The System is Just Not Built That Way

“Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

Every morning I drop my kids off at school, along with some of their friends. They are emersed in their middle school years, a trying time for even the well-adjusted. Changes in body chemistry, expectations, and perceptions are a lot for those just developing coping skills.

‘It’s going to be a good day”, I say to my daughter as she pulls her overloaded backpack out of the car, She just shrugs and leans her head in for a goodbye kiss placed on the crown. I watch her and her friend shuffle off toward school. My heart filled with a mixture of pride, sorrow, and a prayer that my parting words ring true.

Minutes later, the routine is repeated, as I drop off my son and his friend. As he pulls his bag out of the back seat, I lower the window, we fist bump and I say, “remember, make…”

“…smart decisions,” he repeats back to me, “I got it.”  And sometimes he actually does. With ever-increasing frequency, he actually does. But sometimes…well he’s a middle school child.

He and his friend mimic the previous routine of my daughter and her friend, as they shuffle off to class. I watch their backs, slightly slumped forth, and think how different from the elementary school years. When they would often run toward the door, greeting friends and teachers with enthusiastic shouts. Now they are more jaded, more guarded, and more aware that they are over-scrutinized and hyper-judged by both peers and adults. They are becoming young adults, and such is the way of the world.

As I pause and watch them steadily recede from view, it dawns on me, not for the first time, that raising kids is not dissimilar to breaking wild horses. We like to say, you can be anything you aspire to, but that comes with caveats.,

The reality is, you can be anything you like, as long as you act right, and it falls into preset parameters. That holds true for both middle schoolers and billionaires, just ask Elon Musk and Kanye West. Too soon?

My son fell in love with athletics at an early age. He is a gifted athlete and finds joy and freedom on the playing field, be it grass, mat, or hardwood. The inherent meritocracy of the playing field makes sense to him. He quickly learned to work hard, be a good teammate, and make continuous improvements, which added up to his success. It was all simple until it wasn’t.

As he moves upward, off-field factors become increasingly as important as what happens on the playing field, Run afoul of a teacher, and he loses playing time. Get carried away in the lunch room cutting up with friends, and a similar fate awaits. Fail to make the grades in school, you are sitting out a semester. To a young man grappling with his place in the world, it becomes confusing.

His performance on the playing field doesn’t impact his life outside of the classroom. Making a game-winning shot doesn’t translate into a little extra recess time, or increase his grade. Yet, make the wrong joke, at the wrong time, and suddenly playing time is cut. He’s not an outlier in grapling with this dichotomy. Nor will he be the last.

As he struggles against the reins of society, he asks, “I don’t get it, why is my behavior off the field affect my time in a game?”

I struggle with an answer. It’s not that I don’t recognize the value of meeting societal norms, but at times they do feel arbitrary, even to my semi-mature 57-year-old mind. I tell him, that’s an age-old question, that athletes more talented than you have struggled with. Some could never grasp the concept, and hence, never reached the achievements they could have. Don’t become one of those.

“Taking playing time away from me is stupid”, he retorts, “Am I supposed to get all upset because I can’t play? I’m more likely to just decide I don’t care, and check out.”

“”Cone on”, I say, “You are not a checkout, I don’t care kind of guy. If anything you care too much,”

He silently nods in agreement, and I quietly reflect on all the young men, and women, who when faced with the same dilemma, did check out. They took their unique talents and skills, and just denied them until they no longer realized they had these skills. And maybe, they did begin to act right, and maybe they grew into something society celebrated. Like we celebrate the value of a well-trained saddle horse, overlooking the beauty of the wild mustang.

There are those who argue, playing sports is a privilege, and one has to earn that right. I would counter with, is playing an instrument a privilege? is acting on a stage? Pickng up a paintbrush? Access to high-level academic courses? As much as genetics has fallen from fashion of late, all of the aforementioned require innate abilities in order to reach the highest skill level. Abilities are worthy of being developed if we truly desire children to reach their potential.

Interest, coupled with a work ethic and exposure, isn’t enough. Michael Jordan might not have become “Michael Jordan” without hard work and access, but without innate ability, neither would have been sufficient. So maybe we should view extracurricular activities as a debt we owe children, and not as a sidebar to their development.

My point is, if we are truly dedicated to allowing children to reach their full potential, we have to strike a balance. I’m certainly not excusing bad behavior, and recognize the need to police students’ actions, I’m just not sure that a punitive philosophy is the most effective way to go.

