“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” — Winnie the Pooh
Over the years, there have been stories that I have been reluctant to tell. Stories that were either too personal or too painful to share. There have stories that I haven’t always felt qualified to tell. Ultimately I reached the decision of, if not me then who?
I don’t mean that statement out of any sense of ego, but rather a sense of reality. Every day, stories go unreported because we are afraid that they’ll make us confront things that we are not equipped to confront. Often times the story is told in a way that doesn’t provide 360 coverage, casting those that deserve our empathy as villains, while absolving the underserved. Such a story has emerged from MNPS over the past two weeks. A story, that I think is relevant and needs to be spoken of with the proper amount of empathy.
I’m not going to pretend to know all the details. Those involved are responsible for their own self-evaluations, as are those who read this. Maybe those involved feel they did everything they could in the end, and maybe they did, but knowing what I know, I don’t perceive that as a likely conclusion.
Two weeks ago, several principals across MNPS told me about an email that they’d just received. It was encrypted, so it couldn’t be shared or printed. I requested a copy from the Metro Nashville Public School (MNPS) communication department, but they were unresponsive. So you’ll have to take my word for what it said.
The gist of the email was that there was a change in structure at the MNPS department of visual and performance art, and future questions should no longer be directed to Jeff Smith, but rather, Jill Petty would field inquiries. The letter went on to say that Smith was not permitted on any MNPS campus and that if he showed up at their school, he was to be turned away and authorities notified. No further explanation was given.
Many principals told me this letter was unprecedented, they could not recall ever receiving a directive of this nature without further explanation. Speculation on justification ran ramped, what could the director of visual and performing arts do to warrant such recourse? Were students at risk if he showed up at a school? In this day and age, the question is never far from the conversation. I would argue that sharing the perceived threat level is a miscalculation.
For those who don’t know Smith, he’s been with the district for just shy of five years, coming from Duval County Schools, where he’d served as that district’s Director of Arts for just over three years. A veteran administrator, he has resumed arts management that spans over two decades. Some described him as difficult to work with at times, but his commitment was never questioned. By all accounts, the work he had done in MNPS was exemplary. As a result, the Nashville School District’s focus grew during his tenure and students benefited.
Usually, if there are areas of concern, I hear something. As much as district officials try to control the public narrative, everybody in Nashville has two friends, and they have two friends, eventually, word gets to me. Not in this case. I hadn’t heard a peep, so my interest was piqued.
A request for a copy of the letter placing Smith on administrative leave was promptly filled by MNPS’s public information officer, but it revealed nothing. As previously mentioned, the request for a copy of the letter sent out to principals went unacknowledged.
On Wednesday Smith began releasing personal correspondence with the district through his LinkedIn account, including a letter he planned to share with District Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle. The letter ironically is dated, March 1, the same day as his letter of administrative leave notification, and the day principals received the related directive from the district.
In the letter, he outlines concerns that should be familiar to anyone remotely connected with MNPS. Let’s face it, district leadership is great about social-emotional learning as it relates to kids, just don’t expect it to be practiced among adults. In his letter, Smith raises accusations of intimidation and harassment. He’d been micromanaged, belittled, bullied, and marginalized.
Now my interest was fully invested. I sent him a request to talk. He responded in the affirmative, and we had an hour-long conversation.
Two things quickly became apparent. One, Smith had legitimate gripes. Two, he was experiencing a high level of anxiety and acting in a very manic manner. Most of his anxiety and stress were related to his work conditions and his supervisors’ actions. I’m struck by a line in his letter to Dr. Battle, that seems particularly relevant:
“We cannot function under the specter of fear of being punished when simply doing what’s best for kids. We cannot function as if the best “optics” are more important than the needs of our children, teachers, and community members. This toxic environment and the cloud of mistrust has taken a toll on my own physical and mental health.”
Even the casual observer should be aware of the culture of mistrust and toxicity that has bubbled under the surface of MNPS for over a decade. It was 6 years ago when an administrator stood up at a central office retreat and boldly stated, “Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room? The main issue is that there is no trust in the district.” Evidently, that hasn’t changed since.
After the better of an hour talking, I point blankly asked him, “So why the email to principals? Were you some kind of actual threat or was the district just being assholes and trying to publicly shame you.”
He never directly answered my question but read me the first of four accusations in his letter from the district. It cited an instance where he recently smashed his district-issued computer with a hammer in the parking lot. I involuntarily chuckled. I bet I could survey MNPS employees and find at least a majority that held similar desires. Unfortunately, it’s a decision that is frowned upon by the district.
