in your own words

Dear Bill Lee… ‘Respect our judgment and decisions,’ and other pieces of advice from Tennessee educators

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
At Riverside K-8 School in Memphis, teachers make sure their students get on the right buses.

After the election, we asked Tennessee educators: What would you tell newly elected Gov. Bill Lee about your classroom?

More than 50 of you answered our call.  From thoughts on state testing to personal stories on the struggles their students face, teachers across the state had a lot to say to Lee. The governor-elect will take office in January with a new administration and the chance to shape Tennessee education, especially with the recent resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Here is a collection of the letters sent in, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘We are overcrowded, underfunded, and still succeed … at making students better citizens’

Jennifer Graham, Nashville teacher

At Shwab Elementary, our mission is to prepare students for success in middle school and beyond by developing problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills. We serve a community of students that consists of 63 percent economically disadvantaged and 33 percent English language learners. With these dynamics, we do face additional challenges to help our students meet the rigorous academic demands. The challenges include ensuring our students have basic needs such as food and clothing, and adhering to the students’ social and emotional needs throughout the school year. All of these issues have a great impact on students’ academic performance. Our educators go above and beyond to ensure our students are successful.

Lois Walker, Rutherford County teacher

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks with reporters the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition ends with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

We are overcrowded, underfunded, and still succeed every day at making students better citizens for the future. Every teacher in my building shares their classroom with another teacher because we are so crowded, and many classes are still quite large. We spent all kinds of time and money on testing for these last four years, only to have the test fail every year. We literally can’t afford computerized testing because we don’t even have a 5:1 ratio of computer to student in the high school. Use the ACT. It’s vetted and normed. TNREADY has never been ready, and the ever-changing standards void the meaning of the test even if the test LITERALLY doesn’t fail. How can we legitimately compare our students to other states when they are asking to learn so many standards for the state AND separate ones for the ACT? More is often NOT better. We lose 6-8 weeks of the school year to testing every single year: practice testing, the ridiculous number of days it takes for actual testing, and testing in April so that we have wasted time in May because students shut down when the test is over. AP students lose much of their review time for May tests because classes are disrupted by TNREADY or they even have to take TNREADY and an AP exam. It’s asinine. We need to go back to teaching to learn, not to test. Teachers are leaving in record numbers, and fewer enter the field now because they want to be creative and teach. Please stop the madness.

Rachel Johnson, Shelby County teacher

The workload put on me is too great for me to take. Children need more support for behavioral concerns before we dump millions into standards, test, and curriculum. We are failing to meet basic student needs and then expecting teachers to close the gap with little to no resources and too little pay for the workload we truly do.

Cassandra St. John, Washington county eighth-grade English teacher

My school is a small K-8 school in rural East Tennessee. Although we are no longer considered a Title I school [one  that receives additional resources from the federal government because it has a high population of poor students], many of our students come from low-income homes. And as the years roll on, more and more students live with people other than their parents. Opioids and other drugs have begun to affect our community, and our children, immensely. As with many teachers, the stories I hear about some of my students’ home lives are incomprehensible. Despite this, we have incredible, resilient students. For some students, when they have little stability at home, it’s difficult for them to focus and grow in school. I think that you should recognize that Tennessee, because it is a somewhat impoverished state, has students who come to school unprepared to learn because of the stability and structure they lack at home. Please take this into consideration.

Ronda Roberts, Rhea County teacher

We are a small rural school where most students are at or below poverty level. We try very hard to make a difference in our students’ lives. We have a clothes closet that we use to supply several students with clean clothing. We are currently trying to start our very first STEAM program after school, and funds are hard to come by. We love our students and want them to be prepared for the world when they graduate.

‘Good teachers are leaving. If you want this to stop, Pay us. … Respect us.’

Kathryn Vaughn, Tipton County elementary art teacher

I teach during the day and then work at an after-school program for at-risk youth in the evenings. We feed the students a third meal, work with them on their homework, and then teach STEM infused lessons. The students need the program for their social and academic growth. Their parents appreciate the program that feeds their children and keeps them in a safe place until parents can get home from work. Unfortunately, our budget has been cut and the program has ended at many of our schools, leaving students hungry, unsupervised, and parents struggling to make it home by 3:30 p.m. Policies determine this program’s future. As a teacher, I depend on the extra income to pay my student loans and cover medical copays. I have struggled to remain food secure this fall as the program started a month late due to the budget.

