Teacher talk

New federal education laws can re-establish respect for teachers, union chief says

PHOTO: NEA
Lily Eskelsen Garcia president of the National Education Association.

Teachers across the U.S. and Colorado have fanned out this fall to knock on doors and make phone calls for Hillary Clinton. That includes Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Eskelsen Garcia stumped for Clinton last week in Denver. While she was in town, Chalkbeat sat down to chat with her about a variety of topics including the nation’s new federal education law, the shortage of qualified teachers in some areas and the union’s new interest in the concept of community schools, which incorporates programming such as health clinics in schools to address issues of poverty.

Eskelsen Garcia has been a huge proponent of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new education law. She sees it as a chance for teachers to claim a leadership role in their schools and in shaping statewide policy. That, she said, could lead to a greater respect for the profession and a renewed interest among the nation’s young people to step in front of the classroom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How is the Every Student Succeeds Act going to help make the teaching profession better for educators?
One of the things that has been conveyed to us is that teachers feel like their hands are tied when they get to school.

One of the things we got in the new law is that as you develop your plans for schools you must include practitioners. You must include the people that actually know what they’re talking about. That’s hugely different than No Child Left Behind.

There are going to be some states who take that to heart. They’re going to say, “The reason we missed the boat is because we didn’t ask that third-grade teacher. We didn’t ask that AP Algebra teacher. Let’s sit down and talk about how we’re going to collaborate and not just amongst the professionals in the building, but among the community, the parents.”

We believe that if people take the spirit of the law that you must include the people who know the names of the kids, that some of that discouragement will go away. Having that collaborative authority to do your job — you wouldn’t think you’d need a federal law to do that. But that’s the hope that we have.

And we also know that sometimes people don’t know what they can do without needing permission. We have another motto: proceed until apprehended. You know, just do it. Parents are excited about things that make their kids excited and want to go to school. Usually, you have a great principal who will say, “You’re making me look good.” Don’t wait for permission. Just do what’s right for those kids.

You’re very optimistic about ESSA. Some our state lawmakers and members of the State Board of Education aren’t. They think we’ve been sold a bill of goods, especially around more local control. Why do you think you’re right?
I’m not sure the vision has caught on with all the bureaucracies that have to manage it. They actually have to look at their own laws. Do we have some test-and-punish laws on the state levels — if you’re saying there’s not enough flexibility, even with our educators in the building, ask what’s in the way. A lot of times it’s the state and local bureaucracy.

There’s nothing stopping a school community from doing something creative and wonderful for kids. That’s at the building level. We’d say the same thing at the state level. What’s holding you back? Come up with that vision of what a great public school should look like.

So what we’ve said is take a good old-fashioned clipboard and walk into the best public school in Colorado — the to-die-for public school that someone would sell a kidney to get a house in that neighborhood to send their kid to that public school. Go in there and take an inventory. You’ve got a science department. You’ve got computers. You’ve got a theater department and great sports teams for girls and boys. You’ve got counselors and social works and nurses. You have everything — foreign languages — everything those affluent parents insisted on. And they’re right — their kids do need those things to have an edge. And that becomes your standard school in Colorado. And you say that what the most affluent kids who have everything possible — what we did for them — we will do for everyone.

I’ve seen people roll their eyes and say, “Well, we can’t afford that.” Of course you can. You did, for those kids. So what you’re saying is that we can’t afford it for the kids who have so little. And that just sounds wrong when it comes out of your mouth — because it is wrong. What we’re telling people is, look at resource equity. And what are you doing to recruit and retain the most highly trained professionals.

But isn’t this beyond the scope of ESSA?
You can fit all of this in there. And whether it’s in ESSA or not, the secret sauce is to have those resources with talented and creative people and give them collaborative authority to design something that works for those kids.

What is NEA doing, what should we all be doing to address the teacher shortage?
This is the next crisis that is hitting us. We used to see colleges of education where that was the cash cow. Now you’re hearing deans of teaching colleges saying, ‘We’re not getting applicants.’ It’s cut several ways: First of all, we’ve seen hits on the respect for education. It’s been very frustrating. We’ve lost a lot really talented people because they feel like they’ve been disrespected. And because they were so frustrated because they felt they couldn’t do their jobs.

The second thing is, we’re seeing parents, even parents who are teachers, discouraging their kids from going into teaching for one reason: the crushing student debt. The price of education at a university level is so outrageously high, parents are saying, ‘We’d love you to be a teacher, but I know what you’re going to make. And I’ll be paying off your student debt. You’ll never be able to pay off that student debt. Please go into something else where you’ll make more money.’ And they’re making a very practical decision.

If that’s the problem, what’s the solution?
I’ve had a chance to sit and talk with Hillary Clinton about that problem — about how do we get qualified and career teachers, and not just people who say this would be a great way to give a charitable contribution for a year or two. And what I’ve said is, “What about loan forgiveness for people in public service?” And there is no greater public service than education. She’s intrigued by that idea. She’s looking at something very comprehensive in student loans, and the ability to pay back that student loan.

NEA took a massive survey of educators early in their career, teaching no longer than 10 years. And we were alarmed by the information we got back. Basically, when we asked, ‘How do you feel about being a teacher?” the overwhelming answer was, “I feel I made a mistake.” We’re looking at the analysis, they think they should have gone into something else. And when you dug into it, they said, ‘I know what I need to do and I’m in a system that won’t let me teach.’ They felt very isolated, like they have a lack of authority and a lack of collaboration.

