“Besides, to like something, to really like it and come out and say so, is taking a terrible risk. I mean, what if I’m wrong? What if it’s really no good?”
“I am somewhat of a meliorist. That is to say, I act as an optimist because I find I cannot act at all, as a pessimist. One often feels helpless in the face of the confusion of these times, such a mass of apparently uncontrollable events and experiences to live through, attempt to understand, and if at all possible, give order to; but one must not withdraw from the task if he has some small things to offer – he does so at the risk of diminishing his humanity.”
This past week I found out that my favorite teacher of all time had died. Clancy Dennis was tough and he was also full of shit. I was often encouraged to try and match wits with him, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that at times he put a little fear in me. He was bitingly sarcastic with a god awful toupee, along with a deep knowledge of his subject matter and a willingness to share. I can still hear his deep resonate wry laugh, forever carrying with it a deep sense of irony coupled with a sense of amusement over human nature. He was prone to slip into a fake English accent, one that however proved effective when sharing his favorite Shakespearean passages. He was a man of many contradictions.
He was a dedicated conservationist who created an environmental science class way before most people were even taking conservationism seriously. A large portion of the class was conducted in the outdoors and could be considered an early version of what is now referred to as project-based learning. He just called it good teaching. To this day, whenever I’m by a creek, I turn over rocks and look for mayfly larvae as a means to gauge the health of a waterway. Just one of his lessons that stuck.
He instilled in me a love for Shakespeare that has endured going on 40 years. He was a Renaissance man in the truest sense, loving literacy and the outdoors equally.
An argument was something to be savored, not carelessly entered into. Debate was considered by him an art form, not a distraction. An art form that he was so skilled in, he seldom entered into a confrontation without knowing the outcome. But he always valued students who could surprise him.
He left the teaching profession shortly after I graduated. Reportedly he was fond of telling people that he left education about the time they outlawed capital punishment. I never heard him say that, but it sounds like a line mined straight from his vein of humor.
The truth is, it is probably fortuitous that he left the profession when he did. I’m not sure that he would have been allowed to ply his trade in this day and age. He was certainly not a disciple of SEL, but instead used his knowledge and willingness to share with those who desired it as a means to forge relationships. I’m pretty sure that in his eyes learning was a two-way street – a teacher with a desire to teach and a student who desired to learn.
After leaving teaching, he became a magistrate and later served with distinction as a judge. I had no idea until recently that he had made the transition to the new role, but I have no trouble picturing it. Undoubtedly he remained a teacher, the courtroom just becoming an extension of his classroom.
I haven’t seen him or talked with him since I left the Poconos in the Fall of 1983, but Clancy Dennis touched my life and I will forever owe him a deep debt of gratitude. If you’d told me that come 1983 the lessons he was instilling would still matter, I would have laughed you out of the room. Yet here we are. He may have been a son of a bitch, but damn, he could teach and under it all, he cared. Two traits that defined him more than anything else.
Last month, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn was forced to roll back her plan to provide “child well-being checks” for every child in the state. Under her proposed plan, parents could expect a phone call, email, or a knock at the door from a school district official in an effort to ensure that children were safe, fed, and healthy, despite schooling disruptions created by the coronavirus pandemic. A noble effort perhaps, but one many felt was overly intrusive.
In response to pushback from legislators, Schwinn was forced to roll back the plan and promised to “go back to the drawing board.” But has she?
Earlier in the week, I pointed out that grant money still exists for districts to conduct wellness checks, if they choose. Apparently, MNPS has chosen to participate, as this week parents began receiving emails, with follow up phone calls, from teachers serving in the role of “navigators.” For many parents, this created a sense of confusion, while for teachers it added just one more helping to an already overloaded plate.
As a navigator, a teacher is supposed to contact the parent and then ask to speak to the child in order to ask a series of questions to determine if they have anxiety, adequate shelter, enough food, or if someone is harming them. Many of the questions are ones that I would not feel comfortable with a stranger asking my child. Furthermore, they start with the assumption that the majority of parents are incapable of keeping their children safe without intervention. To me, that’s the very definition of deficit thinking.
While I find that assumption mildly offensive, I don’t dismiss the argument that the intrusion is probably worth it if we discover just one child in an abusive situation who would have gone undiscovered. But I would push back that if we are truly concerned with children and their families, why are we not utilizing specialists in this task, instead of already overtaxed educators?
I invite anyone to come live in my house for a week so they could see first hand the sheer volume of work involved in teachers ensuring that children receive quality daily instruction. The volume required doesn’t even scratch the surface of mastery, but is merely a means of survival. I’ve heard from countless teachers, wishing they just had a week or two in order to fully explore the district-prescribed Schoology or Florida Virtual School offerings in order to fully take advantage of their capabilities. An opportunity denied due to the level of work required just in order to meet the bare necessities currently required.
Throughout the last 6 weeks, I’ve heard some district leaders say their best to mitigate the work while others attempt to minimize what is being demanded:
“It’s only a couple extra steps.”
“It should only take an extra minute or two.”
