We Punish.

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“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”-Victor Hugo
I was going to let this go because I had already written about it previously with no success. I sent that blog, Our Children Are Watching Us, to all the city council members and the city mayor (one responded), all the county commissioners and the county mayor (two responded), and all the school board members and the superintendent (two responded).  All plans are to move forward with the $30 million+ jail expansion.  The one change from my last blog post is that now the school board is talking about building a new school in the northern part of the county.  They just closed 5 schools, remember?  But this isn’t actually a new conversation.  They spoke of this before the vote to close those 5 schools.  In a conversation between board members and commissioners, they spoke of the hope that the residents that live in the north of the county that send their children to private school would instead send their children to the public K-8 school in their own neighborhood.  So basically a new school for rich, white folks in the north and a new jail for anyone else that doesn’t fit that category…you know, black kids.  Don’t stop reading ’cause I said that…I have the proof.  Keep reading and you will see why I couldn’t let it go…
Last week I attended the School Board Retreat where they had a presentation from a juvenile court representative.  She spoke about some intervention programs that students could go into instead of being placed into the system.  This would make their transition back into school easier.  During this conversation, several very petty incidents were mentioned where students had been sent to juvenile court.  This led to a discussion of the School Resource Officers.  Apparently, there is not a board policy concerning the role of the SROs, they were unclear about what training the SROs were given in dealing with students, and there was some concern about SROs being used incorrectly.  This is not the first time I have heard this, by the way.  The board agreed to discuss this further at the next school board work session in November.  So for that I am hopeful.  However, this discussion concerned me, so I started doing some research.
The first thing I discovered is that there is still corporal punishment in this district.  Policy says that “A parent or guardian must indicate annually in writing that corporal punishment/paddling may not be administered.”  I am still uncertain as to whether the form is given to parents at registration to sign or whether it is up to parents to give the school a letter opting out of corporal punishment.  This is not stated in the board policy and the parents I have talked to seem to have varying experiences.  Some signed it one year but not the next.  Some were given a form at one school but not another school.  So if there is a district procedure for this, it isn’t consistent across the district.  In 2013-2014, there was a total enrollment of 13,083 (59.2% Black, 31.5% White, and 6.4% Hispanic) and there were 98 cases of corporal punishment (56.1% Black, 37.8% White, and 4.1% Hispanic) in JMCSS. In 2011-2012, there was a total enrollment of 13,297 (60.4% Black, 32.4% White, and 5.2% Hispanic) and there were 265 cases of corporal punishment (78.5% Black and 20% White).  Corporal punishment has been banned in 31 states and the District of Columbia. States that retain corporal punishment are mostly Southern states.  Click here to see the map.  Groups including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association strongly oppose the practice.
I also found that in the school year 2013-2014 in our school district, 66 students had referrals to law enforcement.  All of them were African-American.  However, African-Americans only made up 59.2% of the total enrollment that school year.  All of this information came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. You can see it for yourself here.  It also shows school year 2011-2012 where there were 83 referrals to law enforcement with 72.3% of those being African-Americans and only 60.4% of our district enrollment being African-American.  More recent years have not yet been posted.
Although my communication with elected officials rarely yields results, I sent another email to each board member and the superintendent and included the information above. As always, I included some suggestions.  Despite my frequent criticism of some board members, I do want them to get it right.  I am always willing to help to make sure that happens.  The following is part of what I wrote in my email:
Studies show that there is a link between school discipline practices and low academic achievement. Therefore, if we want to see a change in this district, we might need to start with how we administer discipline in our schools.  You might find these helpful:
 
  • Rosemarie Allen has a TedTalk where she says “School suspensions are an adult behavior” and “When children don’t know how to read, we teach. When they don’t know how to write, we teach.  When they don’t know how to ride a bike, we teach.  But when children don’t know how to behave, do we teach or do we punish?  We punish.”  She focuses on preschool discipline but makes some very important points about racial bias in this article.
  • Restorative justice, if implemented correctly, could be an effective alternative to the excessive suspensions that are occurring.  If you haven’t heard of restorative justice in schools, here is an article that tells more.
I am afraid if something is not done soon, these discipline numbers are going to worsen, damaging our students, particularly our African-American students, even more.  And those numbers are actual children that our community will have plenty of room to house in that new jail expansion we are getting ready to build.  Finally, if this district is going to have a corporal punishment policy and send students to law enforcement, I think it imperative that you watch the documentary, 13th, on Netflix. It tells the story of how mass incarceration has become modern-day slavery.
 