None of the other three other citations led me to believe that he was a threat to either harm himself or others. Yes, he was anxious and manic, but if we banned every anxious and manic person from campus, schools would be pretty empty.
Let me reiterate this point, I don’t know Smith, nor am I privy to all the information that went into the district disciplinary action. I just know the history of the district, and the people in leadership, and all of his complaints align with past stories told by others. I’ve long argued that until school districts learn to apply the principles of SEL to adults and how they treat each other, they have no business trying to teach kids. The worst behaviors of kids are way too often on display by adults in leadership.
Jeff and I ended our conversation with a promise to talk soon, alas that’s probably going to have to wait, things went terribly south after we hung up. A man and a father who was in desperate need of mental health care, now sits in a Clarksville jail alone, with nothing but thoughts of circumstances gone terribly awry on repeat in his head, while we all titter at the craziness of his actions. Shame on us.
It’s been 23 years since I got sober, and I’m not saying that Smith has an addiction problem, but I know what it feels like to be alone with the weight of the world feeling like it is going to crush you. Desperately searching for a path forward, but none readily available. It may have been 23 years ago, but it feels like it could have been yesterday. My heart aches for Smith and his family. He’s suffering a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
As always, when confronted with circumstances like this, I have to ask, how did it come to this point? The man led a vibrant arts program for 5 years, yet nobody noticed or intervened when he started screaming for help. And trust me, he started screaming well before this, we just never listened. Was he just dismissed and written off as, “Oh that crazy Jeff”?
For over a decade I’ve preached loyalty to a system that demands fidelity while delivering none. It treats employees like chunks of coal on a Mississippi steamship waiting to be flung into the all-consuming steam engine. It is a story that happens all too often far from the main stage, but every bit as tragic.
If you still suffer under the illusion that MNPS leadership values the needs of students, teachers, families, or anyone else over their own, let’s talk about this bridge in Arizona I’m trying to unload. That may sound bitter but after a decade of sitting in the front row, it’s just reality.
It’s hard to fathom that district leadership was unaware of Smith’s mental state. It’s equally difficult to grasp that they were unaware of the potential repercussions of the districtwide communication they sent out. Whether it was malfeasance or ignorance, the outcome is the same.
Smith is left trying to put a life back together, at an age where reinvention becomes difficult. Who knows the impact this will have on his children and their relationship. The bottom line is MNPS does not do enough to protect the mental health of its employees.
The district prides itself on the mental health hotline they provide to employees, but many are afraid to use it out of fear that it is not truly confidential and participation will be used against them. Those who do participate, often are unable to connect with a counselor because there are not enough hired. That’s not a reflection on MNPS’s effort, but rather the world we live in. In the wake of the pandemic, too many have become unmoored and are suffering, some quieter than others, but all hurting.
Despite progress over the years, mental health is still perceived as a weakness. I come down with cancer and y’all rally around to raise money for my medical treatment, that doesn’t happen if it’s a mental health issue. Think I’m wrong, tell me the last time you went to a fundraiser for Bob because he had a mental breakdown and can’t pay for his meds?
Let me say it so those in the back can hear, mental illness, it ain’t a weakness, and none of us are immune. If you think that’d you never behave in a manner similar to Smith this weekend, don’t underestimate your abilities. Mental illness is an illness, just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, it does not discriminate on who it afflicts. We are all a hairs breath away – not the saying I wanted to use, but we’re still a family column – from having a loved one or ourselves diagnosed.
It’s not a disease you can outsmart, but it is one where intelligence can hamper as much as help recovery. Can’t outsmart this one.
Do I think Jeff’s circumstances or my ramblings are really going to change anything? Nah, in a couple of days, all of this will fade to the back bins. It will be left to Smith, and whatever is left of his family to rebuild, while it is business as usual at MNPS.
The casualty list at MNPS will silently continue to grow, sans any self-reflection from leadership. I remember being told by one educator a story where they shared with their leadership the level of stress and anxiety being produced by the expectations from the district. Leadership’s response was, “maybe this job is not for you.” Somebody needs to remind leadership that the door swings both ways.
If you could do one thing for me though, this would be it. Take a second, reach out to another person, and ask them, “you all right?”
Then comes the hard part, listen. Don’t just listen, but really hear them. The world has become so divisive and so immediate, that we often lose sight of each other. Let’s try to temper some of that and remember, there by the grace of god go I.
Hey Jeff, whenever you need it, I’m still available for that follow-up phone call.
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Word on the street is that the path forward to third-grade retention will be revealed tomorrow when all of the proposed related legislation is heard. When the smoke clears, it’ll be the Mark White (R-Memphis) amendment (SB 300 HB 437) left standing. There are some interesting proposals on this one.