“It’s a simple case of cut and paste. Should be no problem.”
Rest assured, that the majority of the time, those descriptors are coming from those who haven’t actually performed any of the tasks they are downplaying. In fact, many haven’t even been in the classroom for several years, yet feel capable of describing the time allotment that should be required to do the work. It should be of no shock to anyone that their statements bear little resemblance to reality.
Crafting daily lesson plans for students is a time consuming, tedious task that requires a series of steps of dedicated attention to detail for each class. One wrong step could cause work to disappear or appear in the wrong location. Often work simply disappears, inexplicably, on its own. All of it requires a great more time than administrators thnk.
While trying to prepare their daily folders, teachers must also teach, plan with other teachers, attend staff meetings, contact parents about assignment completion rates, serve as tech advisors, along with a sundry of other tasks. All while also filling their roles as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, friends, and lovers. The district is fond of putting out memes about the importance of self-care, but consistently fail to address the elephant in the room – when?
With the constant barrage of new expectations, when are teachers supposed to practice self-care? There are only 24 hours in a day. If you are spending 10 to 12 hours on your job, that only leaves 12 for sleeping, interacting with loved ones, eating, and daily living. Simple math tells you that if a new task is added, time dedicated to something else has to be reduced. I can’t help but note the irony that we stress the importance of literacy to students while providing scant time for teachers to engage in the practice.
It all smacks of walking up to Superman and saying, “Yeah, that super-speed, super-strength, x-ray vision, and ability to fly are all impressive, but I need you to be able to shoot flames from your fingertips. And if you can’t do that…”
Here’s the other part of the equation… asking teachers to conduct child wellness checks is asking them to do something they are not qualified for. Just because you are a great math teacher does not equate to being a mental health professional. Proponents for defunding the police regularly make the argument that we ask the police to handle incidents they are ill-equipped for and require mental health professionals. When framed towards police it’s a compelling argument, yet we fail to make the same considerations when it comes to teachers.
If I call a plumber to fix my backed-up pipes, I don’t ask him to feed and walk the dog simply because the dog needs it and he’s already there. Instead, I ask him to do the job he’s trained for and skilled at, and I hire someone else with the proper skill set to walk the dog. Maybe it’s time for teachers to start billing by the hour like doctors, lawyers, and plumbers do. Bet that would lead to a quick reassessment.
In less than a month, MNPS schools will be re-opening for face-to-face instruction. That means even more work. Teachers are going to have to maintain their current workload while prepping their classrooms for students. Classroom assignments are invariably going to change, so teachers will have a new group of students in which they will need to form relationships with and assess their instructional needs.
Quick side note: riddle me this, why did we spend 2 weeks at the beginning of the year devoted to SEL and forming teacher/student relationships, if just 4 weeks later we were going to rearrange all the players and require everything to be recreated? But I digress.
Making sure that children are clothed, fed, and safe is essential. But you downplay its importance by placing the onus to address shortcomings on the shoulders of those who are already overburdened and not qualified to fully serve children’s needs. Here’s another riddle: with all the people that Metro Government employs, could Mayor Cooper not shift the responsibility of checking on children to another department? If not, we’ve proven quite adept at forming task forces, could not another be formed that is charged with monitoring the city’s youth?
We walk around scratching our heads over high teacher attrition rates. We relax rules and requirements in order to put bodies in front of students. We pride ourselves on thinking “outside of the box” in addressing teacher shortages. Well, you don’t need to go far out of the box in order to find some solutions – honor teachers’ actual skill sets that they’ve acquired through dedication and hard work and stop using them as coal for the steam engine that public education has become.
Yesterday, my son’s navigator contacted us by email asking us when a good time to call would be. I told her that she is always welcome to call, but we don’t really require a navigator. What my son does require is for her to continue providing the same high level of instruction that she has been providing. I also need for district, city, and state leaders to remove impediments to her doing what she has been trained for and is so skilled at. In other words, they need to do their job so she, and all of MNPS’s teachers, can do their jobs.
WHO’S ACTUALLY WATCHING
Earlier in the week, Commissioner Schwinn revealed that the TNDOE will be continuing its on-going partnership with PBS:
“We are incredibly grateful for to our partners at PBS across the state who are continuing to help provide access to educational content to Tennessee families and students,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “These videos– created by Tennessee teachers in Tennessee classrooms—were viewed heavily through the spring and summer, so we are excited to continue the partnership and help keep students reading, exploring, and learning throughout the fall semester.”
In collaboration with Tennessee teachers and districts, the department created an at-home learning series consisting of a total of 320 virtual classroom lessons providing ELA and Math instruction for 1st –8th-grade students. PBS has been airing those videos 3 times a day to help ensure children have access to learning opportunities regardless of the internet connectivity in their home. Again, a noble task, but is it the best utilization of state resources?
Back in the Spring when the initiative first began, many students were not receiving any formal instruction from districts. This service ensured that students were at least getting some instruction, even if they didn’t have the internet.