Several times in the past year I have brought up implicit bias and racial equity to the board with solutions to help overcome those biases.  Each time I have been largely ignored.  Yet, FB posts from board members, comments from board members and employees, and discipline data show that the problem persists.  I am obviously a supporter of public schools.  If I ever had children, I would, without a doubt, want them to attend public schools.  However, if I was raising an African-American child, there is no way I would take a chance on sending him or her to a school in this district.  How many other parents have made that choice for the same reason?  How many would if they could?
Today a friend sent me this article from Chalkbeat.  It lists some of the very suggestions I mentioned in my email to the board members.  It also states that Madison County is the third highest ranked district in the state of Tennessee for students suspended overall.  Our county is also the third highest ranked district in the state of Tennessee for black students suspended.  The districts that ranked higher than Madison County in both categories were Shelby County and the state-run Achievement School District, the majority of whose schools are also in Memphis.  With a ranking like that, outsiders might assume that we were one of the largest districts in the state.  Nope, Madison County isn’t even in the top ten.
I have been so disgusted by these numbers over the past week that I can barely stop thinking about them for a single minute.  I drive to work and think about what those numbers actually represent.  The students that are getting on the bus that will be sent home that day on a suspension, once again.  Or worse…students that will be sent to law enforcement to start down their road to our county’s shiny new prison.  I don’t care if their pants are sagging or they cuss at the lunch tables or they fight in the cafeteria. (These are student behavior complaints mentioned during the School Board Retreat that board members said they had witnessed while visiting schools.)  I don’t particularly like any of that behavior either but every generation has had their questionable fashion choices, cussing, and fights.  None of it is cause for excessive, extreme discipline.  And let’s be honest, we know who will be receiving that excessive, extreme discipline…the data shows it.
“When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.”  -Angela Davis
There is a group that has a petition to stop the jail expansion in our county. Please, sign that here.
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That I Choose To Stand In This Circle, I Am Proud

For me, it really started just over a year ago.  I had recently moved back to Jackson, but just physically…my heart and mind were still in Memphis.  Every chance I got, I was in Memphis.  Then, my classmate, Dumonte started posting about a Tailgating event he was planning for JCM and he needed some help for our class of ’94 tent.  I knew I needed to try to get more involved locally so I thought…why not?  I met Dumonte at a restaurant to discuss plans.  It had been 21 years since the last time I had seen him at our high school graduation.  We first met in 1988 in 7th grade band camp at Tigrett Junior High School.  Although we were never close in school, I remember him as quiet, kind, and athletic.  At our meeting, he began to speak about his plans for the all-year reunion Tailgating event.  Most of his time was spent talking about the state JCM was in at that point.  He told me that JCM was in danger of closing and that he hoped this event would bring awareness to this possibility.  He hoped that it would bring alumni together to stop the closure.  Two very important things happened to me at that meeting: 1) Dumonte’s passion for the possible closing of JCM reignited my love for my alma mater, and I haven’t stopped fighting for JCM and its legacy since.  2) Dumonte became not my classmate, but my dear friend and someone that I love and respect.  His friendship is one of this past year’s greatest gifts.

So, the 2015 Tailgating event came and went and it was epic.  Seriously…trying to describe the feeling wouldn’t do it justice, so I won’t even try.  The next week, JMCSS began its series of public meetings where Kimley-Horn, the school board-chosen consulting firm, presented its plans for school closures.  Still riding that high from Tailgating, I attended the first meeting with Dumonte and our classmate, Tennille.  Again, that night, something in me changed.  Before me stood a man (the consultant) I had never seen nor met before, who was talking about my city, my school like we didn’t really matter at all.  I’m sure that wasn’t the way he intended.  He was just doing his job.  However, I’m a former educator.  I know what closing a school does to a community.  The effects can reach far into the future.  But what really moved me was when I saw how concerned both Dumonte and Tennille were and to put it quite bluntly…I.  GOT.  PISSED.  Immediately, my wheels started spinning.  I left the meeting and started researching what we could do to stop the closure first and then what we could do to help and support JCM become a better, stronger school so this possibility wouldn’t occur again.  That night jumpstarted several months of meetings and committees and protests and letters.  I could go into all of that because it was such a large part of my life for several months, but we all know how that ended.  JCM closed.  This isn’t about that.  Well, not exactly.