Candous Brown, Shelby County teacher

Raleigh Egypt High School is part of the Innovation Zone of schools within the district. As such, we attend for an extra hour daily in hopes of improving student performance. However, as it stands, we have lost so many teachers due to either lack of support or student numbers. We need qualified mentors in the building to support the new staff. But the veteran teachers in the building are not being used to their full potential which is why they are seeking other opportunities. Rapport between the staff needs to be a priority so that teachers can be retained.

Theresa Wagner, Nashville teacher

Our classes lack textbooks, technology, and appropriate infrastructure to support the technology that we do have. Our district is grossly underfunded and cannot offer competitive salaries to attract enough teachers to fill all of our needs. We do not have adequate support staff in the form of ESPs, nurses, school psychologists, social workers, etc. We do have what I think is an excellent career preparation structure through our high school academies where students can graduate with a large variety of industry certifications and go right into the workforce.

Haley McNabb, Achievement School District teacher

Teachers working long hours, outside of what we are asked, and not getting paid for the work we do. We are on the front line to mold our future leaders and we don’t get compensated fairly for all of the work we do. Good teachers are leaving the classroom. If you want this to stop, Pay. Us. More! Respect us more. Respect our judgment and decisions.

‘One test … does not measure my effectiveness or my students’ readiness.’

Heather McCall, Nashville seventh-grade ELL teacher

I work at a great school. However, teachers are more and more being treated as less than professional. We need to be given the freedom to educate students and be treated as professionals. All of this stems from the performance treadmill we are on to make adequate yearly progress on some high-stakes test that has failed us multiple years in a row.

Testing. My students are more than a test score, and the issues related to testing in recent years have reminded us of the over-reliance on testing. We need to actually teach our students and end the testing machine.

Amber Wylie, Munford Schools elementary science/math teacher

TN Ready and teacher scores loom over my heart every year. I watch my kids pour their hearts into a test because they know how important it is to “show what they know,” only to end up crying because of unfair time limits. One test on one day does not measure my effectiveness or my students’ readiness.

David Talley, Blount County Schools teacher

Testing. Every single day. Unfortunately, state testing drives what happens in the classroom. As an educator, I am rated by how my students do on one single test that I don’t even get to see. I am graded on students who come from a diverse background, some of whom don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. Quite frankly, they are not worried about a test. There has to be a better way.

Regina Jones, Lake County kindergarten teacher

I was the secretary/bookkeeper/took-care-of-sick-children in the office for five years before going back to school at the age of 35 to become a teacher. I believe that there has to be a framework to hold teachers accountable, and I have experienced how helpful it is to students’ learning and my teaching. The problem is that just when we begin to get in a productive rhythm, everything is changed. The standards, the curriculum, the portfolios, the evaluations, all of the paperwork that goes along with all of the changes, lesson plans and finding the time to run off or gather materials, and yet, there are still students needing our attention and needing to be taught. There is only so much time in a day. We spend so much time on the “paper trail” that our teacher hearts and minds are too stretched. I have seen where some states are giving teachers one day a week without students to prepare. If this could happen, it may would help.

Jodi Amado, Manchester City Schools first-grade teacher

Testing in TN has been setting the students up for failure and making public educators look inadequate to the public. Furthermore, the state department of education fuels the fire by not accepting responsibility for their failures. I submitted a portfolio that wasn’t scored last year and received a 4 (if scored it would have been a 5). There is a lack of trust and respect between the education department and school systems. When the former governor met with teachers he was presented with “yes sir” teachers. I hope Mr. Lee appoints a public educator as Commissioner of Education and not one who is looking for status or money — one that cares about the school systems and the STUDENTS of Tennessee succeeding.

Choose an education commissioner ‘with extensive experience in our field.’

Shelly Misenheimer, Collierville Schools teacher

Newly Elected Gov. Lee — As an educator in the state of Tennessee, I have witnessed firsthand the woes of overtesting, the lack of leadership at the state level as well as the fiasco that has gone on the past three years with TNReady testing. As you select our new Secretary of Education, I implore you to choose someone with extensive experience in our field. Someone who was a seasoned teacher, supervisor, and administrator within an actual public school district, possibly even a current superintendent who has been in the trenches with us these past few years of never-ending evaluations, mounds of additional paperwork, and the constant accountability of tests that have proven to be completely unusable in determining a student’s progress.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.