But at this juncture, all of Tennessee’s students are back in school, either in person or virtually. All districts have been required to complete a Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) for the state. In the plan, LEAs are required to outline how they are going to deliver instruction to children, including how they intend to address technological shortcomings. So, it’s not an unreasonable assumption that all school age children in Tennessee are now receiving formalized instruction from their LEAs. Which begs the question, who is the PBS programming directed at, and does it even align with the curriculum and pacing being delivered by local districts?
Are there really 1st graders in the state who are not receiving district-led instruction at 9:30 on a weekday morning and thus require the PBS services? 4th-graders at 10:30? Are the PBS services part of individual LEA’s CLPs? Vetting that would be a job for the child-well being task force, and one that, if the case warrants, requires immediate action by TNDOE. Videos on a public television station may be high-quality but are certainly not a substitute for locally-led instruction.
Congratulations to Kami Lunsford from Karns Middle School for being selected as the 2020-21 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. Out of nine finalists representing Tennessee’s eight CORE regions, as well as the Shelby County-Municipals area, Ms. Lunsford was selected as the 2020-21 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. Despite the ongoing pandemic requiring the award ceremony to be conducted virtually, Commissioner Schwinn made a surprise visit to Ms. Lunsford’s school.
“Tennessee is fortunate to have so many talented educators that, now more than ever, are going above and beyond to ensure our kids receive a good education. Congratulations to Kami Lunsford and the 2020-21 Tennessee Teacher of the Year finalists for this much-deserved recognition and honor,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Our Tennessee teachers truly embody the meaning behind the Volunteer state, and I am proud to support these dedicated individuals who are shaping the minds of our next generation. I am so thankful to all our incredible teachers across the state for your hard work and commitment to students.”
While we are talking about Ms. Schwinn. A few weeks ago I mentioned that according to IRS filings, she had been getting paid a substantial salary from her California Charter School – Capitol Collegiate Academy – while serving as a high ranking official for both the Delaware and Texas Departments of Education. She maintains that those payments stopped once she became Education Commissioner in Tennessee. A claim backed by her 2019 financial disclosure filed with the Tennessee Department of Ethics. I do have a question though.
The signature on her 2019 disclosure form is that of Sam Pearcy. Pearcy, at the time, was the department’s Chief Operating Officer and recently was promoted to the position of Deputy Commissioner of Operations. I’m not sure what the difference between the two positions, other than a likely pay increase.
It could be that Pearcy is just serving in his role overseeing finances, but it doesn’t seem like a great practice to have a subordinate sign your disclosure form. For whatever reason, he didn’t repeat that role in 2020. Instead, Schwinn’s disclosure was witnessed by another person she supervises, Dr. Jean Cummings, who serves as Chief of Staff for the department’s Office of Strategy.
2020’s disclosure form fails to disclose Schwinn’s role as a board member of CCA, despite her being listed on both the school’s website and in their application for renewal, where it states her term ends in 2021. Board terms are 3 years long and she assumed that role after previously holding the position of head of schools… I mean Executive Director… I mean Board Secretary… or any one of those in some combination.
There sure is a lot of confusion around Schwinn’s actual role with the school. I don’t if it’ll be the City of Sacramento, the State of California, Governor Lee, or Tennessee’s General Assembly who actually clear things up, but presently they are awfully smoky. And you know what they say about where there is smoke…
In any case, it likely won’t be Governor Lee, because he is extremely pleased with her performance to date, stating, “I’m very pleased with where we are in opening up our schools and that’s the No. 1 job right now of that commissioner and of that department. Our commissioner of education is solely committed to that and the work of that department is one that I’m very pleased with so far.” So there you have it. Governor Lee is up for re-election in 2022.
MNPS’s Director of Schools Dr. Battle released an opinion piece to the Tennessean yesterday. In it, she outlines the coming shift in plans and the survey that parents are being required to submit by next Tuesday. One sentence that sticks out me is when Battle tries to reassure parents by saying, “For parents, there are no wrong answers to the survey.” I’m not sure if she’s being disingenuous or she is just out of touch. But as a fellow parent, I can assure you there most definitely is a wrong answer. I just wish I had more information in order to discern what that is.
Also giving me cause for pause is the phrase, “And if you need to change your mind based on family circumstances or significant changes in the city’s COVID-19 situation, you’ll be able to do that in time for the second semester in January.” It’s a phrase that seems intentionally vague and provides wiggle room to district leaders. It should not be construed as the same as saying, “You can make a change for the Spring in December.”
Also not included in the Director’s Op-ed is any further information around the district’s plans for Fall sports, which is certainly not going to help appease parental concerns. Rumors are circulating that football will resume with September 25th games. I don’t understand the benefit of allowing rumors to percolate, as clarification would be a step towards earning back families’ goodwill.
I would be remiss in not recognizing the historical importance of today. In remembrance of the tragic events from 9/11/2001, I’d like to leave you with the always thoughtful words of MNPS principal Matthew Portell:
“If only the loss of American lives would continue to bring us together like it did 19 years ago. We remember today, but how will it change how we see each other tomorrow?”
That’s it for now.
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 deliver is always welcome.
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