The saying “Some people come in your life as blessings, others come in your life as lessons” has never rung more true for me than this past year.  Thankfully, I have had more of the blessings than the lessons.  Though there were definitely some lessons I will tell ya.  I could list all of those blessings here, but I would inevitably leave someone out and you would grow tired of reading anyway.  Because of the fight to help save JCM, my FB friends list has probably doubled since this time last year.  I went from only knowing graduates from the years when I went to school to knowing Merry High graduates and recent JCM graduates.  I know that this is only social media but those are real connections with people that I would have never met without this experience.  This past year, I have worked closely with groups of JCM alumni to get petitions signed, to meet with the school board, to come up with alternative plans to save JCM, to decide on a plan for memorabilia, to discuss the future of JCM ECH, etc.  From these encounters I realized, we often speak of our famous alumni of whom we are so proud and rightly so.  It is well-deserved.  But look what our lesser known alumni have done!  Almost daily, I continue to find out ways some alumnus has given back to JCM and this community as a whole.  I know that will continue to happen in the future as well.  That is what I am truly proud of.  That is what I brag about.  That is truly our blessing.  To those alumni who have yet to meet up with your classmates since graduation, you are missing out.  JCM Alumni are truly some of the best people I have ever met.  My life is better because of them.

As you all journey home from our 2nd Annual Tailgating Weekend put on by my friend Dumonte Newsom, I want to remind you (and I know some of you don’t want to hear this) that we do still have a JCM.  Is it all we deserve?  Absolutely not.  We were completely robbed of what we deserved for over 45 years.  However, it is a school with the JCM name and the Cougar mascot and the colors green and gold.  There are also about 140 Cougar students walking the halls of our old vo-tech building, which they have only ever known as their JCM Early College High.  Soon they will pass composites of graduating classes from Merry High and Jackson High and JCM as they walk to class.  They will see trophy cases filled with band and track and football and decathlon trophies meant to honor our legacy and inspire their future.  They are taught by several teachers who taught at JCM previously and who I have heard say “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”.  These students will one day graduate with a JCM diploma (and possibly graduate with an Associate’s Degree on the very next day) and then return to join us at our Annual Tailgating Weekend.  Like us, they come from all walks of life.  Some are privileged and some really struggle.  Like us, they are connected by the JCM name.  They will be the ones carrying on our legacy.  As alumni, I know we are not monolithic.  So even though I may be able to move forward, many of you may still be hurting about losing the JCM we all knew and loved.  I would be lying if I said it didn’t still hurt to think about what we have lost and what could have been.  It does.  Anyway, I just ask if you aren’t there yet, please just don’t block or knock those of us that are.  We want to support JCM ECH in any way we can.  We want this program and those kids to be successful.  And when you are ready, we are here.  No matter what decisions are made about a building called JCM, please remember JCM isn’t a building.  JCM is its alumni.  And they can never close alumni.  We proved that once again this weekend.  Because of that, the legacy of JCM won’t ever die.  Not as long as I’m alive anyway.

So, another thing I know about my friend, Dumonte, is that he believes in God.  I found this quote that reminded me of my conversation with Dumonte a year ago.  “God can see things that you can’t see.  It may not make sense right now, but one day, when God’s whole plan unfolds, you will see what God is up to.”  Dumonte, my friend, you wanted to bring together alumni to stop the closure of JCM.  I know this is not exactly as you envisioned it, but in the history of JCM, the alumni have never come together more than we have in the past year.  And although it isn’t the JCM as we knew it, we have a school that carries our name and a chance to build something great.  To say that meeting a year ago with you changed my life is not an exaggeration.  It is truth.  It led me to alumni who became friends who became family.  It led me to a passion for my community that I never had before.  It led me to a better consciousness of social justice particularly here in Jackson.  It led me to a better understanding of what my voice should be in this community.  It led me to a strong pride for getting the privilege to be a part of this legacy.  And I know it will continue to lead me in ways I haven’t even seen yet.  So, thank you for your vision and for sharing it with me and for trusting me to be a part of it.  Now, I’m going to let you rest for a while because I know you are exhausted, but you will be hearing from me soon.  Because, as you know, people’s paths cross (or recross) for a reason.  Jackson hasn’t seen nothing yet, y’all…we are just getting started.

