quality recommendations. But it also comes with a warning that I believe bears repeating,
We advocate that the Lee Administration put Tennessee First. Our state government should not contract with any group or organization not based in Tennessee for services or products. Most services needed can readily be provided here in Tennessee. We will see an influx of people, groups and businesses who will be enticed by the allure of state and federal money These entities may move into our state and may lack the prerequisite buy-in, or commitment to our state. As a key stakeholder, we are committed to seeing our state succeed, and our economy return.
MNEA also has written a response to the governor’s recommendation to close schools. The statement calls for “Governor Lee to do more to support educators as we(teachers) continue to make sure the educational, physical, and emotional needs of Tennessee’s children are met.” Tru dat.
This week the Jackson-Madison County School System board selected Marlon King as its superintendent. King has been the Fayette County Public Schools superintendent since August 2015 and Haywood County Schools superintendent from 2009-12. Former Maplewood Principal and currently number 2 in the Maury County School District Ron Woodard was a finalist for this job. I have to admit that we are a little disappointed for Woodard, but know great things continue to be on the horizon for him.
Arlington Schools outside of Memphis named former Chief of Staff Jeff Mayo as its new superintendent of schools. Mayo is a longtime employee of the district and viewed by many as an intregal part of the district’s success over the last several years. Former MNPS administrator Dr. Aimee Wyatt was a finalist for this job. While she didn’t secure this position, it’s only a matter of time before Wyatt becomes a district leader.
Nashville’s favorite historian Betsy Phillips’ Dynamite Nashville: The KKK, the FBI, and the Bombers Beyond Their Control is scheduled for release via Third Man Books in early 2021. Today the Nashville Scene, prints a primer on the unsolved 1960 bombing of Z. Alexander Looby’s home, and after that, an excerpt from Dynamite Nashville. If you’d like a physical copy of the Nashville Scene, you can order one at Nashvillesceneshop.com.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with the words of Lenore Skenazy , who is president of the nonprofit Let Grow and author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” Skenazy recently wrote an article for the Washington Post that offers some valuable advice for parents in regard to homeschooling. Her recommendation is to just chill. The kids will be all right.
As she rightly points out, “the idea that parents have to enrich every second of their kids’ lives was a crazy lie even before the coronavirus. Kids never needed all that parental stimulation and all those teachable moments.” She then goes on to describe how Einstein spent much of his childhood – building card houses. An activity that appears devoid of educational value but taught him, patience … and concentration … and physics.
So, don’t worry that everyone else’s children are making fabulous “Les Misérables” parodies while yours is hitting his brother with the webcam. You can shower your child with construction paper and glue sticks, but if she hates arts and crafts, she probably won’t emerge from quarantine an artistic genius. (Just like I stocked up on lentils. Why? I am not suddenly a vegan. I should have stocked up on chicken thighs.)
That’s it for now, if you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.
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