My children have both been blessed with educators that have served as guides for them through their middle school years. My daughter had a percussion teacher who opened her eyes to a world of possibilities she would have never seen without him.

For the boy, it’s been a pair of coaches. Both have taken time to form authentic relationships with him. They take time to explain things, listen to him, validate him, and almost work as shepherds. There has been a dramatic improvement in his choices from last year to this year.

The natural maturation process has certainly played a role, but I’m quite confident that without these two men, we’d be having a different conversation these days. For that. I’m extremely grateful.

Here’s the thing, neither one of these men call me weekly, or even monthly. They are not focused on my needs. I’m guessing neither one of them regularly enters data about their interactions with students in a computer spreadsheet. Nor do I believe they roll out an SEL lesson plan prior to a discussion with any of the students they interact with. They just take time, precious time, to interact in an authentic manner. You know, like we did in the old days before we spent millions in pursuit of social-emotional learning.

Sometimes, it is just a simple fist bump and a nod in the hall, serving as recognition. Sometimes it is a, “hey come talk to me over here”, “or “help me with this”. Quietly building ties and trust increases influence. Regardless of the form it takes, it’s all real and communicates the care and interest that is necessary. I can promise you, young men are slower to run afoul of these two than others, not because they fear repercussions, but rather because they fear disappointing people that express legitimate care towards them.

This isn’t to criticize other teachers, the system just isn’t built to provide ample opportunity to provide the relationships necessary. We have heaped so many expectations and responsibilities on teachers that we’ve lost sight of what’s important – students. So we create programs like Seeds to Grow, and Navigator, that allows us to check a box and move on.

I love the quotes from the accompanying pr form, “Inglewood Elementary saw their Panorama teacher survey data go up 18% in the family relationships category this year—a huge increase—and Inglewood’s principal credits this largely to Navigator.’ Really?

I know the educators at Inglewood, and I’m pretty sure they are competent at forging relationships without the aid of a canned program.

Then there is this one, “While Navigator itself is a structured program, the quality time spent between students and teachers can remain spontaneous, authentic, and fun.’

These days in education, everything has become a number – achievement, growth, attendance, discipline, teacher effectiveness, staffing – with few people focused on what’s behind those numbers. Lost is the fact that all of this is inherent in forging authentic relationships.

Authentic relationships don’t come easy, they require you top dirty your hands. Sometimes they are not fun and rarely are they structured. But they are real, and nobody spots a fake like a kid.

Look at the aforementioned list of measurables, every one of those items could be positively impacted if we just stripped away some expectations and requirements, allowing teachers the time and capacity to really know their students.

The problem with that idea is that it doesn’t provide a box to check and move on. It requires continuous action and reaffirmation.

Kinda like parenting, but that’s another story for another day.

Money, Money, Money

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) under Commissioner Schwinn has been a revolving door for employees. These days it’s hard to know the players without a scorecard. Move your family here from California with big dreams, and a year later you might find yourself working for a non-profit. True story. But for those who manage to not run afoul of the Commissioner, it can be a rewarding proposition.

David Donaldson, came on board fresh from Puerto Rico where he served under a state commissioner since convicted of fraud, to head up the Human Resource Department for the TDOE. In this role, he embraced Clarksville’s budding Grow Your Own teacher apprentice program, helping to promote it to national prominence. Despite having little to do with the incubation process, he left the state and now heads his own non-profit that focuses on Grow Your Own Programs –  National Center for Grow Your Own. Since inception, three other former TDOE employees have signed up for a paycheck -, Dr. Naima Khandaker, Ben Gagne-Maynard, and Miles Woodhull. I’m sure more will follow, even if means following an alternative migratory pattern, from Tennessee to Michigan.