“That I was born to this circle-I am blessed.  That I choose to stand in this circle-I am proud.” #iamjcm

Our Children Are Watching Us

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For the past few months, I have watched my community close five schools while talking about a $30 million jail expansion.  I know those two are separate in the life of our governing bodies and in regards to funding, but far too often they are not separate in the life of a child.  I recently read an article in our local paper that quoted a county commissioner as saying,  “We don’t have an education problem from the standpoint that that’s the reason kids are going to jail … You have a family breakdown.  This is a national problem, as well as in Madison County. So at the end of the day, our major problem is a spiritual problem that we have within our own community.”  I understand that he is elected to focus on county issues, not specifically education issues, but I am greatly concerned that elected officials do not understand that a large predictor of incarceration is how literate our students are. Spirituality, or religiosity, is too subjective to use as a predictor.  It means different things to different people.  Furthermore, have you driven through this town on Sunday morning? I would guess that at least 50% of Jackson attends some sort of religious activity at least once a week.  Spirituality seems to actually be a strength in this community.  Does spirituality help?  Absolutely.  But the lack of, or perceived lack of, spirituality isn’t the problem.  Our problem is that we aren’t investing enough in our children.  They are not our priority.  Oh and that apparently some of our elected officials don’t understand why those same children end up incarcerated.  A wise friend once told me, “Christianity has hands and legs.  It means ‘doing something’.”  Closing schools and building jails at the same time is sitting on those hands with our legs propped up on the ottoman while we watch our children, and ultimately our community, continue to struggle.

The school-to-prison pipeline is defined as “increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the recent practices implemented by educational institutions, specifically zero tolerance policies and the use of police in schools”.  This pipeline disproportionately affects people of color. Statistics show that Black students are 3 times more likely than White students to be suspended for behavioral issues.  The Department of Education reports that in 2011, in our local school system, 60.4% of the students were Black.  However, Black students made up 73.5% of in-school suspensions and 78.6% of out-of-school suspensions.  Expulsions were more equally balanced with 57.9% of expulsions affecting Black students.  However, let us remember that no child can be educated if they aren’t actually in school.

Many factors help contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.  First, we have under-funded schools that are full of inadequate resources for students. This hits all too close to home for our community where we have allowed schools to begin to fall in on our children’s heads…literally.  Additionally, if a student is not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, they are four times less likely to graduate.  Those that don’t graduate are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.  We must fund our schools, first and foremost.  

Secondly, we have a number of elected officials that are simply out of touch with certain areas of our community.  Case in point…a current school board member has had the picture on the left posted on his FB page for almost a year.

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Just in case you think a mother would actually allow her child to hold a sign like this or that any child would want to hold a sign like that, the original photo is on the right.

A FB friend of his pointed out that this was Photoshopped.  He didn’t remove it.  I sent him an email asking him to remove it and telling him why it was a problem.  He didn’t remove it.  This is someone who is making decisions for children that look just like this young man.  In fact, this particular school board member has been making decisions for the children of Jackson for many, many years.  Actually a local high school full of students that look like this young man was just voted to be closed, failed by our community once again.  This school board member voted yes to that closure.  Obviously.  If you think he is alone in his thinking, you are wrong.  Others are just savvy enough not to post it where the public can see it.

Another factor is the overwhelming amount of test-based accountability in our schools now.  Not only does this lead to teacher burnout, but it often leads to focusing on the students that are going to help boost those test scores.  All too often, struggling students are left behind.  See my blog on testing and why I left teaching if you want to know more about the effects of that beast.

Possibly the largest factor on the school-to-prison pipeline is harsh zero-tolerance discipline policies that have led to many students entering the juvenile justice system. These students quite often face barriers upon re-entry into the traditional school systems. However, the U.S. spends almost $70 billion annually on incarceration, probation and parole.  That funding number was increased by 127% between 1987 and 2007.  During that same time period, funding for higher education was increased just 21%.  As a country, we are sending the message that we prioritize incarceration over education.  I’m not sure how much of that we can fix on a national level here in Jackson, but I am certain we can fix it on a local level.  More than that, we must fix it.  Our community depends on it.  I don’t think any of us want to live in a community that prioritizes incarceration over education for any child.   

I believe that if you are going to complain about it though, then you must be willing to come up with solutions to fix it.  Here are mine:

  • Get actively involved with our public school students.
    • Volunteer: Reach out to local schools to help tutor.  One-on-one time is something that many educators are unable to give as often as is needed.  The community can fill that need.
    • PIE Partners: We have less than 30 schools in our system and hundreds of businesses.  Many of those businesses are already involved with a local school as a PIE Partner.   Bravo!  If your business isn’t, start the process now. Encourage your employees to volunteer by giving incentives.  It could change the life of a child and improve your company’s culture.
    • Mentor: I am sure there are many mentoring opportunities available in our community that I am unaware of and I will update this as they come to my attention.  One opportunity to mentor I am currently aware of is through TNAchieves: https://tnachieves.org/a-mentor
  • Be informed about the policy-making process in our community.
    • Attend the meetings of our local governing bodies.  WBBJ and The Jackson Sun cannot report every single thing that is said in those meetings.  You must stay informed to understand the decisions that are being made.
    • After the opposition to the Vision 2020 vote, I was shocked to see that two of our school board members are running unopposed this time.  I urge those that are doing great things in our community to step up and run for local positions. We need fresh ideas and open minds.
    • Find out who your local elected officials are.  We get really caught up in presidential elections, but I can tell you that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not thinking much about Jackson, TN.  Our local elected officials are though, so contact them to make sure they know what you expect from them.  Here is their contact information:

Finally, to our local elected officials, many of you are doing great things.  I appreciate your desire to better Jackson and your active role in that process.  I truly believe most of you decided to take on your role because you wanted your community to be the best it could be. But “with great power comes great responsibility” and you have a duty to not become complacent.  Honestly, it is apparent that many of you have done just that.  You must fight what is happening to the children in our community with passion and outrage!  You must keep them in the forefront of your mind each time you make a decision.  You can actually fight what is happening to education: the school-to-prison pipeline, the overabundance of testing, the zero-tolerance behavior policies.  You can lead the change, not in opposition to other governing bodies, but in partnership.  Jackson doesn’t have to sit idly by while decisions are made for us at the state or national level.  Furthermore, you have a duty to serve ALL members of our community.  You have a duty to want ALL parts of our community to progress.  That may mean stepping out of your comfort zone, opening your heart and your mind to new ideas, and taking a look at yourself and realizing that sometimes your decisions have negatively affected a large portion of our community.  Do all of that and then fix it, so it never happens again.  Please, do not take the mind-set that the school-to-prison pipeline happens to a certain group of children in a certain community.  Our whole community feels those effects for years to come…no matter where you live.  It isn’t “them” that needs to be fixed, it is us, as a community…Jackson. Remember, our children are watching us.  We must convey the message that we haven’t given up on them…not a single one of them.  

“Our children are watching us live, and what we ARE shouts louder than anything we can say.”

7/15/16 Update: On July 6, 2016, almost a month after my initial e-mail, I received a response from the school board member mentioned above.  Here is part of his response: “Regarding the picture posted on my page: I do recall seeing the pic, but I’m not sure that I’m the one who posted it on my page. Perhaps I did, but I honestly don’t recall. Sometimes other people put things on my page without my knowledge. I’m not extremely knowledgeable of FaceBook and I’m not sure how some of those things work. Regardless, I understand your concern. I will go to my FaceBook page now and try to remove the post.”

Anyway, he is the one that posted the picture and now he has removed the picture and that is all I have to say about that.  For now.

A friend posted this blog on her page and someone commented that they had seen the same picture on his page some months ago and pointed it out to another member of the school board.  He received no response about his concern.  “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Today is the first day to early vote…do it.

Dear White Teachers,

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I spent my last day of 2015 with one of my nephews.  Nephew is 7 now and so Auntie Kara is not as exciting as Xbox or Netflix or the friend that lives across the street.  I know…shocking!  So, Nephew soon asked if he could go across the street to play with said friend.  After checking in with his mom to find out if it was ok, Nephew went on over to play.  After a bit, they came over to play at Nephew’s house.  Probably just because I allowed 4 Oreos instead of 2…Auntie’s rights, y’all.  Nephew has a million Nerf guns so he picked up one.  Friend didn’t have one and Nephew began aiming and shooting at Friend.  Friend is saying, “Don’t shoot!”  Soon, I intervened and told Nephew that it wasn’t fair to shoot Friend if he didn’t also have a gun to defend himself.  Such a simple everyday kid activity. Except…Friend is black.

They soon headed upstairs to play without bossy Auntie’s interference and then, I cried.  Friend is 8 years old.  In 4 years, he will be 12…just like Tamir Rice.  At 12, he should still be allowed to play with guns with his neighborhood friend if he wants to.  He will still be a child.  But I hope his parents don’t allow him to do so.  It obviously isn’t safe.

I have long struggled with how to speak up about how unarmed black people are being killed at the hands of those in power.  I get really angry about it and I want to lash out.  That doesn’t help.  People won’t listen to me that way.  Additionally, I love a police officer very, very much. Nephew’s dad actually.  He was my first best friend and I am so proud of him.  This is not to bash police officers.  I think they, like teachers, get blamed for way too many of our society’s ills.  There are bad cops just like there are bad teachers.  As a nation, we have to stop punishing ALL for the evils of SOME.  The SOME should be punished to the full extent of the law though.  But they aren’t and that is why #blacklivesmatter is so important.  #blacklivesmatter does not mean other lives don’t, it means when black lives are lost, they are less likely to achieve justice for those lost lives.

