Team USA

Teaching makes me a better athlete, says Memphis educator bound for the Olympics

PHOTO: Carter Malone Group
Sable Otey, a 31-year-old physical education teacher for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, is a member of the U.S. bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Sable Otey is both a teacher and an athlete, striking a synergy that motivates her students as well as herself.

And soon, the physical education teacher from Memphis will head to South Korea to support her teammates competing in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. bobsledding team.

Perseverance, discipline, hard work, and being a lifelong learner — they’re qualities that Otey has developed in both endeavors and now seeks to pass along to her students at Lowrance K-8.

But her path to international competition started in impoverished circumstances, similar to that of many of her students.

Otey grew up in Memphis’ Binghamton neighborhood, where she was raised by a grandmother who struggled to make ends meet. Her track and field coach at East High School, Danny Young, often dropped off food with her family when money was low. And her high school Spanish teacher, Malika Collins, was so influential in Otey’s life that she now calls Collins her godmother.

“She saw that this girl struggling; she saw my grandma, a single mom, working hard. She saw this girl needs some help; this girl needs some guidance,” said Otey, who graduated from East in 2005. “She’s always motivating. She’s always inspiring. … I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Otey went on to become a track and field star at George Mason University in Virginia and was on track to compete in the 2012 Olympics when she became pregnant with her son. In 2015, her Olympic dreams were rekindled when a friend encouraged her to try out for the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. Now a member of the U.S. team, she fell short of qualifying for the top spots to compete in the 2018 Games, but decided to travel to South Korea anyway to support her teammates.

Otey, 31, spoke with Chalkbeat about how teaching has influenced her as an athlete and how she’s sharing Olympic dreams with her students.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s a lot of work. The support of the school, the support of the principal does help; it plays a major role. It’s tough, though. Most lunch breaks I take a nap because I’m tired from training. I train before work and then I teach, take a nap at lunch, and then train after work and pick my son up and try and spend time with my family. The next day, I start the same thing over again. I have a plan, a daily plan, and I just try to get everything done on my plan. It’s exhausting, but you’re motivated so you find your “why” and keep pushing because of that.

So, what is your “why”?

My thing was I was trying to find my purpose. I told my goddad, who is a pastor, “What’s my purpose?” He said, “You’re living it!” But I realized I have been an inspiration to so many people, so many kids, so many adults even in my community. Just coming from Binghamton being told some of the things that some of the kids are being told now that they’re not going to be anything. They’re not going to get a college degree. I’ve overcome all of those obstacles. I have a master’s degree in education. I’m a world-class athlete, wife, and a mother. I’ve overcome so many barriers.

I think it’s my job to do that because it’s a village. Back when villages were raising people, a village actually raised me: my principals, my teachers, people in my community. All of those people helped me become who I am today. I don’t know my biological dad. My goddad stepped in and has taken care of me, treating me like one of his own kids. My grandma took care of me because my mom had me when she was 15. My mom was around, but my mom was young, so my grandma took on that duty.

I deal with a lot of kids and they explain their issues to me. So, I said the same stuff you’re going through, I went through the same thing. And had I let my circumstances determine who I was going to be or had I let those situations put those limitations on my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How has your school been involved in your Olympic pursuits?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Otey pushes several students in a makeshift bobsled.

I get so much energy from the kids. They’re so excited about this. They’ll say, “What’s our workout today, coach?” They’re excited to be in P.E. Most kids these days, they don’t want to be in P.E. They don’t want to sweat their hair out; they don’t want to mess up anything, mess their clothes up. They give me a great deal of motivation, just to talk to these kids and build personal relationships with these kids.

I keep them up to speed with everything. They’re really into the actual training so they always ask me so many questions about my workout and what they can do. But the kids are still growing and they’re not ready to do weightlifting training, so I show them alternative things they can do instead of lifting weights. And then I show them videos of what it is that I do. (Otey plans to take short videos to send to her students while she is overseas.)

What are some of the things about being a teacher that have made you a better athlete, or vice versa?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey

Perseverance both ways. Being a teacher, pressing through no matter what. No matter all the adversities that I face, just constantly pressing through. And being able to share that with the kids. When you can actually talk to them and actually relate to them as a real person they take well to that. They’re excited to see you, they’re excited to listen and actually do what the lesson requires. So, it just kind of piggybacks off of one another. I learn from both aspects as a teacher and a world-class athlete because I was never the best athlete. I’ve always had to work to get there. My cousin wouldn’t even work that hard at practice and then go to a track meet and she’d be great. For me, I had to work three times as hard to get to that level and maintain. A lot of times I got to places because my coach saw my work ethic. He saw how hard I tried and how dedicated I was. And I tell that to my kids too. You might not even be the best, but we see you if you’re actually trying. We’re not going to overlook that. And people in the real world will see that. They see this person is a hard worker. He’s coachable. He’s going to try his best and give you 110 percent. You’re not going to get overlooked because you’re not a Michael Jordan.

In this sport, I had to learn to be a student again. I’ve always been in a situation where people asked me for help. And for me to go to this sport, I had to learn to humble myself a little bit and actually listen. I realized you have to be coachable as an adult, as an athlete. This translates over to the real world as well. It’s not just inside of a classroom.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Sable Otey practices with the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

Correction: Feb. 23, 2018: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Otey is an alternate on the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. She did not make the Olympic team but is a member of the U.S. national team and traveled to South Korea to support her teammates.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Interview

McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.