Rebecca Shah, worked for Commissioner Texas, and considered her a close friend. At supposed great personal sacrifice, she relocated to Tennessee to serve as Schwinn’s Chief of Staff. She could only commit to a year, as she did to get back to her family in the Lone Star state. A month after her departure, she bonded with a couple former Chiefs for Change and formed ILO Group, education consultants. Not surprisingly the company has secured contracts for work in several states, including Tennessee. Their first project with the Rhode Island DOE drew the attention of the FBI,

For those who remained with Schwinn, employed by the TDOE, October brought a little more cash to the paycheck. Comparing numbers from 2021 and 2022, it appears most got a 2.5% raise. For some, a bonus was also delivered. Here are a few examples:

  • Lisa Coons, Assistant Commissioner 2, $164,232 with an annual bonus of $5927
  • Chelsea Crawford, Assistant Commissioner 2, $155,952, with no bonus
  • Eve Carney, Assistant Commissioner 2, $18,1992, annual bonus of $4157.89
  • Meghan McElroy, Assistant Commissioner 2, $163,044, with an annual bonus $5,946.07
  • Charlie Bufalino, Assistant Commissioner 1, $134,820, with an annual bonus $3,130.00

In case you are interested, Ms.Schwinn got herself a little more cabbage as well. in 2021, she earned a mere $212,160. Her 2022 salary is $224,892. No bonus for her though.

That’s just a sampling, and feel free to use the links to look up your favorite state education leader.

I guess the raises and bonuses are in recognition of all the great things done this past year. But didn’t Ms. Schwinn tell the Governor that the department only supplies the vision, that it’s their partners who do the work?

From the Comments to the Front Page.

On occasion, the comments I receive require greater exposure. Here’s one that I think is applicable to just about every district in America, so I highlight it here.

Nice post on the bogus and corrupt reform movement. In my district, we’ve surrendered teacher expertise to the esteemed Dr. XXX YYYYY. We’ve paid him and his goons thousands of dollars to spew nonsense. They constantly reference data and research in their presentations, but fail to adhere to the most basic research regarding attention spans. So they talk at a room full of teachers for 7.5 hours in a mind-numbing, soul-crushing display of self-serving hubris.

The true culprits, though, are the administrators who fall prey to, and pay for, this nonsense. This fealty to “experts” demonstrates poor leadership among administrators. They cannot lead organically so they hire outside consultants to provide canned workshops to resistant faculty. Then administrators are off the hook because they’ve provided their staff with “appropriate” training. Once they’ve established this premise, any failures can be blamed on teachers for poor implementation. The consultants move on to their next quarry while teachers are left seething about another lousy idea shoved down their collective throats. The whole thing is maddening.

That about sums it up.

Quick Hits

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, MNPS should be blushing today. Chalkbeat has up an article outlining Chicago’s plan to emulate Nashville’s high school career academies.

In the mid-2000s, Nashville’s high schools were struggling, with a graduation rate well below 60% and a looming takeover by the state of Tennessee. In a bid to change that, the district undertook a major overhaul that would chart a clearer path from freshman year to the careers students might pursue after high school.

Fifteen years later, a dozen of the district’s about 20 high schools house 35 “academies” that prepare students for various careers, with the goal of helping them get college credit, industry certifications, and hands-on work experiences before they get their diplomas.

The district’s high school transformation inspired plaudits from the White House and visits from education officials in other cities seeking to replicate its model. Chicago district officials toured Nashville high schools and spoke with colleagues about career learning in that district in 2017, according to a district spokesperson.

yea…I know…but it’s still nice and worthy of recognition for Nashville’s students and educators.

This week for the Tennessee Star I wrote about the release of the state education report card. Give it a gander.

The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) announced its second Teacherpreneur cohort, with renewed support from the program’s founding partner, Amazon. The cohort of eleven Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) educators will design solutions to systemic challenges in education, such as ensuring equitable access to afterschool programs, reducing language barriers for students’ families, and providing an academically challenging curriculum for students with disabilities. Participants are eligible for cash prizes and funding to implement programs. Here’s this year’s cohort:

  • Tabatha Barner, Glencliff Entrepreneurship STEAM Magnet Elementary School
  • Anna Bernstein, Bellevue Middle School
  • Taylor Edens, Early College High School
  • Nathan Fields, Hillsboro High School
  • Kellee Hill, Whites Creek High School
  • Jennifer Love, East Nashville Magnet High School
  • Sarai Ovalle, Antioch Middle School
  • Jonathan Parrish, W.A. Bass Alternative Learning Center High School
  • Christopher Reid, Cole Elementary School
  • Samantha Singer, Glencliff High School
  • Kate Sundell, LEAD Academy High School

Congratulations, and good luck.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. Readers have the option of either free or paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will potentially receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, 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. Not begging, just saying


Categories: Education

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