As a former educator, I always think of my students in a situation like this. What are they thinking?  Should I talk to them about this?  What do I say? What can I do to make this better?  If I was still in the classroom, this is what I would do:

  1. Be aware of my personal bias whenever I make a decision.  We all have biases.  Here is one I had recently.  I went to get my nails done and there was an Arab woman working in there.  Ummm…what? Does she know how to do nails?  Where is the Vietnamese woman? Silly example, but we all do it.  The serious problems happen when those in power are unaware of their personal bias and make decisions based on them.  If we pause before we make a decision that affects others and think about whether or not bias exists in that situation, we are more likely to make an equitable decision.  In the classroom, black boys are more often sent to special education classes, and they are more often formally disciplined than other students.  Stop and think before you make decisions for students to ensure that those decisions are free from bias.
  2. Realize that color does matter.  As educators, we love our kids no matter their color or religion.  However, being color-blind is just ignoring the problem, not helping it.  White females make up the majority of public school teachers in this country.  Teachers must be aware of their students’ various learning styles and levels. Furthermore, we must also be aware of the various personal issues that affect our students.  Daniel Katz voices this brilliantly in his blog post “What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice”.   “Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.”  http://danielskatz.net/2015/12/30/what-teachers-owe-tamir-rice/
  3. Understand the issues that black students face, but don’t use those issues to make excuses for them.  I know this may sound contradictory to #2, so I’ll give you a personal example to explain.  I had a black student who had a pretty hard life…parents not in his life, raised by an aunt, etc.  In spite of all of that, he was a mostly model student.  I was so proud of him!  However, I caught myself allowing him to get away with things that I would have never allowed others to get away with.  He didn’t turn in homework, so I overlooked it.  He talked a little too much, I ignored it.  I realized that I was actually hurting him by favoring him in those ways.  I had high expectations and he needed to be held to those as well.  
  4. Listen and be honest.  I always had an open relationship with my students and we talked about many different issues.  Mostly I listened and tried to provide them with whatever knowledge I had about the situation.  If I didn’t know, I told them so.  I know some will be concerned about talking to other people’s children about such a controversial issue.  However, I think this problem is too large to be quiet about.  This is affecting our children.  Imagine if Tamir had been one of your students.  Personally, it would have been a conversation that I regretted not having with him.  In this instance, I would specifically tell my students:
    1. don’t play with toy guns outside
    2. always do what the police tell them to do

If they are black, their parents are probably telling them this anyway. Reiterating it can only help.  I would rather be reprimanded than lose another kid.

Finally, this isn’t just for teachers but applies to everyone.  If you don’t have a black friend, make it your purpose to figure out why not and change that.  I’m not talking about the black teacher across the hall that you simply eat lunch with a couple of times a week.  That’s your co-worker, not your friend.  I’m talking about a friend who knows your personal children’s names and has hugged them.  I’m talking about a friend that comes to your mom’s funeral and checks on you every day for the next two weeks and then every Mother’s Day thereafter.  I’m talking about a friend you go on vacation with.  I’m talking about a friend who comes to a party at your house and knows where you keep your wine glasses.  When you have a friend like that, you will understand the issues that they face and it will matter to you so much more.

My thoughts are always with my former co-workers and all teachers for the difficult work they do daily.  As you head back after this long break, this issue may come up in your classroom.  Your kids will have questions.  It will be difficult, but I do know that if any one group of people can change the way this country looks at race, it is teachers.

“Racism is still with us.  But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.” -Rosa Parks

#choosetorefuse

After my recent blog post received so much support, I decided to send it via email to each Tennessee state representative and senator.  That’s over 100 folks, folks!  Along with the link to the blog, I offered my help to make a change with this Testing Beast in Tennessee.

Guess how many responded?  Three.  Of those, only two responded with meaningful words: Joe Pitts and Bryan Terry.  Ok…ok…it has only been a week.  Maybe they need more time!  Or…maybe they need to hear from more of you!  If you are from Tennessee and aren’t sure who your legislators are, head here: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/

Parents, please check out the following blog to find out what you can do NOW.  These parents are Tennessee-based, but the info could help any parent whose kiddos are being subjected to this foolishness.  If you aren’t following these mommas, you need to be!  They are THE TRUTH!

http://www.mommabears.org/choose-to-refuse-testing.html

Share their post to get their ideas to every parent you can!  And use #choosetorefuse.  This CAN be stopped!