First, it allows a student to demonstrate proficiency in ELA based on the student answering at least 50% on the most recent state-approved benchmark. This comes despite recent testimony by Pearson that benchmarks and TCAP can not be used interchangeably. Different tests, administered differently, measure different things. One is state normed, and one is nationally normed. But shhh…this will make everybody feel better.
The second provision allows district administrators to assist families in filing appeals.
The third is my favorite, it demands that “a student who is retained in any of the grades kindergarten through two (K-2) must be assigned a tutor through TALLC to provide the student with tutoring services for the entirety of the upcoming school year based on tutoring requirements established by the department. Sounds awesome right, until you realize that “TALLC” stands for Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps. It’s the brainchild of Commissioner Schwinn and allows her to…how do I put this…influence who gets tutoring contracts. Currently, 87 districts are members. So what are the other 60 supposed to do? I guess John TN All Corps.
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On a humorous note – to me anyways – House Speaker Cameron Sexton wants to create a task force to study the feasibility of Tennessee rejecting U.S. education dollars, and he wants Commissioner Schwinn to head up. yep, the same Penny Schwinn who’s been traveling around the country consulting with non-profits on how to grow federal investment in education. This should prove to be comedy gold and may put some giddy-up in that job search.
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I think your reporting the story of the individual was a poor journalist choice. I sense you are using a single data point to support your stated thesis, which, leaving out your Arizona bridge reference, is compactly rewritten as “MNPS leadership does not value the needs of students, teachers, families, or anyone else over their own.”
Perhaps the greatest enemy of our republic is broad sweeping generalizations of “they are out to get us” from those of us who have credentials or position such that our readers/listeners _believe_ us, as first reaction.
I’ve known this “all along” – that over-simplification is the greatest challenge in public education policy, climate policy, policing, and the next 10 things…. We must avoid the temptation to let single data points, and anecdotes, be primary inputs into complex policy actions.
Obviously, it is true throughout America that if the spigot of salary is turned off, 99% of us will move on to other employment. Does that make us “only care about ourselves?” Not remotely. Yet, at a forum sponsored by Hillsdale College in Franklin a couple of weeks ago, that same kind of argument was made to attack the enterprise of Science as moribund and bloated (the same tired tune we hear from school reformers, Hillsdale of course in that group too).
I have had the pleasure of asking many of our charter school leaders if they would like to take over MNPS fundamentally, to bring their reforms to all children. Not a SINGLE charter school principal has ever said “That sounds like exactly what we’d like to do”. No, they instead seem happy to excerpt out the kids who are not suffering as much from the economic brutality of our economic system, and celebrate their arrival at slightly above average test score. I’ll never forget that day where the chief academic officer at Great Hearts looked at me and said “Ultimately we want to educate the kids who want to come to our schools”. Wow. That is so _not_ what public education is.
When “the right” attacks “the system/administration”, they are simultaneously attacking my belief that “a great system” will do the most good for the most kids – including the kids who are miles away from our top-25% experience of life in America. When we gripe and seek to rip apart our school _system_, I find that tantamount to advocating of dismantling of public education for poor children. (How much is that bridge in Arizona, did you say?….)
Jesus said little about how to deal with government and bureaucracy. But, there is that great moment where he says “If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it two”. Perhaps he was encouraging us all to recognize the unpleasant tasks that those in our not-so-beloved systems have every day. I always am nice to the poor chap answering the phone at the IRS, for example.
Let’s thank our administration for navigating tough no-win situations every day. They are living each day in a brutal reality of underfunding, harassment from state government, all from pretty crummy office spaces, frankly).
And so I close by suggesting your article could have been better written from the other side, praising the H.R. decision-making at MNPS for taking a tough stand, communicating out professionally and directly, and moving forward the enterprise of educating all kids in the process.
I’m sure with you that our system _can_ be improved…. but this individual case does not inform how that happens.
Prayers for our administration, and the person they had to let go. Thanks for keeping the articles coming.
Thanks Chris, but yea our experiences are vastly different and hence the different views. Praise the HR department…yea, I’ll get back to you on that one. I suggest you get out of the political and philosophical world and holds conversations with educators, bc if you think HR is doing a great job, you are not catching the pain out there. This story isn’t an outlier, but you can continue believing that every one has the best interests of kids at heart.
Oh and by the way, while you highjack the story for your political agenda, there is still a man sitting in jail suffering, yet you fail to even acknowledge him, let alone offer any empathy. Instead you refer to him as “a single data point”. Says it all.