I remember when I started teaching during the Reagan administration. I loved teaching. I got up every day saying, ‘We’re going to have a great day,’ and we did. And what I saw in that survey was those teachers don’t feel that. They feel like they made a mistake. I never felt like I made a mistake. I felt like I had the best job in the world.

Maybe I was lucky, but luck is not a smart business plan. So what we’re seeing from systems like Finland and Singapore is the dynamics of really empowering people to design something and own it. They’re going to make it work. And they’re appreciated.

The question is what can we do right now, without an act of Congress, to bring that feeling that teachers are in charge, that they’re problems solvers, not the problem. That’s our challenge.

NEA and the state’s teachers union have recently taken a big interest in the community schools model. Why?
To me, community schools are the North Star. It’s where we need to be heading. When you take a look at our education system, we have really never had a system where students have had what they needed. For our minority kids, for kids in poverty, for disabled kids, for gifted and talented kids, we’ve always had this system that said, ‘Here’s the average and that’s what you get.’ What we think we need to do is go back and look at what it means to have a good public school.

We’ve hit a very shameful number in this country: 51. Fifty-one percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. That means the majority of our families are struggling financially on some levels. You have moms and dads who don’t make a living wage. They’re struggling financially. You always thought of inner-city schools as the place you have poor children. Now every community has a hefty group of kids whose moms and dads are working two or three jobs just to make the rent and put food on the table.

Community schools would make that school the hub of the neighborhood. The reason they work is because they take care of the whole family, not just the child. There is usually some sort of health service. I’ve seen a dentist chair just off the (school) library. They all have a parent resource center. The other thing they always do is beef up the academic program. It’s not enough just to stick the dentist chair in the office. More and more, community schools are looking at the International Baccalaureate program. The teachers love it. There’s energy there. The parents love it. No one can sell these kids a vouchers or a charter school. They’re going, ‘This is where I live. I walk to this school. It’s got everything from the best academic programs to the things that really serve my family like English classes for the moms and dads, counselors, and everyone feels welcome.’ Those schools become a safe place for everyone who feels marginalized.

Isn’t it also a solution to what so many educators have said is a problem — that we put too much of society’s problems on schools?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. I taught in a homeless shelter, but I’ve also taught in working-class neighborhoods, where we were expected to pick up where the parents left off. You can’t call a mom working two jobs to say we have a problem with your kid’s behavior today. She could get fired if she takes too many phone calls during the middle of the day. She can’t take off and pick up these kids.

In one sense, we want people to know that we’ve been asked to do a whole lot more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. We’re asked to be the substitute parents sometimes. But we’re not complaining about it. We just want people to know it takes so much more to educate this child and to care for this child than you think.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Eagle Academy For Young Men in Queens. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk

Consolation prize

Crosstown High wins $2.5 million to help reinvent high school in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Newly named leaders Chandra Sledge Mathias and Chris Terrill are working to launch Crosstown High School, a charter school that will open in the fall of 2018 in midtown Memphis.

A charter school opening next year in midtown Memphis has been awarded a $2.5 million grant through a national contest aimed at reinventing America’s high schools.

Leaders of Crosstown High announced Wednesday that it’s receiving the money over five years from the XQ Super School Challenge, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The upcoming school garnered national attention last year as a finalist for one of five $10 million XQ awards. Although Crosstown didn’t win, its leaders say the new award will help keep the school on the map of America’s “schools of the future.” (Crosstown is among 18 schools being featured on a live national broadcast on network television on Sept. 8.)

“This hasn’t been attempted in Memphis,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High, about creating a high school of tomorrow from scratch. “There’s energy nationwide for education reform, and we get to be a part of that.”

The new Memphis school will look different from a traditional high school. No classrooms arranged with rows of desks. No high-stakes tests. No failing grades. It will join a growing group of other U.S. schools grounded in mastery-based learning, which emphasizes student-led projects over teacher lectures.

Authorized last year by Shelby County Schools, Crosstown High will open in 2018 with 125 ninth-grade students, eventually growing to 500 across four grades. The students will be chosen through a random lottery that opens in September.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crosstown Concourse has room for more than just the 500-student high school.

The school will be housed on several floors at Crosstown Concourse, a redeveloped high-rise building that once was a Sears warehouse. The building opened this spring as an urban village and already is home to several nonprofit organizations, community health initiatives and creative arts groups, with whom the school is seeking to leverage partnerships.

“Inside the concourse, there are thousands of different job titles,” said Terrill, whose family has moved into an apartment in the complex. “We’ll be able to listen to what students are interested in and then pair them with places that match those interests.”

Terrill arrived at Crosstown this summer from Mooresville, N.C., where he was head of a charter school. He’s being joined by another charter leader from Warrenton, N.C., Chandra Sledge Mathias, who will serve as Crosstown’s first principal.

Much of the $2.5 million award will go toward professional development, says Sledge Mathias.

“We have lofty ideas, but making it happen in real life is what we need to make happen,” she said. “That starts with teachers who understand what we’re trying to do here, which is going to be very different than the classrooms they’re coming from.”

The school invites the community to stop by Crosstown Concourse on Thursday for a block party celebration featuring the XQ Super School Bus, which visited Memphis last summer as part of the national competition. The event will be an opportunity for Memphians to weigh in on what they want to see at Crosstown High, said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“Being a super school means questioning everything,” Spickler said. “We have a mandate to try to do things differently. We want community input as we continue to figure out what different looks like.”