A Not So Graceful Exit: Why I Left Teaching

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Yesterday, I quit.  In the middle of the school year, I quit.  After fourteen years in education, I quit.  I.  Quit.  Quitting isn’t something I do, particularly when children are involved, so this is still quite difficult to think or talk about.  It might seem an abrupt decision to some, but for those that know me well, you know this is something I have flirted with for a few years now.  I think it started about five years ago…

I was teaching in an inner-city school in Memphis.  I loved my principal.  I loved my kids.  I loved teaching.  Now, of course, there were issues.  Too much paperwork.  Not enough hours in the day.  Uninvolved parents.  Disobedient children.  District mandates that made no sense.  Still, overall, I was happy being a teacher.  I knew that I would either drop dead teaching or they would have to roll me out in a wheelchair.  It was what I wanted to do forever.  Then, the evaluation process for teachers dramatically changed.  Now, our students’ standardized test scores would become part of our evaluation. As I saw this change coming, I decided that I could help this process along by taking more of a teacher leader role.  So, I applied and became the instructional facilitator for the school where I had taught for the past 6 years.  In this role, I hoped to coach, mentor, and support teachers.  After all, that was a large part of that job description.  In reality, very little of my time was able to be spent doing that.  What did take up a large amount of my time was being my school’s test administrator.  I had experience with testing and the strict guidelines that go along with them, as all teachers do.  However, as test administrator, I was now responsible for reporting my teachers if they did not follow those guidelines.  The stress and worry of that prospect was just too much for me.  I had become an enforcer of a practice I didn’t even believe in.  I couldn’t do this to my teachers, so I left the position after two years and went back to the classroom.

I decided to try a different setting.  Middle school math.  My first year back in the classroom was blissful.  I loved my co-workers.  I loved the diversity of the school.  I loved teaching one subject all day.  Then, we started testing.  And the testing was even more frequent last year.  And now, three months into the school year, I’m certain we have tested more so far than we did all last year combined.

So, I quit.  I’m not going to be the messenger that tells my students that they have to take another test.  I am not going to spend another class period telling them I cannot help them get through a test they don’t understand.  They can get someone else to do that.  It will kill my teaching soul to do it even one more time.  Like all teachers, I have kids that read below grade level.  I can’t help them though.  I also have students that have only been in the country a few months.  I can’t help them though.  I even have students who don’t know our alphabet because their language is different than ours.  I can’t help them though.  And bless their hearts, they do it because I ask them to.  Most of them would do absolutely anything I asked.  They trust me and believe that what I am asking them to do is what is best for them.  I mean that’s why I spent weeks building connections with them at the beginning of the year.  I want them to trust me.  I rarely have discipline issues.  We are too busy and engaged in the lesson to get off task.  However, after testing kids for two weeks straight, they were done.  You cannot expect struggling students to engage in an activity that is so above their instructional level for an extended amount of time without eventually seeing their behavior change.  It is too frustrating for them!  I could tell that those two weeks broke the bond that I had built with some of my most challenging students.  They just didn’t trust me anymore.  That goes against every single thing inside me that led me to become a teacher in the first place.  And to be quite honest, it broke my heart.  I recently saw a post where someone described teaching as an abusive relationship.  You love it, but it makes you so unhappy.  I get that.  It does feel that way.

So, I quit.  I wrote a resignation letter giving my 30-day notice and gave it to my principal on a Monday morning.  I told him, both of my assistant principals, and my instructional facilitator that day.  With each time I told my story, I cried.  They didn’t try to stop me.  They didn’t make me feel guilty.  They were kind and understanding.  They know.  I’m sure they feel like quitting sometimes, too.  They aren’t the problem.  I slowly told my co-workers, friends, and family.  Everyone that knows me well said to do it.  Every single educator said they understood and would do it too if they could.  Every.  Single.  One.  I’m not married.  I don’t have kids.  I don’t have a mortgage.  I don’t have a car note.  I have more freedom to do this than most.  Because of that, I can’t be quiet about this.  I need to speak for those that don’t have the option to bow out.

My first step was sending the following letter home to all my students’ parents:

November 24, 2015

Dear Parents,

I regret to inform you that today is my last day as your child’s math teacher at #####.  I want you to know that this decision was not easy for me.  I will fill you in on why I am leaving, but first I will tell you what absolutely did not have anything to do with me leaving.  First, your children are not why I’m leaving education.  They are, in fact, the only reason I have any apprehension about this decision.  This, of course, will be most difficult for them.  I have talked to them about this and they handled it like rock stars, but please talk to them about it when they get home.  Adult decisions are often hard for anyone to understand, especially children.  Secondly, the administration at ##### is not why I am leaving.  I have felt nothing but supported by my administrative staff this school year.  I believe they have the best interest of your children in mind.  If I was going to teach anywhere, it would absolutely be at #####.  Finally, the teachers at ##### are not why I am leaving.  I have worked with many teachers over the past 15 years.  The teachers at ##### are some of the best I have ever seen.  In a profession where you are often blamed more than revered, I admire their willingness to keep waking up each day and choosing to keep going for their students.  Please continue to support the teachers at #####.  They need it, but more importantly, they deserve it.

Now…here is why I am leaving.  For the past five years, I have seen the testing of our students become more frequent and more frustrating for all those involved.  I absolutely hate having to stand before my kids and tell them they have to take another test.  It kills a little bit of my teaching soul each time I have to do it.  I spend so much time having to test them that I have little time to teach them, much less listen and talk to them.  So far this year, I have given my students the following tests: iStation Diagnostic (this will be given twice more this year), iReady Diagnostic (this will be given twice more this year), MAP Test (given in ELA, Math and Science), and the MIST test (given in ELA, Math, and SS).  These are just the tests that are mandated by the district or state.  We also give pre- and post-Common Formative Assessments at the school level.  Why all the testing these days?  The following is a post I saw online that explains it perfectly.  I’m not sure who posted it originally, so I am unable to give credit.  “The feds require annual testing for accountability. This translates into the BIG test that every state has (In Tennessee this is what we refer to as TCAP, now TNReady…more about that later).  However, the stakes are so high for that test, that states require additional “practice” tests.  But, the results of the state tests are used to threaten districts that are “failing”.  So the districts require “benchmark” tests, to make sure the students are ready for practice tests.  Individual schools and administrators are held accountable for their scores on the benchmarks, so they also impose building-level tests.  The result is non-stop testing.”

Back to TNReady.  This is the new state test that students will be taking this year in place of TCAP.  TNReady is a computer-based test and will be given in February and April.  Because it is taken on the computer, testing schedules will disrupt our regular schedule more than just a week like we were accustomed to under TCAP.  If that isn’t bad enough, the test is just down-right confusing.  You can read a blog post about it and take some practice questions here: http://www.mommabears.org/blog/alarming-info-about-tnready-testing-bomb.  Additionally, the blog post by State Representative Andy Holt shows you exactly how this is being handled by those in power in Tennessee: http://www.andyholt4tn.com/holt-what-tn-teachers-parents-should-know-about-standardized-tests/.  I urge you to become familiar with what is going on in education and make your voice heard about what is best for your child.  You can do this by contacting your school board members, representatives and senator.  And vote every single time.  It does make a difference.

So, back to my leaving.  I have to try to fight this somehow.  I’m not sure how I will go about that yet.  I guess this is my first step.  I do know that I can no longer be the messenger of something that I believe is harmful to my students.  That is exactly the opposite of why I became a teacher in the first place.  I am meant to help, support, empower, and praise children.  Under this current testing culture, I am simply helping to hurt them and that just isn’t who I am.

In closing, I am going to miss my kids so much.  I can barely think of it without crying.  However, I hope they eventually look back at this time and realize that I stood up for something I believed in even though it was a very, very difficult choice.  When they are faced with standing up for something they believe is wrong, I hope they are strong enough to do so.  It isn’t easy, but I think we all need a little more of that in our world.

My next step?  Not sure yet.  I do know that it is a disgrace that we are allowing companies from the testing industry to make millions of dollars off the abuse of our public education system.  Not only are we killing the spirits of students who want to learn, but we are also killing the spirits of teachers that want to make a life-long career of this.  I’m not the first one to give up and I certainly won’t be the last.  In 10-20 years, we are going to look back at this time in education and be very ashamed of what we have allowed to happen.

Finally, please hope and pray that my kids get a qualified teacher quickly. One that isn’t jaded by the system, that loves them in spite of their challenges, and has the strength to withstand the foolishness that educators endure.  I couldn’t be that for them anymore and the grief that causes me is suffocating at times.  I will miss them every day.  This quote helps when the feelings become overwhelming, “Be OK with not knowing for sure what might come next, but know that whatever it is…you will be OK”.   

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